March 5th, 2012
04:00 AM ET
By Sarah Sentilles, Special to CNN
(CNN) - The year 2012 has only just begun and already women are revolutionizing what it looks like to be religious, to study religion and to engage in social change. Here are five women to watch in 2012:
Kecia Ali, a feminist scholar who focuses on Islamic jurisprudence and women in early and modern Islam, is one of the organizers of “Muslim Women and the Challenge of Authority,” a conference that will be held at Boston University in March. Participants will be asking crucial questions about who has the right to speak for or about Muslim women, important work at a time when the image of the “veiled Muslim woman” is still being used to prove the supposed inferiority of Muslim cultures and to justify Islamophobia. Ali is the author of "Sexual Ethics and Islam" and, most recently, "Imam Shafi’i: Scholar and Saint" (2011). Her current research focuses on biographies of Mohammed. She is an sssociate professor of religion at Boston University.
Nadia Bolz-Weber is changing what church looks like — and she’s changing what ministers look like while she’s at it. The tattooed founding pastor of House for All Sinners and Saints is a leading voice in the emerging church movement, what people like Diana Butler Bass are calling a new Reformation. Bolz-Weber is committed to the belief that the Bible still matters, that you shouldn’t have to leave parts of yourself behind when you show up at church and that the Lutheran tradition can be revolutionary. The House for All Sinners and Saints is social justice oriented, queer inclusive, incarnational, contemplative, irreverent and progressive. You can even buy a church T-shirt with the slogan “Radical Protestants: Nailing sh*t to the church door since 1517” emblazoned on the back. Bolz-Weber is the author of "Salvation on the Small Screen? 24 Hours of Christian Television." More of her writing can be found in The Christian Century and her own blog, the Sarcastic Lutheran.
Anthea Butler models what engaged scholarship looks like in the 21st century. Butler, an associate professor of religious studies and graduate chair in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Pennsylvania, brings a scholar’s eye to contemporary politics and decodes the work religion is doing in the public square. She’s a regular contributor to Religion Dispatches and a prolific tweeter. Whether she’s discussing politics, popular culture, Pentecostalism or the history of African-American women’s religious lives, Butler demonstrates an unceasing commitment to telling the truth and holding people accountable. Her newest book, "The Gospel According to Sarah: How Sarah Palin's Tea Party Angels are Galvanizing the Religious Right," will be published this summer by the New Press. It explores Palin’s Pentecostal roots and the fervent Christianity of her followers, revealing what Jeff Sharlet calls “a new kind of piety—a ‘supersized’ folk religion that’s part Pentecostalism, part evangelicalism, part Catholicism, and part high heels.” In the meantime, Butler will be tweeting about the presidential election and the pedophilia scandal in the Philadelphia Archdiocese (she tweets as @AntheaButler).
The assistant to the president for millennial relations at Focus on the Family, Esther Fleece was hired to bring the so-called “millennials” back to the conservative Christian movement. She has her work cut out for her. Fleece says she has friends who voted for Obama and she also has friends who are gay. Fleece tweets (you can find her @EstherFleece) and blogs about a variety of topics ranging from Tim Tebow’s Christianity (in a recent post at On Faith she compared Tebow to John the Baptist) to why women shouldn’t live with their boyfriends but should rather make them “put a ring on it.” She’s working to redefine what it means to be young and evangelical at a time when conservative Republicans are looking for that particular demographic’s vote. It will be interesting to see just who ends up influencing whom.
Karen King is the first woman appointed as the Hollis Professor of Divinity at Harvard Divinity School, the oldest endowed chair in the United States, and she is at work on a book about “martyrdom and its discontents” that rethinks the role of violence in the formation of Christianity. She writes against polarized opinions about religion and violence often heard today — either religion is essentially intolerant and thus naturally given to violence, or religion is essentially peaceful. As a way out of this impasse, King focuses on controversies among early Christians themselves over how to understand and respond to the violence aimed against them. (Full disclosure: King was my professor at Harvard Divinity School and in 2010 we co-convened a Radcliffe seminar, “Christianity and Torture.”) In her books and her lectures, King makes Christianity’s ancient history relevant and revolutionary as she investigates what is at stake and for whom. She is the author of "The Secret Revelation of John; and Revelation of the Unknowable God."
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Sarah Sentilles.
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke and Eric Marrapodi with daily contributions from CNN's worldwide newsgathering team and frequent posts from religion scholar and author Stephen Prothero.