Editor’s note: The following book review appears in the Fall 2020 issue of Eikon.
Elaine Storkey. Women in a Patriarchal World: Twenty-five Empowering Stories from the Bible. London: SPCK, 2020.
Elaine Storkey is an older stateswoman of British Anglican evangelicalism. Trained in philosophy and theology, her career has been long and influential. She has taught in Church of England seminaries (Oak Hill and Wycliffe Colleges), has served as President of TearFund, the UK’s largest evangelical poverty relief charity, been Director (following John Stott) of the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity, and currently is President of Fulcrum, a group which represents the “centre ground of Anglican Evangelicalism.” Described in the press as an “open…liberal” evangelical, she has published on Christianity and feminism, amongst other topics, and is a familiar voice in the secular and Christian media. This book is based on regular columns featured in the UK magazine Woman Alive. It is worth noting that on the front cover of this paperback Elaine Storkey’s name is significantly larger than the title; it seems that her reputation, rather than the content, is what will immediately attract readers.
Women in a Patriarchal World has a simple formula. There are twenty-five short chapters, each telling the story of a woman or women from the Bible and then in a distinct unit, applying this to the contemporary world. At the end, two discussion questions are posed. The choice of women is interesting; arranged in canonical order, we start with Shiphrah and Puah, the Hebrew midwives who resisted Pharaoh’s command to kill male babies, and conclude with Euodia and Syntyche, the quarrelsome women of the Philippian church. These last two are the only women who are presented as a warning. All the others are offered as examples to be emulated, and sometimes, as victims deserving sympathy. Along the way we meet familiar faces, like Deborah, Ruth, Mary Magdala and Martha, but there are also some surprises, such as Pharaoh’s daughter who adopted Moses, the wise woman of Abel Beth Maakah, who advised Joab and the people in 2 Samuel 20, and Pilate’s wife.
Neither a devotional book nor a commentary, the purpose of Women in a Patriarchal World seems, as one reviewer has noted, to “blow open wide the all-too common assumption that women in the Bible always bowed to a patriarchal system,” and to encourage contemporary women to follow their lead (i).
Elaine Storkey writes very well. Most of her retellings of biblical narrative are fluent, accurate, though spare on detail, and engaging. She is able to show the radical and compassionate way in which Jesus treated several marginalised and vulnerable women, including the Samaritan at the well (John 4), the Canaanite who begged for her daughter to be healed (Matthew 8) and the woman with uncontrolled bleeding (Mark 5), depicting their cultural contexts fairly. The focus, though, in these chapters and in those featuring characters from elsewhere in the New and Old Testaments, is on what these women did, rather than what God did in and through them.
This horizontal hermeneutic, ignoring typological or theological dimensions of the texts, and so side-lining the expressed purpose of the divine and human authors, minimizes Christ. Tellingly, Christ is mentioned only twice in her eleven Old Testament chapters. In the thirteen New Testament chapters He is described as saviour, the one who died for us and rose again, but still the focus is on female action. Almost without exception, figures are commended for their strength. Ruth, Naomi, and Orpah’s story is told, with trust and love noted, but it is the idea of commitment that Storkey singles out as the key message we need to hear. Hannah is elevated for her brave prayerfulness, Deborah for her confident leadership, and Rahab for her decisive faith and action.
This thread carries through in Storkey’s treatment of New Testament characters. Very often what we are to learn from them is their boldness; the Canaanite woman is “sassy” and Lydia “takes risks” (106, 117). These are certainly lessons worth teaching: all Christians are urged to be courageous, and Christian women perhaps especially need to hear the call to ambitious and sacrificial service in speaking out against injustice and in proclaiming the gospel.
Storkey does include examples of humility, generosity and trust, and indeed, reminds her readers that God’s strength is made perfect in weakness, but she fails to read these narratives first as stories which teach us about God, and so misses the grace which truly empowers change. In neglecting language of personal sin and repentance, Storkey presents a faith which is not sufficient to produce and sustain the radical discipleship she calls for. This is revealed in the discussion questions (perhaps in part explained by the broad intended audience) which at times are very peculiar; on the story of Abigail, for example, we are asked about why women have often led peace protests and if churches should do more to help socially awkward individuals (57).
Driven by story-telling and exhortation, Storkey doesn’t at any point give a clear definition of patriarchy, despite it being used on several occasions in the book, as well as in the title. This reveals her perspective; she is right to critique church history for often absorbing secular attitudes which repressed women, but she fails to be critical of the secular viewpoint she herself adopts. The result of this is that she fights against a straw man. Those who would say that Paul does not allow any woman to teach and encourage men to govern, or even those who beat their wives, are the only alternatives to her evangelical feminism. Storkey neglects the complex relationships in which women most often work out their discipleship. This means that the twenty-five exemplars she chooses are women she sees acting independently, rather than as wives, mothers, daughters and co-workers.
Many of the lessons of Women in a Patriarchal World are important. It is patently true that today we need Spirit-filled women who will wisely and sacrificially speak the truth in love to those in power and in need. But without a call to come to Christ and be like him, rather than a call to be like his female followers, and without any significant engagement with the Bible’s teaching about sex, this book is not empowering.
Sarah Allen (MA Cambridge, MTh University of Chester) lives in Huddersfield, West Yorkshire. She is a Pastor’s wife, mum of 5 and a teacher. She is also Regional Director of Flourish, London Seminary’s training programme for women and a writer, with two new books due to be published in 2021.
 Charles Crow, quoted by Fran Bellow in https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/christian-broadcaster-dr-elaine-storkey-sues-church-college-jdqbp0zt5g5, accessed 8/10/2020.
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