How Knowing God Makes a Difference
Carolyn Custis James
Zondervan, 224 pages, $15.99

Carolyn Custis James wants women to be theologians—passionate, unabashed, and learned theologians, regardless of their official title. Her book When Life and Beliefs Collide encourages bake-sale supervisors to do this as much as academics. James is so audacious, that she wants every single Christian woman in the world to appropriate theology as a way of life, a discipline, a relationship, and a spirituality. And she wants men to recognize this desire as being in conformity with the will of God.

James, a seminary-trained conference speaker, describes resistance to women engaging theology, ranging from an assumption that "God didn't wire women that way" to some women's fears of spiritually superceding their husbands and pastors, sponsoring an insurrection in the church, or overstepping the bounds of "women's ministries." The question here, as James wisely insists, is not primarily about power or ordination. It is about whether and to what extent women ought to know their Savior and their Scriptures.

The Scriptures, unsurprisingly, have been a battleground regarding women's involvement in theology, and it is precisely on this territory that James endeavors to win women back. She is disgusted, and rightly so, with the false dichotomy between Marys and Marthas. The former, it is assumed, live in their heads and neglect proper service projects, while the latter more comfortably settle into a hospitality role without a care in the world for useless theological abstractions.

Thus the structure of James's book is an exegetical analysis of the stories about Mary of Bethany, whom she portrays as the first theologian of the New Testament. This Mary is the model for all her sisters in the faith: to sit and learn at the feet of Jesus, to call upon him in suffering (as at the death of Lazarus), and to accept the way of the Cross in the anointing of oil. Yet no less important is her sister Martha, who—for all her interest in kitchen matters—recognized even before Mary that Jesus was the promised Messiah.

Here is a charge to engage theology, learning about God, which Christian women ignore at their peril. James sees no conflict between Mary's story and other New Testament passages about the role of women, even those suggesting submission to men. In fact, they fit together beautifully: "Christ (the standard of true submission for all Christians) never modeled a passive, unthinking submission to his Father, and Mary did not offer that kind of submission to him. She had applied her mind and heart to understand what God required of Jesus and wholeheartedly threw herself, as well as her resources, into embracing and promoting Jesus' obedience to the Father."

Article continues below

It is clear that James's manifesto is no self-seeking plea to get a greater diversity of voices heard in the church for the sheer arbitrary sake of diversity. Her call to women is for the sake of the gospel and for the lives of the women (and men) who follow it.

Confused Packaging

James's work is hobbled by poor marketing; nothing on the jacket or in the boringly vague title gives the reader the slightest indication what is to be found therein. It markets like a self-help book for Christians having a theodicy crisis. Perhaps it is safer this way. A book that proclaimed itself openly as an invitation for women to participate in theology might be overlooked by the very people it intended to reach.

Alongside James's call for women to be active in theology is a sophisticated defense of the sovereignty of God in which James herself "does" theology. Her argument is that women ought to be doing theology not only because Jesus requires them to, but also because it benefits them—in fact, that theology is ultimately practical. A life supported by shabby and half-formed notions of deity is going to collapse at the first whiff of disaster; a life girded with the theology of the Cross and confident in the hidden will of God will thrive and triumph.

There is little doubt that James knows her theology extremely well and couches her language in accessible ways. But one must cringe at unwitting admissions of uncertainty on her own part. It is delightful that she finds theology so emotionally and spiritually engaging—too often it is neither—yet depressing that she marks these as victories over theology that is "merely intellectual."

She criticizes her own former practice of religion in which she wasn't "looking for God" but "looking for ways to make life better," but her defense of the practical side of theology often sounds like much the same. Even her arguments for the good and sovereign will of God sometimes fall into the trap of optimism. Such an absolute defense of sovereignty risks overlooking a critique of genuine evil at work in the world.

But these are disputes within the realm of theology, and it is a blessing and sign of promise that James has entered the realm and stands her ground there. If, God willing, James's book is well received, the church can expect many more to join her ranks.

Article continues below

Sarah E. Hinlicky is a student at Princeton Theological Seminary.

Related Elsewhere:

When Life and Beliefs Collide is available at Christianbook.com.

Hinlicky's other articles for Christianity Today and Books & Culture include:

The Great Reunion Beyond | Death is the heartless divider—or so I thought before I watched my grandpa die. (CT, Feb. 15, 2001)

Free to Be Creatures Again | How predestination descended like a dove on two unsuspecting seminarians, and why they are so grateful. (CT, Oct. 17, 2000)

Urbane Bigotry | A review of Chloe Breyer's The Close: A Young Woman's First Year At A Seminary (B&C, Sep/Oct 2000)

SWF Seeks Marriage Partner | I've got it all. So why do I want a husband? (B&C, Jul/Aug 2000)

An Open-Door Policy | Is meeting alone with a member of the opposite sex dangerous? Is taking steps against it sexist? (CT, Nov. 11-16, 1999)

Hinlicky is also a regular contributor to First Things, where she wrote "Talking to Generation X," "Subversive Virginity," and "Don't Write About Race," and to re:generation quarterly, where she has written about Mary.

Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.

Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.