If you follow me on social media, you’ve probably noticed that I’m a sucker for feminist theology. Women’s roles, the feminine divine, and talk of Mother God light me up. However, since my passion for this subject is relatively new, I’ve kept my posts to a minimum. Lately, though, I’ve had several people express their interest in hearing about my quest for Mama God.
Like most of my stories, this one begins with books. Actually, it begins with paper and pen on a desk in a classroom at my conservative Church of Christ school as I listen to my women’s lit professor blast Helen Reddy’s feminist anthem for all the administration to hear, but that’s a story for another post. For now, all you need to know about my quest for Mama God is this:
Girl meets women’s lit, girl’s eyes are opened to the world’s injustices, girl’s heart breaks. Girl becomes an angry feminist, then a sad feminist, then a lost one. Girl decides she doesn’t believe in God, realizes she must believe in God, and begins to earnestly seek God. Girl cries out to God. God answers.
There is, of course, more to the story, and you will read it eventually. But for now, while I’m putting my vulnerable little ducks in a row, I offer what I always do: books.
It didn’t start with Mama God. It started with confusion. When I set out on this journey — this attempt to reconcile the faith of my childhood with the crisis of my college years — I had no idea where to start. Even after I took the time to write down all my questions, I still didn’t know what to tackle. Should I research baptism? women’s roles? homosexuality? My questions ranged all over the place and left me overwhelmed. Thankfully, I had adults in my life who were open to my questioning, and after consulting them, I decided to start with the basics. This led me to a book called Reading the Bible Again for the First Time by Marcus J. Borg.
Though it isn’t about feminist theology, I encourage you to start with this book. It will equip you with a lot of the tools you’ll need, and it’s a great primer for the more complex books you’ll encounter down the road. (Additionally, if you come from an uber-conservative background like I do, Borg’s approach to reading the Bible will help you tamp down the voices in your head that insist you’re going to hell for asking all these questions.)
I’ve written about Borg more thoroughly in this post, so all I’ll say is this: Take what you need and leave the rest. This applies to all the books on this list, but perhaps especially to Borg’s. He has some great insights on what it means to read the Bible literally, but personally, I can’t go as far as he does when it comes to Jesus and the Gospels. But you know what? That’s okay. I don’t have to agree with him 100% to benefit from his work.
Note: If you enjoy Borg’s book but wish it dug a little deeper, William L. Holladay’s Long Ago God Spoke offers a more rigorous treatment, specifically of the Old Testament and its most problematic passages.
Now that you’ve dipped your toes in critical theology, it’s time to grasp what’s going on.
Though I didn’t know it at the time, my search for Mama God began in women’s lit when we read Sue Monk Kidd’s Dance of the Dissident Daughter. At the time, the book was a bit much for me to handle. Kidd’s use of the word “goddess” and her ritualistic search for the Feminine Divine struck me as pagan and hippy-dippy, but I credit her with opening my eyes to the resentments and wounds I didn’t know I had, a realization I now recognize as pivotal for the formation of my faith.
Rachel Held Evans’s A Year of Biblical Womanhood was another critical step along my path to Mama God. Though she doesn’t write about the Feminine Divine, Rachel does address what Kidd calls the feminine wound — that is, evangelical Christianity’s tendency to demand that women be silent in church and the damage this inflicts on everyone, women and men. She also challenges the assumptions that all women are meant to be mothers and wives and that single women are somehow less valuable than married ones. As a woman who has never wanted a husband and children and has had to put up with everyone insisting that I’ll change my mind, Rachel’s words offered comfort. She also helped curb some of my “angry feminist” tendencies and taught me the value of discussion (as opposed to outright argument).
As great as Rachel Held Evans is, she didn’t quite offer what I needed when it came to the Feminine Divine. Though Dissident Daughter troubled me, it also awakened something deep and primal in my soul; the more I read about God, the more I craved direct, unapologetic explorations of her in feminine terms. But I didn’t want Kidd’s mystical rumination; instead, I wanted scholarly insight. I wanted theological discourse. I wanted someone to talk about Mother God in a way that assured me my longings were okay.
I found that assurance in Elizabeth A. Johnson’s She Who Is. Subtitled “the mystery of God in feminist theological discourse,” it is by far the most thorough treatment of feminist theology I’ve found. Of course, I’ve only barely begun my journey, and I’m sure there are dozens — hundreds — of other equally scholarly books out there, but for now, this one remains at the top.
However, it’s long and dense and very theological, so unless you’ve been at this for a while, I suggest you start with one of the books in the Introductions in Feminist Theology series. Short (~100 pp) and succinct, they cover a wide range of topics, including non-white scholars’ perspectives (something She Who Is can’t offer). Though I’ve only read part of one title (Feminist Images), I highly recommend you check out the series. I’ve included a list below. If you get your hands on one, be sure to check out the bibliography in the back — it contains more reading material than I could ever offer.
- Introducing Body Theology by Lisa Isherwood
- Introducing Asian Feminist Theology by Pui-Lan Kwok
- Introducing a Practical Feminist Theology of Worship by Janet H. Wootton
- Introducing African Women’s Theology by Mercy Amba Oduyoye
- Introducing Feminist Images of God by Mary Grey
- Introducing Feminist Christologies by Lisa Isherwood
- Introducing Ecofeminist Theologies by Heather Eaton
- Introducing the Women’s Hebrew Bible by Susanne Scholz
- Introducing Feminist Pastoral Care & Counseling by Nancy J. Gorsuch
- Introducing Feminist Cultural Hermeneutics: An African Perspective by Misimbi R.A. Kanyoro
- Introducing Thealogy: Discourse on the Goddess by Melissa Raphael
- Introducing Redemption in Christian Feminism by Rosemary Radford Ruether
- Introducing Feminist Perspectives on Pastoral Theology by Zoe Bennett Moore
- Introducing Feminist Ecclesiology by Natalie Watson
Note: If this list seems overwhelming, consider starting with Womanspirit Rising, a feminist theological reader compiled by Carol Christ and Judith Plaskow. I haven’t read it yet, but I own a copy and recognize most of the contributors from my other readings, so it sounds promising.
Non-Theological Books to Read Along the Way (in no particular order)
Lucille Clifton’s poetry — Feminist theology spends a lot of time championing a God of compassion and justice and love, a God who loves so deeply that her heart breaks along with the world’s. There is no better embodiment of this God than Lucille Clifton’s poetry. Whether she’s writing about her life, the lives of her black kindred, or the joys and sorrows of the wider world, Lucille paints a portrait of love and beauty and grace and strength, even as her heart cracks in two.
Gilead and Lila by Marilynne Robinson — Though I struggled with Robinson’s books the first time I encountered them, they have since become the bedrock of my faith. The deeper you dig into feminist theology, the more opposition you will find to an angry warrior God. Robinson’s books do a good job of loosening your grip on this perception without sacrificing his/her mystery and complexity.
Eat Pray Love by Elizabeth Gilbert — I adore Liz Gilbert for a multitude of reasons, but perhaps the greatest gift she has given me is the permission to try new things. Every time I begin to doubt the legitimacy of my personal theology, one cobbled together from a mix of wide-eyed transcendentalists and mystic Catholic nuns, I remember Liz’s firm conviction that “if you bring the right earnestness to your homemade ceremony [or ritual or faith], God will provide the grace.”
Revelation of Love by Julian of Norwich — Speaking of mystic Catholic nuns, if you haven’t read Julian of Norwich, you absolutely must. After two years of faith crisising (and more than one bout with atheism), it was Julian who finally healed me. Though her book is jam-packed with spiritual truths and insight, she’s best known for introducing the concept of Christ as Mother.
Note: Julian lived and wrote in the 13th century, so reading her book isn’t exactly easy. However, if you choose the right version, you won’t feel too overwhelmed. Personally, I recommend John Skinner’s modern-language translation, as linked above.
Please note that my journey is ongoing. There are dozens of books I haven’t gotten to yet, and the ones I have read are pretty exclusively white. I’m working on expanding my horizons, compiling lists of books on womanist and liberation theology, and as I read them, I will share. And I’m of course working on a second post that explains my experiences more emotionally.
In the meantime, if you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to ask. My inbox is always open. ❤