Monday, April 4, 2011

Book Review: Half the Church (Carolyn Custis James)

Carolyn Custis James begins Half the Church by detailing her horrified reaction while reading Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide (Kristof/WuDunn). As she details the way women and girls are sold, raped, murdered, and diminished around the world, she wonders not only why the Church universal does not rise up and decry these actions, she begins to wonder what is keeping us from surging forward and empowering women around the world. Thus, Half the Church: Recapturing God's Global Vision for Women was born.

Much of the scholarship in this book has its kindling in James' earlier work with which, I confess, I am not familiar. However, I can see that this flame has burned within her and has now become a roaring bonfire. James is clearly a biblical conservative. By this I don't mean that she use the Bible to come to (politically) conservative points, but that she resolves her theological arguments from the Bible or not at all. It's been a long time since I read anything written from this framework and this was simultaneously refreshing and overwhelming. 

In her effort to move the Church into a new understanding of God's work in, through and for women, James makes several surprising, but resonant theological claims. Using Genesis 1:26-27, James points out that God makes both men AND women in God's image. Thus, both sexes are given the same charge of stewardship of the earth as God's image bearers. James writes: 

When God created human beings in his "image" and "likeness", he was designating us as his representatives on the earth... As [God's] image bearers, we speak and act on [God's] behalf. This is not only about Christians. Every human being is God's image bearer... Every human being has a strategic role in God's purposes for the world. Every human being possesses a derived significance- grounded in [God's self]." (53) 

From this dramatic interpretation, James goes on to say that when we ignore, dehumanize or trivialize the role of half the population, we are defacing the image of God. We are called through God's written word to understand ourselves as God's image bearers to all creation. Furthermore, we are called through God's Living Word, Christ, to a deeper understanding of image bearing, through the work of forgiveness, justice and mercy. 

James describes how most women around the world are only valued according to how they can be married off and how quickly that. She notes that even women who understand their giftedness to reside in being both a wife and a mother may actually only spend half their lifetimes doing one or both of those. If the Church sends a message of value only in marriage or in childbearing, we are sending a message that God doesn't use young women or widows, women without children or women who never become wives. This is compounded by a twin message of worth through sexual purity. 

A purity message is utterly devastating to the one in four women who by eighteen has been sexually abused. Women who struggle with sexual identity, who march to the beat of a different drummer, who choose not to marry or have children, whose marriages don't and will never fit the "norm" no matter how hard they try, or who have been ravaged by abuse, violence and trafficking are left without a place- as women- in God's story. 

As I read through this book, I wrestled with the fact that I believe my denomination to be open to women's leadership and yet I know plenty of young women, who've grown up in the Lutheran church, who struggle with identity. This says to me that our denomination, powerful women notwithstanding, has not been vocal enough about God's plan and expectation for women as image bearers. 

Probably one of the most powerful themes of the book is James's use of the word ezer. This is the Hebrew word that God uses in deciding to create a partner for Adam. Adam's loneliness cannot be fulfilled by the animals or even by God's company, but he needs something more. The ezer then joins Adam in the stewardship of creation through the bearing of God's image to the world. 

Traditionally, ezer is translated as "helper". At best, this sounds benign, at worst, like an afterthought. However, James goes on to point out this word is used elsewhere in the Hebrew Scriptures and is most frequently, then, applied to God. In particular, ezer is used sixteen times for God as Israel's helper. (112) This isn't a weak helpmeet, but the strength Israel needs in order to be the people of God. Adam's ezer Eve isn't a passive complement to his active steward, she is, according to the way the word is used, a strong and needed helper. 

One of the great ironies of this book is that it forced me to consider my own biases with regard to women and church. When James said she will not give her opinion on women's ordination (pro or con), I initially felt frustrated, but I then couldn't allow that silence to overshadow the powerful arguments she makes for women's full inclusion in the church, in church leadership, in the work of justice in the world and in bearing God's image to all creation. 

If we allow our energies to be shunted into arguments around obscure Scriptures with regard to women and their roles, we might as well deny the Holy Spirit. In essence, we are failing to use the gifts God has given us, to share the load of image-bearing with our brothers and to bring the freeing news of God's desire for God's daughters to the world. 

Even as I write this, there are infant girls being killed or having marriage contracts arranged. There are women stuck in sex work, feeling their identities fading away. There are orphaned girls who wait for families that will not return and who grow older each day they wait to be adopted. We can ignore these things under the idea that different cultures have different ideals. Or we can consider the stories of Ruth, Mary, Hannah, Esther, and Deborah- women whose situations were dire and called for drastic, life-risking action. And God used them and men alongside them. We must either enlarge our vision and our actions with regard to God's global vision or live in fear of when we're held accountable for inaction. 

James, Carolyn Custis. Half the Church: Recapturing God's Global Vision for Women. Zondervan, Grand Rapids, Michigan: 2010. 

I received this book for free from Zondervan for review. I have another copy to give away. If you would like to receive it, please email me lcohpastor(at)alaska(dot)net.


Unknown said...

Julia, I haven't read this, but wanted to be sure you saw Robin's review. She's another RevGal.

Robin said...

Julia, I'm glad you addressed the word ezer. Mine was too long to fit in everything I wanted to discuss!

Thanks for visiting.

caromalinia said...

I am *very* interested in the other copy, if you still haven't given it away. Sounds compelling. Also, now I want to read Half the Sky.

Bonnie Jacobs said...

I've read Half the Sky, so when I read this I immediately put Half the Church on reserve at my library. Here's my review of Half the Sky: