The Strength of Her Witness

Jesus Christ in the Global Voices of Women

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Elizabeth A. Johnson
  • Maryknoll, NY: 
    Orbis Books
    , June
     2016.
     344 pages.
     $35.00.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9781626981720.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

“Can a male savior save women?” Rosemary Radford Reuther’s infamous question echoes across cultures, naming a pivotal issue for women all over the world: the “saving” work that Jesus does has often been utilized as an oppressive tool against them (xi). For many women, issues of gender and sex are universally felt, though they manifest differently in various contexts. The force of the inquiry thus shifts away from asking what Jesus can do for women, and towards asking what Jesus means for women, and women not only of the West, but from Australia, Brazil, Ghana, Hong Kong, India, Kenya, Korea, Mexico, Nigeria, the Philippines, and other locations.

In this christological anthology, the reader hears distinct articulations of Jesus Christ, and witnesses the scope of Jesus’ being in the world through how women around the globe experience him. The Strength of Her Witness demonstrates that if Jesus is central to Christian theology, so too, are the voices of the women of Christ.

For many women, Reuther’s question is only an entry point, a segue into a myriad of particularized discoveries and claims. Feminist theologian and editor Elizabeth Johnson says, “each author has perceived something important, and the strength of her witness aims to affect understanding of the faith of the whole church” (x). The salvation ascribed to Jesus comes in multiple forms: it is in his resistance to suffering, his embodying literal sustenance to those in need, and in his calling women forth as leaders in the church as interpreters of his divine agency.

The Strength of Her Witness extends the collective claim that women speak a truth about Jesus Christ who is attentive to the whole of their life conditions. It demonstrates that women, too, provide knowledge of God enfleshed—and in this, the richness of who Jesus is then carried forth into the world. Though distinct in perspective, these women’s cultural understandings and experiences point to a consistent christological narrative of unmatched love, divine communality, and deific witness.

The book contains four parts. The first part attends to Mary Magdalene’s encounter with Jesus after the resurrection, offering new ways to understand the position of both within the Easter narrative. The second part examines how Jesus is known to particular women, and how these women are actively reframing how the church might know him. The third part considers women’s global perspectives on the christological themes of greatest importance. Lastly, the fourth part offers global, forward-thinking christological positions.

Scholars such as Kelly Brown Douglas, Carter Heyward, and Francine Cardman offer definitions of feminist theology (chapter 6), demonstrating that Jesus Christ lives as a figure of community, solidarity, and liberation for many women. Artfully drawing from many African women’s tellings of who Christ is, Mercy Amba Oduyoye’s communal reflections in “Jesus Christ” (chapter 11) suggest that Jesus is a constant presence and protector. Liberating women from culturally reinforced sexism, his life and presence inspires reformed customs, and challenges traditional, male-constructed conceptions of salvation’s nature. Kwok Pui-lan (chapter 21) contributes a diverse survey of women’s culturally-specific christologies, casting a light onto Jesus’ varied presence in the life of different women.

The Strength of Her Witness evidences a clear commitment to voice, whether it is through Astrid Lobo Gajiwala’s analytics of women’s bodies and the Eucharist (chapter 25), or Teresa Hinga’s ideas about women’s acknowledged yet refuted co-suffering with Christ (chapter 10). The reader never loses sight or sound of the authors. Their contextual positions, not solely their christological insights, form the foundation of this collective work. It highlights the people who hold and have words about Christ. It is these particularized voices that form the cornerstone of this powerful christological reader.

In content and in form, The Strength of Her Witness demonstrates and reinforces the reality that Christ is known variously. The authors affirm themselves, and affirm the insights of their communities, as critical to understanding the principles of Christ’s movement in the world. The text creates a space for the church to hear those within it who have always had a word about Jesus, but rarely had a proper platform to share it.

Johnson claims that the women in this volume are calling for “new Nicaeas and Chalcedons to do for our age what the early councils did for their own” (xi). The desire for fresh perspective through a project of this sort is palpable, as innovative approaches from Shawn Copeland (chapter 21), Jeannine Hill Fletcher (chapter 22), and others work to seize the attention of Christian theology as a whole.

Although transformational at points, it seems that in The Strength of Her Witness the structuring of women’s voices hasn’t broken away from traditional patterns. For example, the division between Western scholars and non-Western scholars is noticeable. The first two sections of the text boast only two scholars of color, Teresa Okure and Kelly Brown Douglas. The remaining scholars are Caucasian. Third-world women and other women of color are placed within the latter sections on global perspectives and new christological turns.

These concerns notwithstanding, The Strength of Her Witness is an important text of telling. It richly reveals the necessity of women’s voices in order for the Christian church to receive and know a holistic christology. Women of different cultural codes, religious traditions, and experiences are rightly positioned as revelators of the saving work of Jesus Christ. The Strength of Her Witness is instrumental to introductory and more advanced theological courses alike. It is a necessity for feminist theology courses of any kind, for this masterful text works to ensure that the church wrestles with the various expressions of itself.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Oluwatomisin Oredein is a Th.D. candidate at Duke University Divinity School.

Date of Review: 
October 22, 2016
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Elizabeth A. Johnson, a member of the Sisters of Saint Joseph, is Distinguished Professor of Theology at Fordham University. A former president of the Catholic Theological Society of America, she is the author of many books, including She Who Is (winner of the Grawemeyer Award in Religion), Quest for the Living God, Ask the Beasts: Darwin and the God of Love, and Abounding in Kindness: Writings for the People of God.

Keywords: 

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