Thursday, January 22, 2015

‘Jesus Feminist’ (Book Review)

“Jesus feminist”? The title struck me as a bit awkward. I think most people would’ve said “Christian feminist” or “feminist Christian,” even if they thought it was a bit of an oxymoron. But my curiosity was piqued, so I bought a copy. A few pages in, and I realized that I had expected something different.

For those of you not familiar with blogger Sarah Bessey, she’s known in the more “egalitarian” circles when it comes to discussing the roles of women in the Christian church. Her book title, Jesus Feminist: An Invitation to Revisit the Bible’s View of Women – Exploring God’s Radical Notion That Women Are People, Too (Howard Books, 2013), suggested to me an in-depth study of various arguments and biblical passages, concluding with a defense of female preachers and church leaders in today’s churches. That’s not what it turned out to be, and there are both “pros” and “cons” to that.

Bessey starts out painting a very familiar scene: Christians, on all sides, emotionally and spiritually wounded from the perpetual war over gender roles, marriage, and the family. The result is defensiveness – proof-texting, cynicism, name-calling, and “consigning-to-hell” – where there should be love, kindness, and a genuine concern for those suffering around us. She seems to be calling us, at least for now, to admit that no of us has all the answers and that we have to allow each other times to grow and mature in our understanding. We need to “agree to disagree,” so to speak, and take the opportunity to get some real godly work done. There are orphans, AIDS patients, and sex trafficking victims who need our help, while nothing is gained for the kingdom by attacking our fellow believers with the same old tiresome arguments.

The solution? Christian women (regardless of their views on women’s roles) have a great opportunity before them. Enough with the sentimentalizing of marriage and motherhood that leaves no place for the singles and childless. Women have more to offer than the crafting, fashion shows, and fill-in-the-blank workbooks that masquerade as Bible studies and women’s ministries. Instead we can make a profound impact, rolling up our sleeves and serving our communities in the ways God wants us to.

That was my big positive takeaway from the book. To be honest, I’m not sure that was exactly what she had in mind. If you think the expanded title sounds a bit like rambling, then I’d say that it accurately reflects the book’s content. Bessey writes in a billowy style that might be more suitable for blogging than a book, which needs a more concise approach. This also crosses over in the book’s content, which was more messy than focused. While she effectively calls for a truce in the introduction, she tries to resurrect the debate in later chapters, tackling biblical passages instructing women to be silent in the church and to submit to their husbands. And in doing so, she gives the same weak, tiresome arguments we’re all familiar with. In addition, she seems to flop back and forth on her positions, so it’s not clear where she stands on the present state of women’s ministries, the lauding of motherhood in the church, and the effectiveness of women (or men for that matter) in preaching positions. I was left with the impression that she still needed to give herself some time to make up her own mind on these issues before writing about them for others.

I also need to call out Bessey on being needlessly divisive. She sets up a “straw man argument” insisting that “women are people, too.” This entirely misrepresents her opposition. While I have come across some who insist that women are to be owned and treated like animals, they certainly aren’t the majority of those who adhere to rigid gender roles (and often tend not to even identify as “Christian” anyway). Associating Christians who disagree with her with that view is understandably a major turn off to some readers who might otherwise take heart to her other points. In the end, Jesus Feminist will more than likely discourage any fruitful discussion among the various sides. This I think was the biggest disappointment. If another book is forthcoming, I hope the author puts more effort into building bridges than roadblocks.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

‘Orphan Train’ (Book Review)

Orphan Train – A Novel (William Morrow, 2013) by Christina Baker Kline was this month’s (January 2015) selection for the Alhambra Page Turners adult book club. Two stories are told in parallel as an orphan of today (2011) bonds with an orphan of the past (1930s). Parted from her mother and forced to live with unaccommodating foster parents, 17-year-old Molly Ayer finds herself needing to work off some community service time for a petty crime. Cleaning out the attic of 90-something-year-old widow Vivian Daly, she uncovers the story of another orphan, Niamh Power (“Dorothy”), who is put on one of the Children’s Aid Society’s “orphan trains” in 1929 and sent out to the Midwest. Niamh is just a little girl longing for a new family to love her. Instead she faces prejudice against her Irish Catholic heritage, physical hardship, and neglect, as well sexual abuse. It is through Molly, decades later, that she finally comes into her own.

While the premise of Orphan Train was touching, a number of issues left me dissatisfied overall. Many plot elements were just too predictable, making it difficult to really get into the book. Character types and inter-relationships were repeated, both across Niamh’s and Molly’s stories and within Niamh’s story itself. Now, you can argue that that’s the point of the parallel, but there’s still a line drawn between similar and the same. In addition, as Niamh’s childhood and young adult stories are told through her reflective aging eyes, there’s not a lot of emotional baggage that need unpacking, even though some painful experiences are mention. The result is a conflicting sense that she’s gotten over her past while it’s still haunting her. Rather unconvincing, in my opinion.

When it comes to the historical part, I liked how the Baker Kline took the Orphan Train Movement and made it Niamh’s personal story by focusing on the elements that were directly related to the character’s life experiences. However, this fell apart when the author’s preliminary research becomes Molly’s, and a unique experience gives way to regular history with generalizable facts. The result is the yawn-inducing history lesson that doesn’t motivate the reader to go explore himself. This also is indicative of how the author narrates in general. Readers are constantly being told things rather than being shown them through the action and dialogue. The result is a rather sterile read.

I also was disappointed that the author didn’t attempt to personalize World War II in the same way as the orphan train period. Instead, she follows the “grand narrative” of how an American citizen viewed the war, missing an opportunity to develop Niamh’s unique perspective. Irish immigrants weren’t exactly thrilled with the idea early on of fighting a war for Great Britain, but neither heroine touches upon that point when the issue of Irish oppression is raised.

Flaws aside, Orphan Train makes for an interesting read because its setting offers something different from much of the mainstream historical fiction. And if it helps preserve a little slice of American history that most of us know nothing about, that we can certainly benefit from reading it.

Friday, January 16, 2015

‘Adoration: Mary of Bethany – The Untold Story’ (Book Review)

Practically everyone has heard of Mary of Magdala or “Mary Magdalene,” whose reputation has grown from popular books like The Da Vinci Code and from recent speculation about the contents of the Valentinian gnostic text known as the Gospel of Philip. But Mary of Bethany, associated with “the other Mary” (Matthew 27:61, 28:1; c.f. Luke 24:10), has not enjoyed much time in the limelight, save maybe the recent (and not terribly well-received) The Gospel According to the Other Mary (2013) by composer John Adams. Her relative unpopularity should be a surprise to those of us who grew up attending Sunday School because the stories of Mary versus Martha (Luke 10:38-42), Lazarus being raised from the dead (John 11), and Mary anointing Jesus (John 12:1-11) are considered core curriculum for any age.

Well, as it turns out, Mary of Bethany has a fan, and a mega-one at that. Author Martha Kilpatrick, a blogger for Get Along with God and founder of Shulamite Ministries, believes that “Biblical characters are to be our intimate mentors.” She puts action behind her words with a poetic reinterpretation of Mary’s life in Adoration: Mary of Bethany – The Untold Story (SeedSowers, 1999). I wish I could tell you great things about this book, but while I agree that biographies of the early saints can make inspiring reading material for Christians, I was truly disappointed with Kilpatrick’s sub-par work.

The first indication of bad things to come was the author’s “Statement of Faith” that took the place of a proper book dedication. In it, she claims to be Jesus Christ’s “Shulamite” (referencing the standard translation for the feminine version of Solomon, which the female character in the Song of Songs is called). In other words, she identifies herself as the Messiah’s personal lover – either literally or figuratively – and this belief is fundamental to her faith. (Even more so than the resurrection, apparently, since that’s not even specifically mentioned!)

As I guessed, further reading reveals how this sort of bridal mysticism plays into her retelling of Mary’s story, where the sister of Martha and Lazarus has a special, intimate (although not sexual) relationship with the Savior. In the Bible, Martha complains that Mary is listening to Jesus’ teaching instead of helping her in the kitchen, but Jesus verbally corrects her. In Adoration, what is one short line of praise for Mary from Jesus is embellished into a dramatic story of two sisters in perpetual conflict. Mary becomes the angelic virgin and Martha the evil whore (although not literally, of course) in this classic but tiresome dichotomy.

Mary is reserved, patient, obedient, and spiritually in tune with Jesus. Martha is brash, jealous, confrontational, and controlling. They’re like the hero and villain in a child’s book. And because Kilpatrick is blinded by her own brand of Mariology, she can only see the sisters in this way. Every opportunity is taken to tarnish Martha’s reputation and criticize her for being demanding and trusting in her own knowledge. The author is especially cruel when she gets to Lazarus’ death. Because Martha’s every motive, word, and deed are suspect, her daring proclamation that Jesus was the Messiah and the Son of God, which should serve as proof of her own profound understanding and faith, is ridiculed. Even in that glorious moment, Kilpatrick wants Martha to be shamed. Instead, I think the author should be ashamed for going to such great lengths to demonize a saint.

Now, maybe you don’t mind a little “artistic license” when it comes to retelling Bible stories. I would agree within limits, and I believe Kilpatrick went far beyond those limits. To worsen the reading experience, her poetry is unimpressive. It’s poorly-written prose, broken up in imitation-poetic fashion, making it difficult to read. And I am being nice.

Also, the author was rather sloppy about her research, relying too much on her own imagination. Even though minor references to ancient Jewish burial customs appear all over the Bible, she prefers to believe that the hired mourners were really disciples of Mary, eagerly following their religious guru everywhere. From just Martha’s complaint, Kilpatrick concludes that the family was poor, since obviously rich people would have servants to tend to kitchen duties. Really? A poor family can’t afford to feed so many guests. Poor people don’t have family tombs. They can’t afford to hire mourners. And they really can’t afford to save any money, let alone store a year’s wages in the form of inedible perfume.

Speaking of which: I’ll also be contentious over her line about pure spikenard being a “sweet oil.” I don’t think anyone who has actually gotten a good whiff of the stuff could’ve written that line with a straight face. Kilpatrick is just caught up in her imaginative storytelling, writing sensual lines about Jesus and Mary sharing the scent (pun intended). It apparently never occurs to her that Jesus would’ve likely had to wash when entering Jerusalem for the Passover feast. No, He has to be comforted with Mary’s ointment even to His last breath.

Yes, I know Kilpatrick was just trying to be romantic. She wanted a dramatic story and got one by creating a villain and bending the truth behind the details. The result is a childish spoof that makes a beautiful story ridiculous. All I can say is that her carelessness shows that she seriously needs to put more thought into what she writes. I still think Adoration had a lot of potential, but the poor execution earns it a Fail.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the author and/or publisher through the Speakeasy blogging book review network. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255.