Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Half the Church by Carolyn Custis James - a book review AND giveaway

I've finished another book, this one called Half the Church, by Carolyn Custis James. The publisher sent me a copy to read and review, but of course there was no requirement that I review the book in any particular way.

They also sent me an additional copy to give away. SO... leave a comment and after a week I'll draw a name and email you to get your address.

So.... here's a youtube promo for the book that gives you some idea of the subject and author's premise.

So... the book.

To be honest, I was pretty cynical at first (no surprise to most of you!). My expectations were definitely boosted when I saw on the back cover and in the introduction that the author was heavily influenced and recommended by Sheryl Wudunn, wife of Nicholas Kristof (one of my very favorite international journalists) and co-author with him in their currently very popular book, Half the Sky (which is about injustice towards woman around the world and is supposedly pretty powerful).

Half the Church seems to be on the one hand examining the role of women in the church, and on the other hand attempting to do this in light of the great injustices done to women around the world. Custis James quotes or refers to Half the Sky about once a page at the beginning of the book, so clearly a lot of the book is written in an attempt to integrate her emotional response to Half the Sky with the theological reflection on women in the church that she has written on in the past.

James moves from the tragedy of injustice against women globally to an examination of women in the creation story, the word "ezer" (traditionally translated "helper"), and the character and role of women like Ruth, Esther, Mary, and others as they are portrayed in scripture. She concludes that the purpose of the male/female creation is a "Blessed Alliance" that we are mostly missing out on because of our "Great Debate" over egalitarian and complementarian roles of women in the church. She calls the church to "wake the sleeping giantess" of women in the church around the world and to utilize the untapped spiritual influence of "half the church".

Some things I liked:
  • Custis repeatedly points out that in our American evangelical discussion on the role of women, we so often focus on a very suburban, white, middle-class reality of life. She very validly recognizes that the idea of being a stay-at-home mom is completely off the radar and not even possible for most women around the world. Our frame of reference for the entire debate it too narrow.
  • I also agree with her that sometimes when we focus so much on the homemaker mentality we end up encouraging families and mothers to be internally focused. This is a tragedy, because the family and home is always meant to be outward-focused and participating the mission of God as a family.  
  • Custis James said something that I really should have thought of before but honestly never have. Biblical stories of women are extremely hard for us to grasp because our cultural context is just about as far removed from theirs as it could possibly be. The stories absolutely come alive, though, if you think of the same stories happening in similar cultural contexts around the world today. For instance, what if I picture the story of Ruth happening in the small Pakistani village I visited? DANG. It comes alive. Jesus talking to the woman at the well as if he were speaking to a Papuan Dani woman in Sentani? Wow. So powerful, and the way gender is seen in the story completely changes.

A Few Quotes:
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.
Things I Didn't Like

  • As I mentioned, James is attempting to integrate the injustice against women around the world with a new way of thinking of the role of women. While she clearly states that goal, the book often felt awkwardly torn between the two topics. She points out how culturally-bound our discussions of the role of women are, but there wasn't a comprehensive vision of what a global view of the role of women is or what we need to do or change to get there. It felt like a complaint was stated but never resolved.  
  • I think James is upset by the limitations of the egalitarian/complementarian debate and therefore wants to avoid it - and I completely understand that desire. However, because that that debate is the context that she's writing from, she can't get away from it and ends up spending a whole chapter recognizing the debate and stating that she won't pick a side. That chapter was counter-productive, because as soon as she starts talking about not taking sides, you can't help but try to pin her down in your mind (and while she may not be a typical egalitarian, she is NOT a completementarian!)

My Thoughts in Response to the Book

The oppression of women didn't come crashing into my world after 9/11 as James expresses happened in her thinking. Growing up overseas and traveling to very patriarchal societies made it really hard for me to understand and empathize with a lot of the emotional shock over injustice that James expressed. I also started out rolling my eyes over the call to recognize the untapped power of women in the Church. It often gets to me when people start talking about empowerment and prejudice. Those things absolutely exist, but often when a group starts advocating for itself I feel like it can be counter productive. The best way to prove that you are a qualified and deserve to be treated as an equal is not to shout or whine about the need to be treated equally but rather to step out and simply BE worthy and show your qualification.

This is where the third-world is ironic. It's true that there is massive injustice against women around the world. However, while I definitely think women in the church in America are still fighting to be treated with respect (I often feel it myself), the reality of the Church around the world is quite different. One mission leader in Central Asia told me that he is attempting to avoid the "women's ministry" conferences that people are trying to bring into the field because it would distract his female church leaders who are already his most successful and passionate leaders without ever having discuss their role or empowerment. In China, where I was this summer, most church leaders are women. That's true in much of the world. There may be injustice against women in those cultures, but they are the leaders of the church.

All that said, the women's role debate is alive and well here in the American church. Even as I did research on James and her husband I came across several websites that passionately denounced her for reasons that I don't at all agree with. That the debate still exists drives me crazy and I avoid the discussion, but just when I feel like it's old news I find that it comes around again and affects my job, my future, my marriage. In fact, it came around emotionally just this week.
So.... I suppose the role of women still has to be talked about sometimes, and it's true that there is often oppression and injustice against women around the world. James is right that as we form a theology of the role and identity of women, we must to do it in a way that makes sense for ALL women, not just the West. I also really appreciated some of her discussion on the identity of women that we can draw from the creation story. I'm just not sure she set up a good path of what and how we change our current context in order to get to where she says we need to be in our thinking.


Beth W. said...

Interesting review! I would love to read this one. I've read some of her other stuff and had mixed thoughts about her writings.

Greg Flagg said...

I'd love to read this book. I came here from Daniel Kirks blog but sadly I don't fit any of his qualifications for his contest. :)