It’s Not Her, It’s You.

True story: Once, during my master’s program, I sat in a theology seminar and heard another student (a white man, whom I remember as being perfectly affable and kind) complain thus: “We only ever talk about a theologian’s context when they’re different from us, like when they’re black or a woman.” 

Duuuude. [Wince.] So close.   

And so apt, in a way. The worldview this student expressed was not his own invention, of course. Privileged people often imagine that there are human beings with novel identities and perspectives—like “woman” or “person of color.” And then there’s everybody else, the regular folks who see reality as it really is. And if you wind up being elbowed out of the charmed “us,” it’s rather hard to know to say in reply. “Excuse me, but I’m here too!” just circles your otherness in fresh green highlighter. It’s mistaken for a lack of confidence, and people rush to reassure you: Of course you are, dear. Don’t you ever forget that. On the other hand, to say nothing is to go along with the idea that “we” who have important things to say are the same “we” who are supposed to float happily above the categories of race and gender by being as white or as male (or as heterosexual, or as able-bodied, or as rich, etc.) as possible.

Sarah Sentilles’ book Breaking Up With God is written in a voice that evidently struck some reviewers as being “different from us.” Some of them, in response, remarked on her appearance and guessed at her age. Some of them found it inconceivable that her difference could be anything but a defect, and they said so. 

Sentilles, in turn, caught more than a whiff of paternalistic sexism in some of the criticism, and so she said so, in a piece in the Harvard Divinity Bulletin that subsequently bounced all over religion nerds’ social media networks:

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.

… Unfortunately, this distrust of women’s words and the assumption that women do not know what they are talking about, no matter what their credentials or expertise or experience, are widespread in the literary establishment (though they are often coded as “reasoned critiques”).

Having read the book and some of the reviews, I’m strongly inclined to give the point to Sentilles. Not because her book is above critique in every last respect. Sentilles herself acknowledges that it isn’t. But many of the reviews, which she quotes in the Harvard Divinity Review piece, completely misunderstand what she’s doing in the book—in ways that it’s hard to attribute to the author’s lack of skill. 

Breaking Up With God is about a smart girl who grew up wanting to be very very good; for whom wanting to be good was always elided with wanting to please a troublingly patriarchal yet deeply alluring God; and who later, as a feminist, experienced deep inner conflict about all of that… to the point of having to break away from a worldview which had formed her deeply and which she’d spent years studying.  

When I say that this is what the book is about, I mean that it’s clearly what the words in the book are all about. This is as uncontroversial an observation as saying that this book is written in English.

“Well, but I never internalized such a silly and immature notion of God!” huffed some of her critics. To which it’s hard to know what to say, other than: How nice for you! Were you also, by any chance, not socialized into the same model of docile, well-behaved, approval-seeking girlhood that the author literally spends most of the book exposing and problematizing? And is it just possible that that type of girlhood actually sets one up to become enamored with a Prince Charming in the sky? A Prince Charming whose favor one courts in the mode of a supplicating ingénue? And is it possible that that is clearly the main point of the whole book, including the voice in which it is written? 

I could see how Sentilles’ writing style—which is evocative, and which proceeds by association as much as it proceeds by linear argument—might not appeal to everyone. I happen to like it, but there’s a sort of reader who will not care for that many pages of vulnerability in one sitting (Perhaps they might consider why they find it so off-putting. They might also want to be judicious about selecting memoirs as their pleasure reading.) But to conclude that it simply didn’t occur to her to write otherwise, because after all what can you expect of an immature girl with her hands clasped rapturously to her chest making moo-eyes at the deity? That’s just uncharitable, and unfortunate.