“Actualizing Feminist Ideas”
A review of
New Feminist Christianity:
Many Voices, Many Views.
Mary Hunt and Diann Neu, eds.
Reviewed by Austen Sandifer-Williams.
New Feminist Christianity:
Many Voices, Many Views.
Mary Hunt and Diann Neu, eds.
Hardback: Skylight Paths, 2010.
Buy now: [ Amazon ]
Two of the most contentious words I use to describe myself are “feminist” and “Christian.” Each word has the capacity to alter entirely the tenor of a conversation. Put them together and heads might implode. Some stereotypes hold that both indicate closed-minded people, prone to trivial rants, and potentially hostile to entire swaths of people (men and non-Christians, respectively). Additionally, partly based on these stereotypes, feminists and Christians often consider the other to be anathema to their worldview. Of course these stereotypes are generally false; but that hardly matters in the context of daily encounters in most community groups, including many churches, where “feminist” as a descriptor has therefore become somewhat endangered. Enter New Feminist Christianity: Many Voices, Many Views, an intensive anthology of feminist insights related to North American Christianity. Edited by Mary Hunt and Diann Neu, this 295-page volume accounts for stereotypes and many other modern-day challenges, and describes the new face of feminism-meets-Christianity in this new century.
The editors describe feminist Christianity as a “hybrid notion,” stating: “Christianity has been a source of the oppression of women, as well as a resource for unleashing women’s full humanity (xv).” Alluding to the ways that Christian teachings have been and are still being used to subjugate women, their overall message is one of re-examining societal and historical patterns to find the core tenets of Christianity, which relate to dismantling oppression altogether. The book attempts to draw out some of the ways feminism and Christianity have been joined to realize new paths of hope, redemption, and justice. Hunt and Neu write:
New feminist Christianity is having an important impact on both the Christian churches and the world at large. It is a way of talking about how women’s (and some men’s) lives have changed because they refuse to tolerate the limits of kyriarchal oppression and have instead committed to actualize justice and equality is social and ecclesial life (294).
Admittedly, the book’s opening sentence, “Feminist Christianity is something new under the sun,” is a bit of a hyperbolic cliché that almost had me put down the book. Thankfully, I continued reading because this book is excellent. Editors Mary Hunt and Diann Neu have gathered a stellar group of authors from various backgrounds whose essays highlight histories and roles of feminisms and offer predictions for the future. Authors include professors, activists, liturgists, ministers, artists, and scholars. The result is a book with critical insights into many roles feminist Christianity has played and is continuing to play on theological, ethical, and ecclesiastical landscapes.
The book is divided into five sections that cover a wide spectrum of theological and praxis matters that may not otherwise find themselves in a single volume. These are: feminist theological visions, feminist scriptural insights, feminist ethical agendas, feminist liturgical and artistic frontiers, and feminist ministerial challenges.
Every essay includes rewarding nuggets into ways that feminism has transformed education, thoughts, and worship, as well as practical challenges for today. The strongest essays in the book offer unexpected takes on familiar subjects, including diversity, sexuality, race, liturgy, children, and peacemaking. Challenges that are familiar to women in many contexts are brought forth with a candor that rewards careful readers. These include issues of identity roles and values. For example, Surekha Nelvala writes: “I have been known mostly as an Indian Dalit feminist Christian scholar to the outside world, whereas my two other major roles, as wife and mother, are usually considered less important, even though they demand most of my time, presence, and attention (101).” Her essay highlights a common tension found even in feminist circles, wherein domestic roles are minimized, whether performed by women or men.
Other essays that left me with percolating tidbits include Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza’s essay, “Critical Feminist Biblical Studies: Remembering the Struggles, Envisioning the Future.” Fiorenza includes a digestible overview of her basiliea theology as a Divine/Wisdom movement, in contrast to more common theology that prioritizes the sacrifice of an individual. In this interpretation, Jesus is far less central to early Christianity, and instead a “commonwealth” vision that he and others, including Mary of Magdala, espouse is the primary and intentional focus. Fiorenza writes, “The basileia of G*d is a religious symbol proclaiming G*d’s power of creation and salvation. This term also connotes a political vision that appealed to the oppositional imagination of people victimized by the Roman imperial system. It envisions an alternative world free of hunger, poverty, and domination (97).” Considering basileia gives a specific, helpful framework for comprehending the fullness of Jesus’ ministry, which is more about a commonwealth than about any individual.
Marie Fortune’s article, “Seeking Justice and Healing: Violence Against Women as an Agenda for Feminist Christianity,” is also well considered and insightful. She points out that all women have a relationship to violence, whether in terms of fear and awareness of violence, memories of violence, or personal experience. So, addressing violence requires collaboration across faith traditions. Fortune not only goes on to name some of the ways that Christian teachings have been complicit in creating frameworks that facilitate violence, but also to emphasize ways that Christianity can be part of the solution for fostering healing, justice, and prevention. For example, she compellingly emphasizes faults with forgiveness models (promoted by many churches) that place the onus of forgiveness solely on victims. These models promise victims almost magical healing only through the act of forgiving itself, rather than indicating that perpetrators of violence must make reparation. Fortune maintains that such models are contrary to the original teachings of Christianity and Judaism. “Fundamentally, both Judaism and Christianity link the expectation of forgiveness on the part of the one harmed to genuine confession and repentance on the part of the offender (145).” Fortune’s examination extends into practical applications, offering pastoral-style suggestions for how to respond to and affirm victims of violence.
Another memorable essay is “Searching for an Ethic: Sexuality, Children, and Moral Agency” by Kate Ott. This piece is brilliant in its raising questions that have largely been ignored in academia, churches, schools, and homes. She argues that children are themselves moral agents, who make moral decisions whether or not adults ascribe them that power or consider them in that regard. Additionally, sexuality is a critical component of being human that exists on a spectrum, not just at extremes. Yet U.S. society tends to focus predominantly on sexual education in negative terms, emphasizing “bad” behaviors and actions. Rarely do children hear from adults the positives of developing sexuality and how to cherish those aspects. Ott writes:
When sexual ethics addresses children, it is usually in one of two ways—preventing sexual abuse or seeking to restrict early sexual behaviors between youth. We rarely spend time talking about the positive formation of our sexuality, from loving and touch we might receive as babies to the naming all our body parts without shame, or the affirmation of deep friendships in elementary school to our first loves, not to mention the uncomfortable and often jarring changes in between. Breaking the silence about sexuality is the first step; expanding our notion of how our sexuality develops and is understood by us is the second (162).
Ott continues by suggesting that we refocus sexual ethics to include when to say “yes,” instead of only when to say “no.” She also challenges that children should not be left out of ethical discussions surrounding sexuality. Omitting their perspectives denies their agency and experiences, and “leaves our faith communities with little direction on how to best educate children and youth with regard to sexuality (165).”
In addition to the individual essays, the overall section on feminist liturgical and artistic frontiers is particularly fascinating because of the rarity of offerings that integrate feminist theory with clear, practical applications. It focuses on bringing feminist theology out of the ivory tower and into faith communities through innovative worship. This section also deconstructs hierarchies of ministry by including artists, writers, musicians, and families as guides for worship in a women’s movement that opens countless new ways to find sacred meaning. The editors write: “There is much more creativity to be explored. But that children will grow up with this new normative experience of innovative worship is one of the signal achievements of feminist Christianity (168).”
In conclusion, this volume offers tremendous possibility for moving into a new realm with feminist Christianity. As the editors themselves note, there is so much more that can and needs to be covered in capturing and engaging “new feminist Christianity.” One personally surprising omission is the perspective of Christian ecofeminists, those who link hierarchical models of oppression to environmental issues. Also, womanist and Native American perspectives are few, as are interfaith perspectives. Additionally, the editors note the incredible work that is being done around the world and suggest the benefits of an international anthology. Nonetheless, no single volume can capture the totality of feminist Christianity, its roots and blossoms. New Feminist Christianity: Many Voices, Many Views does an excellent job of compiling many voices and varied perspectives, to reveal how feminism is flourishing in both academia and ministry in the twenty-first century, and challenge readers to create and inspire greater transformation.
C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com