Thursday, 7 April 2011

Half the Church - a book review

As I read Half the Church - Recapturing God's Global Vision for Women by Carolyn Custis James, I experienced a growing sense of  unease.
I knew that I didn't have any problem with the author's abhorrence of the inhuman treatment of women throughout the world - especially the likes of those accounts shared in Half the Sky and particularly with the notion of selective reproduction or abortion.
I agree that in the face of such injustice and oppression, those in the church should be among the first to stand up and speak out.
But, it seemed to me, when the author brings her thesis into play in the nitty gritty and often petty politics of the church it somehow reduces a huge issue to bad housekeeping and internal squabbles over Biblical interpretation.
This may well be the result of growing up in a seemingly "enlightened" Presbyterian Church of Scotland where one rarely has to grapple with the egalitarian versus complementarian debate that James lays out in her book: the Great Debate of which she writes is not a debate with which I have had to grapple in this culture.
But my discomfort in reading also had a lot to do with the fact that the author failed to reveal her position on the debate, particularly surrounding the ordination of women. Towards the end of the book, James admits that she does not want to alienate potential readership, especially among her counterparts in her church tradition. I suspect that I do not properly grasp the fear that maintains her reticence and her inability to be open on this. But that lack of understanding on my part in turn led to my growing discomfort as I read through the book.

Although this book may be helpful in the culture in which it is written I am not convinced that it has the global emphasis that it might have had if written outwith the confines of that culture and, indeed, portrays the church as a huge contributor to the injustice afflicting women globally while, in reality, much of the injustice in the church that the author cites, while plainly wrong, has little impact on the world around it but remains an in house squabble. That is not to deny the atrocities that have been perpetrated in the name of the church all through history. But, in James's context, the issue is much more confined to church governance and polity that simply baffles the world at large if it even captures attention in the first place.

I had difficulty with James's terminology, particularly her use of the term ezer to describe "God's female image bearers". But perhaps this is because James describes her "first serious encounter" with her "calling as an ezer" as a time when she was "smuggling books out of her husband's study" in order to find some answers. James asserts that:
"God deploys his daughters - all of us - to be ezer-warriors for his kingdom all the days of our lives. As a daughter, I love the idea that we are to follow in our Father's strong ezer footsteps by soldiering alongside our brothers for his kingdom. A name like ezer gives women and girls a lot to live up to no matter who we are or where we live"

I hope that "Half the Church" will prove helpful in liberating the gifts of women in the context in which James exercises ministry but, for other church cultures her experience seems alien.
Of course the issues of women being exploited and trafficked and oppressed and viewed as dispensable commodities is a whole other book.

Thanks to Zondervan for the opportunity to review this text.

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