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« Status Report - April | Main | Voices From the Past - April 3, 2011 »

Book Review - Half the Church

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.

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Reader Comments (20)

What a powerful review! Thank you for writing it so clearly.

April 4, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterKim from Hiraeth

Mary throws down a gauntlet? Oh dear.

Thanks for the review. This is probably a book I won't be reading.

April 4, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterpersis

I enjoyed your review this morning. I have not read the book myself, but as a general rule I think it's a recipe for failure when you look for the Bible to justify your cause, rather than letting the Scriptures speak for themselves.

April 4, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterCarla Rolfe

Excellent review, Kim. I agree 100%. Several times, as she goes on and on about "the message of the church," I've written in the margin, "What is the message?" She never explains that the gospel is our message, so I'm left asking what it is she thinks the message of the church is and wondering why she does not believe it is robust enough for oppressed women around the world? Another thing that bugs me is how she places atrocities like child marriage and sati side-by-side with how women are treated in churches in America. That just doesn't make a lot of sense to me. Am I really supposed to think that the church oppresses women along a similar vein, and, therefore, our message isn't "robust" enough for the rest of the world? That's ridiculous!

Ugh. I'm going to stop with that, but *fist bumps to the heart* to you. Spot on.

April 4, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterLeslie

Oh my, Leslie!! I have "what is the message?" written in my margins many times! I agree with you about how she views the suffering of women alongside of women here in North America.

I'm looking forward to seeing your review!

April 4, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterKim Shay

Thanks for the very thorough review. I find it sad that our culture seems to have polluted the minds of authors and leaders who are now leading women astray from God's high calling for women. There is another book out there called "Lioness Arising" by Lisa Bevere that is very Charismatic and puts women in the very same role as men-and uses warrior language. That book has had a really big readership-even in non-Charismatic circles. You have to arrive at that notion by either twisting Scripture or having a low view of Scripture. The Lioness book twists Scripture-the one you are reviewing denies its relevance for today. Both views are deadly.

Those of us who are older women(whether physically or maturity wise) in the body of Christ have a mandate from the Word of God to be correcting this kind of falsehood-in every way we can. There is a real confusion among Christian Women about what God has called them to. God is very clear about it. I praise God that I am in a Church that is also clear about it.

Thanks again! This is time consuming for you, but very helpful to to your readers.

April 4, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterVictoria

Thanks Kim!! You read critically and write so clearly and concisely -- thank you! High five!!

April 4, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterDarlene

Didn't know about James' current book, thanks for the review. I read her "When Life and Beliefs Collide" back in 2005, and was both encouraged and troubled. Encouraged by her challenge to Xian women to KNOW their Bible and theology--as a 'warrior' that's been my battle cry for years! :-) And, troubled by what I perceived to be a thread of subtle feminism throughout the book, and what seem to be an antagonistic attitude toward men and male leadership in the Church and Xian community. Your review highlights an even greater concern to me, ant that is the tendency to downplay or ignore God's sovereignty in history AND today. As Believers we are obligated to consider the whole of scripture which reveals that God uses whomever and whatever He chooses to accomplish His purposes--man, woman, child, king, queen, sun, rain, drought, animal, etc. There is a great danger of losing sight of God, His glory, and His good purposes if we lean toward too great an emphasis on the 'tools' He chooses to use. Nevertheless, I'll probably read "Half the Church" simply to stay on top of contemporary thinking among Evangelical women.

April 4, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterConnie

BTW, please understand my 'tongue in cheek' use of "warrior" in my comment above. :-)

April 4, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterConnie

Wow. Alarm bells went off as soon as you mentioned her being inspired by Nicholas Kristof. That's not exactly a good sign when the book is supposed to be evangelical in nature. I'm not so sure about the idea of Mary and Esther as a Xena-like character, or that somehow that's God's role for us. I think I must be in a fairly isulated place as I'm contantly shocked when I see that level of feminism in Christianity.

Thank you for taking the time to read the book and give this review. Sadly, I was hoping for better from this author.

April 4, 2011 | Unregistered Commentersem

Excellent review, Kim.

April 4, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterStaci Eastin

Thanks to you, Kim, for this review, and dittoes to all of the above comments. Years ago I attended a conference where James was the speaker. Like Connie, I was thrilled for her encouragement and challenge to women to be theologians! Yes and Amen! But I too wondered at what was seemed to be underlying anger at the responses from men that she had received in her quest to be a theologian. I hoped that she would continue to find true satisfaction in God alone and how He was training her to train women in His words. How sad to hear that her direction seems to have taken a wrong handed turn of maximizing women at the cost of minimizing the Creator of women.

James' message at the conference was that Jesus treated women as the theologians He intended for them to be. I pray that she will remember that message and not seek one of her own making. The Gospel is plenty robust and has never been gender dependent.

Thanks again for your clarity.

April 4, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterElle

Kim, this is an excellent review.

I appreciate very much when someone writes a negative review of a book in a very detailed an intelligent way; I think that if we want our opinion to have some weigh we need to be fair on our reviews.

It is so sad to see, again, how many women are leaving aside the gospel for the emotions;and how they are putting aside the true God for counterfeits gods.

Thanks again!

The gospel is "bone-chilling?" Oh my. The gospel of Jesus Christ is glorious news for women, including those who are oppressed or caught in human-trafficking, but evidently James doesn't understand and love the gospel enough to see that truth.

This is an excellent review, Kim. Thanks for reading the book, so I don't have to!

April 5, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterrosemary

Thanks for this very well written review. When I noticed that the blog tour reviews were up at Koinonia, I was curious to see what others thought of Half the Church. Your thoughts on this book in many ways mirrored my own.

"She says very little about the call on Christian's life to be a servant."

This disturbed me as well. How many of us, in whatever tradition or context we find ourselves, are being thwarted because we simply have no opportunity to serve the body of Christ or our communities? None, would be my guess.

While I also agree that women are responsible to engage the world and build the kingdom alongside men, it is sad when servant leadership is intentionally minimized because it detracts from an agenda. I didn't address this in my own review because, like you, I became conscious of the length. :)

All that to say, I enjoyed your thoughts...and I'm so glad somebody said it!

April 5, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterCrystal Rodli

Thanks very much for this well thought out review, Kim. You've done a great job with it and I noticed we had a number of the same concerns about the book. I'm glad because I always wonder if I'm taking crazy pills when I put together a negative review.

At the risk of being self-serving, I hope you'll check out my review. I'd love to get your feedback.

Thanks again!

April 6, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterAaron Armstrong

Kim, thanks for writing such a thoughtful, well-articulated review. I've been reading all of the glowing reviews elsewhere, and I appreciate having your review to balance them out and give greater insight into the book.

April 7, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterNina

We believe we as women have it SO rough here in the US, when we have no idea or even desire to have a clue how other cultures' women are treated. Yet if you people didn't spend so much time romancing books and criticizing others and looked in your own backyards, trust me.....You'd see abuse, trafficking, and all kinds of unhealthy ways that are unjustifiably ROTTEN, being done to women. You need not look to authors doing the investigating for you, OPEN your hearts and eyes and tell me if Jesus is pleased with what He sees in your houses and neighborhoods. If you are having such a hard time with this author's view, then go see for yourselves and prove her wrong. Could she possibly have hit a nerve in you, that Church refuses to step out of our selfish zone and serve the poor in spirit and down trodden? Are we that Desensitized to KNOW sickness when it lives beside us? The BODY has to take a stand for human-male and female alike.. We don't die until we're dead--so as long as we have breath---WE need to fight for the cause of Christ----Roll up your sleeves. AQT

May 2, 2011 | Unregistered Commentersnitch

Wow. It seems you totally missed the point of the book. James is giving a Christian response to the Kristof/WuDunn book, Half the Sky, and not merely "inspired" by it. And how can people comment intelligently on a book/books they haven't read? Proof enough that Christian women need to get their heads out of the sand and get a clue about what's going on in the rest of the world with women in crisis.

October 15, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterTerri Kraus

Thanks for the comment, Terri! So nice of you to stop by! Have a wonderful, blessed Monday!

October 15, 2012 | Registered CommenterKim
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