JESSICA HETHERINGTON, Ecotheologian

Review of Emboldened by Christ, edited by April Bumgardner

I ‘met’ April Bumgardner, the editor and contributor of this new book, Emboldened by Christ: Women Writers on Discipleship and Spiritual Formation after we were both published in a journal on Christianity, women and environment, and began following each other on Instagram. We have since had a few conversations about faith and nature; I enjoy the faithful reflections she offers in her feed. (Bumgardner can be found @lovingeveryleaf on Instagram).

When I saw the subtitle of this book, published last year, I knew that I wanted to read it. My work explores the nature and dynamics of discipleship, particularly with how it plays into our responses to climate change and the wider ecological crisis. There is little sustained engagement with the idea of discipleship outside of conservative circles, and so I was intrigued to see how the writers in this book understand discipleship and its relationship to their faith in God.  

A Diverse Collection of Authors and Writings

Emboldened by Christ is a collection of writings by 13 American women who are seeking to live faithful lives in Jesus Christ. They are all lay women, most of whom are involved in some form of ministry within communities of faith. Many worship within or come from more conservative church traditions in which women are limited in what roles they are encouraged or allowed to take in ministry. The authors in this book hold diverse theologies and perspectives; what unites them, and ties the book together, is a deep and abiding Christ-centered faith that they seek to live out in every aspect of their lives.

The Word ‘Discipleship’ is Never Used!

What surprised me in reading this book is that, while the word ‘discipleship’ is on the front cover, I do not believe that actual word is used by any of the authors. Their reflections are on how they are formed and transformed, through their faith in Christ, in their lives and ministry, without ever using the term.

My working definition of discipleship is that it is faith lived out in action; if what we believe is not shown in our concrete actions in the world, it is not discipleship. Since the term itself is never used in the book, it meant, then, that I had to ask myself: what are each of these diverse authors witnessing to regarding the nature of discipleship, and what are they teaching me about what discipleship is about?

Inner Dynamics of Spiritual Formation

My discovery, as answers to those questions, was an understanding about the inner dynamics of spiritual formation; the ways in which our faith in Christ, when we let it, can mold us into more faithful disciples in our relationships with others. This includes our relationships with those we serve, in ministry and professional vocations, and in our interpersonal relationships with family, friends and community. This inner formation is essential to being able to respond to the call of God on our lives so that we can engage in discipleship. We need this inner formation from our relationships with God to allow us to pick up our cross and follow Jesus in response to social and ecological injustice; familial and community strife; pain and oppression in the world.

Outline of the Book

Bumgardner has organized the book into four sections that mimic the direction that faith journeys often take. In the first section, “Disrobing Shame, Donning Faithful Habits,” the authors explore what we need to let go of, from our experiences of shame and dysfunction, in order to build Christ-centered practices with others and ourselves. April offers biblical exegesis on the metaphor of garments in scripture in her essay, “Garments of Shame, Robes of Restoration.” Crystal Harrison describes the new ways she interacts with children in her care that moves away from trauma to safety, mutuality, and more. Crystal DeWindt explores what it means to be in community with one another as church.

The second section, “Circuitous Paths,” offers reflections on the various paths to deeper formation in Jesus Christ, and how that leads to living differently in the world. Leslie Kenney explores the power of lament through the experience of Naomi in the Book of Ruth. Andrea Corbito writes about the “painful path” that her experience of betrayal and divorce paved toward Christ. We also learn about the practices of writing, paying attention, and more: the diverse writers offer heartfelt contributions to this book.

The third and fourth sections lift up women’s voices in an intentional way, and explore the ways in which, when they are not silenced, the voices of women have so much to offer for the faith journey. The section “Sharper Vision, Clearer Voices” testifies to the power of storytelling and what women’s voices have to offer to the church and world. In “Quiet Narratives, Bold Truths,” two personal stories are shared of how faith can be lived out in relationships of caregiving.

What I Discovered

I don’t share all of the perspectives, assumptions or theologies that are expressed in this book; I did not expect to. What I discovered, in reading it, is that I don’t need to agree with each author’s theology, their assumptions about women, or their perspectives on faith, to be able to learn from them regarding spiritual formation, our relationships with God, and how it all relates to discipleship.

Invited into Conversation

What I also discovered was an experience of having been invited into conversations with deeply religious, faithful women, who have experienced trauma and trials in their lives and faith journeys, and who have allowed these experiences to form and transform them as Christians. I discovered a vulnerability and humility, as well as a strength of voice and will that has emerged from their very relationships with Jesus Christ. I discovered a power and conviction that is what is needed as the foundation of Christian discipleship.

The Importance of Spiritual Formation in Discipleship

Ultimately, Emboldened by Christ reminded and taught me about the importance of our spiritual formation in discipleship. How our character is formed and transformed through our faith in God, who for Christians is understood through Jesus Christ; this is what we live out in our relationships with others, what we express in our actions. This book reminded and taught me about the internal process that is essential to discipleship. Discipleship is the external manifestation of our ‘metanoia,’ our transformation, in our relationships with God. Without the internal process of spiritual formation, there can be no discipleship. I am grateful to the diverse authors in this book, and to April Bumgardner, contributor as well as editor, for bringing this book to fruition.

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