Menno theology in light of feminist critique

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Book Review: The Challenge is in the Naming: A Theological Journey.
Lydia Neufeld Harder. CMU Press, 2018, 372 pages.

September 5, 2018 | Artbeat | Volume 22 Issue 17
Maxwell Kennel | Special to Canadian Mennonite
This book collects essays by Mennonite theologian Lydia Neufeld Harder.

In their appreciative foreword to Mennonite theologian Lydia Neufeld Harder’s retrospective essay collection, Kimberley Penner and Susanne Guenther Loewen write of the time, hospitality and encouragement that Harder provided to both of them during their PhD studies and dissertation writing.

The care and attention that she has shown to the task of cultivating theological vocation in students is no accident. Upon reading The Challenge is in the Naming, the reader will soon discover that this aspect of her work is a principled response to her own, often negative, experiences of being a woman doing graduate studies in theology.

Divided into sections on vocation, hermeneutic community, method, ethics, vision, power, dialogue, wisdom, ministry and discernment, this book not only gathers Harder’s many essays together into one accessible volume but it also contextualizes each chapter with introductions that further show how theological work always has roots in personal experience.

As Mennonite theologians move into a new moment, after the revelation of John Howard Yoder’s attempt to theologically justify his sexual abuse of women, Mennonite engagement with feminism is becoming even more important than it already was—and it already was important.

Alongside the works of Carol Penner, Gayle Gerber Koontz, Barbra Graber and Malinda Berry, to name a few, Harder’s theological writings, and the journey that intertwines with them, are of vital importance to those who are interested in what Mennonite theology looks like in light of feminist critique.

As students of Mennonite theology search for other resources than Yoder for the task of doing theology in the tradition, Harder’s work will be a touchstone, and in a cultural environment that has grown increasingly suspicious of feminism—often based on cheap caricatures and convenient generalizations—it is encouraging to see the appearance of a new book that uses Mennonite theology and feminist thought to mutually critique and illumine each other.

Harder considers the main thread that runs through her work to be the importance of naming. Whether we are naming God, naming the hidden realities of patriarchy in our midst, or naming ourselves and trying to understand our differing identities, her challenge is to name carefully, because names have power, naming is risky, and naming does things to the ones who name and the ones who are named.

In her striking poem at the beginning of the volume, she names the struggle of coming to terms with the task of theology while being in between the personal and political spheres and many other polarized terms.

As the challenge of naming what is going on in our contemporary social and political environment increases, so, too, does the need for both intentional care and incisive critique. The Challenge is in the Naming is a helpful resource for this task because it does not shy away from either.

Maxwell Kennel is a doctoral student in the Department of Religious Studies at McMaster University, where he is writing a dissertation on violence and metaphysics in continental philosophy and Anabaptist Mennonite studies. In the fall of 2018, he will be teaching an introductory course on religion and violence.

This book collects essays by Mennonite theologian Lydia Neufeld Harder.

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