Book Review: Back to the Well: Women’s Encounters with Jesus in the Gospels

This statement from The Blog of Happiest Fun got a lot of links from other female bloggernaclites:

I would like to spend more time discussing the lives of strong women in the scriptures. Women like Hannah, Deborah, Jael, or Anna the prophetess. There are so many women that I find interesting, and I don’t hear about them enough. I’d like to study their lives some more.

I plan on reviewing a half dozen or so books about women in the scriptures over the next few months. My hope is that the reviews will spark conversation about women in the scriptures and also will provide suggestions (or warnings!) for those wanting to read more on their own.

In theory, I agree with Ben Spackman when he writes that we should make more use of non-LDS scripture resources for our personal study. But he’s spot on when he notes that “LDS are unaware of what resources exist, what’s good, and where to find them. With a few exceptions, such things aren’t available at your local Deseret Book.” There are a lot of books on women in the scriptures, but some are too radical, too academic*, or too jargon-y to start with. Good starting places would include The Women’s Bible Commentary and The Word According the Eve. But Back to the Well: Women’s Encounters with Jesus in the Gospels is now the best first read on women in the scriptures. Let me tell you why:

(1) Gench deserves a standing ovation for avoiding jargon. The field of biblical studies is notorious for hiding simple concepts in really complicated words. Gench has enough confidence in her prose that she doesn’t need to hide behind her words.

(2) She is very good as sketching out several possible solutions to interpretive puzzles and leaving it to the reader to make the final call.

(3) She is writing from a position of faith. While I certainly think that it is possible for a Saint to glean something useful–even something devotional–from a writer whose intention is different, it is easier in the beginning to read a writer who finds normative value in the text.

(4) She defines ‘feminist’ in a way that shouldn’t rankle most LDS readers. She isn’t trying to prove through these stories that the women in them are perfect people. (We’ve got enough Molly Mormons today; no point in reading them back into the scriptures.) In fact, she provides some her most trenchant yet touching commentary when considering the limitations of the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4):

Moreover, we have also had occasion to note the tentative nature of her witness (“Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?” [4:29]), for this statement too is instructive. Her example reminds us, as noted earlier, that faith that is tentative, full of questions, and not yet mature can bear witness and do so effectively. . . . Furthermore, Fred Craddock insightfully highlights ways in which the Samaritan woman, too, is a refreshing model of genuine dialogue:

Her witness . . . is invitational (come and see), not judgmental; it is within the range permitted by her experience; it is honest with its own uncertainty; it is for everyone who will hear. How refreshing. Her witness avoids triumphalism, hawking someone else’s conclusions, packaged answers to unasked questions, thinly veiled ultimatums and threats of hell, and assumptions of certainty on theological matters. She does convey, however, her willingness to let her hearers arrive at their own affirmations about Jesus, and they do: “This is indeed the Savior of the world.”

In all of these ways, the Samaritan woman models effective method in mission.

I’m sure I don’t have to hit you over the head with how well this passage could and should apply to LDS missionary work. But I digress. In general, Gench’s feminism can best be summarized as “let’s take these texts seriously and read them thoughtfully and not ignore them just because they are about women.” In her discussion of Mary and Martha, she doesn’t try to ‘solve’ a difficult text as much as she simply considers many interpretive options and acknowledges the conundrums that this story presents.

(5) Her format does not present her own scholarship but rather contains extensive explanations about the positions of other scholars, excellent questions for discussion at the end of each chapter (making this a great–if unexpected–choice for a ward book group), and thorough suggestions for further study (books and articles).

(6) Even for Saints not particularly interested in women’s stories in the scriptures, there’s a lot here to think about. For example, we normally bestow quite a place of honor on the Epistle of James due to its role in the Restoration. But Gench notes that it is “an epistle many Western Christians have long regarded as the junk mail of the New Testament–or as Martin Luther put it, an ‘epistle of straw.'” I am also under the impression that most Saints are not aware of the extent to which many interpretations are subtly antisemitic. Gench provides a great summary of this issue.

(7) I hate the Whack-a-moral approach to Sunday School, partially because I think there’s an almost infinite number of morals that we could whack out of any passage, and I’m tired of hearing the same one over and over again, as if the passage were just a longhanded way of introducing a discussion about the topic that we really wanted to talk about. So I appreciate that for each story, after closely reading the text, Gench presents several different ‘angles of vision’ from which to consider the story.

(8) Because John 8:1-11 is almost universally regarded as a (much) later addition to John, it is very difficult to find good commentary on this text. Her chapter on this passage is wonderful (although she should have skipped Kinukawa’s reading of this story–it’s just weird).

While I think this is a fabulous book for Saints who want an entry into the world of feminist biblical studies, there are a few sticking points:

(1) Most notably in the chapter on the Canaanite woman, she uses redaction criticism (that is, she considers Matthew to be an editor of the story from Mark). Readers may not be comfortable with assertions that Matthew has “expanded the conversational component of the story” with its implication that Matthew has “made up” dialogue for Jesus. At the risk of starting my own threadjack (can you do that?), I wonder if redaction criticism (of the NT; the NT and the BoM would be an entirely different can of worms) can serve any useful role for LDS readers. She occasionally makes interpretive moves that I think are suspect (“Because [Jesus’ journey to Samaria] is not corroborated anywhere else in the New Testament, that the historical Jesus carried out a mission in Samaria is perhaps unlikely.”) and I would hope that a reader new to biblical studies wouldn’t be too cowed by her opinions.

(2) She has what comes off as an almost pro forma paragraph in defense of the right to ordination of gays and lesbians, which probably won’t sit too well with most LDS readers.

But these are minor flaws in an otherwise extremely useful introduction to the study of women in the New Testament.

* I love Anne Wire; she was my thesis advisor, but this book is not a starting point for learning about women in the scriptures.

7 comments for “Book Review: Back to the Well: Women’s Encounters with Jesus in the Gospels

  1. Ivan Wolfe
    April 17, 2005 at 5:41 pm

    although she should have skipped Kinukawa’s reading of this story–it’s just weird

    Now you’ve piques my curiosity – what is Kinukawa’s reading?

  2. April 17, 2005 at 6:07 pm

    Thanks for this review, Julie. I appreciate your taking the time to do this.

    I hope you have a great birthday tomorrow!

  3. Julie in Austin
    April 17, 2005 at 6:08 pm

    Hmm, you’re right, that does come off as a teaser line.

    Kinukawa’s reading is that the woman is trapped in a loveless relationship with her husband and therefore has an affair as her only avenue to find any happiness.

    I can’t even begin to tell you what’s wrong with that.

  4. Julie in Austin
    April 17, 2005 at 6:09 pm

    Thank you, Amira. I’m going to Book People, Whole Foods, and Threadgill’s. (a very Austin sort of birthday) (and a cub scout field trip)

  5. Melissa
    April 17, 2005 at 7:15 pm

    Julie — Thanks (Russell suggested I read this); I’ll definately read this myself. I’m going to suggest it when our ward’s book group meets on Tuesday — we’ll see if it goes over there. You never know; we’ve been interesed in good women stories lately.

  6. Ivan Wolfe
    April 17, 2005 at 7:37 pm

    Julie –

    thanks. You don’t need to tell me what’s wrong with that, I think I see it. Sort of the “Prince of Tides” reading of the NT, I guess.

    Great review, BTW. I have no money to buy it, but I’ll check and see if a library nearby has a copy.

  7. April 17, 2005 at 10:26 pm

    hate the Whack-a-moral approach to Sunday School, that is a great line. Makes me grateful for our Gospel Doctrine teacher.

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