Sexist Responses to Women Writing About Religion by Sarah Sentilles
IN RESPONSE TO my recent memoir, Breaking Up with God: A Love Story, several reviewers came close to calling me stupid. Many suggested I didn’t know what I was talking about. As the title of the book suggests, I used the analogy of a romantic relationship gone wrong to describe my faith and its dissolution. These reviewers seemed to believe I understood my metaphorical romantic relationship with God to be a literal one. They wrote about me as if I actually thought God was my real boyfriend, as if I sat around waiting for God to take me to the prom and just couldn’t understand why my date never showed up. Silly girl.
Even though I have two graduate degrees from Harvard—including a doctorate in theology—many reviewers failed to treat me as a scholar of religion. The reviews were infantilizing and patronizing. For example, the reviewer for Kirkus Reviews wrote, “What becomes clear early is that the author’s understanding of God never developed beyond the childish concept of deity as a completely anthropomorphic figure.” Not only did the reviewer miss that the point of Breaking Up with God was to tell the story of letting go of an anthropomorphic version of God, but she or he also assumed I was not aware of any other theological alternatives. I am the author of three books, two of which are about religion; I was almost ordained as an Episcopal priest; and I have studied theology for more than a decade. Breaking Up with God is filled with references to a variety of theological conceptions of God—from feminist to liberationist to queer to womanist to black theologians—among them, Ludwig Feuerbach, James Cone, Alfred Whitehead, Mary Daly, Sally McFague, Gordon Kaufman, Paul Tillich, and Friedrich Schleiermacher. But, as my grandmother used to say, I can’t win for losing—for while one critic argued I didn’t say enough about theological alternatives, another critic, from the Los Angeles Times, maintained there was “too much talk here, too much chatter about competing viewpoints.” He prefers “the monastic approach to faith,” he wrote, “because humility is a crucial ingredient.” And then he asked, “Who really knows anything in their 20s?”
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This article is cross-posted at The Pen is Mightier at Harvard Divinity School.
Sarah Sentilles is a scholar of religion, an award-winning speaker, and the author of three books including A Church of Her Own: What Happens When a Woman Takes the Pulpit (Harcourt, 2008) and Breaking Up with God (HarperOne, 2011). She earned a Bachelor’s degree from Yale and a Master’s of Divinity and a Doctorate in Theology from Harvard, where she was awarded the Billings Preaching Prize and was the managing editor of the Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion. At the core of her scholarship, writing, and activism is a commitment to investigating the roles religious language, images, and practices play in oppression, violence, social transformation, and justice movements. She is currently at work on a novel and an edited volume that investigates the intersections of torture and Christianity.