In light of yesterday’s spirited discussion on Facebook around women’s leadership issues, sparked by Michael Frost’s re-posting of Mars Hill teaching pastor Mark Driscoll’s very controversial radio interview, I wanted to recommend a wonderful not-so-little (1,100 pages in fact) tome of a book written by Prudence Allen. The book, The Concept of Woman, is actually her second volume of this magnitude: it continues where her first volume left off, in the early humanist period of 1250 through 1500.
Allen is a Catholic nun in Denver, Colorado who teaches young male seminarians preparing for priesthood in the Catholic church. (Don’t you love it? I would love to be a fly on the wall in that classroom.) With a view to building up men and women today in such a way that they are better able to relate to one another with mutual respect, appreciation and understanding, The Concept of Woman traces how “woman” as a category evolved across centuries of philosophical and theological reflection. University of Chicago ethicist Jean Bethke Elshtain has noted of Allen’s work that “there is no work to compare with [Allen's] in its systematicness, intellectual rigor, and scholarly integrity.”
My own journey through this book, which involves a short snippet every night at the end of a tiring day of mommy work, will probably take at least two years to complete at the rate I’m going. (I am currently making my way through the juicy exclamations of the thirteenth century nun, Hadewijch, whose slightly obsessive love affair with St. Augustine, nine centuries her junior, becomes the stuff of impassioned theological reflection.) But I’m grateful to Allen for undertaking a study of this breadth and fairness, and for the opportunity to commend it to you as part of a very important dialogue.
As I said yesterday to missional church thinker and activist Michael Frost, I believe the issue of women’s leadership is the most important issue facing the missional church today as it seeks to effectively participate in God’s mission all around the world. Where we place stumbling blocks in front of women and their call to serve equally alongside their brothers in being part of the good things God is doing (sometimes in the church and mostly in the world outside our churches), we do not just place obstacles in front of women. We hamper the growth of the missional church in living out her call to serve God in the world around her. I give thanks for Prudence Allen and her faithfulness to embrace God’s call on her life; just as I also give thanks for the many men and women like her (Mark Driscoll included, despite my strong disagreement with him) who have responded to God’s call on their lives.