Katherine Rhodes HENDERSON, God’s troublemakers: How women of faith are changing the world. Continuum, 2006. Pp. 247. $24.95 hc. ISBN -13: 978-0-8264-1867-8.
Reviewed by Don SWENSON, Mount Royal College, Calgary Alberta Canada T3E 6K6

Rhodes Henderson’s piece is extraordinarily redolent with words and phrases that are so capturing and gripping that they keep the reader intrigued and open to the veracity underling the terms. She takes you on a journey not only of announcing the wonderful things these women have done but also offers the reader a challenge of social action or a resistant movement to become engaged in coming to the needs of countless marginalised and hurting people.

Her data consist of twenty women who have made a difference in the lives of many people. She conducted in depth interviews of these women who told her their stories of courage, faith, and resilience in making a difference in society.

She is struck like so many modern believers are of the marginalisation of religion away from the public to the private–termed by some sociologists of religion as its privatization (see Berger, 1967). These women she portrays as reversing this through what may be called Liberal Social Action (see Swenson, 1999) wherein they use new forms grounded in contemporary forms of faith of a liberal or progressive nature.

Another theme she shares with many academics and critics of religion is that it can be both life producing or death wielding. An historian, Arnold Toynbee (1956), avers that religion can be both a chrysalis and a cancer—life giving as well as destructive. Rhodes Henderson writes:

Religion is potent, even a dangerous force, capable of sponsoring both richer life and unspeakable destruction (2006:20). Themes which capture these women of faith and courage consist of: — compelling incidents
— being small and personal
— keeping this personal link through their lives
— being respectful, protective, and responsive
— relatedness, collaborative, and being humble
— being voices of protest
— in the face of others to challenge them
— and being instruments of social change.
As indicated in the introductory paragraph, Rhodes Henderson makes use of a wide variety of imaginative and provocative terms to describe these women. They include: — “Spiritual entrepreneurs”: the women, the author outlines in her text, are those kind of women who a gifted in “selling” not only ideas of justice but ways that justice can be given to those who are suffering (p. 11).
— “Social alchemists”: these women took a dark situation in the lives of people and transferred it into light (p. 26).
— “Holding environment”: many of the people these twenty women have cared for are homeless, live in abusive relationships, or are ostracised from society. These religious leaders provide homes of safety for them (p. 32).
— “Dance between the particular and the universal”: a talent that these women inherited or learned is to care for individual persons but also to protest for social change (p. 53).
— “Grounding the abstract”: the ideals of justice and dignity (among others like compassion) are concretized into reality that result in transformation (p. 55).
— “Tendrils of connection” and “web of inclusion”: these terms refer to an understanding that people are part of social systems wherein parts (persons) are linked to larger systems and that the hurting person needs to be cared for as well as an endeavour to change the social system (p. 59-60).
— “Leading from behind”: most leaders lead from in front; these, mostly men, carve a path and expect others to follow. The women in this book empower the victimized and stand behind to encourage, support, and be advocates for them (p. 77). — “Resistance faith”: this is the religious faith of these leaders who use their sacred perspectives and teachings to resist power, control, and injustice meted out to the poor and abused of the world (p. 109).
— “Words create realities”: these women approach their mission in life with religious backgrounds. They all share a faith that is non-literalist and use images and stories from Jewish, Christian and Muslim texts to tell their stories in an endeavour to offer hope and encouragement to the hurting ones (p. 122-125).
— “Multilingual capacity”: this capacity is not to speak in many languages but to come to understand the language of those who hurt. It is similar to another phrase: “language from behind the wall” (p. 137).
— “Palimpsest of forces”: the etymological meaning of the term of palimpsest is of a piece of vellum or parchment which has been written on many times, and within which traces of the earlier layers can still be discerned. Applied to these courageous women it means that they are persons upon which many layers of life experience have been written, that, together, bring meaning, power and elan to their current lives (p. 176).
I offer three critiques of her work. In describing religion in her terms, she takes what is most general from all the religious traditions of these women (Jewish, Christian and Muslim). She uses terms like: religion is about meaning, all religious are concerned about justice and compassion, God as a creative force, a God of relations, a God as a fellow sufferer. In an attempt to picture early Islam as being gender neutral she does not know the early sources of Islam being a strong patriarchal religion from the start (see Stowasser,1994) and many reference in the Qur’an (Swenson, in press).

The second criticism is of the nature of religion. The author uses a reductive approach to the study of these three faiths. In the spirit of an analysis by Berger (1979), she reduces the heart of these religions to a common denominator and thus pulls the “heart out of them.” The essence of Christianity is that Jesus is the Son of God who died on the cross and was raised to life. Rhodes Henderson does not mention this and it is a teaching that both Jews and Muslims deny.

The third criticism is that she claims that a religious feminism is inclusive. She provides evidence for this but, in the end, excludes men. It is women who are to forge the future, not men, or men and women working together. She implies that if men take up this challenge they need to use a feminist perspective of social action and religion.

On the whole, however, this author has done a marvellous work that is of importance of not only the contribution women can make to social justice issues but also of presenting a voice that is unique. I encourage readers to “take a leap” as she says into a terrain that is not travelled on a frequent journey.


Berger, P.1967. “Religious Institutions.” In Sociology, edited by N. Smelser, pp. 329-379. New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
Berger, P. 1979. The heretical imperative. Garden City, NY: Anchor Press of Doubleday.
Stowasser, B. 1994. Women in the Qur’an, traditions, and interpretation. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Swenson, D. 1999. Society, spirituality and the sacred: A social scientific introduction. Peterborough, ON: Broadview Press.
Swenson, D. In press. Society, spirituality and the sacred: A social scientific introduction. (Second Edition) Peterborough, ON: Broadview Press.
Toynbee, A. 1956. An historian’s approach to religion. New York: Oxford University Press.


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