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Published Date: August 9, 2022

Book Info

Book Review: Buried Talents: Overcoming Gendered Socialization to Answer God’s Call

Many churches and denominations welcome, and even advocate for, women in positions of church leadership. However, even in egalitarian churches, women remain underrepresented in these positions as well as in other traditionally male fields and roles to which God may be calling them. Dr. Susan Harris Howell, professor of psychology at Campbellsville University in central Kentucky, contends that the reason for this has not only to do with whether the church or organization approves of women in leadership positions, but also the ways women and men internalize implicit messages about gender roles. Usually unintentionally, bearers of such messages often communicate to women that they are better suited for childcare and service roles while men are better suited for leadership roles. These messages drive men toward male-dominated roles and women away from them, hindering women from fulfilling God’s call for their lives.

Howell structures her argument in three sections. First, she outlines the ways that well-meaning caregivers, friends, and other influential forces articulate different roles for men and women in childhood, adolescence, and adulthood. From the toys that parents pick out for their children, to the way teachers discuss math grades with their students, to the interview process for employment, the people and world around us subtly direct women and men toward certain interests and abilities. Specifically, they direct women toward caring for children, maintaining a household, and supporting the calling of their husbands rather than pursuing career or ministry goals to follow their own calling.

In the second section, Howell illustrates her argument through the stories of two people, Sarah and Michael. Both discern a call to ministry, specifically preaching, but the implicit messages they receive from those around them drive them toward very different outcomes. Sarah encounters barriers to her calling and instead makes decisions to accommodate her husband and family. Michael pursues his calling and provides for his wife and family through his career. While both are fictional, these characters encounter realities that men and women experience every day as they navigate their callings in the society that is socializing them.

In the final section, Howell suggests strategies for both men and women to critically evaluate the messages they have received and replace them with more accurate and constructive messages. This first involves creating a more accurate self-perception, listening to the truth about our abilities rather than diminishing them or restricting ourselves to other roles. Howell also advises to build a support system of like-minded people who will speak truth into our lives and support our callings. Finally, Howell encourages us to use what we have learned and the ways we have grown to support others in their journey of following their calling. This can happen on both the individual level and on a broader scale as we continue to work toward equality in all contexts, especially in the church and in ministry.

Howell supports her arguments well with researched concepts of socialization, and she also writes with an accessible style that keeps the reader engaged and informed of the content of her argument. She provides enough information and research to fully explain and support her claims while balancing this information with real-life applications and illustrations. She thoroughly defines the problem, provides an applicable example, and proposes evidence-based solutions that can be implemented by men and women in multiple contexts. Buried Talents is not a pessimistic examination of everything that is wrong with the world; it is a tool useful for gaining a better understanding of a specific manifestation of the fall of humanity so that we can challenge and change this reality. Howell offers a strategy for embracing the kingdom of heaven on earth through the empowerment of both men and women to follow their calling given by God.

As a student of social sciences, I appreciate Howell’s comprehensive analysis of the entangled web of social forces that inform our understanding of gender and calling. As a follower of Christ, it can be difficult to apply these theories of socialization to situations in everyday life—specifically to faith and life in the church—as the church often appears to be another barrier to gender equality. However, Howell contends that the church, like every other institution, is made up of a diverse group of individual people, people who have internalized various messages and grapple with them both individually and communally. These individuals have as much variability in their worldviews as the world around us, and we can collaborate with one another and use our individual gifts and callings to wrestle with the implicit messages of the world.

I appreciate the hopeful strategy Howell provides in the midst of a seemingly insurmountable obstacle. Indeed, it is challenging to unlearn the conclusions we have drawn about what it means to be human, man or woman. With Howell’s strategies, we can hold fast to the truth that God has given: that humanity was created “in the image of God . . . male and female” (Gen 1:27). That each man and woman has a unique calling to bring the kingdom of heaven to earth through our specific, God-given gifts and abilities, regardless of gender. Social scientists can continue to examine the realities of the social world, preachers can continue to interpret and communicate the word of God into the life of the church, mothers and fathers can continue to empower their children to pursue their calling, and we can all continue to “spur one another on toward love and good deeds” (Heb 10:24 NIV) in any and every context.