I apologize in advance for the length of this post. Believe me, it could have been longer.
In early March, I received an e-mail from a representative of Zondervan, asking if I would be interested in participating in a “blog tour” for Half the Church, by Carolyn Custis James. I said yes because I had read James's book When Life and Beliefs Collide, and enjoyed it very much. This recent book was inspired by James's reading of Half the Sky, by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn. James read the book and was shocked and moved by the stories of women from other cultures who suffer oppression and all manner of atrocity. She was convicted that the Church needs to be first in line to not only speak out, but to help these women. From her own blog, this is how James describes her new book:
In Half the Church, I take the discussion of the Bible's message for women into the devastating world described so powerfully in Half the Sky. Our quest to know God's heart for his daughters and our understanding of God's call on our lives is incomplete if we leave any woman or girl out of this discussion.
While wanting to take the message of the Bible to these women, James expresses concern about the message the Church has to women in general:
But the message we offer is not robust enough to address the opportunities, changes, and extremities of life in a fallen world. It is too small for successful women leaders in the secular world and too weak to restore full meaning and purpose to women who have been trampled. It is not far-reaching enough to encompass every woman's whole life of the variegations that exist within this multicultural, rapidly changing world.
Instead of addressing the wide range of questions and situations women are facing today, we focus mainly on marriage and motherhood, and that within a two-parent, single-income family.
James then proceeds to outline what she sees as God's original design for women. Women are first and foremost, image bearers of God, along with men. They are also designed to be ezer-warriors. The word ezer is the word translated “helpmeet.” James expands on this to include the role of warrior. James uses this term throughout the book, indicating that this is the primary identity for women. As warriors, they are also called to leadership:
God created his daughters to be kingdom builders – to pay attention to what is happening around us, to take action and contribute. Commands to multiply image bearers, to live productive lives, to rule the earth, and to subdue the Enemy's efforts are aimed at women, too. Let us not miss God's original vision, namely, that he is raising up his daughters to be leaders (emphasis in the original).
James spends the remainder of the book evaluating this role for women and how well or how badly the church has worked toward encouraging and aiding women in fulfilling this role.
I think that the evaluation of male-female roles is an important study, although I think James would have real problems with the principle of assigned roles for women. It is of course important to have understanding and sensitivity to people in other cultures; not solely because they're women, but also because they are God's workmanship and our neighbours. While these issues are important, and need to be examined, I had a few concerns with this book.
First, I agree that women are to work alongside men in building the kingdom. When she says that we are made in the image of God, and are to work to rule and subdue the world, I'm nodding. However, I get a little uncertain about what is not said. She says very little about the call on Christian's life to be a servant. Her focus on is on leadership alone. I think that is just as narrow as if women are told that they cannot be leaders. Some women are called to be leaders, but not all are called to be leaders, and there are many ways to lead. Christ was first and foremost a servant, and while she does mention that briefly, I think it should be foundational to this discussion; it was not. Before we can be leaders, we must be servants.
Secondly, there was an undercurrent of bitterness toward male leadership, to the point where she ponders how “good” the good news is for women in other cultures:
Is the gospel truly good news for women who live in entrenched patriarchal cultures – behind veils and under burkas and Taliban rule? What is good news to these women if the gospel reinforces men as leaders and women as followers? How bone-chilling does this sound in the ears of women who are being oppressed or have been caught in the clutches of human trafficking?
She neglects to say that God calls all to be followers, not just women, and she does not seem willing to accept that male leadership does fall within the paramaters of God's design as laid out in Scripture. Whether or not women find it difficult to contemplate male leadership as a biblical principle, the fact remains it is there. What would the result be if we all could choose to ignore those teachings from Scripture which cause us to struggle? What is next, calling God "mother" because many women have a dysfunctional view of fatherhood?
Third, I am bothered at the lack of the gospel. If this book is about how the Church is to minister to other women, where is the gospel in this book? I see a lot of discussion about how women need to pull themselves up out of their oppression and become leaders, butI see little of the reality that these women, suffer though they do, still need a Saviour. Suffering does not occur because the Church's message is biased against women; it occurs because we live in a fallen world. To imply that the Biblical message is first and foremost a way to pull these women out of suffering is to miss the whole point of salvation: we are sinners in need of a Saviour. Yes, I feel sorry for any the woman behind the burka, but I also feel sorry that she will go to hell if she is not converted to Christ.
Lastly, I found her use of the bible disconcerting. I did not see that she has a high view of Scripture. She began with this, in the introduction:
It is perhaps ironic that in the twenty-first century we are looking for answers in an ancient Middle Eastern book -- a book produced in a society that is alien to our postmodern Western world in time, culture, and a million other ways. But as Christians we owe it to ourselves and to our daughters to find out if the ancient message for women in the Bible is still relevant in the twenty-first century or is it, as many suggest, we have outgrown its message. Does God's vision for his daughters equip us to move boldly into the future or summon us to retreat into the past?
Yes, the Bible was written in the time of the Ancient Middle East. And yes, the culture was different at the time of writing. But whenever people start off a discussion about Scripture with warnings about how its message is dependent upon the culture it was written, I feel uneasy. She neglects to say that the bible is an eternal, timeless, universal revelation of God. The Scriptures have not changed; people and culture have changed. Rather than reading to discern God's will for all of his children, her interpretation to the Scripture was tailored to prove a case for female leadership.
This was evident as James was determined to re-evaulate biblical accounts in order to make the woman the “hero” of every situation. For example, in the chapter called “The Blessed Alliance,” she discusses the God-designed, mutual-leadership relationship between man and woman. She recounts the stories of Esther and Mordecai and Mary and Joseph, asserting in both cases that it was the women who determined the success of each outcome. As she evaluated those passages, it was clear that her guiding principle was to exalt Mary and Esther and downplay Joseph and Mordecai:
“Women take the lead and are the rescuers.” (p. 148)
“The men are counting on the women to step out and succeed. Mordecai's life depends on Esther's leadership.” (p. 148).
“Without question the women shine.” (p. 149)
James also says that Mordecai had been “calling the shots for Esther's whole life,” and implies that it was Esther who took charge when crisis erupted. I always thought Mordecai was protecting Esther; what did I know?
James talks about Mary's attitude toward the news that she was about to bear the Christ child not as obeying in beautiful submission, but as if she is an Ancient World G.I. Jane:
By the time Mary collides with Joseph, she has already thrown down the gauntlet. She has said in effect, "I am the Lord's servant and I am willing to accept whatever he wants. May everything you have said come true" (Luke 1:38)
Throws down the gauntlet? I don't see that in the words Mary said at all. Yes, Mary did acquiesce, but the way she is characterized hardly seems consistent with women who lived at that time. Just because we may not like the way women were regarded in ancient Israel does not meant it didn't happen; the women there lived what they knew. Mary obeyed, regardless of whether she saw herself as a "leader," a fact which we cannot confirm. James was determined to prove that God's original design for women was to actually behave in a way which is more consistent with 21st Century North American models. The missing element in her discussion of Scripture was the sovereignty of God. At the centre of these accounts was not woman, but God and his covenant promises to his children. In both situations, the ultimate success is that the Lord's will prevailed, not that Mary and Esther were warriors and put those men in their places. Her approach didn't seem to me to be doing justice to the task of interpreting God's Word.
I wanted to like this book, but I did not. This was supposed to be about taking a message of hope to women, but the crucial element for hope was missing: the gospel message. James took time with Scripture passages, but she didn't use it in a way that provides ultimate hope; it was all temporal, earth-bound hope. And I believe the message of the Bible is a lot more than that. I would have liked to see less emphasis on how I'm being sidelined as a woman and more practical ways to be active in fighting the oppression of women who suffer in all cultures. Maybe if we spend less time worrying about whether or not we're being given enough power, we'd have more energy to help in concrete ways.