Book Review: The Measure of Success

While I write this reflection on Carolyn McCulley and Nora Shank's The Measure of Success: Uncovering the Biblical Perspective on Women, Work, and the Home, my kids are watching an episode of Leave it to Beaver. It's the episode where Beaver sends away for a pet alligator and he and Wally proceed to raise him in the house (my kids love the part where they put him in the tank of the toilet) until finally turning him over to an alligator farm. I can't imagine my kids successfully hiding a pet from me, but with Ward's job responsibilities and June's housework and social life to attend to, the boys run free enough to hide all kinds of things from their parents. 

Within the broad spectrum of 1st world Christianity, there are many ideas of what a woman's role should be in society, and just as many caricatures of those who hold various ideas. Often those who hold to "traditional family roles" are said to want women to return to being June Cleavers, as if the Bible's standard of womanhood is a well-groomed, pearl-laden woman who cooks a full breakfast and invites friends to play bridge in the evening. I doubt many people would actually say this is their view of what womanhood should be, so it's probably not a fair accusation. Others would saddle women with the responsibility of being Clair Huxtable--a powerful, wise, superwoman who managed 5 kids, a thriving law career, a large home, and her husband's constant attempts to cheat on his diet. Clair may have helped women in some ways, but she also saddled us with layers of guilt for what we are unable to accomplish. 

Obviously TV icons cannot be our examples when it comes to being Christian women. Or women in general. So what do we do? Do we look at historical figures or women in the Bible?

Enter Carolyn McCulley and Nora Shank and their excellent book, The Measure of Success. Divided into three sections--The Story of Work, The Theology of Work, and The Life Cycle of Work--this book attempts to free women to determine what their individual roles and responsibilities should be.

The most fascinating section of the book for me was the first, on the history of work. Crushing our modern perspectives on what womanhood is, the book looks at the roles of women in the home and the marketplace from ancient times through the modern day. Thousands of years of history are skillfully summarized in just a few chapters, showing how women's roles have changed many times according to the needs of society (see the Civil War, WWII, etc). One of my favorite parts of this section is the look at Martin Luther's doctrine of vocation. McCulley and Shank quote Gene Edward Veith here:

According to Luther, vocation is a "mask of God." He is hidden in vocation. We see the milkmaid, or the farmer, or the doctor or pastor or artist. But, looming behind this human mask, God is genuinely present and active in what they do for us. When we pray the Lord's Prayer, we ask God to give us this day our daily bread. And he does. The way he gives us our daily bread is through the vocations of farmers, millers, and bakers. We might add truck drivers, factory workers, bankers, warehouse attendants, and the lady at the checkout counter. Virtually every step of our whole economic system contributes to that piece of toast you had for breakfast. And when you thanked God for the food that he provided, you were right to do so.

We also look at Luther's wife, Kate, and at Sarah Edwards, the wife of Jonathan Edwards. Both women ran large households, managing to care for not only their large families, but also their husbands' frequent visitors and students. Because the "workplace" at that time was generally the home--farming or producing product from their homes--these women did it all, much like the Proverbs 31 woman. 

But our world today is not like this. Very few of us make a living and provide for our families by living off the land. So what is right for us?

Once the historical framework is in place, the authors take us to the theology of work in chapters on Purpose, Rest, Identity, and Ambition. We look at the command to work as a pre-Fall purpose, but also at the effects of the Fall on our work. The authors write, "The original command to be productive did not change with the Fall, it only got harder." So we are given work to do. But how do we determine what that work should be? And which role is more important--wife, mother, employee, employer? Or what about those who are not married? What level of ambition is healthy for all of us?

There are no cookie cutter answers here, but rather a framework for how to think about work and an exhortation to look to the Holy Spirit for direction in our individual situations. Consider this quote: "Most conversations about ambition aren't grounded in God's glory, which means we are elevating a secondary ambition to the primary place and arguing about that. Is your job or your family most important? For believers, both are important, but both are ultimately trumped by the renown of God's name and the praise of His glory. Therefore those other ambitions must slide to second place and find their mutual contours in the redemptive purposes of the gospel. Women should be ambitious for everything we see in Scripture--our jobs, callings, and our special roles as life-bearers."

So then how do we juggle all these things? The third section of the book looks at the various stages of a woman's life--Growing Up, Launching to Adulthood, The Balancing Act, Coaching for Success, and The Open Nest. These chapters get down to the practical outworking of what we've learned in the previous two sections. McCulley and Shank give us tools for teaching our daughters about vocation and ambition, and then they speak directly to women in each stage of life. They continue to break down the expectations of a one-size-fits-all idea of womanhood, but while staying true to what Scripture says about work and excellence and grace.

But this is not a book that saddles women with more pressure and guilt. Here's a quote I really loved: "He also gives us the grace we need to transform our daily work right now. Most days, this is what we need to remember. How does He do this? God transforms our work by first transforming us. This is the effect of the gospel on our work: God gives us hope that He can take our less-than-perfect attitude about work and sanctify it, all because we are united with Christ. He takes what we have (which isn't much) into His perfection, giving it all the qualities we don't possess."

My own attitude about the work God has given me to do at this stage of life has changed as a result of reading this book. I hope to read more about vocation in order to rejoice at the work I'm able to do. Today, I will walk in these works and pray for grace to do them with excellence. Here's one final quote, this one by Elisabeth Eliot:

"This job has been given to me to do. Therefore, it is a gift. Therefore, it is a privilege. Therefore, it is an offering I may make to God. Therefore, it is to be done gladly, if it is done for Him. Here, not somewhere else, I may learn God's way. In this job, not in some other, God looks for faithfulness."

I can't think of a woman who wouldn't benefit from reading this book, and I recommend it highly.