Malestrom – Carolyn Custis James

Malestrom Carolyn Custis James

QUICK HIT: From cover to cover, Malestrom is on point and powerful. It’s a book to be wrestled with because, even if you don’t consciously submit to some of the false ideas she challenges, chances are that they subconsciously influence you in some way. Carolyn Custis James bridges the divide and shows how the evangelical glorification of patriarchy is, in fact, destructive and counter to Scripture.

You probably have strong feelings about the word “patriarchy.” One side (stereotypically women and liberal men) sees it as an oppressive reality of the past, something modern society is struggling to climb out of. The other side (stereotypically men and fundamentalist women) sees it as the biblically mandated order of rule for humanity.

Like most arguments, each side gets increasingly polarized in their opinion and therefore wrong in their argumentation. One side points to patriarchy as the God-ordained cultural norm; the other side refuses to acknowledge anything that Scripture has to say about gender roles. That is, one side places too much weight on certain passages and the other side dismisses them entirely.

In Malestrom, Carolyn Custis James attempts to bridge the divide and show how the evangelical glorification of patriarchy is, in fact, destructive and counter to Scripture. James begins where she should…right at creation. She highlights the anti-patriarchal nature of Adam calling men to leave their homes and cleave to their wife. She discusses the military usage of the Hebrew word ezer, a military word often used to describe God as Israel’s protector…and used to describe Adam’s “helpmeet.”

Later in the book, she tackles in detail the narrative of Deborah, the ezer warrior and judge of Israel. Deborah is the battleground of the evangelical argument on gender roles. One side claims she is the proof that women can be called to leadership; the other side claims that Deborah ruled only because Barak did not have the faith to do so. Again, with devastating precision, James actually cuts both theories to pieces, arguing a middle line that neither unduly elevates or diminishes Deborah or Barak.

I also love that James takes a break from the male-female argument to focus on the subject of the marginalized man. Patriarchy not only negatively affects women but also affects minority men. Jesus seems to always do his best work through the marginalized of society and Custis highlights that point with effectiveness.

From cover to cover, Malestrom is on point and powerful. It’s a book to be wrestled with because, even if you don’t consciously submit to some of the false ideas she challenges, chances are that they subconsciously influence you in some way. At the time of writing, I’m on my second read-though to better adapt the material in my mind to teach it to my youth group, who all come from an eastern patriarchal upbringing.

I do wish that James had done more to address Paul’s New Testament writings—the obvious prooftexts of gender roles in the church. I don’t know that it quite fits the tone of the rest of the book, but it’s such an elephant in the room in the conversation that, you know if you don’t talk about it, someone’s going to jump on that. Altogether, James manages to be controversial without being confrontational and that’s a fortunately fresh perspective that the conversation on gender roles has been lacking. Further, she writes as if she is for something rather than against something, which is what most of the conversation regarding gender roles ends up being. In the end, even if you don’t agree with everything James writes or even if you disagree with everything she writes, there’s no denying that it is a book to be grappled with and thought carefully through. A superb blend of biblical exegesis, personal passion, reasonable thinking.