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NWSA Journal 15.2 (2003) 185-191

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Women and Spiritual Equality in Christian Tradition by Patricia Ranft. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1998, 306 pp., $55.00 hardcover, $21.95 paper.
Women in the Church: Moving Toward Equality by Lesly F. Massey. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co., 2002, 215 pp., $32.00 hardcover, $18.00 paper.
Women and World Religions by Lucinda Joy Peach. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education, Inc., 2002, 394 pp., $34.67 hardcover, $23.50 paper.
Women, Gender, Religion: A Reader edited by Elizabeth A. Castelli with Rosamond C. Rodman. New York: Palgrave, 2001, 550 pp., $85.00 hardcover, $27.95 paper.

Over twenty years ago the classic anthology Womanspirit Rising revealed the inherent patriarchy of Western religion, and sought to elevate women's experience in the study of religion (Christ and Plaskow 1979). Ten years [End Page 185] later, the same authors, Judith Plaskow and Carol P. Christ published a second landmark anthology, Weaving the Visions, in which Western religion was seen as "not simply sexist but racist, imperialist, ethnocentric, and heterosexist as well" (1989, 2).

The works reviewed here take for granted this interplay of issues of gender, race, imperialism, class, and sexuality. Another decade later, these works demonstrate that many new complexities have entered the dialog. What happens when scholars determine that portions of a religious tradition are egalitarian, demonstrating that the tradition has not always been purely patriarchal? What are the relationships, after several decades of such study, between feminist scholarship, the study of religion, the place of women in society, and variables of women's lives? What do we learn when these issues and lives are read through interdisciplinary approaches to the feminist study of religion, or when feminist scholars of religion turn to criticism of one another's work?

The outstanding anthology Women, Gender, Religion and the textbook Women and World Religions cover a variety of world religions. The former involves highly challenging theoretical engagement, while the latter seeks to bring a practical, instructional perspective to bear. Women and Spiritual Equality in Christian Tradition and Women in the Church center exclusively on Christianity, each uniquely unearthing historical and theological documentation concerning the role of women in Christian tradition.

In reading these four very different books on religion and gender, perhaps the best way to begin is to agree that one cannot judge a book by its cover, but to ask whether or not they do what they set out to do. Three of the works achieve their purposes and carry us even further into new inquiry; a fourth less clearly fulfills its purpose, but is not without merit.

Patricia Ranft clearly fulfills her purpose in Women and Spiritual Equality in Christian Tradition. With this work, however, we might begin with a prior question of whether or not we agree with her initial premise. She aims to document "a strong and enduring tradition that maintains the spiritual equality of women" within Christianity (x). Yet, as a wise Benedictine sister said to me in a recent interview, "If you take prayer or spirituality seriously, you will have to do the works of justice." Such a statement questions the validity of spiritual equality if it is not accompanied by social and political equality.

Ranft, however, succeeds in convincing us that spiritual equality in the Christian tradition is not only immensely important in itself, but throughout history often led to women taking agency in all aspects of their lives, even in the midst of patriarchal cultures. An historian, Ranft presents a thorough study of written documentation throughout Christian tradition to indicate the existence of a long and rich tradition of women [End Page 186] and some men who, because of their belief in their spiritual equality, had complete control over their own social, physical, and political destinies. This was even more possible in a pre-Enlightenment world where the religious was less distinguished from the secular. It was only later, when the secular scientific understanding of...


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