Being Feminist, Being Christian: Essays from Academia

Edited by Allyson Jule and Bettina Tate Pedersen.
New York: Palgrave, MacMillan, 2006, 2008

(This review pertains to the 2006 hardback edition.)

Reviewed by Anne Linstatter, Ph.D

Being Feminist, Being Christian book coverThere aren’t many Christians today thinking and speaking within the academic world of gender studies.

If you are one of them, this book is for you.

If not, you may find the technical terms difficult: anti-essentialism, autonomous subjectivity, gender performance, linguistic space.

For those of us who live in this world, Being Feminist, Being Christian: Essays from Academia is extremely valuable and long overdue.

Reading it is like attending an EEWC conference: you brush up on current issues within feminism and theology and also learn about the tremendous contributions of Christian women in the fifteenth, sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries that led to the flourishing of first-wave feminism in the nineteenth century.

Refreshingly, this book doesn’t dwell on the religious and cultural wars gripping the US today.  Four of the eight studies come out of the Holiness tradition, looking at Susanna Wesley, Phoebe Palmer, and radical Protestantism in early modern times, as well as feminism on a Nazarene campus today.  Three of the authors write from a Canadian context.  Evangelicalism is discussed in only two of the essays.

Note that the title of this book does not have a question mark.  To ask if it’s possible to be a Christian and a feminist is so 1970.  The women writing these essays start from the position of “Okay, we’re it.  How do we understand our position within the context of current feminist theory?  How do we dialogue with the Church?”

The easiest-to-read essay in this book is by Carol Blessing and Lisa Bernal Corley about the ways in which women from the Methodist-Holiness tradition in the eighteenth century “struggled, defied, and challenged patriarchal practices and structures of the Christian church.”  (Because it’s historical, this essay doesn’t have the theoretical jargon.)

Not allowed to preach from the pulpit, Susannah Wesley led a prayer meeting of up to two hundred in her kitchen; her successor, Mary Bosanquet Fletcher, taught in a barn outfitted for church services, which became known as “Mrs. Fletcher’s Room.”  Her disciple, Mary Tooth, likewise created an “alternative sacred space” she called her Upper Room.  I loved reading about these women.  The essay ends with a discussion of Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza and Rebecca Chopp, who, like the eighteenth century women, refuse to “anoint patriarchal values embedded in biblical texts with divine authority…” ( p.150).

The other historical essay, by Holly Faith Nelson, explains how medieval and early-modern women in the church “subverted essentialist ontology, critiqued patriarchal discourse, generated proto-feminist theologies and ecclesiologies, and fashioned themselves mirrors and agents of the divine” (p.177).  We need to know these women in order to stand firm today.

For me the most exciting essay in the book was Diane Leclerc’s comparison of Phoebe Palmer and Luce Irigaray, an important voice in French feminist theory.  Leclerc explains that in earlier centuries, women often had to become “symbolic males” to gain a voice in the church—they had to remain single and not bear children.  But Phoebe Palmer gained a powerful speaking voice while also being a very “feminine” wife and mother.  In addition, Palmer had the striking insight that excessive preoccupation with home and family had been a sinful obstacle to her spiritual growth and service to God.  In some ways similar to Palmer, Irigaray insists that women should not try to be like men in order to gain a voice in public discourse.

In her essay, “In Search of Bodily Perspective,” Elizabeth Powell notes that the physical body plays a big role within Christian theology as well as within feminist debate.  Christians talk about “denying the flesh” but also about “the resurrection of the body.”  Feminists argue over whether female or male embodiment necessarily results in different thinking.  (This is the essentialist/anti-essentialist debate, with Simon de Beauvoir and early 1970s feminism associated with the anti-essentialist position and Irigaray associated with the essentialist position.)  Powell discusses these issues and calls her conclusion “Toward Christian Embodiments of Feminist Theory.”  She uses Irigaray’s new definition of virginity as women’s “right to protect their moral, spiritual, and physical inviolability, an autonomous identity status…” (100).

Allyson Jule reports on her linguistic study of female silence in two large lecture classes at an evangelical theology school in Canada.  She notes that both Christianity and feminism purport to give women the opportunity to become fully human, but in actuality we put on gender roles “like costumes” (55).  In her conclusion, she asks, “Do Christian women in various church-related contexts rehearse themselves into voicelessness?”  Her answer: “…the liberation specifically advertised in evangelicalism… contradicts some of the lived experiences of women in such circles” (56).

Two of the essays focus on personal development and reflections within a theoretical context.  Bettina Tate Pedersen argues that calling ourselves “Christian feminists” rather than “feminist Christians” may cause us to “skirt the hard questions and realities of sexist oppression recorded in the Christian tradition itself, perpetuated in ongoing Christian practice, and ubiquitous in the wide world” (29).  Linda Beail wrestles with the imperatives on motherhood we inherit from Christianity, feminism, and our culture.

The editors include one man’s voice in their book. Christopher Noble challenges the idea of “literal” biblical interpretation, using Genesis 1:26-28 as a case in point and applying feminist critical theory to this passage.  Until we can all agree on gender construction and what “male” and “female” really mean, we will have differences in even a literal reading of this important text, that “in the image of God he created him; male and female created he them” (KJV).

For Christians who identify as feminist today, this book is not to be missed.  It’s like getting the best of a conference—eight great lectures—but you don’t have the expense of travel and hotels.


 

Anne Linstatter is a writer, mother, (somewhat) radical feminist, and a born-again Christian who teaches Women & Religion at California State University, Northridge. She collected and edited personal stories for a pro-choice book, Abortion—My Choice, God’s Grace: Christian Women Tell Their Stories. The first time she spoke publicly in favor of preserving legal access to abortion was on a panel at Mariners Church in Irvine, California, in 1986. Her commentaries appear on Women’s eNews and in Christian Feminism Today, as well as in her blog Martha y Maria: Women’s Lives, Women’s Rights.

© 2006 by Christian Feminism Today

 

(This review refers to the 2008 paperback edition.)

Reviewed by Melanie Springer Mock, Ph.D.

Being Feminist Being Christian book coverFor the past decade, I have been a professor at a Christian university. During that time, many of my students and some of my colleagues have repeatedly expressed a disappointing sentiment: namely, that Christianity and feminism are incompatible ideologies. They assert that one cannot be a Christian and a feminist, for the latter undermines the very foundations of our faith in Jesus Christ by contradicting biblical truth and church tradition. Because my identity as a Christian, a teacher, and a scholar is tied to my identity as a feminist, I am always nonplussed by these assertions, for I cannot myself see any contradictions between Christianity and feminism, finding instead that we cannot truly embrace one ideology without holding to the other as well.

Nonetheless, this often articulated but misguided understanding of Christian feminism reflects a pressing need for dialogue about what it really means to be a Christian feminist. As my own workplace environment suggests, such dialogue is especially important (and long overdue) in Christian institutions of higher learning, where critical analysis, close readings of scripture and of culture, and thoughtful, open conversations are presumably honored as part of the academic enterprise.

Allyson Jule and Bettina Tate Pedersen provide one avenue to discussion through their thoughtful compilation, Being Feminist, Being Christian: Essays From Academia. This collection of eight essays explores several questions significant to Christian feminists: namely, in what ways are Christianity and feminism compatible? How does one live as a Christian and a feminist? And, perhaps most imperative in this volume, what exactly does Christian feminist scholarship look like? How do academics writing about Christian feminism approach their craft?

The contributors to Being Feminist, Being Christian convincingly show that there is no monolithic Christian feminist identity, nor is there a singular approach to Christian feminist scholarship. This is a significant strength in the collection, as the text argues that dialogue about Christian feminism is important, even among Christian feminists. Despite the book’s decidedly Wesleyan bent, readers will find a number of theological perspectives embedded within the essays, and may even discover places where the writers themselves disagree about either Christian theological matters or feminist ideologies. Nonetheless, readers will find that each essay offers a compelling argument for the ways the writers’church traditions and academic disciplines find compatibility between Christianity and feminism.

Although every writer in Being Feminist, Being Christian provides rich analysis of the intersections between feminism and Christianity, some essays are not for the faint of heart, densely weighted as they are with language specific to the writers’ academic disciplines. For example, Elizabeth Powell, a theological graduate student at Regent College in Vancouver, B.C.,     provides an interesting comparison of two important feminist thinkers in her essay “In Search of Bodily Perspective: A Study of Simone de Beauvoir and Luce Irigaray.”  Powell’s essay is impressive in its synthesis and analysis, as she presents a rereading of these thinkers’ work in light of Christianity; still, her writing is sometimes unfortunately hampered by theoretical-speak that will limit her audience to academics already familiar with the discourse she uses.

Other contributors are far more accessible in their approaches to Christian feminism, and provide strong anchors to the essay collection. The text opens with Pedersen’s “Christian Feminist or Feminist Christian,” an autobiographic exploration of the compatibility issue central to the collection. By tracing her own development as a feminist Christian, Pedersen suggests Christianity may provide a “redemptive corrective” to feminism, and shows the ways feminism may provide the same for Christianity. The book’s last essay, Christopher Noble’s “Biblical Literalism and Gender Stability,” offers a fascinating Christian rereading of Gender Performance Theory, and posits an interesting negotiation between two predominating threads of feminist thought: essentialism and gender performance. Noble’s thoughtful and immanently readable essay is a satisfying end to Being Feminist, Being Christian, as Noble retraces many of the theories explored by other writers in the collection.

Still, it is the more autobiographic essays, like Pedersen’s and like Linda Beail’s “Blessed Mother or Material Mom,” which resonate most with me. This could be, in part, because I am an autobiographical scholar and am thus drawn most to writers’ life stories. More, though, I think Pedersen and Beail (among others in the collection) best address the myriad ways Christian feminism is integrated into their own life experiences in the academy, in their churches, and in their personal lives.

Certainly there is a place for a theoretical examination of Christian feminism, and Being Feminist, Being Christian provides strong examples of the excellent scholarship produced about Christian feminism. But if we are to have engaging dialogue about Christian feminism with its skeptics, we may need to speak a different language, as it were, narrating our own lives’ experiences with faith, with the church, and with Christian institutions rather than speaking only in the realm of academic disciplines. In telling our stories, we may embody the very theories put forth by this collection, inviting a host of others into “this varied and complex search for what it means to be a committed, thinking feminist Christian or Christian feminist at this time in history” (p.8).


Melanie Springer Mock is a professor of English at George Fox University. In 2009, she won the university’s Faculty Achievement Award for Undergraduate Teaching, and in 2015 she received the school’s Faculty Achievement Award for Undergraduate Research and Scholarship. She is the author or coauthor of four books, including, most recently, If Eve Only Knew (Chalice Press, 2015). Her essays and reviews have appeared in The Nation, The Chronicle of Higher Education, and Mennonite World Review, among other places. She lives in Dundee, Oregon, with her husband, Ron, and their two sons, Benjamin and Samuel.

© 2012 by Christian Feminism Today


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