Alsup, Wendy Horger. Practical Theology For Women: How Knowing God Makes a Difference in Our Daily Lives. Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway Books, 2008.
Reviewed by guest blogger Priscilla Barry.
A friend once sent me a story that illustrates the importance of an ever-expanding knowledge of theology. A sailor, working on a cargo ship with a rigorous deadline for delivery, was assigned the late night watch on deck. During the first minutes of his watch, a freak accident culminated in the sailor falling overboard. It was the next morning before the sailor’s absence was discovered. When a thorough search of the ship revealed with certainty that the sailor was no longer on board, the ship was a day’s journey beyond the point where the sailor, in all probability, had gone overboard. The ship’s captain immediately called for the ship to return to search for the sailor against the advice of his second in command, who felt the ship must continue on its course in order to reach its destination punctually. “Besides,” the second in command asserted, “the sailor is hopelessly lost and, in all probability, already drowned.”
Though the ship turned around to retrace its course, three days passed before the ship’s crew found the sailor. He had survived in the water only by extraordinary means and was nearly totally physically exhausted. When the rescued sailor was recovering in the sickbay, the captain came to visit and ask him the question that had been in his mind since the recovery of the lost sailor, “How did you keep up your effort to stay afloat so long?”
“I was able to endure because I knew the ship would return,” the sailor replied.
“But how did you know that the ship would return?” The captain persisted.
“Because I know you, and I know the kind of man you are.”
Many books dealing with the subject of theology are gigantic tomes requiring hours and days and months to read. Conversely, Practical Theology for Women by Wendy Alsup requires only a minimal investment of reading time and covers a practical introduction to theology. Reading this book is a commendable start to what should be the lifelong pursuit of every Christian—knowing God. The word, “theology,” can be frightening but Alsup understands our trepidations. She contends, “Proper theology is not complex, but it is fundamentally important for all believers, because knowing our God and understanding his character are essential tools that enable us to exercise wisdom in our daily lives. As we study who God is and what he does, we are equipped to deal with the big and small issues of life” (61).
Alsup writes this book particularly aimed at women, not because theology for women is different, but because as she explains, “most theology books are written by men and aimed at a predominately male audience. With this book, I hope to fight the unspoken mentality that theology is for men, while parenting, sewing or dieting classes are for women” (21). Alsup doesn’t want women to be content with the “Christian desk calendar approach to Christianity.” She wants women to boldly push forward toward a more intimate knowledge of God, and her intention in writing this book is that it will be a catalyst for women to catch “the vision of the power of theology to transform us as women where it counts most” (20).
But surprisingly not every Christian woman views the study of theology as a lifelong process, Alsup says, “One woman told me she already knew all there was to know about God. What? Are you kidding me? She might as well claim that she knows all there is to know about the universe. But there she sits, oblivious to all she doesn’t know about him and content in her ignorance” (35). Are we content in our ignorance? All Christians should be able to wholeheartedly join King David in saying, “O God, you are my God; earnestly I seek you; my soul thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water.” (Psalm 63:1-3).
In her preface, Alsup illustrates how a growing knowledge of God’s character helped her see God as good because of and not in spite of the dark times in her life, “Looking back at those trials, I am reminded of the truth of God’s character that I so often forget. Our trials, though painful for us, brought about wonderful fruit in our lives. Like Moses in Exodus 33, we caught a glimpse of God’s glory, and it was the most beautiful thing we have ever seen” (18). Like a blind man standing before a beautiful sunrise, Alsup wouldn’t have seen God’s glory in the midst her tragedy if she hadn’t been nurturing a growing knowledge of him.
In my story, if the sailor had depended on an empirical knowledge of the behavior of ships, he would have given up and drowned, because ships typically will not return to retrieve someone who has fallen overboard hours previous to discovery. The probability of rescue is too unlikely in a vast ocean. Instead the sailor put his faith in his knowledge of the character of his captain. While an unmitigated knowledge of God’s character is impossible, it is vital that we have an expanding, intimate knowledge of our commander, so that we too may endure and even triumph under seemingly impossible odds.
Part One: “What is Theology?” is divided into five chapters. In the first chapter, “Why Should I Care?”, Alsup demonstrates through several verses in the Bible that we must pursue a knowledge of God because, apart from this knowledge, we have no hope “for being a wise mother, sister, wife, or friend” (27). The second chapter, “What Is Faith?” acquaints the reader with the definition of faith and its effect on a believer’s actions and reactions, “The move from unbelief to belief… is evidenced when I move from despair to peace, despite nothing changing in my circumstances” (38). “Faith Works!”, the third chapter, compares the outcome of faith and lack of faith in several Old and New Testament stories. Through these vignettes, Alsup clearly demonstrates that there is a connection between a lack of faith and sin, which bring us to the conclusion “it’s not what you say that demonstrates faith in your life. It is what you do and how you respond in the moment of crisis” (49). The last two chapters, “Appropriating What You Believe” and “Practical Theology Indeed,” discuss the interplay of various aspects of theology and faith and show “the fundamental value of the study of theology in a believer’s life.”
Part 2: “Who Is Our God?” is divided into seven chapters, each one dealing with an attribute of God. Alsup says, “Many of us come to God with unbiblical notions of who he is and what he does. We’ve let our culture and upbringing, rather than the Bible itself, determine the character traits we attribute to God” (63). After a discussion of some of God’s attributes, Alsup asks, “Does your life reflect an understanding of these doctrines?” (93). But she doesn’t leave us there; instead, she briefly helps us see how attributes such as “kenosis—Christ’s emptying himself of his divine rights, letting go of his reputation, and humbling himself to the point of being crucified on the cross” should impact our view of our rights and change our reactions to other people. She concludes that, “We are commanded to allow the mind of Christ to rule over us…and his mind dictates that we give up our rights and think nothing of ourselves in our ministry to others” (94).
Part 3: “Communicating with Our God” is the most inspiring section in this book. In Chapter 13, “Prayer Our Means of Conversing with God,” the Lord’s Prayer is divided into parts. The first part discusses the word, “hallowed” and its meaning from the Greek word hagiazo, “to set apart as holy, to respect, honor, and greatly revere (125). The second part begins with the question, “What exactly is the kingdom of God?” (125). This begins a discussion of contemporary views on the kingdom of God. “Give us this day our daily bread” takes on a different meaning when Alsup points out that first we are taught to acknowledge “God’s name, God’s will, and God’s glory” (127). Alsup says, “We often think of prayer as a wish list to dictate to our personal genie. But prayer is first and foremost praise and adoration to the One who has purchase our salvation for us” (127). As each part of the Lord’s Prayer is analyzed, Alsup tries to help us answer the question, “What does this phrase from the Lord’s Prayer mean for us?” In conclusion, Alsup stresses the ideas that we should pray without ceasing and persevere in prayer, because as she points our “God knows that praying to Him keeps our hearts and minds at peace” (131).
In the last chapter, Alsup asserts that the only way to truly learn about God is to read the Bible because “the written Word alone is the hammer that breaks the heart of stone and the sword that pierces our thoughts. You cannot be thoroughly equipped for service to God apart from personal study of his written Word” (148). But she doesn’t just tell us to read the Bible, she gives us guidance consisting of a brief overview of the three categories of Old Testament stories: God’s work to persevere and protect the line of Christ, pictures of the Messiah, and revelations of the condition of man apart from a Savior and his need for Jesus. Then Alsup continues with a succinct overview of the picture of Jesus revealed in all biblical scriptures.
Alsup concludes with assurance that though we may not understand every concept that we read in the Bible, “God’s Word is living and breathing, and given the chance, it will cut you open with amazing clarity” (149).
Practical Theology for Women is a delightful appetizer that will leave every woman who reads it with a deep desire to know more about God through reading his Word, living in faith, and praying without ceasing.