[Book Review] Half The Church by Carolyn Custis James
Half the Church: Recapturing God’s Global Vision for Women
By Carolyn Custis James
206 pages, including questions for discussion
Zondervan gave me a free copy to give away – leave a comment and I will use a urim and thummim to decide who gets it. 🙂
I see what you did there, Carolyn Custis James. I do hope it works.
I wanted to review this book because it addresses gender-based injustices, one of the things that I am most passionate about in life. The title Half the Church is derived from Half the Sky: Turning Oppression Into Opportunity For Women Worldwide, by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn. For those who already care deeply about these issues, that book will be a better investment of time and money. For those who are new to these issues and are curious, Carolyn Custis James’ book can be a good and heartfelt starting place, but it is frustratingly incomplete in offering what is truly needed to find the author’s goal of “God’s vision for his daughters”.
The book was birthed from the author’s awakening to the brutal treatment and lifelong misery that is endured by a large portion of the world’s population simply because they are female. It contains some heart wrenching stories of wife burnings, beatings, forced prostitution and rapes, forced and under-aged marriage, selective abortion, human trafficking, and the fact of the paucity of resources spent on girls in a world that prefers sons, to name just a few. Perhaps to keep her readers from turning away in distaste, the author somewhat underplays the raw horror of these and other injustices. The very real statistics are gruesome. There is an estimated 200 million women missing from the world’s population due to the discrimination and abuse based solely on being born a girl.
Part of the author’s goal is to awaken the church to these brutal realities, and to challenge us to move on the behalf of the powerless and voiceless, living a gospel of action and deed as well as word. James shows herself to be very wise in understanding that the conservative Western church that she addresses has been somewhat resistant when it comes to social justice issues. She is also aware that it tends to see it itself as a unique entity which looks with suspicion upon anything that is new to their understanding of things, no matter how much good might come from it. James treads on delicate and controversial topics, particularly theological ones, with a light but forthright touch. She understands where that part of the church is coming from and what they can and cannot handle. She approaches them with a style and language that will not close their ears.
James does make a strong attempt at defining the “vision for God’s daughters” in addressing the word used to describe woman at her creation, eser, which means helper. Eser does not refer to an assistant or handmaiden, rather, it is a word that is used most often in the scriptures to describe God. James likens it to being a warrior, which is empowering and sheds broader insight on the purposes of the creation of woman beyond childbearing. She also offers a compelling portrait of the leadership capabilities and the positive impact of women in society. The gist of her scriptural studies is to call attention to the essential dignity of womankind, which is something that must be held as absolute if abuses against women are to ever be stopped.
This is a book that needs to be read between the lines. There are some things that cannot be said outright without losing your audience, in this case I believe, the conservative Christians with a complementarian view of women. (For those unfamiliar with this word, it is the theological view that although men and women are created equal in their being and personhood, they are meant to complement each other through maintaining gender-based roles and a husband-headship structure in marriage.) If you step on their views it is likely that your voice will be discounted. As I have said, James deftly skirts around the major landmines, such as the concept of wifely submission. She hints that the traditional view of submission just might create selfishness in men when they believe that women are meant to “pretend that they are less than they are” in their relationships with men. She laments that women are prized for their willingness to give in and this way of thinking leans too heavily on just a few attributes instead of embracing the “full range of qualities that Jesus displayed”. It is a shrewd and subversive way to show that the way in which submissiveness is taught in these church circles could be just as bad as the low view of women in the more troubled places in the world.
At this point, James refuses to take a stand on either a complementarian or egalitarian view of women. I think I understand her reasons. To do so would mean that she would lose much of her audience, particularly those who are complementarian if she comes out as egalitarian, which I suspect she is or soon will be. (Honestly, moving towards egalitarianism is inevitable if one continues to be passionate about gender-based injustice issues as a Christian.) But James squirms out from under the issues with a quote that insists that no-one can know what the 1 Timothy 2 passage means (that is the passage that seems to say women may not teach or have authority over a man). Actually, there has been a great deal of respected scholarly work done around that passage and other passages dealing with women (such as Ephesians 5, the “submission” passage) that can lead to a life-giving and dignifying egalitarian interpretation. To not at least acknowledge that when addressing the serious issues at hand borders on being irresponsible. I don’t mean to be too harsh, but how we view women through the lens of scripture has a direct impact on the incidences of gender-based injuctices.
When we bring ourselves to the scriptural text, our underlying assumptions and attitudes should be challenged, and the ways in which we cooperate with the abuses of our surrounding culture should be disrupted. James gives a too easy way out to those who perhaps inadvertently support a view of women that enables abuses from facing uncomfortable but necessary challenges to what they believe. Despite all her compelling words, this group will remain largely unchanged. It is simply heart breaking that the Christian message in this part of the church in regards to women is no different from that of the “world”.
Herein lies the greatest weakness of this book. Her refusal to take a stand belies the very core of her argument. For the belief that women are limited to certain roles, that their voices are not as important, welcome or trusted in all arenas (including teaching men) and that they are to be subservient to men continue to feed the lies and misogyny that keep gender-based injustices in place. James admits that at the core of injustice lies the issue of power. Complementarianism lays power squarely in the hands of men. In not addressing this issue adequately, she becomes an accomplice to the view in the world that women are to be controlled and ruled over, and therefore can be treated as chattel.
Certainly, some will be offended by a proclamation of an egalitarian interpretation of scripture and some will turn away. Yet, because James believes in eser as the essence of woman she should therefore act as eser, a warrior for a reading of the Bible text that could shed more light on “God’s vision for his daughters” that can help to release them from the very cruelties she disdains. Ultimately, she does address the problem of gender wars in the church and acknowledges that a higher view of women will foster a healthier view of men as well. We all are in need of a masculine presence that can engage in genuine partnership with women and that is much healthier and stronger than that of those who must quiet the voice of woman in order to serve their own egos. However, there will be no ‘blessed alliance” between men and women as described by James without an honest look at the complicity of the church in the oppression of women.
To be sure, there is a time when it is best to be very gentle and prudent in speaking a potentially disruptive message. But the issues of gender-based injustices are very real and many lives hang in the balance. This is not the time to pander to those who worship their dogma over the preciousness of people. Yes, to take a stand means she will lose readers and perhaps speaking opportunities. Yes, Zondervan would lose readers as well. (And money. ‘Nuff said.) Even so, it is time to take a stand, Evangelical Christian publishing world. It is time to take a stand, Ms. James. To do any less is an outright betrayal of those who need you most.