(RNS) — When Cara Quinn became a Christian in her early 20s, she still felt like there was something missing.
Where were all the women, she wondered.
It’s not that they were missing from the pews. Women generally outnumber men when it comes to church attendance. But they never filled the pulpit. And Quinn wasn’t sure where to find them in the Bible, either. They were rarely discussed in the sermons she heard on Sunday mornings at the evangelical church she attended. They didn’t really come up in any of the other “male-centric” resources she read as she dove into her new faith, she told Religion News Service.
She assumed they weren’t there until she took courses on feminist theology and women in the history of the church while attending seminary part time.
“My whole world opened up to all these stories of women and understandings of the Scripture and the Bible that weren’t just from a male, Western perspective,” she said.
Her curiosity about the women of the Bible and early Christian history led Quinn to launch a series of icons, then an app and — coming Easter Sunday — a church.
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After graduating from Fuller Theological Seminary in 2019, Quinn combined her master’s degree in theology with her background in advertising, design and illustration to create “modern icons” of those female figures.
For the artist, that process begins with research, prayer and spiritual reading practices like lectio divina to help her explore each woman’s story, she said. She asks herself, “What is the good news in the story for the oppressed person?”
She then works digitally to combine a number of images to come up with a portrait that looks like “women that we could relate to today, that we can go to for questions,” she said. She tries to conceptualize them as a mentor or somebody a modern woman might ask for coffee to talk about what’s going on in their lives.
She has primarily focused on female figures in the Bible and extra-canonical gospels but has also regularly featured women from early Christian history, such as Perpetua and Felicitas, Egeria the Pilgrim and Constantine’s mother, Helena.
“Wanting to honor their humanity in the portrait is really important, and I almost feel like there is an inspired aspect to them, not because the art is so great — because I would never say that — but because I feel like the Spirit is in it and that woman is in it,” she said.
Quinn initially posted the icons on Instagram and unpacked their subjects’ stories on her blog, calling the project Know Your Mothers.
Toward the end of 2020, she launched the Know Your Mothers app to coincide with Advent, the four weeks of the liturgical year leading up to Christmas. For six months, she updated the app each day, digging into the story of a different female figure each week. She shared art, reflections, discussion questions, plenty of footnotes and daily Scripture readings from the Revised Common Lectionary.
“I needed people to hear the stories that I was hearing that were helpful for me, that were transformative for my understanding of the potential I could be or the potential women could be,” she said.
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Among them were some of the Bible’s most challenging texts — stories of rape, incest, abuse and neglect that Quinn said the church often shies away from discussing.
“But there’s women who can relate to those stories,” she said.
She added: “I think it’s really important that we don’t just say we’re only going to talk about the good stories. We have to talk about the challenging ones. Life is all the things. It’s not all perfect.”
One of the most surprising biblical stories for Quinn to explore, she said, was that of Jezebel, an Israelite queen whose name has become synonymous with evil and sexual promiscuity and has been used to silence women within the church. The things Jezebel did were no more evil than what plenty of male kings did in the Bible, according to Quinn. But the men aren’t described in the same way. And nowhere in Scripture is sex part of her story.
“She was violent and aggressive and acted in many evil ways. She was also faithful, loyal and committed to what she loved and held dear. As a foreigner she may have known no other way,” Quinn wrote on her website.
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Quinn is returning to Know Your Mothers now after a pause to parent four small children through the COVID-19 lockdowns. She is also helping to relaunch a church that had shut down during the worst of the pandemic.
She has a series on the desert mothers ready to go, and she wants to make her icons available for purchase through the website. She’s also considering expanding Know Your Mothers to include other expressions of gender, noting that many of the desert mothers “would deny their own gender or they would become male.”
She plans to merge that work with the work she is doing to launch a new nondenominational church in Los Angeles called All Saints Church on Easter (April 17), where they will incorporate the model of learning about a single figure each week and reflecting on it together as a community, she said.
Quinn hopes elevating the stories of women in the Bible and early Christian history will make women feel seen and feel closer to God. She hopes it will make them feel free.
“For me, just holding all of Scripture loosely, allowing God to speak and experts — people not myself — to speak into it with the research they’ve done and then weighing that has actually made the Bible so much bigger for me,” Quinn said.
“It’s made it so much richer. It’s made it so much more interesting and a place of discovery over a place of rules and regulations or a way to believe.”