- Women in Christian Traditions by Rebecca Moore
What a pleasant surprise to find a book on women and Christianity that is not a rant against the evil inherent in this misogynistic religion. Rebecca Moore presents a balanced narrative of women’s well-earned place in the history of Christianity, and a significant place it is indeed. Written with students in mind, it probably will succeed in making the reading list of many college courses. This is a good thing; it may be the best choice now available.
It is, nevertheless, far from being the definitive text. It contains some minor errors (e.g., Southern Baptists declaring in 1984 that “women can never be redeemed” [p. 142]), some false conclusions (e.g., Cluniac monasticism “specifically excluded women” [p. 76]), some wildly exaggerated claims (e.g., medieval abbesses “conducted most, if not all” priestly duties [p. 136]), and some radical beliefs presented as orthodox (e.g., Mary was “raped” [p. 39]). Such problematic statements are not numerous but frequent enough to make one wary. On the positive side, Moore deals with Catholic and Protestant differences with ecumenical grace, avoids the hysterics that usually accompany discussion of witch trials, and puts a large dent in the arguments of feminist rejectionists. Her treatment of Eve and of St. Teresa of Ávila and her summary of early-modern Christian feminists are excellent. Overall, the good outweighs the bad. Yet, it leaves the reader unsatisfied. [End Page 890] This is not necessarily a negative comment on Moore’s work, for a good book provokes reflection and discussion.
Moore’s thesis too often morphs from how women contributed to Christianity’s development into how women altered Christianity’s practices and beliefs. Yes, women altered Christian practices, but Moore fails to admit outright that the source of women’s power to shape those practices was the intrinsic principles of Christianity itself. She is not alone; rarely do feminists admit this obvious fact. Rarely do they question why Christian women historically have been able to exercise the extensive authority within their societies (a historical reality documented now by two generations of scholars), whereas women within most other religions have not. Surely they do not mean to imply that Christian women are superior; yet that is their thesis’s logical conclusion. Moore’s failure to state the obvious is particularly disappointing, because she does admit that Christianity grants women spiritual equality and the right “to privileges once reserved to men” (p. 105). Unfortunately, she does not take the next step and extoll the huge debt owed by feminists to Christianity for its contribution to women’s fight for equality. Party-line feminists still write as if the evidence does not exist. Would that students had a text that actually taught them this truth!
Second, a thesis that claims that women contributed to the development of a religion’s beliefs is not possible in a revealed religion. Christianity declares that it is revealed, that it has a received body of set doctrines and not a malleable belief system. For its first sixteen centuries Christianity held that its doctrines are immutable and that the Spirit, not individuals, guides our understanding of those doctrines. One is free to accept or reject this claim, as even many Protestant groups do, but we are not free to deny that this was premodern Christianity’s self-definition. Moore implies that from Christianity’s earliest days its doctrine was changed by women; she needs a lot more evidence to prove such a claim. This is not a minor matter. Besides being a central issue in Christian and in women’s history, it is a major bone of contention in today’s culture wars: Is everything subjective and changeable?