Spiritual Feminists; Women Look for Answers in Teachings Old and New

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Byline: Stephanie K. Taylor, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

Was Jesus of Nazareth a feminist?

A rising number of young, professional women in the country would answer that question with a "yes."

"There's a common belief that Christianity is patriarchal," says Larissa Engelman, a 30-year-old marketing manager who lives in Manhattan. "But if you look at the Bible and go to the theology, that's not true at all. That's institutionalism."

Ms. Engelman leads a literary group for women called a Damaris salon, a seven-session study that juxtaposes texts written by authors like Gloria Steinem and Alice Walker with the New Testament teachings of Jesus.

These salons are aimed at a growing number of women who are looking for answers in the context of spirituality.

The salons originated in Dallas in 2001 and have spread all over the country: Claremont, Calif.; Atlanta; and Cape Cod, Mass., with ongoing groups in Washington, Denver, Dallas and New York City.

The salons, which address literary themes such as power, integrity and freedom, fall under the larger umbrella of the Damaris Project, a Dallas-based think tank devoted to women's issues and faith.

The project is the brainchild of Lilian Calles Barger, a happily married former certified public accountant and mother of two. Ms. Barger, 47, saw a hunger for spirituality among middle-aged professional women who might have abandoned traditional religious institutions. She also noticed a rising number of younger women who were being raised without any religion at all.

"I thought, 'Why don't we create something out here, in the world where women are, that gives them a safe place to explore spirituality and their lives and begin to think about who Jesus is?' " Ms. Barger says.

A movement more than an organization, the Damaris Project's growth depends entirely on word of mouth and personal relationships.

After meeting Ms. Barger at an informational meeting, Anne Benzel, a 37-year-old product marketing professional in Denver, rounded up a few of her friends and started a salon of eight women: all professionals, some single, some married, ranging in ages from late 20s to late 30s. Only one other woman was attending a church at the time.

Ms. Benzel, who explored other religions before deciding that she believed Christianity was legitimate, said the salon provided an important forum for discussion.

"People at some point will all ask the meaning of life and where it derives from," Ms. Benzel says. "The discussion forced people to think beyond normal thinking."

Ms. Barger's Damaris vision is only growing.

In March, she published a book through Brazos Press titled "Eve's Revenge: Women and a Spirituality of the Body." Like the salon reading materials, it is not your garden-variety Christian self-help book. The book fuses academic feminism and theological discussion heavily peppered with personal anecdotes and examples of contemporary culture to examine women's relationships with their bodies.

"I think this book is geared towards this woman who doesn't want a sentimental, touchy-feely approach," Ms. Barger says. "They're thinking women. They are not afraid of ideas."

But why write about the body something so messy, so personal?

"The issue of women's bodies, the meaning of their bodies, how they felt about their bodies, was a constant across women," Ms. Barger says. "It didn't matter whether they were rich or poor, or how successful they were. …