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.

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Categories: Feminism, Gender and Power, General, Sexism

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14 replies

  1. Insightful, wise and strong — And, for years I have, as much as possible, read only the works of women.

  2. Sad that your book was reviewed so badly. Unfortunately I guess, critics earn their pay by taking others work apart and in this case showed how little they really knew about the subject or you, the author. Your story is a good example of how ignorance (in this case the critic’s ignorance) is dangerous and destructive for both you and your potential readers.

  3. I read your book a year or so ago Sarah, and really liked it. To me, it seemed obvious that a woman would seriously do a double take and get out rather than be “ordained” in a church that had contempt for women at its core. It seemed like a complex meditation on patriarchy, and on realizing that you really can’t collaborate within the system. The responses to your book are predictable patriarchal ones. I appreciated that you wouldn’t tell lies just to get ordained…. you wouldn’t go on and on about celebrating the eucharist, when you didn’t think it was all that meaningful.

    But really, when women write about religion, no matter how many degrees we have, it doesn’t matter, it is still patriarchal erasure of women’s reality. This is what patriarchy looks like,
    it always attacks women in this way. Women are a threat to Christianity, our words get the male establishment all riled up. Women are really the opposite of anything these male religions say. Our intellectual development, if it is authentic, rejects the horror of these “faiths.” “Breaking up with god” is as good a metaphor as any. But clearly, these reviewers didn’t understand what you had to say.

    I have very low expectations for hetero/patriarchy. I think having these conversations about “women’s role” in the church largely tiresome and boring. I don’t know why women still stay in these churches, but I suspect it is an aspect of hetero role playing…. the family, the kids, the grandparents…blah blah blah… I have no interest in kids, grandparents, being a part of any of that.
    What I do want is the radical freedom of women from all those horrifying “roles.” But this is a lot to ask of the majority, who want to BE in those roles, and are willing to put up with male supremacy in the church to do it. Insane, liberal, male pleasing to the core, but heck, it’s the god almighty hetero family unit that is the object of worship. As a heterosexual woman, I think you just had some integrity, and I admire you for it. But within “christianity” the reviewers are still stuck in THEIR childhood notions of literalism, so they didn’t get the metaphor, because they don’t get metaphors of women leaving the church. Keep writing, and let us know when your next book is coming out!!

  4. Thank you for this. You know exactly what you’re talking about and expressed it eloquently. As a writer of religion in a patriarchal church, I really appreciate it.

  5. Sarah —

    The reviews of your book represent clearly patriarchal understandings — ageist and sexist as well. I know you realize that you shouldn’t take them into your self-understanding, but I want to underscore that point.

    Back in the 1970s I wrote a parody of “It Ain’t Necessarily So” entitled “It Ain’t Biologically So.” The chorus goes: “It ain’t biologically so,/ It ain’t biologically so,/ That foolish fiddle-faddle/ That sexists do prattle,/ It ain’t biologically so.” Each of the verses dealt with a different theme or event. The one I want to share with you is about the _Malleus Maleficarum_ (The Witch’s Hammer), written by two German monks Heinrich Krämer and Jakob Sprenger in the late 15th century. In this work, these two chuchmen thought they described women’s susceptibility to the devil by saying that carnal lust was insatiable in women. Here’s what I think (and I think it about your critics): “Oh Krämer went searching for witches./ His friend Sprenger looked for them, too./ In their _Witch’s Hammer_,/ They’d find and they’d damn her,/ For what in their britches did brew.” Projection, projection, projection…they’re all afraid that their views are actually infantile. And they’re still angry with mommy.

    I just read the rest of your article and it’s a wonderful evocation of the dismissal of women’s writing in our world today. I buy only books by women (with some minor exceptions), because I can’t get enough of our views in this patriarchal world. And I write letters to the editor when I see sexism in print. You go, girl!

  6. Thank you for your kind and generous comments, ES & Peg & Nancy. Thank you especially for the song verse! Love it! It makes such a difference to hear from other women. I so appreciate you reading my essay and taking the time to write to me!

  7. Long but a must-read for all female writers.

    I could most relate to the paragraph that begins, “Part of the challenge of writing is the struggle to believe you have something worth saying.” I’m writing a memoir and didn’t struggle with this when I first started it. It was after I read some of the reader reviews on Amazon about a book similar to mine that I started to doubt if this project was worth the effort. The book was by an author who was virtually unknown before the book, and people were saying things like, “She’s not Oprah or anything [i.e., not famous], so she shouldn’t have written a book about her life and we shouldn’t be expected to care.” As if women can only speak with authority about their own lives if they’ve already earned the adoration of millions through popular media–an outlet that doesn’t respect them.

    I keep writing because I believe the topics I write about need to be discussed and because I think, as statistics show, women’s voices are underrepresented in every sphere. Thanks for sharing your experience and your practical steps towards change.

  8. Hi Miriam,

    I so relate to your post — and I think I might have read that same Amazon review! I have stopped reading Amazon reviews and even most book reviews in general. I often do not find them helpful or illuminating, and I certainly do not need most of their voices in my head telling me my story is not worth telling, my ideas are not worth sharing, and my book is not worth reading.

    Good luck with your project! I look forward to seeing it in print.

  9. LOVE this article, Dr. Sentilles! I wrote a more detailed response on my personal blog, but i wanted to express my profound thanks for your fearless conviction here. You’re a trailblazer, and i know my work as an aspiring feminist theologian and writer will be carved out all the more because of you. Thank you.

  10. Nancy writes “I buy only books by women”– since women are the vast majority of readers, what would happen if we simply stopped reading men completely. Their books wouldn’t sell, the ideas would die out, the women would leave the churches, the men would preach to empty pews, the women’s energy would go to women’s needs and aspirations. No more childcare for men, no more producing children until men end war, no more having boys, until the big boys shape up… women just refuse refuse, and read and study each other. Now that would be a bloodless revolution!!! Just say NO to male authored idiocy, maybe even stop reading their stupid reviews of women’s writing, which they obviously don’t understand anyway. Projection indeed….

  11. I am training in the field of pastoral counselling. Many times I have felt under-educated in theology AND psychology when faced with my task of my emerging personal and professional identities. Not regarding the patriarchal ideas which can be easily found and imitated – but in claiming crafting what feels truer to me – the feminist development of women. GO GO GO I say and THANK YOU for claiming your credentials. It means a world of difference to women who follow in your tracks.

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