Liberating Tradition: Women’s Identity and Vocation in Christian Perspective.
Written with conviction and care, Liberating Tradition: Women’s Identity and Vocation in Christian Perspective by Kristina LaCelle-Peterson, associate professor of religion at Houghton College, is a primer of feminist and Christian intersections, paths often viewed as either diametrically opposed or at least mildly in conflict. Working from the perspective that the Bible has a liberating message for women despite the failure of most interpreters to recognize it, LaCelle-Peterson offers a panorama of gender topics many evangelical Christians will find compelling.
Arranged in four segments, Part One (Women’s Identity, Human Identity) begins, rightly, with a consideration of the creation accounts in Genesis. Here, Lacelle-Peterson grounds her egalitarian argument with a careful reading and exegesis of the text. She introduces readers,for example, to the compound word in Genesis 2.18: ezer kenegdo, usually translated “helper suitable for him,” as in Eve is Adam’s helpmate. In pointing out the other biblical references for this word, she establishes, as many others have done, that this kind of assistance is actually not of the subordinate ilk, but rather is referred to more consistently as divine help. Then Lacelle-Peterson bolsters her exegesis with influential figures throughout history who have seen in the Genesis narratives not divine justification for female subordination, but instead reason to view women and men as equal partners.
After a brief chapter on women in the biblical text, Part One ends with a chapter dedicated to women’s body images, perhaps one of her most helpful discussions because Lacelle-Peterson offers not only a critique of how the church has overlooked its complicit denigration of women’s bodies based on its divinely baptized patriarchy, but also because she offers constructive suggestions for changing the church’s embrace of objectifying women. One example she critiques is a website urging girls to listen to Bible verses while applying their make-up. A better message, she argues, is for the church to question cultural assumptions about thinness (why do women have a size zero, for example?), femininity, and beauty.
Part Two is dedicated to marriage and this is where Lacelle-Peterson establishes her position as an egalitarian clearly. In contrast to complementarians who argue that God ordained women and men to function in particular roles assigned along gender lines, Lacelle-Peterson argues that God gifts people as individuals and we live most fully into who God created us to be by embracing all of these gifts regardless of gender or other culturally prescribed mores. By her use of solid exegesis and historical tracing of what has been (inaccurately) labeled “traditional” marriage, Lacelle-Peterson’s grasp of how conservative Christians have assimilated cultural assumptions and made them litmus tests of faith reveals the depth of her understanding of this brand of Christianity and also of her care to help others see the fallacy of such a position.
Parts Three and Four work together to establish both the realities of how women have been made invisible by the church and also the avenues for bringing women into clearer presence and focus within the church. To be sure, Lacelle-Peterson’s critique of conservative Christianity is based on her commitment to seeing the church become a truer representative of its original vision. She begins Part Three by questioning women’s invisibility in the church. Drawing on some of the latest research, Lacelle-Peterson establishes that contrary to some people’s opinions, women were more active over the course of history than previously realized. Including many of the names one would expect, such as Phoebe, Theodora, Perpetua,and Macrina, and terms such as deacon and bishop, she demonstrates the active participation of women in the early church. Moving into the medieval period, Lacelle-Peterson continues her visible tracing of women, calling them forth from the margins to take center stage in the grand drama of God’s church, showing how women such as Hildegard of Bingen andJulian of Norwich, among others, were leaders of large monastic communities and were recognized by many for their intimacy with God. Handling the Reformation era adeptly, Lacelle-Peterson demonstrates how the Reformation may have had some negative effects for women in their loss of organizational leadership opportunities and female personalities of inspiration and piety.
Moving into the 19th century, Lacelle-Peterson traces the presence of women in reform and mission societies. Not content with practicing their religion only in the private sphere, women put action to their faith, demonstrating again through doing that they were capable planners and leaders. And, in their successful campaigns, whether on behalf of missions, suffrage, abolition, or prohibition, they created the foundation for women to be ordained in several protestant denominations.
The book ends with a call to continue to bring women’s presence into fuller focus. Linguistic sexism, Lacelle-Peterson argues, is one of the major ways the church is able to maintain male presence as primary and female presence as secondary at best, invisible at worst. Lacelle-Peterson asserts three reasons for adopting inclusive language policies: “our need for theological consistency, the demands of Christian love, and our ability to communicate the good news of the gospel in our society.” After making her argument for the use of non-discriminatory language for people, Lacelle-Peterson goes one step further and asserts we should broaden our use of language and metaphors for God; that the overuse of “father” language elevates one metaphor over all others, resulting in a one-dimensional portrayal of a God who is much bigger and much more multi-faceted than that.
For readers seeking in-depth biblical analysis or a comprehensive guide to Christian history, they will be disappointed with this book that sometimes is too diffuse. Scholars, whether biblical or historical, will surely find places where more nuance or accuracy would be appropriate (for example, the United Methodist Church started ordaining women in 1956, not 1954 as reported by the author).
Nevertheless, Liberating Tradition accomplishes its purpose readily: to provide a way of understanding Christianity that can be liberating for women who also embrace feminist ideals. With her solid exegesis and research, Kristina LaCelle-Peterson’s work is commendable both for its even-handed approach and its prophetic edge. This book will certainly be useful for Christians who desire to see the church progress in its treatment of women and for women who have been hurt by the limitations Christianity has foisted upon them, and also for those whom faith only makes sense by changing the institution that in its best days seeks to follow the Christ who liberated all.