I am one of those weird people who will still use the word feminist to describe themselves – most of our younger students don’t see the point of feminism any more. My experiences as a young person and young adult made me very aware that patriarchal views were still entrenched in parts of society and the church. My parents had been great, I never felt that less was expected of me than my brother and I went to a progressive mixed school but outside of that I felt that I had to fight as a woman to be taken seriously or wait until a man didn’t want to do something for God to use me!
I have worked for Youth for Christ (currently as Director of the Midlands Centre for Youth Ministry) since 1984. I was originally involved in training year out volunteers. One of the things that seemed helpful to explore was the role of women in ministry. Although I felt passionately about the topic it always felt to me like it was better when a man (pro women’s ministry of course) taught it as some people were more inclined to listen to a man than a woman. At that time Roger Forster of Icthus was one of the people whose writings I found influential. I am now based at a theological college and have become more familiar with the world of academic theology. Imagine my delight when I found a book co-authored by a prominent and well-respected male theologian which explored issues that were close to my heart. This is a rather lengthy introduction to the book but I wanted to give some history as to why this book has been influential in my journey as a woman in Christian ministry. Although I was first drawn to it because of the name “Moltmann” perhaps a sad reflection of our celebrity obsessed culture, I have found in Elizabeth’s writing particularly a voice that resonates with my experiences and which offers glimpses of a new way of seeing and a desire to journey together with men towards mutual liberation.
The book is a collection of their writings and lectures rather than a specially written book and in that sense doesn’t have a clear narrative flow but contains a variety of topics including Peter and Martha’s confession of Christ (I’d tended to overlook Martha’s before reading this book), images of God as Father and Mother, a theology of the cross and the concept of a new community of men and women.
The introduction discusses the dualism that emerges particularly from socialization processes that has been the feature of much thinking and asserts that “They [dualisms] give the world a hierarchical order, so that men count more than women, understanding must dominate over feeling, and technology is more important than nature”. Although we are beginning to see the breakdown of some of these dualisms in more contemporary writing and expressions of church, that‘s the world I feel like I grew up in and still encounter in a number of settings. Being aware of their root can be useful as was the point made in one of the chapters that it wasn’t Christianity that brought patriarchy into the world, it was there already and the church, according to Jurgen, was taken over by men and the liberating potential of Christianity paralysed (p4). They argue that men as well as women need liberating from patriarchy which is certainly true when you look at the confusion around gender and identity today. Jurgen suggests that “patriarchy cheats us of the happiness of true life. Any man can work this out for himself by asking what feelings he had to learn to suppress, what drives he had to learn to control, and what roles he had to study, when as a child he was brought up to be ‘a man’. He was brought up to be a worker, a soldier, a wage-earner, father of a family, to conquer and to rule” (p4-5). They go on to debate these issues in a helpful way looking at how a new community of men and women can emerge that is true to the origins of Christianity.
In another chapter Elizabeth discusses God as Father and Jurgen, God as Mother in positive ways while being real about some of the difficulties of both of these terms. There is a particular emphasis on the role of the Holy Spirit as mother and the debate is within a Trinitarian framework. In the chapter on the confessions of Christ by Peter and Martha they lament that women’s voices have tended to be marginalized and need to be recovered.
In the light of current debate on the atonement and the meaning of the cross the final chapter perhaps offers some fresh perspectives. Elizabeth offers this comment “They [the women] stayed under the cross out of solidarity and compassion. In contrast to the disciples, for whom betrayal and guilt, the feeling of having abandoned Jesus, was the starting point of their experiences of God, for the women the cross is the place of communion with their friend in his sufferings. At the same time, it represents detachment from family, custom and social status. It amounts to social death, and brings them the danger of physical death. For them the cross is not the contradiction of their images of God and their expectations of life. Their own experiences of helplessness are reflected here, their own knowledge of the meaning and power of solidarity” (p87). The women served, as Jesus came to serve. She also discusses the cross as suffering from structural sin and the image of the crucified woman which many women can identify with because of their exclusion from their religious heritage. Finally she notes that “Women can come to grief on the resurrection, just as the disciples came to grief on the cross. But they can also experience resurrection: by growing out of their narrow, comprehensible, limited world; by letting go of traditional feminine patterns of life; by coming out of themselves and entering into an experience of transcendence which at the same time is immanent, which extends from the narrow feminine sphere into a cosmic and social sphere” (p90). As someone with an evangelical heritage attempts by feminists and others to minimize the cross or to reframe it in ways which describe a God I don’t recognize have been helpful but here Jurgen’s writings about a “crucified God” are helpfully illuminated in a way that makes sense to me.
There are only 94 pages in the book so it’s not a long read but it sometimes requires a reading and re-reading of paragraphs to really understand what is being said. If you are on a journey of trying to understand the Bible and theology from the perspective of being a woman this book may be illuminating and goes far beyond some of the simplistic interpretations that can be found in popular writing. I don’t think it is print but copies are available through Amazon marketplace and other second-hand book dealers.
Reviewed by Sally Nash
Director, Midlands Centre for Youth Ministry