Friday, August 12, 2011

Breaking Up With God (Review)

Breaking up with God is a lucid, honest, and poignant memoir. It details Sarah Sentilles' journey from a college girl to mature woman; from a BA in literature at Yale to a PhD in theology at Harvard; from a naive understanding of God to a complex one; from an infatuation with God to a spiritual agnosticism; and from a track toward ordination to an exit from the Church. It's also a powerful testimony to the change that happens when one explores a diversity of theologies.

Here is how Sentilles previews her journey in the beginning of the book:
"My relationship with God was never casual.  When it began to unravel, I was in the ordination process to become an Episcopal priest.  I was the youth minister at a church in a suburb of Boston and a doctoral student in theology at Harvard.  You might say God and I were engaged and the wedding was planned – church reserved, menu chosen, flowers arranged.  Calling it off would be awkward" (3).
Breaking up with God is the analogy that Sentilles uses to describe her change in vocation, faith, and life. While at first this seemed like a cheesy analogy, it quickly made sense within the context of her "God-is-my-boyfriend" understanding of God. This analogy illuminates the deep pain that goes with breaking up with someone you love deeply. Lives go in different directions. Social connections are rent asunder. Places of familiarity become places of emptiness. And all of these things are made worse when it's on a cosmic/divine scale. Thankfully she moves on to a place that's better for her.

Woven within Sentilles' story of breaking-up and moving-on are sidebars that offer theological insights into her journey. Each sidebar offers a different understanding of God that she learned along the way: A Sunday School's God (15-18), A Mystic's God (33), James Cone's God (75-76), Desmond Tutu's God (83-84), A Romantic's God (87), Gordon Kaufman's God (118-119), Mary Daly's God (128-129), A Philosopher's God (135-136), A Theologian's God (150), Rainer Maria Rilke's God (177-176), An American's God (195-196), An Ecologist's God (202-203), and An Anthropologist's God (221-222). It's clear that each of these perspectives challenged and expanded her understanding of God in life-altering ways. By the end, studying theology went from the joy of "reading love poems" (108) about God to a "pragmatic enterprise that had to do with what's required for living a moral life" (112-113). This new understanding of God and theology changed her life and didn't allow her to go back.

Sentilles' relationship to the Church also changed as she studied theology. She learned that there were more than four gospels written (120), the Bible's construction was a political process (121), Christian history was continually wrought with diversity (122), modern Christianity contains many different perspectives (123), the Church has elements of racism and sexism (124-125), and the priesthood is more about administration and social connection than about theology and social ethics (151-152). This left her with a sense of disillusionment that led her to the decision to break up with God and move out of institutionalized religion.

After Sentilles breaks up with God, she moves on to an agnostic spirituality (222). In this spirituality, God is a mystery that can be understood in many ethical ways. Plus, in this spirituality, a life of faith is defined by living ethically in day-to-day life. Here is Sentilles' description of her emerging spirituality:
"I don't go to church, but I do go to the covered stalls of the farmer's market on Sunday morning...This is a kind of faith for me. To be in season. To crave what the earth makes when the time is right. To know who grows my food and how they grow it...To thank the farmers who planted and tended and harvested and brought it to the market...Communion is not about making one meal sacred on one morning in one holy place, but about making all meals, all eating, all feeding sacred." (215-216).
If you want to explore some of the deep life-changes that can happen when you study theology, check out this book. If you want to explore some of the differences between seminary and the church, check out this book. If you want to read a powerful narrative about personal transformation, check out this book. But don't read this book if you don't want you, yourself, to be changed in the process. Sentilles tells a story that is specific to her own life but universal in its testimony: studying a diversity of theologies will transform your life.


  1. Sounds intriguing and familiar all at once... prolly is a very interesting read...

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