DEBBIE BLUE, a minister in the House of Mercy church in St Paul, Minnesota, likes to be provocative. She has already published a “provocative guide to birds of the Bible”. Consider the Women is not only provocative: it is refreshing, and it has “attitude”. Blue takes a strongly feminist approach, but she also dares to dip her toe in the waters not only of Christianity, which is her own tradition (although she delves into many parts of this tradition which are not her own), but Judaism and Islam, too.
She uses the figures of Hagar, Esther, and Mary — all biblical, known, and remembered to a greater or lesser extent — and uses their stories and the way they live “off the page over the centuries . . . enlivening human culture from Mecca to Mexico and everywhere in between” to knock down a few patriarchal assumptions and celebrate the unorthodox.
She has a light touch, and at times the book made me laugh out loud: the image of her and her fellow priest’s going to a Purim celebration in fancy dress, arriving in the car park, and not seeing anyone else dressed up is one example. She describes her colleague as “dressed in a long bathrobe and a scarf wrapped around his neck. He said he was going for a Jedi look. He is great with costumes. . . He starts having a panic attack — decides he looks more like a suicide bomber than a Star Wars character and so refuses to come in.” Later on, when persuaded to enter, he drinks “three glasses of blue Jedi juice” (aka vodka).
Her book is full of anecdotes like this, and of quotations from people she has met or is friends with, or from books that she has read. In fact, it reads like a compendium of different ideas from all kinds of people and places, as she jumps from topic to topic. She brings the biblical stories alive with lots of contemporary parallels, and she investigates Hagar in Islam and Esther in Judaism with masterly bravado (and quite a bit of hearsay through conversations she has had with everyone from a Muslim tattoo artist to a rabbi clothed in colonial dress “like Thomas Jefferson”).
She creates an “alternative lectionary” of texts about “wild and provocative” women, subverting the dominant models, creating “a kind of transfaith trinity” of appealing female characters. She certainly shed new light for me on Mary, the Mother of God, from this angle. Blue is witty, sharp, funny, and never boring. This book has a readers’ guide and plenty of quotations and questions for discussion groups. It will particularly appeal to young people: bring on the “Girl Power”.
Dr Katharine J. Dell is Director of Studies in Theology and Religious Studies at St Catharine’s College, Cambridge.
Consider the Women: A provocative guide to three matriarchs of the Bible