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Maid in God’s Image: In search of the unruly woman

Verena Wright.
DLT, £12.95
Reviewed by Nicola Slee

Click here to purchase: Maid in God's Image: In Search of the Unruly Woman

I enjoyed reading Verena Wright’s lively and intelligent reflection on the feminine in religion and culture. It is not an entirely even book, and most of the theological ideas presented – on notions of the feminine in the Bible and Christianity, purity codes and their connections to gender, Jesus’ subversion of Jewish ideas about pollution, and so on – have been treated more systematically elsewhere.

What makes Wright’s discussion worthy of note is her use of literary criticism in approaching these well-worn theological topics and, in particular, her reading of a range of texts from film, short story and the novel, to illuminate and reflect upon them – and doing so in a way that is accessible to the non-specialist. This makes her book an excellent one for individuals and groups looking for a fresh approach to the feminist critique of institutional Christianity. It would make for a lively parish study text or book group choice – one that could lead on to a re-reading of the fictional texts she discusses, thereby making a creative ‘course’ of several months.

Wright’s choice of fictions to bring into dialogue with gospel narratives is fascinating and highly varied. Stephen King’s horror novel Carrie is read in conjunction with Mary Douglas’ work on social systems of pollution to examine social attitudes to the (female sexual) body and to illustrate the potential of the ‘unruly woman’ to disrupt established social meanings, including patriarchal readings of scripture which attempt to legitimise hierarchical and essentialist notions of gender. Jane Eyre is read in the context of the marginalisation of women in Christian tradition as a critique of patriarchy and another example of the ‘unruly woman’ – strong, uncon-ventional and idealistic in her vision of egalitarian partnership with the male. Mel Gibson’s The Passion of Christ, Golding’s Lord of the Flies and Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale are each used in creative ways to raise questions about the representation and polarisation of masculine and feminine and culture and nature, the nature of evil and the possibility of redemption, the ‘good’ and the ‘bad’ mother, and so on. Many threads are set running and not all of them are neatly tied up in the final discussion of the feminine divine and the reiteration of the archetype of the unruly woman.

What this text lacks in systematization and linear flow it makes up for in creativity, association and cultural relevance. It is as much to be read for its methodology and the process of theological reflection exemplified as for the content as such. For all its brevity, there is a great deal here to stimulate reflection and imagination in a variety of contexts. It has the capacity to speak to those well versed in feminist theology and to those new to the field.

Dr Nicola Slee is Research Fellow at the Queen's Foundation, Birmingham. She is the author of many books, including Praying Like a Woman (2004), The Book of Mary (2007) and Seeking the Risen Christa (2011). akk published by SPCK

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