[Book Review] Half The Church by Carolyn Custis James

Half the Church: Recapturing God’s Global Vision for Women
By Carolyn Custis James
Zondervan Publishing
206 pages, including questions for discussion
Zondervan gave me a free copy to give away – leave a comment and I will use a urim and thummim to decide who gets it. 🙂

I see what you did there, Carolyn Custis James. I do hope it works.

I wanted to review this book because it addresses gender-based injustices, one of the things that I am most passionate about in life. The title Half the Church is derived from Half the Sky: Turning Oppression Into Opportunity For Women Worldwide, by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn. For those who already care deeply about these issues, that book will be a better investment of time and money. For those who are new to these issues and are curious, Carolyn Custis James’ book can be a good and heartfelt starting place, but it is frustratingly incomplete in offering what is truly needed to find the author’s goal of “God’s vision for his daughters”.

The book was birthed from the author’s awakening to the brutal treatment and lifelong misery that is endured by a large portion of the world’s population simply because they are female. It contains some heart wrenching stories of wife burnings, beatings, forced prostitution and rapes, forced and under-aged marriage, selective abortion, human trafficking, and the fact of the paucity of resources spent on girls in a world that prefers sons, to name just a few. Perhaps to keep her readers from turning away in distaste, the author somewhat underplays the raw horror of these and other injustices. The very real statistics are gruesome. There is an estimated 200 million women missing from the world’s population due to the discrimination and abuse based solely on being born a girl.

Part of the author’s goal is to awaken the church to these brutal realities, and to challenge us to move on the behalf of the powerless and voiceless, living a gospel of action and deed as well as word. James shows herself to be very wise in understanding that the conservative Western church that she addresses has been somewhat resistant when it comes to social justice issues. She is also aware that it tends to see it itself as a unique entity which looks with suspicion upon anything that is new to their understanding of things, no matter how much good might come from it. James treads on delicate and controversial topics, particularly theological ones, with a light but forthright touch. She understands where that part of the church is coming from and what they can and cannot handle. She approaches them with a style and language that will not close their ears.

James does make a strong attempt at defining the “vision for God’s daughters” in addressing the word used to describe woman at her creation, eser, which means helper. Eser does not refer to an assistant or handmaiden, rather, it is a word that is used most often in the scriptures to describe God. James likens it to being a warrior, which is empowering and sheds broader insight on the purposes of the creation of woman beyond childbearing. She also offers a compelling portrait of the leadership capabilities and the positive impact of women in society. The gist of her scriptural studies is to call attention to the essential dignity of womankind, which is something that must be held as absolute if abuses against women are to ever be stopped.

This is a book that needs to be read between the lines. There are some things that cannot be said outright without losing your audience, in this case I believe, the conservative Christians with a complementarian view of women.  (For those unfamiliar with this word, it is the theological view that although men and women are created equal in their being and personhood, they are meant to complement each other through maintaining gender-based roles and a husband-headship structure in marriage.) If you step on their views it is likely that your voice will be discounted. As I have said, James deftly skirts around the major landmines, such as the concept of wifely submission. She hints that the traditional view of submission just might create selfishness in men when they believe that women are meant to “pretend that they are less than they are” in their relationships with men. She laments that women are prized for their willingness to give in and this way of thinking leans too heavily on just a few attributes instead of embracing the “full range of qualities that Jesus displayed”. It is a shrewd and subversive way to show that the way in which submissiveness is taught in these church circles could be just as bad as the low view of women in the more troubled places in the world.

At this point, James refuses to take a stand on either a complementarian or egalitarian view of women. I think I understand her reasons. To do so would mean that she would lose much of her audience, particularly those who are complementarian if she comes out as egalitarian, which I suspect she is or soon will be. (Honestly, moving towards egalitarianism is inevitable if one continues to be passionate about gender-based injustice issues as a Christian.) But James squirms out from under the issues with a quote that insists that no-one can know what the 1 Timothy 2 passage means (that is the passage that seems to say women may not teach or have authority over a man). Actually, there has been a great deal of respected scholarly work done around that passage and other passages dealing with women (such as Ephesians 5, the “submission” passage) that can lead to a life-giving and dignifying egalitarian interpretation. To not at least acknowledge that when addressing the serious issues at hand borders on being irresponsible. I don’t mean to be too harsh, but how we view women through the lens of scripture has a direct impact on the incidences of gender-based injuctices.

When we bring ourselves to the scriptural text, our underlying assumptions and attitudes should be challenged, and the ways in which we cooperate with the abuses of our surrounding culture should be disrupted. James gives a too easy way out to those who perhaps inadvertently support a view of women that enables abuses from facing uncomfortable but necessary challenges to what they believe. Despite all her compelling words, this group will remain largely unchanged. It is simply heart breaking that the Christian message in this part of the church in regards to women is no different from that of the “world”.

Herein lies the greatest weakness of this book. Her refusal to take a stand belies the very core of her argument. For the belief that women are limited to certain roles, that their voices are not as important, welcome or trusted in all arenas (including teaching men) and that they are to be subservient to men continue to feed the lies and misogyny that keep gender-based injustices in place. James admits that at the core of injustice lies the issue of power. Complementarianism lays power squarely in the hands of men. In not addressing this issue adequately, she becomes an accomplice to the view in the world that women are to be controlled and ruled over, and therefore can be treated as chattel.

Certainly, some will be offended by a proclamation of an egalitarian interpretation of scripture and some will turn away. Yet, because James believes in eser as the essence of woman she should therefore act as eser, a warrior for a reading of the Bible text that could shed more light on “God’s vision for his daughters” that can help to release them from the very cruelties she disdains. Ultimately, she does address the problem of gender wars in the church and acknowledges that a higher view of women will foster a healthier view of men as well.  We all are in need of a masculine presence that can engage in genuine partnership with women and that is much healthier and stronger than that of those who must quiet the voice of woman in order to serve their own egos. However, there will be no ‘blessed alliance” between men and women as described by James without an honest look at the complicity of the church in the oppression of women.

To be sure, there is a time when it is best to be very gentle and prudent in speaking a potentially disruptive message. But the issues of gender-based injustices are very real and many lives hang in the balance. This is not the time to pander to those who worship their dogma over the preciousness of people. Yes, to take a stand means she will lose readers and perhaps speaking opportunities. Yes, Zondervan would lose readers as well. (And money. ‘Nuff said.) Even so, it is time to take a stand, Evangelical Christian publishing world. It is time to take a stand, Ms. James. To do any less is an outright betrayal of those who need you most.


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Showing 22 comments
  • Pam Cochran
    Reply

    Hey Ellen,
    I’m a professor women’s studies at a secular university, who teaches on religion and gender! (I think I should get the extra copy.)

    • Pam Cochran
      Reply

      P.S. I think I might be able to use it in a class in the fall. (Have you seen my book, Ellen, EVANGELICAL FEMINISM? You should take a look at it: on the history of egalitarianism and more.)

      • ellenharoutunian
        Reply

        I knew that Pam! Woo! I am so glad your voice is being expressed in such a context. I have studied these issues for years as well but I have not read your book. I certainly will. (Should I write a review? LOL!) Are you connected with the Christians for Biblical Equality or the Christian Feminism bloggers?

  • Tami Terpstra
    Reply

    Ellen, your writing is always eloquent and your insights always meaty–worth feasting on! Mimi Haddad, president of Christians for Biblical Equality, just presented a paper at the Evangelical Theological Society and at Denver Seminary titled, “Does Male Preeminence Lead to Abuse: A Multi-Discipine Approach”. It will be published through CBE soon and made available. Her answer—um, YES!!! I think we are only just beginning to scratch the surface through writing and informed discussions on how complementarianism (equal in personhood but not role) has enabled and “justified” the abuse of women and thus fostered a broken and crippling way of relating between the genders. While I’m disappointed that she wasn’t more in tune with alternate understandings of the passages (my personal passion!) that have been abused as weapons against women, perhaps she has been faithful in an honest portrayal of where she is personally at in her faith journey in this matter–for now. As such, perhaps she will gain the ear of those who wouldn’t otherwise be exposed to these issues or challenged in their thinking. We can hope that she will gain the ears of those we might not, as full egalitarians. More importantly, that she and those whose ears she gains will CONTINUE to be moved to embrace the FULL freedom of the gospel and so become an ever-increasing part of God’s redeeming work in the darkest places of this planet.

    P.S.–I think I need Pam’s book!!

  • Jennifer Harris Dault
    Reply

    Thanks for bringing this book to attention. While you state that it kinda skirts the issue of women’s roles, I’m glad to see that Zondervan is at least addressing the question in an open-minded sort of way (at least, that is what I gathered from the review?).

  • Tracey
    Reply

    I had just gotten James’ book Ruth yesterday, without knowing a lot about it (currently free for Kindle). I was very glad to read your synopsis of this book.

  • Karla Okala
    Reply

    Ellen, I have personally experienced some of the abuse you have mentioned and had it justified to me as scriptural! Traditional interpretation allows men to think of women as inherently evil and treat them accordingly. In one of my most difficult moments, when I was trying to save my marriage, reading a book that recommended that the first thing I needed to do was to pray that God would change my heart–because a woman is there to support and sustain her man (my loose paraphrase). What a harmful recommendation to a woman who is being spiritually, mentally and emotionally abused! It is WAY BEYOND TIME for the conservative church–and all churches to wake up!

  • Jennifer Harris Dault
    Reply

    Ugh. I can’t believe things like that (CHRISTIANS blaming the woman for abuse) are still going on. I am so, SO sorry for what you went through.

  • phyllis
    Reply

    change must come. change MUST come. what is the best vehicle for change? that’s the question. i hope james’ ideas are an effective vehicle for real change. i’m not optimistic, though. and that’s putting mildly.

  • deb
    Reply

    I thought James did come down pretty clearly as egalitarian.

  • Pam
    Reply

    Well done review, Ellen!

    One point, though: Zondervan doesn’t shy away from the egalitarian view. Among other things, they published “How I Changed My Mind about Women in Leadership.”

    http://www.amazon.com/Changed-Mind-about-Women-Leadership/dp/0310293154

  • ellenharoutunian
    Reply

    Well, I assigned a number to everyone who left a comment here or on Facebook (except me and Phyllis). Then I asked my son to pick a number (not knowing who they were assigned to or even what it was for, LOL) and he chose…..drum roll please…. Pam Cochran. I am glad because she wants a copy to possibly use in her class.

  • Franz Tieber
    Reply

    Having read the messages of a very special Christian visionary (she is not the one whom i reflected on at my blog http://franz-surimuri.blogspot.com) i am not sure if the messages are God-sent or not. But the Biblical Urim and Tummim is well-known to me as i read the Bible.
    So, when i looked up some websites i got a hint reading the urim and tummim concept at Your blog. God will guide me showing what happens further more. ADONAI bless You and all readers of Your Site. franz, Vienna, Austria

  • Rev. Charlene Poehler
    Reply

    It is an interesting fact to recognize that all false religions of the world have women as subservient and there is a real hatred for women. It should not be so in Christianity, but in fact it is a reality that there is a spirit of hatred for women that manifests in the church, sometimes silently. I am a woman minister, and I have had to overcome much prejudice against me in the church. It was never “the church” that raised me up in the call of God on my life, and it was never “the church” supporting me and launching me out into the nations.I haven’t read the book yet “Half The Church”, but I was tuning into the church channel on TV and just happened to catch the author being interviewed by James Robinson. It caught my attention quickly. I can’t tell you how many times I have cried out to the Lord to reverse the injustices against women in the church, not to even mention the world injustices against women. We need to change the “good ole’ boys club” mentality in the church so we can be an example to the world, proclaiming that women have value, and worth, and to recognize that there is nothing a woman cannot do called by God!
    Rev. Charlene Poehler
    “BraveHeart Warrior Ministries”

    • ellenharoutunian
      Reply

      I agree – what we do in our churches tells the world what we perceive as God’s attitude towards women. That’s the point I hope that people get – that’s its not about a power struggle or who gets to do what. It’s about the overarching attitude and posture towards one another that either enables human flourishing of all or oppression and abuse of some.

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