Monday, April 4, 2011

Half the Church (Book Review)

(This review is part of a blog book tour taking place this week.  I'll add links to other reviews as I come across them.  I received copies of the book ~ and nothing else ~  from the publisher, and offered no guarantees in return.)

I should like love this book.  Seriously.  Carolyn Custis James brings an easy style and a creative interpretation to issues with which women around the world contend.  Issues which should challenge and embarrass and horrify those of us who live in comfort and relative security, who are well-educated and work in comfortable and accepting environments.  We carry with us a host of presumptions about our freedom to travel, to work, to engage in relationships ~ and about our value to our families and friends and in the world.  When daughters arrive in our midst, we are wild with joy, and we imagine and expect that their lives will be marked by the same forces:  freedom, education, meaningful work, love, and hope.

James writes about girls and women whose lives are markedly different from ours.  Half the Church is evidently intended as an evangelical Christian counterpart to Half the Sky, the book by New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristoff and and his wife, Sheryl Wudunn, the husband and wife team who have written about the terrifying realities of life that challenge those females whose faces never reach our television screens.  Women whose lives are marred and shortened by forced marriages, by early and repeated childbearing without adequate  medical care, by lack of education and training, by abuse and violence ~ and, most of all, by the presumption that they are little more than chattel, born to be traded by men, to produce sons for men, and otherwise to serve men in whatever capacity men choose.

Caroyln Custis James's response to what she has seen and learned to is wrestle creatively with those Biblical texts which might be read as promising less for women than for men.  Her conclusions ~ that God creates both women and men in God's image, that women are created by God to be warriors for justice, and that God creates women and men to be in a "Blessed Alliance" of equality in which to serve God and bring God's love to bear in this world ~ are intended to affirm that Christianity has much to offer all peoples of the world.  The Christian story and message bring women and men together in unity and love.   The gift of God's love through Jesus Christ should transform both the status and roles of women and the relationship between men and women; it should not be misused to preserve a status quo in which women are undermined, disregarded, devalued, and forsaken.

So why don't I love this book?  Something irritated and troubled me as I read it, something that did not become clear until almost the end, when the author reveals a bit about the evangelical framework in which she lives and works. As someone who participates in the mainline Protestant church and who self-identifies as a progressive Christian, I seldom never encounter debates about whether the roles of women and men should be understood in complementarian or egalitarian terms.   I don't encounter debates about women's ordination (except in the Catholic Church, and that's a whole 'nother story, isn't it?).  When James addresses these issues, it becomes clear that she does, in fact, live in a world in which they are debated.  Her insistence upon God's hopeful project for women and men alike might be viewed in her church world as a radical re-interpretation of Biblical passages, passages that have long been understood by many as establishing secure and differentiated roles for women and men.  Consequently, she has to defend her approach.

And that, I suppose, is the heart of what rankles me about the book: its emphasis on evangelical assumptions that women and men are so different from one another in such fundamental ways that we actually have to debate whether we both have a place at the table.  Any table, let alone the table of leadership or service on behalf of Jesus Christ.  I understand that those are the assumptions that James must challenge in order to be heard in her world, but they are not the universal assumptions of all Christians.  My sense is that she is wrangling with a faith of liberation in a personal context of confining parameters, a context in which she is apparently pushing boundaries by asserting that God calls both women and men to leadership and to participation in all ways. (There seems to be a second book lurking inside the covers and between the lines of Half the Church.)

Perhaps unintentionally,  Half the Church brings to our attention two separate and yet similar worldviews in which the value of women is routinely diminished.  In the world of secular political, social, and economic realities, as James shows us, women are often ignored ~ overworked, undervalued, and seldom sought for the gifts we have to contribute to the shaping and flourishing of our world.  We who live in the United States can conveniently ignore this reality in the secular realm, but reality it is for most women across the globe.  And in the world of the church?  In its evangelical expression, there is an unfortunate strain of theology and practice that, contrary to the gospel of Jesus Christ, seeks to limit the offering of the gifts of women to arenas delineated by misreadings of Scripture and by rejection of the realities of ordinary life.

What Carolyn Custis James wants to show us is that, although it might be (mis)understood in traditional, evangelical interpretations, Christianity presents an alternative vision: a vision in which women are created and called by God as persons of strength and power, as individuals with gifts and skills which should be nurtured and welcomed in the building of God's Kingdom.  The gospel should be a powerful force for liberation of all people; it should not be corralled into the service of those who would use it merely to perpetuate outdated  political, social, and economic patterns of life.  Perhaps James is precisely the person needed to make this point, as she understands the pressures of conservative Christianity from the inside.

In any case, we should read this book.  The author may be trying to soften her approach in order to reach a broader audience, but the basic message is forthright and is supported by Biblical references explored in scholarly and imaginative ways..  Carolyn Custis James  brings to our attention much that fosters injustice and outright evil toward girls and women in our world, reminds us that the God of Jewish and Christian Scripture affirms the essential dignity of all human beings, and tells us that there is much work to be done.


If you'd like a free copy, the publisher has kindly provided me with an extra.  Leave a comment, I'll draw a name, and I'll contact you for mailing info if you win!

Another review ~
A review from another RevGal ~
And from Quotidian Grace ~
From Diane ~
And one from Dorcas, who really "gets" the paradox of injustice at issue ~


  1. Robin, I totally know what you're saying about this book. I wrote many things in the margins about how her framework is not mine. What seems to be open debate in her context feels a little (!) more settled in mine. In truth, I might never had read this book if I hadn't received the copy, but I'm glad I did.

  2. Please put my name in the drawing. It sounds interesting esp. now that I don't have to wait to the end to find the framework.

  3. Well, I think I might read it. I really love the way you write - even when (maybe especially when?) you are expressing ambivalence.

  4. Cindy, you make me laugh.

    There will be no ambivalence about the book you sent me. I'm in love.

  5. Great review, Robin! I'm going to link it to mine.

    I also kept thinking I should really love the book but couldn't put my finger on why I didn't until it dawned on me that I wasn't the author's target audience. That's probably why I was uncomfortable with her use of the terms Blessed Alliance and Ezer-warriors.

  6. QG - yes, I though it was astute of you to point out the issue of a target audience. I, too, found the phrases contrived (great word!)and over-emphasized, but for a book or study group to whom the concepts are new or controversial, her exegesis of them would surely be engaging and helpful.

  7. Thanks for the sustained article. So, at the end of the day, does she advocate a complimentarian or egalitarian view of women in the leadership and life of the Church? I think you were saying that she advocates the egalitarian view which would fit in with the theme of the book that women are excluded from male dominated structures and abused by men.

  8. Yup. That's the way it is in evangelical circles. Though we do find our way through, it is still ice that needs to be cut through.

  9. Rob, I don't know. My sense is that she advocates an egalitarian position that does not include ordination, which would really be a complementarian position wouldn't it? She has apparently published other material that stops short of promoting women's ordination. And I think that Karen's comment is a clue.

  10. So if she advocates an egalitarian view without using the terminology, she may be doing this in order to avoid direct conflict and name calling by the detractors of her position. But if she does not then allow the implications of the theological imperative that follow to shape the practice and application of ordination to women, it indicates she is uncomfortable with what the egalitarian position ultimately leads to. I have met a few women like this who due to fear of offending family members or church members, stop short of advocating the ordination of women to word and sacrament and in one case, have not reached a position where they are comfortable to seek ordination.
    Another issue in the Evangelical world is that if you advocte the ordaination of women, it is then assummed that you will (eventually) advocate the ordination of homosexuals which is for many, including myself, another issue. So to avoid being pushed down that path, she may prefer avoiding to use the term 'egalitarian' etc in order to keep the reader focused on the issue itself: women, Scripture and their role in the family, church and society.

  11. Robin, we at DirtySexyMinistry (RevGals, too) were sent the book for review, and I was completely underwhelmed. I just read your review and am glad to see that I'm not the only one who found much of the text one-dimensional and contrived (and poorly researched - too much from Half the Sky). I haven't decided to post a review, actually. So thanks for yours.

  12. Nevermind putting my name in a hat for the book. I've read enough of the discussion here to realize that life is too short for me to spend time reading this book.

    Good discussion though and I'm glad I finally figured out the whole comments-to-email mechanism.

  13. I have to agree with Kathryn here. Life is too short to read about people defending the ordination of women. It's 2011 people!!! Good grief.

    Most mainline Protestant denominations cut through the appalling injustice of witholding ordination from women so long ago that we've forgotten that it was once a "hot topic".

    Newsflash to the evangelical world: It is NOT a hot topic. It's an old dusty one.

    This whole issue is soooooooooo 60 years ago. The real problem, in my view, is that the general (read: secular) culture of the un-churched thinks that the evangelicals speak for all Christians. I don't think Custis James helps that image at all by skirting carefully around the issue of women's ordination simply to save her own butt.

    A little more courage and a little less contrived rhetoric would have made this a much, much better book. I'm glad my book allowance paid for it. At least it didn't come out of my pocket.

  14. What an excellent review! I finally got mine writtten and posted over at my own blog. And I pretty much agree with what Sue said. It is why my place in the evangelical church world is increasingly an uneasy one. Sigh.