Posts Tagged ‘gender & religion’

Part of the Modern Spiritual Masters series, Joan Chittister: Essential Writings is a collection of work from the prolific Benedictine author, scholar, and activist. Whether you are familiar with Sister Joan’s writings or are meeting her for the first time, this is a book that will inspire you.

Sister Joan has a voice that is both practical and philosophical, uplifting and challenging. I have re-read “Why I Stay” no fewer than a dozen times, engaging in dialogue with Sister Joan’s words as I reflect on my own experience of frustration with the church. Like much of Sister Joan’s prophetic writing, this piece is a rousing call to work for justice and equality for women. Other favorite pieces examine elements of Benedictine life, such as hospitality, mercy, and forgiveness.

The collection is edited by Mary Lou Kownacki, who serves with Sister Joan and the Benedictine Sisters of Erie, Pennsylvania, and Mary Hembrow Snyder, director of the Center for Mercy and Catholic Studies at Mercyhurst University. With more than sixty short selections, as well as a biographical introduction, Joan Chittister: Essential Writings provides much food for reflection.

On Sunday, March 1, 2015, Oprah Winfrey interviewed Sister Joan on Super Soul Sunday. You can watch the complete interview through Oprah’s website here.

Disclaimer: A copy of this book was provided by the publisher for review purposes. No fee was received.


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Theologian Mary Christine Athans, BVM, has written a compelling book that offers a fresh understanding of Mary of Nazareth, the mother of Jesus. The result of scholarship and personal reflection, In Quest of the Jewish Mary: The mother of Jesus in history, theology, and spirituality makes a worthwhile read.

The book opens with a helpful discussion of the role of Mary in the Catholic Church and the changing view of Mary throughout church history, including the feminist theology of more recent years. Athans then draws attention to the valuable contributions made by scholars studying the historical Jesus, and the helpful insights this research can provide for our understanding of Mary. As Jesus was growing up, his primary religion teacher would have been his mother, a faithful Jewish woman teaching her son how to pray and to seek God. Understanding how the Jewish faith was observed in daily life amplifies the picture we have of Mary and her son.

I appreciated the tools Athans provides for envisioning Mary’s life as a first-century Palestinian woman of faith. Along with her biblical scholarship, Athans shares stories of her own appreciation of Jewish customs and rituals. Her voice has the potential to build bridges of understanding between faith traditions.

The author brings together and makes accessible an incredible amount of research, providing a rich bibliography for readers who are compelled to read more on the topic. I made copious notes on index cards for future reading. Orbis Books once again has done readers a service by making contemporary theological scholarship readily available to readers who seek to deepen knowledge of their faith.

Disclosure: A copy of this book was provided by the publisher for review purposes. No fee was received.

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Bookshelves and airwaves are full of voices that describe Islam as a monolithic religion, and Muslims as a homogenous body. This could not be further from the truth. Muslims are an extremely diverse worldwide religious group, and in the U.S. that diversity is especially pronounced. When we overlook diversity, we render invisible our fellow humans. With the book I Speak for Myself: American women on being Muslim, White Cloud Press highlights and lifts up the voices of individual, diverse Muslim women.

The essay collection is invaluable for furthering public understanding about the diversity of Muslims in the U.S. Editors Maria M. Ebrahimji and Zahra T. Suratwala have done a superb job, selecting writings from forty women under the age of 40. The featured writers include artists, teachers, lawyers, journalists, PhD candidates, recent high school graduates, and CEOs. A few of the writers were familiar to me from their other published work, or their humanitarian achievements.

The emphases of the essays are as diverse as the writers, yet common themes emerge. Several authors describe their experiences of negotiating complex identity. Since each writer was raised in the U.S., encounters with the presumption of Christian identity were not uncommon. The authors typically had to balance religious expectations with cultural norms of contemporary U.S. life, such as high school proms, dating, and media consumption. (It is notable that these cultural expectations also become issues for religiously observant members of other faiths, as well.)

Another theme was the need to discover and embrace one’s faith independently. While these women had religious training either from parents, religious classes, or both, each woman had to live her own life before seeing what role her faith would play. Each woman had to discover on her own what it means to be a person with God-consciousness. Readers of other faiths likely will resonate with this experience.

In one of my favorite essays, a Muslimah shared about her calling to assist families affected by Hurricane Katrina. She writes, “I wanted to go out & help, but I knew I was only one person. Then I remembered the Prophet Muhammad (peace & blessings upon him) was just one person who’d had the guidance of God. I knew if I allowed God to guide me, even little ole me could make a difference.” In many essays, it was clear that strong faith had contributed to a wish to be of service to others.

I Speak for Myself should prove very useful for anyone interested in learning about the practice of Islam, or in sharing the faith with others. I would encourage readers with an interest in interfaith dialogue to read this book and to purchase a copy for the library of their house of worship, as well as their public library. The message of I Speak for Myself deserves a wide audience. It is one of the finest books I have read this year.

Disclosure: A copy of this book was provided by the publisher. No fee was received for this review.

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I was drawn to read Holy Misogyny: Why the sex and gender conflicts in the early church still matter by April D. DeConick because I wanted to gain understanding of what had shaped the roles of women in the early church, and what had caused those roles to change. I wanted to deepen my understanding of the inequality that women have experienced in the church throughout the centuries.

I was rewarded, too, with rich footnotes about the church fathers who promoted the idea of women as sinful, and the female body as a source of sin and corruption. Some of the hardest parts of the book for me to read were sections outlining the ancient view of the female body as incomplete and inferior. To me, this is almost a blasphemous view, since females are equally created by God. Instead of the wholeness that women deserve equally with me, women have struggled to prove both their virtues and their capabilities.

From the earliest Christian communities there were individuals pursuing radical gender equality. Yet the church practices that became dominant upheld the inequality of the ancient world in which Christianity emerged. Misogynist interpretations of historical events and stories in scripture were treated by leaders as sacred, as the truth, when in reality they were biased interpretations to uphold power dynamics that favored males. Unfortunately, this biased view persists today in churches where women are denied full leadership, in governments led by individuals schooled in this vision of female inferiority, and in homes where men see themselves as superior to the females in their families.

How many Christian denominations are there today? Yet there is a tendency (by those who are not religious scholars) to perceive early Christians as a like-minded bunch on agreement in all doctrinal matters. However, doctrine and orthodoxy emerged slowly. Views were diverse, conflict and debate were common, and regional variations in practice were the norm. DeConick helps bring some of this diversity to light.

The section on Jesus and Gospel views of women and sexuality was particularly accessible and informative, and the discussion of Paul helps to place his influential writings in a socio-historical context. DeConick, professor of biblical studies at Rice University, has done a wonderful service for all readers interested in the history of women in the early church and provides helpful, if at times painful, analysis of why the fight for equality in the church is so challenging.


Disclosure: I received this book free from the publisher, Continuum Books. No compensation was received for this review.

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