My Take: Five women in religion to watch
Kecia Ali, Nadia Bolz-Weber, Anthea Butler, Esther Fleece and Karen King are five women to watch for in religion this year
March 5th, 2012
04:00 AM ET

My Take: Five women in religion to watch

Editor's Note: Sarah Sentilles is a scholar of religion and the author of three books, most recently a memoir, "Breaking Up with God: A Love Story." She tweets as @sarahsentilles.

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

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.

CNN’s Belief Blog: The faith angles behind the biggest stories

Nadia Bolz-Weber

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

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).

Esther Fleece

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

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.

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: Belief • Christianity • Islam • Lutheran

soundoff (352 Responses)
  1. Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer changes things .

    March 6, 2012 at 6:08 am |
    • Jesus

      The statistical studies from the nineteenth century and the three CCU studies on prayer are quite consistent with the fact that humanity is wasting a huge amount of time on a procedure that simply doesn’t work. Nonetheless, faith in prayer is so pervasive and deeply rooted, you can be sure believers will continue to devise future studies in a desperate effort to confirm their beliefs""

      March 6, 2012 at 2:21 pm |
  2. RightTurnClyde

    CNN Belief Blog always tries to make "belief" a political platform. The feminist "movement" sis its own thing: run for women diseases and demonstrate for women s rights. Fine and dandy but only half of us are women and our faith is not a political party. Jesus commissioned "preach the gospels and baptize." If you do not want to read the gospels then they are condensed into the Apostles Creed (what the Apostles believed). That's Christianity. (it says nothing about Republicans or democrats or Obama or woman's lib or birth control or body parts or women s movements)

    March 6, 2012 at 4:31 am |
    • The cart goes behind the horse

      Religious people have made faith a political issue for millenia before CNN was started.

      March 6, 2012 at 4:36 am |
  3. Michael

    You know what they say the Roman's killed Jesus so that they could make Liftetime's of royalties. My guess is that they KNEW the roman empire wouldn't last forever officially anyway.


    March 6, 2012 at 4:29 am |
  4. Incontinentia Buttocks

    Talk about a woman who would be MUCH better off as an atheist: "social justice oriented, queer inclusive, incarnational, contemplative, irreverent and progressive." Talk about a collection of ideals that Christians cannot stand! She's VERY lucky the Inquisition is over.

    Then again, it might still be around, because as the enlightened amongst you know, no one expects the Spanish Inquisition!

    March 6, 2012 at 4:17 am |
  5. crow magnum

    CNN the New and Improved 700 Club!

    March 6, 2012 at 3:45 am |
  6. Ken Oberman

    I don't have any interest in following any of these jerk-offs.

    March 6, 2012 at 2:16 am |
  7. BigRed

    A woman speaking about religion is like uncooked spaghetti being soaked in hot water. It just makes a man limp.

    March 6, 2012 at 1:40 am |
    • John Lydon

      On the other hand, weird skimpy provocative costumes and hot dance choreography make a horsey-faced girl like Lady Gaga totally hot!

      March 6, 2012 at 1:54 am |
    • Ken Oberman

      Sarah Jessica Parker is queen horse face. That woman is just plain fuck ugly.

      March 6, 2012 at 2:17 am |
    • Observer

      Ken Oberman,


      March 6, 2012 at 2:27 am |
    • Ken Oberman

      No. She isn't classy by any stretch of the word. She thinks she's a diva or something, but in reality she should be hydrating from a troth.

      March 6, 2012 at 3:36 am |
    • Actual Line Spoken by Sarah Jessica Parker in "Ed Wood"

      "Do I really have a face like a horse?"

      Did you know that there is a website called sarahjessicaparkerlookslikeahorse.com? Seriously! The comparison photos on the home page are hilarious!

      March 6, 2012 at 4:23 am |
  8. YourMom

    A woman defending Islam is like a black person defending the tea party...they're laughing at you.

    March 6, 2012 at 1:35 am |
    • Mark from Middle River

      >>>"black person defending the tea party...they're laughing at you."

      Sorta like when Bill Clinton said that a few years back Obama would have been bringing us coffee or when Democrat Harry Reid said, "the Democrats could benefit because Mr Obama was “light-skinned” and had “no Ne'gro dialect, unless he wanted to have one”.

      Seems the Democrats are also laughing at African Americans as well, or is it that Democrats are the only ones allowed to laugh at minorities?

      March 6, 2012 at 3:18 am |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      Mark, it's pretty much like the GOP laughing at the evangelical thumpers. They call them nuts behind their backs and pander to them at every turn with anti-choice, anti-gay rhetoric, then once elected, ignore them.

      March 6, 2012 at 11:29 am |
  9. frog


    March 6, 2012 at 1:28 am |
  10. Mike

    I got to meet Nadia BW back in February. Sometimes, the power of being blunt is underestimated and over needed, and she certainly is a good reminder of that. Neat list, to all on it.

    March 6, 2012 at 1:18 am |
    • Ken Oberman

      The list is comprised of trollops. I bet they've all been ran through each by multiple football teams of desperate men.

      March 6, 2012 at 7:37 am |
  11. Five Dingbats in Religious To Watch!

    I would rather watch grass grow that watch these five useless women try to advance their imaginary friend.

    March 6, 2012 at 1:06 am |
    • NDeselection

      But...But... You will be smited! Zombie Jesus, ANGRY!!

      March 6, 2012 at 2:55 am |
    • Zombie Squirrels Will Feast Upon Your Nuts!

      Zombie Jesus wants brains to feast upon! Zombie Jesus is very thin because none of his followers have brains for him to munch.

      Zombie Jesus sad.

      March 6, 2012 at 4:06 am |
  12. Reggie

    I looked at the eyes in each of these pictures, and my gut feeling is that the only one of these women that I would really want to know is Esther Fleece. From appearances, she seems like the purest soul of the women depicted.

    What can you tell from a picture? Quite a bit. I could also immediately tell what their political persuasions were, just from their faces. Perhaps I should be an FBI profiler....

    March 6, 2012 at 12:17 am |
    • Observer


      You'd probably say you would have liked Timothy McVeigh to date your daughter.

      March 6, 2012 at 12:45 am |
    • JackoB

      Perhaps you think too highly of yourself.

      March 6, 2012 at 12:47 am |
    • tallulah13

      Perhaps you think too highly of your own abilities, Reggie.

      March 6, 2012 at 12:47 am |
    • Kathleen

      Congratulations. You're able to identify the member of a hate group like Focus on the Family, just by looking at her. Please use your special powers to keep those bigots away from civilized society.

      March 6, 2012 at 12:55 am |
    • Ken Oberman

      Esther is the only one that doesn't look like she's spent time dipping her face into a wood chipper.

      But, she could stand to lose a few dozen pounds. Then I'd consider tossing one off to her likeness.

      March 6, 2012 at 2:19 am |
    • NDeselection

      Sweet! Next time I'm at the library, I'll have to bring you along with so you can tell me which books to check out! Man, we could go through that whole thing in like, 20 minutes!

      March 6, 2012 at 2:57 am |
  13. Atheist teen

    Christians: 80% ::::: Jewish 1.7 – 2.2% :::::::: Muslim 0.6-0.8% ::::::::::: Atheists/Agnostics 2-3% :::::::::::::::Secular/Not member of any religion 16%

    March 5, 2012 at 11:51 pm |
    • Johnny Blammo

      Well, you've accounted for 100.3% to 102% of the population. What about the rest?

      Try to be more careful next time.

      March 6, 2012 at 1:14 am |
    • Ken Oberman

      Those numbers look like prison population numbers. Although, the percentage of atheists in prison is lower, isn't it?

      March 6, 2012 at 2:21 am |
    • crow magnum

      Johnny, props for your attention to detail!

      March 6, 2012 at 3:47 am |
    • If horses had Gods .. their Gods would be horses

      You'd have to add the Atheist group % to the "not member of any religion", which makes Atheists a larger group 2nd only to Christians (for now).

      March 6, 2012 at 8:57 am |
  14. countrycook

    I have never heard of these ladies BUT only watch and listen to them IF they are telling the WHOLE Word of God and not just words that will "tickle" your ears and make you "feel" good.

    March 5, 2012 at 11:28 pm |
    • Lenny Pincus

      Lucky for us all that you are capable of recognizing the word of God and explaining it to everyone else.

      March 5, 2012 at 11:34 pm |
    • Saladin

      For I testify unto every man that heareth the words of the prophecy of this book, If any man shall add unto these things, God shall add unto him the plagues that are written in this book:
      And if any man shall take away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God shall take away his part out of the book of life, and out of the holy city, and from the things which are written in this book.

      Well all have beliefs, these are yours. Adhere to them through your belief. You have people among you that say they believe this but they hate. I have people among me that believe my faith, yet they hate. You and I cannot control their hate but we can control ours. Believing in something is meant to be pure not filled with hate. Believing in nothing can be pure and not filled with hate. Believing in what they have should belong to me or I want to be better than they are will always bring you to hate. So jjust believe in what you believe and stay steadfast to that belief yet be vigilant in your protection, stay clear of the haters yet render them a heavy blow when they storm through your door.

      March 6, 2012 at 12:29 am |
    • David

      And if that person or persons you are referring too so chooses to hate or try to harm you what would you say then?

      March 6, 2012 at 1:02 am |
    • Ken Oberman

      Why anyone would listen to someone that believes in god in the first place is beyond me.

      March 6, 2012 at 2:24 am |
    • NDeselection

      Well, not all of it, eh? That pesky Timothy 2:12 bit especially: "But I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence."

      March 6, 2012 at 2:58 am |
  15. tony

    Lady Luck is the only true example of divine intervention.

    March 5, 2012 at 11:15 pm |
  16. cosmicsnoop

    For crying out loud. We were created by aliens, specifically the Annunaki. They are the "Gods" of the old testament. Look in any Bible and it says Man was created in OUR image. It's plural. This information is totally mainstream now and is on the History Channel for Christ's sake. And if you think I'm crazy, all the Bible stories are all literally true right? That's SOOOO believable.

    March 5, 2012 at 10:48 pm |
    • Ken Oberman

      Just because the guy with the weird hair says it is so, doesn't mean it's true. I think both theories are stupid. But, to each ramrod his own moronic conspiracy theory. Me, I don't have any.

      March 6, 2012 at 2:25 am |
    • Zeta Riticulan

      We were here and we're coming back!

      March 6, 2012 at 9:41 am |
  17. mickey1313

    ALL thiests are hypocrites and flat out evil

    March 5, 2012 at 10:45 pm |
    • Mack

      Why? If so, you'd expect larger %'s of them in prison, getting divorced, etc. than their representative proportion of society. In fact, it's actually the opposite. They are UNDER-represented in these "bad" categories. Now continue with why they are evil and so bad....

      March 5, 2012 at 11:06 pm |
    • Starman

      Mack, atheists represent up to 20% of the US population and .2% of prison population. Christians are at 79% so it does show this.

      March 5, 2012 at 11:39 pm |
    • Matthew

      Atheists make up 2-3% of the U.S. population... please do research here on CNN.
      16% of the U.S. are not members of any religion; however only 2-3 identify themselves as atheists/agnostics.

      March 5, 2012 at 11:48 pm |
    • Agnostic mom

      Starman where did you get the 20% from???? There was an article the other day saying that atheists and agnostic are only 2 to 3% of the USA population.

      March 5, 2012 at 11:49 pm |
    • Fn0rdz

      The actual number is probably around 10%... there are still plenty out there who are afraid to come out. At any rate, the prison statistics bear out- believers are OVERWHELMINGLY represented as opposed to atheists in prison.

      March 6, 2012 at 12:30 am |
  18. Reality

    Three contemporary women who do not suffer from the shackles of Dark Age mumbo jumbo:

    Julia Sweeney

    If you have not already done so, please watch Julia Sweeney's monologue "Letting Go of God".

    (Ex-Catholic, now atheist) Julia Sweeney's monologue "Letting Go Of God" will continue to be an effective tool to end the absurdity of religion.

    Buy the DVD or watch it on Showtime. Check your cable listings.
    from http://www.amazon.com
    "Letting Go of God ~ Julia Sweeney (DVD – 2008)

    Five Star Rating

    Ayaan Hirsi Ali

    Islam gives women almost no rights and treats them like fodder for the male species as so bluntly noted by Ayaan Hirsi Ali in her autobiography, In-fidel.

    "Thus begins the extraordinary story of a woman born into a family of desert nomads, circu-mcised as a child, educated by radical imams in Kenya and Saudi Arabia, taught to believe that if she uncovered her hair, terrible tragedies would ensue. It's a story that, with a few different twists, really could have led to a wretched life and a lonely death, as her grandmother warned. But instead, Hi-rsi Ali escaped – and transformed herself into an internationally renowned spokeswoman for the rights of Muslim women."

    ref: Washington Post book review.

    some excerpts:

    "Some of the Saudi women in our neighborhood were regularly be-aten by their husbands. You could hear them at night. Their scre-ams resounded across the courtyards. "No! Please! By Allah!"

    "The Pakistanis were Muslims but they too had cas-tes. The Untou-chable girls, both Indian and Pakistani were darker skin. The others would not play with them because they were unt-ouchable. We thought that was funny because of course they were tou-chable: we to-uched them see? but also hor-rifying to think of yourself as un-touchable, des-picable to the human race."

    "Between October 2004 and May 2005, eleven Muslim girls were ki-lled by their families in just two regions (there are 20 regions in Holland). After that, people stopped telling me I was exa-ggerating."

    "The kind on thinking I saw in Saudi Arabia and among the Brotherhood of Kenya and Som-alia, is incompatible with human rights and liberal values. It preserves the feu-dal mind-set based on tr-ibal concepts of honor and shame. It rests on self-deception, hypro-cricy, and double standards. It relies on the technologial advances of the West while pretending to ignore their origin in Western thinking. This mind-set makes the transition to modernity very painful for all who practice Islam".

    Susan Jacoby

    "Susan Jacoby (born 1946[1]) is an American author. Her 2008 book about American anti-intellectualism, The Age of American Unreason, was a New York Times best seller. She is an atheist and secularist. Jacoby graduated from Michigan State University in 1965. She lives in New York City and is program director of the New York branch of the Center for Inquiry.[2]

    Her book Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism was named a notable book of 2004 by The Washington Post and The New York Times.[3] It was also named an Outstanding International Book of the Year by the Times Literary Supplement (London) and The Guardian. Wild Justice: The Evolution of Revenge (1984) was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.

    [2] Jacoby also won an Alicia Patterson Journalism Fellowship [4] in 1974 to research and write about the new Americans: immigration into the U.S.

    March 5, 2012 at 10:32 pm |
    • Reality?

      So the Belief Blog about five women in religion should highlight two atheists and a women who has lost her belief in Islam? Does that make atheism or secular humanism a belief system? a religion? All the comments to the contrary ("atheism is not a belief, it is a non-belief") would seem to mitigate your entire post. Unless of course atheism and secular humanism are actually belief systems...

      March 6, 2012 at 12:37 pm |
  19. Brennon

    "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..."

    ...Yeah, and maybe in another million years, women will equal the impact of Jesus, Mohammed, Moses, or Buddah...but I doubt it

    March 5, 2012 at 10:32 pm |
    • Matt


      Christianity, Judaism and Islam are the worst things to befall humanity ever... saying those men had a huge impact isn't a good thing. Hitler had a huge impact, Stalin had a huge impact.. I would lump the fathers of the 3 great monotheistic faiths in with those ass clowns anyday.

      March 5, 2012 at 10:51 pm |
    • Brennon

      Wow. And how many people are going to remember you after you die Matt?? ZERO...because you are a worthless sack of pig manure.

      March 5, 2012 at 10:59 pm |
    • mark

      Wow, way to show that 'love thy neighbor' mentality you guys are always so intent on throwing in our faces.

      March 5, 2012 at 11:08 pm |
  20. My Take: Two Women of belief blog to watch

    HS and TT

    March 5, 2012 at 10:30 pm |
    • Uncouth Swain

      TT is a C U next Tuesday and she's also a broken record militant butch bulldyke. Not worth the waste of time.

      March 6, 2012 at 4:05 am |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      Nice try, troll.

      March 6, 2012 at 8:57 am |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      Poor herbie/US/captain dumbazz.

      No job and no girlfriend, huh?

      I weep for you.

      March 6, 2012 at 10:05 am |
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About this blog

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 with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.