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Theology and Women in the In-Between

By February 15, 2007 No Comments

by Miriam Ippel

I never really left college. After my undergraduate years, I served in various ministry and administrative roles in higher education. I was privileged to work with and be mentored by many women with advanced degrees who have blazed trails in their fields. I found their stories encouraging, though I did not always resonate with their experiences. This began to change as I discerned a call to ministry and thus further theological education.

As I have discovered, the “gender divide” varies dramatically among seminaries. Living on the BoundariesAt one institution, I felt challenged to be either defensive about or oblivious to my gender. More recently, I have been given space to dwell with internal questions rather than external ones. At times these questions are reminiscent of adolescent identity crises: Who am I? Where do I belong? Will I be accepted here?

Living on the Boundaries is a book that speaks to these kinds of questions that emerge when living “in the in-between.” Specifically, as the subtitle states, it is a book about evangelical women, feminism and the theological academy. To some, these may seem a bizarre combination, yet there is much to be said about the women who find themselves at the intersection of these spheres. Truth be told, one does not have to identify with all three to benefit from reading this fine book. Living on the Boundariesrecounts the stories of women who honestly struggle with holding together identities that often seem in conflict with one another. Women in the theological academy may find themselves in uncharted spaces, particularly in a milieu where evangelicalism and feminism are often pitted against one another.

For authors Nicola Hoggard Creegan and Christine D. Pohl, this book was borne out of questions raised from their shared history as boundary dwellers. Ten years ago (1996), they decided to take their questions to other evangelical women in the theological academy. More than 100 women shared their stories and questions with Creegan and Pohl in a variety of venues, from conversations at conferences to surveys.

Creegan and Pohl weave these women’s stories together with their own insights and vast research (a quick glance at the nearly twelve-page bibliography illustrates the breadth and depth of this work). The result is eight chapters that take the reader on a tour of this “previously uncharted landscape” (24).

Because the landscape is difficult to define, at times this tour winds around, giving the reader a feeling of having been there before. Yet the book illustrates the complexities of both defining overused and sometimes contentious terms and relating quite different personal experiences. After all, life on the boundaries requires an ability to “control, broaden or nuance the definitions of evangelical and feminist” (39).

Each of the middle chapters identifies an important characteristic of the territory or the map itself. One chapter explores the tension between gender and vocation. In another, a firmly planted signpost points to the invaluable presence of models and mentors, both male and female, for women in the church and academy. This clear sign leads directly into the difficult territory of calling and community. The authors demonstrate that the way in which one navigates this territory impacts the likelihood of even reaching the boundaries. At this juncture in the book, I felt like I had discovered a billboard with flashing neon lights directed at the church:

Women have found a variety of ways to sustain their call and commitment, but as deeply relational beings in the image of the triune God, we are profoundly disturbed to encounter the absence of community and conversation in the very heart of Christian congregations and theological thinking. Women, committed to the church, long for safe places for life-giving conversation and for more vibrant communities of faith and discourse that recognize the multiple worlds we inhabit. (124)

As the gap grows between church and academy, here is a message we (especially pastors) should not ignore.

Just when you think you are tired of examining property lines, the tour shifts. In chapters six and seven, the tone changes and boundary questions plunge deeper into larger theological issues:

Women in the theological academy may find themselves in uncharted spaces, particularly in a milieu where evangelicalism and feminism are often pitted against each other.

language for God, evil, sin, eschatology, church, Christology, atonement theories, the authority of scripture, etc. This more meaty section of the book, while not exhaustive in its discussion of theology, creates a foundation for further theological inquiry into life on the boundaries. This is a book that asks questions and delves deep into their complexities. Refreshingly, the authors do not round everything out, but provide a conclusion chock full of further questions to challenge the continued development of these uncharted boundary lands–questions appropriate amongst peers, in church communities, and in the academy.As I read this book, I occasionally wondered if I was the right audience. Am I evangelical? Am I a generation removed from these experiences? Am I merely in an insular environment as a seminary student? While some of these questions remain unanswered, the fact that this book prompted these questions and more indicates its value to readers like me (female, in seminary, and considering future studies in theology). But the readership of this book must be much greater than my small subset. Living on the Boundaries is a valuable resource for both men and women in the theological academy and the church. Whether or not one identifies oneself as an evangelical and/or a feminist should not prevent one from picking up this book. In Living on the Boundaries, many women will find glimpses of their own stories. Many men will be helped to be better colleagues, mentors, and pastors. The book does not hide the difficulties that exist in life on the boundaries, yet it provides encouragement and hope in the stories of faithful women who continue to persevere, planting signposts for those of us rising up from colleges, universities, divinity schools, and seminaries.

Miriam Ippel is a second year Master of Divinity student at Western Theological Seminary in Holland, Michigan and a candidate for ministry in the Reformed Church in America.