The Week In Books 2008, No. 3

One of my good friends from when we lived in DC, Amy L., recently graduated from Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando. I enjoy discussing things with her because she has a lot of wisdom and is diplomatic when she disagrees with me, which is nice. A while ago we were emailing about a website I had recently visited that featured a vitriolic and raging debate about evangelical feminism, patriarchy, and what it means to be a Christian woman. I was frankly appalled by some of the accusations that were made and wondered what type of hornets nest I had stumbled into.

Amy had some interesting insights on the topic, as something she has read a lot about and as a Reformed woman who went to seminary. She recommended some books, another friend loaned me a book, and I decided to make it a theme week in my reading. So that is a long introduction to what surely will be a long post. I’m not going to try to flesh out the entire argument in any of these books, nor do I think they really bear up as a point/counterpoint for each other. I apologize in advance for what is sure to be an exceedingly long post.

First, Carolyn Custis James. Interestingly, Mrs. James is reviled by some for being too egalitarian, and by others for not being egalitarian enough. She went to seminary prior to marrying (her husband is now president of RTS Orlando, their daughter is in college) and now writes and speaks at conferences and so forth. Having seen some of the harsh statements against Mrs. James prior to reading her books, I was a little apprehensive of what she would say. After reading them, I found myself wondering if her more conservative critics have actually READ her work, or if they have only read each other’s websites picking on her supposed positions. Web research is a dangerous thing sometimes.

The premise of When Life and Beliefs Collide is that the evangelical church has moved away from theology to its detriment. She acknowledges that this is a problem throughout the church, and notes that the writing on the subject addresses the whole church, or men in particular, thus in her book, Mrs. James examines the necessity of Christian women developing a deeper theological understanding as well.

Mrs. James emphasizes that everyone HAS a theology, it’s just a matter of whether it’s accurate and if it’s superficial or deep. Theology is knowing God, and in times of trial and struggle, a deep knowledge of God and His character will sustain us and encourage other believers, whereas a superficial or fluffy knowledge will be a source of discouragement. She notes that theology is about our relationship with God, not just a bunch of arcane facts and ponderous ideas.

Woven through the book is a study of Mary and Martha (Lazarus’ sisters) and how they each showed their theological growth in the instances they are mentioned in the Gospels (three times each). Mrs. James says it’s unfortunate that Christian women are so quick to label themselves as “a Martha” or “a Mary” when Jesus pointed out that they BOTH had a need to know Him better. Jesus emphasized study AND service, and never indicated that some women should be “thinkers” and others “doers.” I thought that was a point well taken.

The book challenges the assumption that theology is just for men, that wives and mothers don’t need theology, or that a wife who has a deep knowledge of God will have a hard time submitting to her husband (these were responses she actually collected from real people). It’s funny, I think the deeper my knowledge of God, the EASIER it is to submit to my husband (in a Biblical way, not some 1950s Stepford wife doormat way), but I guess that sentiment is not universally held.

In discussing why mothers need to have solid theology, Mrs. James writes,

One of the biggest and most significant tasks facing the church today is to raise the next generation of strong believers. Is there a more pressing task than for us to leave behind an army of theologians – our own daughters and sons – stronger than we proved to be?

Regarding the importance of wives having good theology, she says,

A wife knows better than anyone the depth and intensity of her husband’s struggles. If her theology is weak or superficial, she will be ill equipped to come alongside with strength, encouragement, and godly counsel…

Moving on, the most encouraging thing to me about this book was Mrs. James exploration of how a strong theology impacts our responses by using the example of the sovereignty of God. Due to some trying circumstances over the past year and a half or so, I have struggled greatly with reconciling what I know to be true about God with the circumstances that kept besetting us. Mrs. James’ excellent discussion was a rich blessing to me and really encouraged me, especially as I had been wrestling again with these issues just prior to reading it. Some quotes that I noted follow:

But if God is sovereign, then plan B is a myth. No matter how dark things look to us, or how big the mess we’re in, we’re in plan A. God’s plan for us is intact, proceeding exactly as He intended, neither behind nor ahead but right on schedule. Nothing – not our sins, failures, disappointments, bad decisions, nor the sins of others against us – can deter a sovereign God from accomplishing His purposes.

[God] doesn’t assign plan A to some of His children and leave the rest to cope with inferior plans. He has perfectly and meticulously tailored each plan to accomplish His good purposes for His daughters.

Mrs. James wrote about how discouraged she was when as a single who had been wanting to be married for over a decade she heard a speaker who said that women who spend a long time working before they are married will find it hard to be good wives. I was interested in her point because I also worked a while before getting married (I know, a few years is not that long, but it FELT that long). I can see (and have seen, in myself or in friends) how certain aspects of being in the work world foster a selfishness or self-centeredness that is hard to overcome when you get married and join your life to someone else’s. Leaving the workforce for full-time motherhood is hard too, but the more I think about it, it’s more than changing gears, it’s about where your identity lies, and I think you could get tripped up just as easily being single on your parents’ isolated farm or being single working a professional job. Although I think Christians absolutely need to be discerning about the situations they put themselves in, I think it’s also important to remember that our hearts are more important to God than appearances (1 Sam. 16:7) and that our heart attitudes are shaped by more than our circumstances.

I should say that I did have some issues with chapter 9, in which Mrs. James discusses the meaning of the Hebrew word “ezer” that is often translated “helper” or “strong helper” as in Eve was created to be Adam’s ezer. Mrs. James points out that the word ezer has connotations of strength and of being a warrior, and opines that women are to be strong and bold helpers to men, versus interpreting “helper” as a faint or distant task. This is where her more conservative critics tend to go nuts, and I do think she takes some leaps. However, I’m not a Hebrew scholar, nor am I seminary-educated, so I would be hard-pressed to refute her points. In any case, her conclusion to that chapter emphasizes that she is not trying to refute the concept of Biblical headship, rather she is saying that women are used by God and called to know Him, probably in answer to some of the abuses that happen when men (and women) decide that women are totally subservient, second-class citizens in Christ, etc. (Note: I also read an article online in a PCA magazine in which Mrs. James upholds the doctrine of only ordaining male ministers and elders, so I don’t think accusations that she’s trying to get women into the pulpit hold much water, at least at the moment.)

In Lost Women of the Bible: The Women We Thought We Knew Mrs. James undertakes a study of how God used women throughout the Bible, from Eve to the women of the church in Philippi. I thought she had good insights and her treatment of the women was thoughtful and nuanced. Again in this book Mrs. James expounds on the whole “ezer” definition, although I think she explains herself a bit better in this volume. She made a good point that there is a difference between women who exercise strength in a way that emasculates men, and women who use godly strength to help men and build them up.

Mrs. James examines the question of if there is only one Biblical track for women, looking at how God worked through women who were harlots, foreigners, infertile, bitter, and so on. Unlike some things I have read in this vein, Mrs. James emphasizes that the Bible shows us how God uses us to bring glory to Himself and encourages Christian women that God has a plan for His daughters, even when they don’t fit in precisely with the Womanly Ideal for whatever reason.

I had two particular concerns after reading this book – one anecdote about a smart single woman who just wanted a man to take care of her and one passage discussing whether or not it’s a problem that the Church in Japan is primarily composed of women. I discussed those issues with Amy L., who didn’t claim to speak for Mrs. James, but who has talked at length with Mrs. James about those topics. While I think I may still have a few points of disagreement with Mrs. James, Amy did clarify a few areas where I had misinterpreted what Mrs. James was trying to say.
Passionate Housewives Desperate for God
by Jennie Chancey and Stacy McDonald suffers from a cheesy title, and starts out a little bit defensively. The first section is a description of the ways feminism fails women, children, families, and so forth. You have probably read all this before, and if not, you could easily find it out there, so I wish Mrs. Chancey and Mrs. McDonald had skipped directly to their more substantive points. The main point of the book, as I understood it, is that we need to avoid falling prey to worldly mindsets of what housewives are, namely a bored drudge, or desperate and unfulfilled, or supermoms.

The authors note sometimes we overburden ourselves and sometimes our own sinful pride makes us miserable, which is a valid point. Chapter five deals with freedom from the bondage of perfectionism, and serves as a reminder that “instead of worrying what others think about us, we need to care about what God thinks of us, measuring ourselves by the unchanging standard of God’s Word rather than comparing ourselves to others.” As someone who struggles with perfectionism, I found a lot of encouraging and challenging points in this chapter.

I think what you get out of this book does depend greatly on the attitude you bring to it and where you are in life. I think at this point I’m a little tired of the mommy wars, especially within Christian circles. I believe being at home is absolutely the best thing I can do for my children, and my husband supports me in that. I still bristle a little at condescending remarks about women who choose to stay home, but since I haven’t yet become an unintelligent, bored, unchallenged domestic slave who wears leggings and puff-painted denim Mickey Mouse shirts, I feel the danger has somewhat passed and I don’t care as much. I’m kind of working on being satisfied with the approval of people who matter.

All that to say, I think the reason I didn’t get a whole lot out of this book is that it wasn’t a message about something I’m struggling with or dealing with right now. I probably would have gotten more out of it two years ago, and might find a need for it in the future.

If you made it all the way through this mammoth post, congratulations, you are truly a loyal reader and I salute you. I shan’t bore you with what I’m currently reading, just stay tuned for next time.

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