Breaking Up with Bad Stories by Sarah Sentilles

Writing a memoir meant denying stories about myself that are no longer true.

Note: This post is part of  a Religion Roundtable where the authors of three prominent faith memoirs were asked to write about their views on—and experience of—female spirituality. Check to read the discussion between Jana Riess, Lauren Winner, and Sarah Sentilles on the unique religious questions facing women today.

Dear Jana and Lauren,

Jana writes that “Mormon women don’t yet have the luxury of taking their own voices for granted,” and while I recognize that Mormon women are in a different political/theological position than other women, especially in demonimations that ordain women, I would like to expand her statement: No woman—anywhere, in any tradition, or on the outside of any tradition—has the luxury of taking her own voice for granted.

Jana worries that writing with a political agenda in mind could make our work smack of propaganda, and I think she is right, but I want to propose that all language is propaganda. Especially theological language. Our words about God are shot through with intentions and agendas; they convey people’s purposes and hopes and fears; and they have real effects.

We live our lives as if the way we think about God is the way God is, so how we think about God makes all the difference. In Systematic Theology, Paul Tillich makes an argument about how religious language works. Everything, he writes, “can become the bearer of the holy.” Everything is “open to consecration.” He is making a point about the power of the symbols we use for God. If you call God “father,” then all “fathering” becomes holy. If you call God “mother,” then all “mothering” becomes holy. If you call God “bread,” then all “feeding” and “eating” and “kneading” become holy.

This “holy-making-power” has a dangerous downside: “If God is male,” Mary Daly writes, “then the male is God.”

During our roundtable discussion, I have been thinking of Daly’s brilliant Beyond God the Father. (Have you read it recently? Read it again!) “Women have had the power of naming stolen from us,” Daly writes. “We have not been free to use our own power to name ourselves, the world, or God . . . To exist humanly is to name the self, the world, and God . . . The liberation of language is rooted in the liberation of ourselves.”

Daly calls on us to reclaim the right to name, which is exactly what Lauren does in her recent post about expanding our vocabulary for God, about the need to call God not only father but also grandmother and clothing and gardener and house-builder. Her words made me want to go back to church, which is the feeling I had after reading Still—and not just any church, but a church with someone like Lauren in the pulpit.

The limited God-language I heard every Sunday morning in almost every church I attended is one of the main reasons I left institutional Christianity. Feminist theologians and Black theologians and womanist theologians and liberation theologians and queer theologians have been writing for decades about the need for different language about God—and they have also been writing about the damage God-language can do. But in most churches it is as if we have never spoken. Church leaders have consistently responded to critiques of patriarchal/heterosexist/white supremacist God-language with dismissiveness (Pope Benedict championing “feminine genius” even as he asserts that women cannot be priests) or hatred (Santorum’s honorary co-chair Reverend O’Neal Dozier saying homosexuality makes “God want to vomit”) or accusations of heresy and evil (remember when Jerry Falwell blamed “the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians” for 9/11?).

But as Lauren points out, there used to be a whole hell of a lot more ways to talk about God than what most ministers revert to on Sunday mornings. In fact, the further back in Chritianity’s history you go, the more variety for language about God you will find. Contrary to what most conservative Christians say, exclusively masculine language for God is not “traditional” at all.

Now on to Jana’s question about vulnerability and writing. My friend Juliana says that writing a memoir is like standing on a table, naked, in the middle of a room full of people, with someone standing next to you—someone who doesn’t really like you all that much—saying, “So, what do you think of her?” Part of the artist’s journey is to write your truth and to learn to care less and less about what other people think of you and your creations. But at the same time, part of what makes me an artist is my desire for other people to like me. I am still a “good girl,” a pleaser, even as I work tirelessly to shake that identity off.

Many people have called Breaking Up with God “honest,” which at first seemed like a compliment, but then made me wonder if I had said too much. My mother is not too keen on what I wrote. She wasn’t bothered by the leaving God part, but by the fact that “everyone in the world” (I can only hope!) will read about me having sex (she used a different word) in the back seat of a car.

Lauren wrote about her divorce beautifully, with great care and respect for her ex. Still is vulnerable and true and protective all at the same time because it wasn’t about anyone but Lauren. Her story is the only story she told.

The person I was most honest with in Breaking Up with God is myself. My book is about breaking up with the stories I’ve told about myself and about other people in my life and about God that aren’t true anymore—stories that no longer serve me or the world I want to help create. Isn’t that what writing is about? Telling true stories? Bringing new worlds into being with words?

So, Lauren and Jana, I leave you with this question, and though it might seem like I stretch, I think it is connected both to God-language and to vulnerability: How do you think about prayer?


Sarah’s part of this roundtable discussion was originally posted on Patheos.

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.

Categories: Feminism, Women and Community, Women's Spirituality

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7 replies

  1. Excellent essay! Your references to the late, great Mary Daly are terrific! Some people really don’t like her, but that’s because she wrote truth. Like her, you are also writing truth. Brava!


  2. I really liked this article, and I do agree that every denomination steals naming from women. It is interesting, that despite all the work of Black, Feminist, and Radical women, quite a few churches have yet to really think about how language excludes. ( I actually have no statistics on what percentage of malestream churches use male god language– the most basic act of exclusion). Part of this may be that ministers do know all this stuff, but somehow continue to tow the party line for their jobs in churches. A lot of it has to do with pleasing church boards etc.

    “Some people really don’t like her…” and a bit off topic, but connecting to Barbara Ardinger… changn the name to Jefferson, Washington, or Lincoln. And then every time you read about them the preface is always “some people don’t like him.” Be careful with language. Mary Daly gets demeaned all the time with these little side comments. It’s as if even a lot of women fear her truth or don’t want to rile the trans lobby, or don’t want to honor one of the most powerful take no prisoners radical lesbian brilliant feminists that ever was! She made this blog and conversation possible, and like George Washington, I think she deserves more respect. The power of naming even ourselves is constantly being appropriated and stolen from women. Witness the male to female trans lobby calling women “cis.” Again, the male undermining of women’s very existence.
    Mary Daly named them too.

    But back on point, I don’t know why most churches mess up with language all the time, why they don’t care, but I guess what confuses me is that white bread women continue to stay in churches where we are second class citizens, and where our very lives are erased in male god language.
    That is what perplexes me. I don’t think Black people in America go to churches where church policy is not to ordain Black men— Mormons, for example. Just listening week after week to male god language in a church that won’t ordain you — it’s almost like women are being stuck with an abusive spouse and can’t leave him. — As Sarah says.

    The central problem is clergy not even getting all of this, and persisting in woman demeaning language, but it is also the craziness of women NOT rebelling wholesale against all this.

    However, a little ray of sunshine out there. I read recently that women were quietly just leaving evangelical churches because of their anti-birth control, woman hating langauge, and quietly straight women are leaving, and that numbers are starting to reveal this.

    We should never ever take for granted that women really do have a voice, because we largely don’t in god-land. As long as the males are preaching from pulpits, and as long as women are sitting and listening to these crowing roosters of patriarchy, we won’t have a voice, we’ll continue to be sheep.

    The work of feminism really is about waking all women up. Mary Daly said it, Susan B. Anthony said it, Matilda Joselyn Gage said it. Breaking up with god should be step one for any woman who wants a real voice in the world. And as St. Karen used to sing: “Breaking up is hard to do….”


  3. P.S. I love autobiographies, and try to read every one a woman ever wrote! Mothers might be concerned about what the neighbors might think. I know my family would probably freak out at my life. Oh well. The truth of women needs to be told and all women who dare to describe our lives in books …. well take a bow for courage!!!


  4. Thanks, Barbara! Glad you liked the Mary Daly reference.


  5. Sarah, exclusively male God language, no, but predominantly in the Bible, for sure. In the middle ages in the convents, maybe not, but still, I don’t see why you would want to go back. Couldn’t agree more with 90% of what you say.



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