Lost Women of the Bible: Finding Strength and Significance through Their Stories by Carolyn Custis James (Zondervan, 2005)
The Gospel of Ruth: Loving God Enough to Break the Rules by Carolyn Custis James (Zondervan, 2008)
In mid-September of 2001, a friend pulled me through one of the most tumultuous times of my life. (No, we weren't in New York City on September 11, but I was home alone, with movers packing up my earthly possessions, and scheduled to fly—yes, fly—to Boston in few days.) This friend also gave me Carolyn Custis James' newly-published book, When Life and Beliefs Collide. I need to read it again: I'm pretty sure it was a good book, but as I said, life was a bit unsettled for me and I don't remember it. Moreover, I was put off by the same problem that prevented me for more than a decade from seeking out James' subsequent books: what I perceived at the time as a falsely positive reference to some very negative events in the life of our church.
So I'm a slow learner. Judgements made on small evidence are useless at best. My only defense for avoiding James' books is that the list of good books to read is always heartbreakingly longer than the time available to read them, anyway. Reading these two books is part of an effort to recover the locust-eaten years.
On the surface, these books would appear to be primarily for women; that judgement, also, would be a great mistake. I can't say better than to quote J.I. Packer's comment about When Life and Beliefs Collide: "Her book seems to me to be a must-read for Christian women and a you'd-better-read for Christian men, for it gets right so much that others have simply missed." I would add, however, that the adjective "Christian" is neither necessary nor helpful in the case of these two books, as most non-Christians would also have their conceptions of women and the Bible blown away by James' analysis.
Although both of these books tell great stories, their purpose is less narrative than theological and exegetical. Therefore it is necessary to know something of James' abilities in these areas. Since I'm not qualified to judge, I'll quote a few endorsements by people who are:
I have not read (nor, I expect, have you) a more discerning, humbling, thought-provoking, God-honoring, life-enhancing treatment of Ruth than this one. It makes outstandingly fruitful study for believers of all ages and both genders. (J.I. Packer, Professor of Theology, Regent College)
Men and women will benefit from reading Carolyn James's engagingly written book. In Lost Women of the Bible, she brings new insight to the biblical text and rightly expands our idea of what makes a woman godly. I enthusiastically recommend this book. (Tremper Longman III, Professor of Biblical Studies, Westmont College)
Carolyn Custis James gives the church a precious spiritual gift: How ten unsung heroines of the Bible shaped and expanded the kingdom of God and continue to bolster the faith of the church. Her penetrating and unforgettable biographies of these risk-taking biblical heroines are built on solid exegesis and a deft use of rhetorical criticism—though she never uses the term, seeing truths in the text that only a woman can see. Her engaging style with lightning bolt sentences demonstrates the valuable resource God has given the church in her gifted daughters to minister in words and deeds. This book explicitly challenges women of every social stratum to become the culture makers God intended them to be. (Bruce Waltke, Professor of Old Testament, Reformed Theological Seminary)
So what do you think of Eve? Carolyn James compares her with her own grandmother at the end of her life:
The vibrant woman I remembered—the woman God created her to be—was lost somewhere in a fallen, aging body that was no longer hospitable to her marvelous spirit.
The last time anyone saw Eve, she was only a shell of her former self too, a broken-down version of the woman God created her to be. The original Eve was lost in Paradise. Sadly, instead of remembering her in those earlier glory days, the world's memory of her was frozen in time at the worst possible moment—back in the Garden of Eden just as she swallowed a piece of forbidden fruit and served some to her husband. ... We wouldn't dream of doing to my grandmother what we persist in doing to Eve. We forget what Eve was like in her prime and try to reconstruct her legacy from the broken remnants that remained of her at the end.
James also turns the tables on our customary views of Noah's wife, Sarah, Hagar, Tamar, Hannah, Esther, Mary the mother of Jesus, and Mary Magdalene (reserving Ruth and Naomi for their own book). It was the story of Tamar—the "bad girl" of the Bible, who played the part of a prostitute in order to seduce, and be impregnated by, her father-in-law—that took my breath away. Read Lost Women of the Bible, and learn how a more careful analysis of the text and an understanding of her culture reveal Tamar as a righteous woman who rescued both the patriarch Judah and the human line of Christ.
Tamar shatters the traditional definition of what it means to be a woman by standing up to the most powerful man in her life. ... [S]he takes the symbols of authority away from the man who tells her whom to marry and where to live—a man who can sentence her to death without answering to anyone. Before returning the articles ... she pointed Judah back to the God of the covenant, the only true authority over both of their lives. ... Judah gave Tamar the highest marks for her conduct and accepted her righteous rebuke. ... Her actions didn't emasculate or feminize him, as we are warned will happen if a woman takes the initiative. She didn't rob Judah of his manhood. To the contrary, he became a better man because of his encounter with her. One wonders what would have become of Judah if Tamar had held her peace and remained passive. The strength of a woman is a powerful weapon for rescue, healing, and peace when women like Tamar are "strong in the Lord."
The biblical Book of Ruth is often presented as a sweet romance, but the intense suffering and the questioning of God's goodness are more like the Book of Job than a love story. And the heroic, other-centered, self-sacrificial actions of the three main characters—Naomi, Ruth, and Boaz—are an Old Testament prefiguring of the gospel in action.
Here are just a few more of the many quotes I could have pulled:
It's obvious to anyone who has experienced a significant loss that the sorrows of this world and the wounds they inflict in our souls cannot be compensated no matter how much good fortune and prosperity come our way. Many holocaust survivors ended up wealthy, raised beautiful families, and enjoyed the good things in life. But they never stopped hurting or felt their sufferings had evened out. That's just not how life works. To suggest that everything balanced out in the end for Naomi is to trivialize both her sufferings and also what God is trying to teach us through her story.
Naomi is completely unaware that the whole world is counting on the baby she cradles in her arms [grandfather of King David, and an ancestor of Christ] for the fulfillment of God's promises to redeem his people and put to right this fallen world. Obed will not be the last boy born in Bethlehem to hold such a strategic place in the world's history. Imagine the enormous responsibility of raising such a child. You would want the wise men from the east to come. Summon the teachers of the law, the priests, the rabbis. God chose Naomi to be Obed's teacher. And she is ready for the job, for Naomi has gained wisdom in the school of suffering.
A rescue effort is underway. Lives are at risk. There's a kingdom to build. A planet to reclaim. God doesn't intend to do any of this without us. He burdens our hearts. He opens our eyes to see faces, needs, and possibilities. He is counting on his daughters to live and proclaim his gospel. Whether we're tucking a child into bed; ministering to a friend; pursuing a heart that is hardened to the gospel; working in the corporate world, the church, and the community; or fighting for justice in some remote region of the earth—God is advancing his kingdom through our efforts and our gifts.. And you never know when some small everyday battle you are fighting may turn the tide for the kingdom in a big way.
I highly recommend both Lost Women of the Bible and The Gospel of Ruth. Those who know me will understand more of how impressed I am with these books, because they know
- As my previous reviews show, I'm decidedly unimpressed by both the content and the writing of much contemporary Christian literature. (I use that final word loosely.) Carolyn Custis James is a serious researcher, a clear thinker, and a good writer.
- I've complained in previous reviews of authors who speculate about the conversations, thoughts, and emotions of the characters in biblical narratives. A lot of that must happen in order to flesh out the Bible's spare descriptions of these women's lives, but here I don't mind it. All I can say in my defense is that these speculations seem natural, believable, and fitting to the text, rather than awkwardly imposing modern thought on a distant culture.
- One feature common to many contemporary Christian books is a "discussion questions" section at the end of each chapter. I loathe this. I always have, at least since its first appearance in my school textbooks. Both of these books have that unpleasant feature (which I literally overlook), and yet I still love them.
Next up? Steeling myself to reread When Life and Beliefs Collide (my mind knows I'll enjoy it; my gut still has issues), and requesting that our library add to its collection Carolyn Custis James' latest book, Half the Church, written to complement Half the Sky.