How Vulnerable Is Too Vulnerable?
Note: In this Religion Roundtable, we've asked the authors of three prominent faith memoirs to write about their views on--and experience of--female spirituality. Check back here every few days to hear Jana Riess, Lauren Winner, and Sarah Sentilles discuss the unique religious questions facing women today.
Sarah & Lauren,
Aha! I have had a minor epiphany.
Today, I posted a link to our conversation on a Mormon feminist page and posed the question of whether feminists must write feminist books. Lauren had said no almost automatically, and part of me said amen-and-pass-the-potatoes when she asserted that women have only the responsibility to tell their own truths, whether those be about gardening or geometry. But when I asked a group of Mormon feminists the same question, this was one of the replies [excerpted]:
"Even if we write fiction, it should either portray women in strong, self-actualized roles, or should use examples of oppressed women as a means of pointing up oppression and its negative effects on society. Writing with an utter disregard for women's issues is throwing away the opportunity to manifest our truth."
What strikes me is that Mormon women don't yet have the luxury of taking their own voices for granted. What this Mormon sister is advocating of course smacks of propaganda, if propaganda can be defined as any art form whose primary raison d'être is to promote a particular sociopolitical agenda. But I totally understand the lonely and tenuous position where she is coming from, because I live there every day. Mormon women still need such propaganda.
Lauren writes from a tradition in which women can be ordained—in fact, Lauren herself was just ordained—so her perspective is more settled. She does not need to agitate for change within her faith. As her friend, I celebrate this confident authority she has. As a Mormon, I am jealous.
This all brings me to Sarah's question about sexism and god-talk. Yes, I use male language for God and understand God as Father to be male, though Mormon theology also has a Mother in Heaven as well as a father. It's worth asking myself, though, why I allow that Mother in Heaven to remain so wholly silent in my life. The LDS Church essentially tolerates her presence but affords her no authority in the Godhead. She is desaparecida: She has been disappeared.
It seems I need to look harder for her.
But now I want to change topics and talk about insecurity. I think that all three of us have written books that "put it all out there"—Sarah's battle with anorexia and loss of faith, Lauren's painful divorce, my struggles with my father's legacy of abandonment. Having never written a memoir before, I found this kind of raw self-disclosure extremely difficult. (Or maybe being that vulnerable never gets easier even if it's not your first outing with a memoir?) I worry that we inhabit a culture in which people are too often encouraged to devalue privacy and discretion. On the other hand, I've discovered that it has been precisely my repeated failures and insecurities that readers have found helpful. How delicate is it for you both to write about deeply personal disappointments, especially when they concern other people? And how do you discern what is and what is not appropriate to share about your lives?
Jana Riess is the author of Flunking Sainthood: A Year of Breaking the Sabbath, Forgetting to Pray, and Still Loving My Neighbor and several other books. She is currently immersed in a multiyear Twitter project called The Twible. (It's the Bible, now with 68% more humor!)