In Dialogue with Dogma: Women Doing Battle with Religion
By Miranda KennedySeptember 11, 2015
Fresh Courage Take: New Directions by Mormon Women by Jamie Zvirzdin
Searching for Sunday: Longing, Leaving, and Finding the Church by Rachel Held Evans
WHEN I TOLD my father-in-law that I was reading a book of essays about Mormon feminism at the beach this summer, he said, “It must be a short book.”
He was right, actually. Fresh Courage Take: New Directions by Mormon Women, edited by Jamie Zvirzdin, comes in at less than 200 pages. This is a good thing — even if you do not choose to read Mormon feminist essays on your own beach vacation this year — because the work in this book is not really for the general reader. Unless you are a Mormon woman, it takes some doing to get through the short volume.
Through 12 short essays, Fresh Courage Take looks at the experience of being a woman inside the Mormon faith. Many of the authors are writing about their faith for the first time, and it often seems as though they are writing for one another rather than for the rest of us. This is not a book that tries to explain The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, or LDS (as the main church of Mormonism is officially called) to outsiders. The newcomer to Mormonism will learn something about the faith, but only sidelong.
Still, you have to admire a book that knows its audience and is unapologetic about its insular appeal. Joanne Brooks begins her foreword by pronouncing: “Your moment has come!” and she continues:
It’s time to dive into these pages and find in the company of these women a delicious freedom, freedom from feeling beholden to an unrealistic cultural standard. […] The book will give you permission to stop accepting other peoples’ definitions of a womanly ideal.
And while this “You go girl!” feminism feels a little outdated in mainstream American life, these essays demonstrate that second-wave feminism is, sadly, not outdated for members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. In fact, books about the experience of womanhood inside the LDS seems to be something of a trend at the moment — a very similar book called Mormon Feminism: Essential Writings is to be published in November.
It is an important topic. Mormonism is one of America’s — indeed, the world’s — fastest-growing religions. And, in these essays, we see in specific ways how restrictive and uncomfortable the Mormon church can be for women — not to mention racial minorities, those questioning their beliefs, and others who don’t quite fit the traditional mold.
One contributor, Rachel Decker Bailey, admits in her essay that when she found out her third, fourth, and fifth children were boys, she was “relieved to think they would be spared the heartache of choosing between the life advocated by their faith and the path cleared by their intellect.” Bailey, like many traditional Mormon women, married at 19 and began having children at 21.
Struggling to find a positive way to define herself after she became a mother, Bailey coined the term “career mother” for herself; it’s the title of her essay. She says she likes the implication that she made a deliberate choice to turn her education and skills toward her family. But while Bailey’s essay is full of empowering phrases, what stands out most is the tormented relationship it reveals between the life of the mind and the life of a good, childbearing Mormon woman. This theme appears in piece after tortured piece. Another essay begins: “From a very early age, I remember giving up on childhood dreams for the sake of being a mother.” This is the conflict that insinuates itself throughout the book, in spite of a fairly consistent effort on the part of the authors to draw their essays (and lives) to happy conclusions.
Jamie Zvirzdin, the editor of the collection, constructs her own essay around a specter of the ideal Mormon woman, an invention whom she calls Giselle. Giselle is a terrifying specter of perfection, envied by the author in spite of herself. Of Giselle’s many unrealistic attributes, “most important was her womb,” Zvirzdin writes, which she imagines to be “cast in bronze and reinforced by two centuries of Mormon culture.” Longer than many of the others, and also more probing, Zvirzdin’s essay acknowledges the ways that the Mormon ideal defined her.
“Careers were fallback plans in case our prince never arrived,” she writes. “My spirit chafed as I heard about the importance of temple marriage, modesty, children, and taking care of the home.” The slogan of a former LDS president “haunted my dreams of becoming an astrophysicist: No other success can compensate for failure in the home.” As a result of her fear that a woman could not have a challenging job and also excel in the home, Zvirzdin walked out of a freshman orientation for students interested in astrophysics, and turned her back on a career in the sciences.
Of course, this tension plagues American women of all religions — and of no religion. In moments like this one, the book participates in a wider national conversation about women and work. Such moments are rare, though. The book is more like a blog, speaking to its very specific niche.
Fresh Courage Take does make a deliberate effort to present a range of perspectives inside Mormonism, though. The Mormon women represented here span the generations; they tackle issues of infertility, same-sex equality, and, in an essay written from the perspective of an African-American convert, even racial injustice. But the book also avoids diversity: each of these writers has stayed inside the Mormon faith. Every essay begins by doing battle with the LDS, and then working it out — often through the experience of having children, or finding a loving husband. All of the 12 women say they have achieved a balance with the faith of their childhood, even if it is precarious. At the end of Zvirzdin’s essay, for instance, she writes: “I am reading and writing about science again — as a wife and mother — and feel immense joy as I do so.”
The predictable structure of each of the essays makes them read like medieval morality tales. But from what I can tell, that’s appropriate. Mormons do tend to stay inside their faith. Members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints exhibit higher levels of religious commitment than many religious groups, even white evangelical Protestants. Mormons — along with Jews and evangelical Christians — show the highest degree of religious family continuity across generations, according to a 35-year longitudinal study of generations, published in 2013.
Still, there is something unsatisfying about reading an entire volume of essays by people with the same experience. Toward the end, it feels as though you have been listening in on a support group. The essays are more about Mormon women unburdening themselves to each other than seeking to inform and inspire.
Rachel Held Evans’s memoir Searching for Sunday: Longing, Leaving, and Finding the Church also grapples with women’s traditional roles inside a high-commitment, orthodox religion. The book dissects the experience that some of the Mormon essayists describe: the loss of faith over issues like women’s role in the church, the treatment of homosexuals, and the black-and-white Biblical interpretation in many evangelical churches.
Evans comes from a conservative orthodox evangelical church community in Tennessee. “There were Christians,” she writes of her childhood belief, “and then there were evangelical Christians like us. Only evangelicals were assured salvation.” But in spite of the certitude of her religious belief as a child, the memoir of her religious life she has written in her early 30s is anything but doctrinaire. Searching for Sunday is primarily aimed at Christian audiences, but it also eloquently explains the narrow world of evangelicalism for those not in the know.
More to the point, this is not a book about a simple Christian devotion. It is about the complexity of belief; it is a book that does battle with the church, again and again. But unlike the Mormon essayists writing in Fresh Courage Take, Evans writes about leaving the church she inherited. She does come out the other side with her faith intact, but in order to do so, she has to abandon the fundamentalist version of Christianity she was raised on.
Leaving the Christian faith is a timely topic. In the last seven years, the Christian population in the United States dropped by eight percentage points. Almost 23 percent of the population calls themselves “religiously unaffiliated,” meaning they have no religion.
No one is out the door faster than the millennial generation — Evans’s generation — those born after 1981. Close to 60 percent of people ages 18 to 29 with a Christian background have left the faith, and mainline Protestant and Catholic churches are losing adherents faster than evangelical Christianity, so there is a certain irony to the fact that Evans’s memoir ends with her choosing a new religious home in the relatively liberal Episcopalian Church, whose membership has been steadily declining for decades.
Only two or three generations ago, our religious identities followed that of our parents and grandparents, but inherited faith is dying out. If you were Polish, you were Catholic; if you were Scottish, you were Presbyterian, and so on. Now, it is no longer a matter of simply joining up with the closest Catholic or Protestant congregation. People are actively seeking religious community having chosen their own spiritual paths.
So Evans is tapping into a serious generational trend. Evans started her writing career as a blogger, back in 2008, and her earnest probing of her faith quickly gained her a large following among millennial-generation Christians. At 32, she only just qualifies as a millennial, as she herself points out. (“I still have several episodes of Friends saved — on tape,” she jokes.) Still, she identifies with what she calls the “attitudes and ethos” of the generation. When Evans talks about why her generation is leaving the church, people listen. She speaks at Christian conferences all over the country. She has 77,000-some followers on Twitter and 60,000 on Facebook. As she describes it in Searching for Sunday, the message she has to deliver to the Christian world is this:
We’re tired of the culture wars, tired of Christianity getting entangled with party politics and power […] Millennials aren’t looking for a hipper Christianity. […] We’re looking for a truer Christianity, a more authentic Christianity.
But not all agree; for the most part, she is regarded as a thorn in the side of the orthodoxy. She is the author of two previous books from Thomas Nelson, the Christian publisher. Her 2012 book A Year of Biblical Womanhood was a New York Times bestseller, but was roundly dismissed by the evangelical community. The book’s subtitle — How a Liberated Woman Found Herself Sitting on Her Roof, Covering Her Head, and Calling Her Husband “Master” — is probably evidence enough as to why. The Gospel Coalition, a network of Reformed evangelical churches, dubbed the book “A year of ridiculous Biblical interpretation.” And The Washington Post recently referred to her as “the most polarizing woman in evangelicalism.”
But Searching for Sunday does not have the finger-jabbing tone of her 2012 book. While Evans remains a painful subject for evangelicals, and some continue to criticize her — both for her lack of theological education and for her gender — the response to this book has been more muted. Evans is no longer trying to debunk the fundamentalist version of the faith she grew up in. The angry 20-something has moved on. Much of Searching for Sunday is devoted to mourning the loss of her childhood church, and to trying to find a way to replace the passion and purposefulness it gave her. And she does so with humility, warmth, and humor.
A reviewer for The Gospel Coalition had this to say about Searching for Sunday:
As a millennial who’s been specifically tasked by my church with shepherding other millennials, I can’t help but love the heart Evans clearly has for drawing our peers back to the pews […] The irony of the book is that the people who probably could benefit from it — theologically grounded church leaders with mostly healthy church experiences — won’t want to hear its challenge.
Evans was a teenager with “a crusader complex” (as she calls it now) in the middle of the Bible Belt, in Dayton, Tennessee. “I’d been gunning for a revival ever since I entered the public school system,” she writes. “A plan made considerably more difficult by the fact that nearly everyone in Dayton […] already identified as Christian.” In high school, she wrote “GOD IS AWESOME” in magic marker on a piece of duct tape that she plastered onto her backpack, and debated evolution with her lab partner. But by the time she was at a Christian liberal arts college, she found herself disturbed when a favorite professor told the student body, in chapel one morning: “You can believe the Bible or you can believe in evolution, but you can’t believe both. You have to choose.”
This stark dichotomy of right versus wrong was precisely the problem for Evans, as she grew out of her automatic childhood acceptance, and began to question the dogma she had always taken for granted. “I wanted to believe,” she writes,
but I wanted to believe with my intellectual integrity and intuition intact […] The more I was asked to choose, the more fragmented and frayed my faith became, the more it stretched the gossamer of belief that held my world view together. What if none of this is true? What if it’s all one big lie?
Forced to face these questions, Evans finds herself in a startling vacuum. “As with the death of someone dearly loved,” she writes, “I felt the absence of my faith most profoundly in those everyday moments when it used to be present — in church, in prayer, in the expansive blue of an autumn sky.”
She describes months and years of Sundays spent listlessly watching Meet the Press and wandering through the doors of different Christian churches, in search of what was missing. Evans’s description of losing God is so harsh and sad that it makes faith seem deeply appealing. She quotes Lamentations 3:44: “You have wrapped yourself with a cloud, so that no prayer can pass through.”
The response of her church community did not help her get it back, though. “It became increasingly clear that my fellow Christians didn’t want to […] walk down this frightening road with me,” she writes. “They wanted to fix me.” After college, Evans moved back to Dayton with her husband. Even though her faith had been seriously rocked, she and her new husband returned to her childhood community at Grace Bible Church. Evans describes sitting in church one Sunday doing battle with her community of believers in her head:
“America is a Christian nation,” said the man making the announcements. Is it? “If the Bible is the inspired Word of God then we must accept this as historic fact.” Must we? “God has called us to pave the parking lot.” Has he?
The orthodox conservative Christianity of her childhood church is an easy target, but that is not where her struggle with her church ends. She starts by taking issue with politicized evangelical Christianity and the sometimes-blind faith of its adherents:
I have friends who struggled for years to disentangle themselves from abusive, authoritarian churches where they were publicly shamed for asking questions […] I know of others who were kicked out for getting divorced or being gay […] I have no injuries to report, no scars to reveal. I left a church of kind, generous people because I couldn’t pretend to believe things I didn’t believe anymore.
But then she comes to sympathize with the Christians who sit in church hiding their guilty secrets — their sexuality, their race, their gender, their infertility, and their shame. One heart-wrenching chapter, called “What We Have Done,” is dedicated to listing the various harms that Christianity has inflicted on people worldwide. To backwards quote my father-in-law, it must be a long chapter. Thankfully, it isn’t a complete list.
Searching for Sunday tells not just the author’s tale, but the stories of others: of gay friends whose faith has been deeply damaged by a church that believes they are an abomination and should be put to death; of the sick who are told they must be to blame for their illness. The book is built around seven long, discursive passages describing each of the seven Christian sacraments. The sacraments, Evans says, called her back to Christianity and kept it from becoming an abstraction. Unfortunately, though, the passages about baptism, confession, marriage, and the other sacraments read like abstractions. Evans is a beautiful wordsmith, and the structure has an overall coherence, but it is a lot to ask of the reader to make it through these concept-heavy sections.
The book is most searing when Evans writes of her own experience. In a way that a collection of short essays from different writers can never do, Evans draws the reader, Christian or not, inside her world and feelings. She makes a case for grappling with your politics, morals, and values, even when it seems they will never match up, make sense, or be resolved.
Miranda Kennedy is a journalist and the author of the reported memoir Sideways on a Scooter: Life and Love in India. She lives in Washington, DC, where she is writing a book about religious belief in America.
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