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Barbie Girl, Barbie World

The Bible teaches us about the importance of godly women as role models. But society usually peddles a different type of role model. Here, Linda Allcock challenges women to consider which type they’d rather be.

Barbie Girl, Barbie World primary image

He said, “I won’t have one of those things in the house. It gives a young girl a false notion of beauty, not to mention anatomy. If a real woman was built like that she’d fall on her face.”

She said, “If we don’t let her have one like all the other girls she’ll feel singled out. It’ll become an issue. She’ll long for one and she’ll long to turn into one. Repression breeds sublimation. You know that.”

He said, “It’s not just the pointy plastic breasts, it’s the wardrobes. The wardrobes and that stupid male doll, what’s his name, the one with the underwear glued on.”

She said, “Better to get it over with when she’s young.”

He said, “All right but don’t let me see it.”

She came whizzing down the stairs, thrown like a dart. She was stark naked. Her hair had been chopped off, her head was turned back to front, she was missing some toes and she’d been tattooed all over her body with purple ink, in a scrollwork design.

She hit the potted azalea, trembled there for a moment like a botched angel, and fell.

He said, “I guess we’re safe.”

– Margaret Atwood, The Female Body

The author Margaret Atwood is the young girl in this extract, listening to her parents arguing about whether she should be allowed a Barbie doll. They fear it will influence her understanding of what it means to be a woman.

The point it makes so brilliantly is that we are bombarded from birth by role models. The plastic Barbie doll is a perfect example. Perfect in more ways than one.

Let me explain by referring to the New Testament. In his letter to Titus, whom he has left on the island of Crete, Paul really gets the importance of role models. He knows that truth is taught, and truth is caught.

Truth is taught

Titus could easily have felt overwhelmed, left by himself in Crete with an unfinished church (1:5), many false teachers (1:10), and a messy culture (1:12). How is he ever going to make a difference?

Paul encourages him right from the start (1:1). Knowledge of the truth leads to godliness. Truth needs to be TAUGHT. That is how the people will become godly, in a way that will overflow to others. So, Chapter 2 carries the repeated command: teach, teach, teach.

The truth needs to be taught that our great God and saviour Jesus Christ gave himself for us (2:14). This truth transforms us so that we don’t go to the prayer meeting out of duty. We don’t run the old people’s club we always have. We don’t do evangelism because we ought to. We are, in fact, eager to do these good things because we have been set free; because we are pure; because we are his very own people.

Truth is caught

But look closer at Chapter 2 and you’ll see that truth is not just taught. It is CAUGHT. Teach the older women…then they can urge the younger women. We all need role models. Titus can be a role model to the younger men. But what about the younger women? They need to look at someone who understands what it is like to be in their shoes.

From birth, we are surrounded by ‘Barbies’. Role models shouting: “This is what it means to be a woman”; “This is what true success is”; “This is the exercise you should be doing”; “Look at this plant-based diet”. “Are you tired of being tired?” “All you need is this very expensive pill” (which actually contains virtually no iron, so you’re paying loads of money for what is essentially chalk).

As we rest by bingeing on boxsets, we’re allowing a whole new family of ‘Barbies’ into our head. “This is what real sex looks like”; “Make work your life, to the exclusion of family and God – your colleagues are your real soul mates”. “You can experience passion like this, you just need to exchange your husband for the newer model.”

We need to get ourselves some real ‘Barbies’ – Christian Barbies! In fact, what we need is a ‘Barbara’.

Building a family

A ‘Barbara’ teaches us in Titus 2:3-5 about what it looks like to follow Jesus as a woman. In Titus’s day their work was based in the home. Home was the place where childcare, education, nursing, elderly care, washing, agriculture and cooking happened.

Nowadays, such work may extend beyond the home but should always be done with the primary aim of building a family and home environment that are godly. It should be done in a way that makes the teaching about our great God and saviour attractive to others.

I have a real-life ‘Barbara’. I could listen to her all day. She is, I guess, around 60, and she has really suffered. She was a missionary and still loves to share about Jesus at every opportunity. She loves Jesus, she loves grace, and she hates anything that is not centred on the cross. She has loved her husband through the toughest of times. She loves her children and her grandchildren. She prays. She is gentle.

I’ve got some other ‘Barbaras’ on my bookshelf, many of them courtesy of writer Clare Heath-Whyte. Clare’s passion is to trawl through church history looking for ‘Barbaras’. I’m really grateful to her for the many ways that they have pointed me to God and shown me what it looks like to live for him in a world full of ‘Barbies’.

Shoulder-to-shoulder

The truth is that Paul calls me to be a ‘Barbara’.

In conservative evangelical churches, us women have been sitting on our hands for so long that the command to teach may seem way above our pay grade. A task for which we feel ill-equipped and unprepared.

In her book, Word-filled Women’s Ministry, Kristy Anabwile retells the account of when she asked Mama Gracie (an older godly woman in her church) to mentor her. To which Mama Gracie replied: “Honey…I have my grandkids keeping me busy, and work…I don’t think I have time right now.” Kristy was devastated.

Years later, Mama Gracie confessed to her: “I wasn’t too busy. I was scared because I didn’t think I could do what you were asking of me.”

To feel scared is to misunderstand the command that Titus is giving. Being a ‘Barbara’ to someone is not about upfront teaching. I’m not saying it excludes it, but the normal way that women teach one another is in a shoulder-to-shoulder context.

Sharing life and faith

Crete was organised into ‘whole households’ (1:11). So, the women were constantly sharing life and faith with the other women in their community. Titus is simply asking them within their normal life to make sure that they are taking every opportunity to teach what is good. Sharing the best part of their lives – their great God and Saviour Jesus Christ – with other women.

When we see in verses 3-5 what they are to teach, it’s not a lecture in theology. They are to share practical wisdom about loving God and their family, building a welcoming home that reflects this. And they are all positives. Barbara’s role is to encourage. Rebuking is part of Titus’s role (2:15) as the one to whom Paul entrusts the message.

Sharing life is not too hard, but sharing faith takes practice. I have found planning a couple of conversation-starters has really opened-up great sharing opportunities. It helps to start by being real, for example by saying something like: “I was so sleepy listening to Sunday’s sermon, but I found the idea of … really stuck with me.” Admitting to almost falling asleep during a sermon quickly disposes of any notions of super spirituality!

Similarly, saying something like: “I really didn’t want to come this evening, but actually … was really relevant to my life right now.” You can then follow up simply with: “How did you find it?” Being honest about that state of your heart creates a safe environment for others to then share.

Sharing life and faith is not too hard, but it may well be outside of our normal experience. The problem is that we no longer live in whole households, but one-bedroom flats. We drive around in little ‘bubbles’ that mean we don’t need to talk to others. If we do have to walk, we can always put-on our headphones so we don’t risk having to interact with others. We are such an independent society, that we need to be intentional if we are to find and nurture inter-generational relationships.

We all have role models – people who influence us. But will we choose them, or let society choose them for us?

Barbara or Barbie? The choice is yours.