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  • Elaine Kelly

Q&A: Why Write a Historical Biblical Fiction?

In short: I write to show that Jesus empowered women.


1. Where did you get the idea to write historical fiction about women in the first century?

I have always been interested in exploring the women of the Bible and during the pandemic, I had a chance to read, listen to, and explore more articles, podcasts, and research on the women of the Bible. I found models of strong women of faith, but many of them had either been forgotten or intentionally hidden or slandered. I have noticed through the years how girls and women are devalued in our culture, workplaces and churches. I have three daughters and have made an effort to empower them, build their self-esteem, encourage them to explore ideas, make their own choices, and develop their voices and their gifts. Once I had researched the women who interacted with Jesus, I thought other people, especially women, would be interested in getting to know these women who were eyewitnesses, patrons, disciples and apostles.

2. What motivated you to write this novel?

The United Nations had declared a Decade for Women from 1975 to 1985, and it looked like changes would address women’s rights, pay equity, and gender violence. Girls were told we could be anything we wanted to be. Women used their gifts in churches and more denominations were beginning to ordain women. My own mother frequently was a leader and speaker at events for Christian men and women and she was involved in supervising women interns as they prepared for ordination. In the 80s and early 90s, Canada, the UK, and India had their first woman prime minister. When I was a student in Western University’s business program, women were a minority but there was a cultural and societal trend towards equal rights and representation regardless of gender. As I prepared to retire after thirty years in the financial industry, I discovered that while I had been looking the other way, women’s rights had actually been moving backwards. As I looked for the source of reverse, I found that many of the new restrictions on women seemed to be coming from the Christian church. I felt betrayed – I am a Christian and had grown up thinking the Bible taught equality and yet the church was becoming an increasingly strong voice against equality. An urgency was placed on my heart to write about how Jesus endorsed equality, taught women as disciples, hired them as his financial advisors and commissioned women to go out and speak.


3. Why put these ideas in historical fiction?

Theologians, scholars, and academics have already written many books outlining how Jesus lifted up women and explaining how the Bible can be interpreted to promote equality. This is important in changing our thinking, but I believe stories and characters are the keys to changing our actions. Jesus used stories in his teaching: fictional stories that reveal true ideas. I see biblical fiction as a parable. I enjoy putting complex ideas into plain language and I believe historical fiction connects to our emotions and makes concepts more accessible. A story impacts the heart, which can change people’s behaviour in ways that intellectual knowledge cannot. We saw this with Uncle Tom’s Cabin, by Harriet Beecher Stowe. Uncle Tom’s Cabin is a fiction that dramatically showed the problems of slavery. While theologians and politicians used intellect to argue about slavery, this novel used storytelling and emotion to motivate the public toward abolition. In my financial career, we learned that facts tell, and stories sell. People could think about products, concepts, and strategies, but did not usually take action until they felt in their hearts that a financial idea would give them peace of mind or a feeling of security or some other benefit. I believe historical fiction can change people’s minds about gender equality.

4. What first got you started in reading biblical fiction?

Likely the one that got me started on biblical fiction Michal, by Jill Eileen Smith. I was struggling with infertility at the time and was depressed that some Bible passages connect this physical ailment with sin or disobedience. I was affirmed to see Michal not being sinful and weak and punished with infertility for being immoral. Instead, the novel shows Michal is brave when she hides a statue under blankets to help David escape; strong when she is at her father King Saul's mercy after David flees; wise when she counsels David to show respect before God and the Ark; faithful even when David moves on to other wives. It makes you wonder how many women have been portrayed as sinful and weak when they were really strong, positive models of faith.


5. What are the main themes that you explore in the book?

I explore how the Bible empowers all people to follow their call and use their gifts, regardless of gender. Mary’s song of praise prophesies that Jesus will lift up the lowly and pull down the powerful. The church today has done just the reverse, revering the powerful, silencing the lowly and separating people based on gender or race. Authoritarian hierarchies of control, promoting the ideas that women are there to be used, to serve men, to be silent and submit to mistreatment, have borne the fruit of harm and abuse. My novel explores universal themes of inequality, abuse, and racism.


6. Why did you choose to develop these particular women of the Bible?

My novel shows twelve women who acted as disciples and learned from him. They seemed to be chosen, called, equipped, and sent out as apostles. In thinking of women who interacted with Jesus, many people can only spontaneously think of Jesus’s mother Mary, and Mary Magdalene. I include 35 women of the Gospels in my novel, and focus on 12: Mary the mother of Jesus, Mara of Clopas, Salome the mother of James and John, Perpetua the wife of Peter, Mariamne the sister of Philip, Veronica who is healed of bleeding, Photini the woman at the well, the patrons Joanna, Susannah, Mary Magdalene, and the sisters Mary and Martha. My novel follows the character arcs of two women, and I tell the story from their viewpoints: Mara of Clopas, who is traumatized by abuse, and Joanna, who is hiding her mixed heritage due to racism.


7. Which character do you relate to the most?

Probably Mara – she is the character who is most deeply developed and there are some things about me that you can see in her. Like her, I sometimes listen to the negative and ignore the positive. It takes some effort for Mara to learn to take a compliment and believe in herself. Like many readers, Mara is filled with doubt about whether God sees them, chooses them, or loves them.


8. When researching, what stood out about how women were viewed in the first century?

I came into the research thinking women were second-class in the first century. I learned that they actually had some rights: the right to own property or business in certain situations, the right to inherit in the absence of a male relative, the right to have no male guardian if they had three or more children, and the right separate or divorce in certain situations. My research showed where Jesus talks about marriage and divorce in Matthew 19, it wasn’t really about limiting divorce to situations with unfaithfulness but more about calling men to be accountable to uphold their vows to love their wives. I spent quite a bit of time examining the sermon on the mount and how turning the other cheek has been used to keep women in abusive situations. I read about women survivors who shared their journeys about how God wants us to seek shelter and protection.

9. How did your research change how you view a woman’s role?

I came into the writing already thinking of women and men as equals and believing in equal rights and opportunities. My views on Jesus changed, though, as I saw how much Jesus lifted up women and turned paternalistic cultural ideas upside down. The Old Testament shows women were prophets, judges, military leaders, and strong influencers even though the times were patriarchal. If you look at how Jesus treated women, and what Jesus is telling us about his worldview, it is that all people are treated as equals, regardless of gender, ability, or another characteristic. We need to see the rest of the scripture and the letters of Paul through that lens.


10. Who would enjoy reading this book?

Probably those who would relate to it and enjoy it the most are those who have doubts about God, Christianity, or the church. They will relate to the main character, Mara, whose experiences have made her doubtful and fearful. The novel portrays real people, with various hopes, disappointments, anger and conflicts. Anyone who is disappointed in the church's tendency to limit what women may do will enjoy it. Those who are upset that the church has hidden scandals or sexual abuse and supported abusers while ignoring victims will feel vindicated. The novel shows this behaviour is wrong and unlike Jesus. The novel will affirm people who feel unloved by God, excluded, or sidelined by the church. Writing this story forced me to reexamine my ideas and some of the church's pat answers or teachings. Anyone who is deconstructing their beliefs, has left the church or considers themselves an ex-vangelical would enjoy the novel's fresh take on the Gospel stories.


11. Is there anyone else you think the book would resonate with?

Along with those who are doubting or deconstructing their faith, others who would appreciate this novel include:

a) Anyone who has been silenced or sidelined, such as women gifted to be leaders or speakers, and men who have been forced into a restrictive macho role. Those who have been limited will be lifted up.

b) Anyone who feels broken or hurt by the church or religion, or has been judged, or made unwelcome. This includes people who are LGBTQ, single, divorced, victims of abuse, and people of colour. The novel shows Jesus’s example of affirmation and love.

c) Women who want to see themselves in the gospels and who are looking for female models of faith. I hope to bring them healing and hope.

d) Those who have enjoyed non-fiction books on religion and gender, Christian women’s issues, egalitarianism, and feminist theology.

e) Any pastors, clergy, or religious leaders who want to understand the feelings and views of people who have left the church and are open to seeing biblical stories in a fresh, inclusive light.


12. What advice would you give to people who are uncomfortable with changing their views?

We need to have a respectful, open conversation about the place of women in the Bible and in our churches so that we can work together for the good of everyone. I hope that by telling what the women saw, heard, and experienced, the reader will be able to decide for themselves what they think about how Jesus valued all people.


13. Is there any advice to women specifically as they wrestle with some of these things?

If a woman feels she has no voice or is not respected, then I think she has to get out of that situation and go to a place where people do listen to her. All human beings are made in God’s image, share God’s creative qualities, reflect God’s personality and are given unique talents and traits. I would encourage women to know they are co-heirs with Jesus and co-heirs with men and that God shows no favouritism and treats us all equally. If you feel threatened, you may need to get an advocate who can help you to perceive things in a different way so that you can get to safety.


14. What are your hopes for this book?

I hope to reach as many people as possible with a healing message that Jesus opposes inequality in his teaching and example. I dream of a time when Christians will lead instead of lagging in the movement toward equality regardless of gender, race, orientation, ability, or any other characteristic.


15. What writing projects are next for you?

I will soon be publishing The Sword, a book of 104 flashcards with various understandings of biblical passages supporting healthy debate on what the Bible says about a woman's role. I am finishing up a ten-session interactive study guide for Forgotten Followers, which examines the themes of the novel. Forgotten Followers from Broken to Bold is the first in a series about women leaders in the Bible and early church. Book 2 is Forgotten Apostles, which begins at the stoning of Stephen. Susannah escapes to her Palestinian suppliers in Caesarea and interprets the prophecies of her four daughters. Joanna flees to Antioch and joins an active community of Greek believers. They commission Joanna to travel using her Latin name, Junia, and she becomes an outstanding apostle.

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