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Published Date: September 5, 2011

Published Date: September 5, 2011

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Crying With Those Who Cry: Creating Empathy through Art

Several years ago, I was speaking with undergraduates at a well known Christian college. As we discussed the biblical material related to gender equality and service, a male student raised his hand and said, “Look, I have no aspirations of becoming a preacher. I know I will never be like Billy Graham. But that does not bother me. I don’t see why women should be upset either.” With eyes flashing and cheeks flushed a woman in the class immediately responded with, “Limiting service because of gender does not impact your life. But imagine how I and other women might feel!”  

Too often our discussions on biblical equality can remain a theoretical exercise. While biblical exposition is critical, we too often fail to expose the suffering that results from poor theology. Because ideas have consequences, it is critical to find ways of creating empathy among those who have not experienced marginalization because of gender. We need to help them cry with those who cry. For this reason, reformers throughout history recognized that the unique abilities of poets, artists, and writers could help everyday people feel the injustices of theological error. The empathy gained through this means is often powerful, and it also propels many into action. 

Consider the impact of art during the Protestant Reformation. Reformers realized they had to move both minds and hearts. Once the case had been made among scholars, they rallied the artists and musicians who popularized theological ideas, taking the message to the streets. To generate awareness and sympathy, the Protestant reformers harnessed the printing press and also popular folk songs, which, historians tell us, generated rapid support for their movement. The hymn, “A Mighty Fortress is Our God” is one example. While the tune was familiar to the masses, the Protestants created their own lyrics. In this way, everyday people were introduced to Protestant thought through an accessible venue.

In the same way, abolitionists realized that biblical treatises opposing slavery were necessary but not sufficient. They too had to find ways to mobilize people who had not experienced slavery personally. For this reason, the abolitionists began publishing slave narratives; songs and African spirituals; and great literary works such as Uncle Tom’s Cabin, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and the Narrative of Sojourner Truth. Each biography or literary work popularized abolition and helped those in positions of privilege feel the oppression of slavery. Art exposed the anguish of slaves, creating widespread awareness of our profound theological error. Ultimately those in positions of privilege began to “cry with those who cry,” and to empathize, perhaps for the first time, with the slaves. 

But what about gender and the church? How can we build empathy among those who have never experienced marginalization because of gender? Just last year, CBE sent a special edition journal to every member of the Evangelical Theological Society (ETS), to some 3,500 academics. In addition to providing cutting edge biblical scholarship, we also included autobiographies from women who suffered shaming and painful treatment by those who oppose their leadership. The journal, The Deception of Eve and the Ontology of Women, (available through arrived one week before the annual ETS convention. The journal brought new interest in CBE’s mission, not only because of the outstanding scholarship, but the stories of women’s humiliation and marginalization also made the consequences of poor theology visceral. The journal created empathy among the privileged. One man approached CBE’s booth holding our journal with tears in his beautiful eyes. In a southern accent I will never forget he said, “I am ashamed of the way we have treated these godly and gifted women. I want to apologize on behalf of men for their terrible treatment of women.” The personal accounts of suffering gave our biblical scholarship teeth. It put flesh and bones on a theological issue that, for some, too easily remains an abstract and even impersonal matter. Yet, ideas have consequences. The suffering of women can and must be told in ways that build empathy, and momentum, and lend greater understanding as to why a gender reform is underway. 

We are very eager to hear from you. If you have a personal journey as a female leader or a creative piece to encourage empathy for female leaders, consider sending them to CBE. Contact us at