Wednesday, February 23, 2022

The Defiant Middle by Kaya Oakes

The problem is that today, the religious right has hijacked the conversation about how God talks to people. The language of white evangelicalism, particularly the politicized American version, rooted in its history of Calvinistic ideas of sin and predestination, emphasizes a person hearing Jesus or God speak to them not for the good of the community or the salvation of humankind like those mad women saints did, but for selfish, power-driven, and dangerous reasons. 

The faith of prosperity-gospel preachers, gun-rights advocates making rosaries out of bullets, and "pro-life" men who assassinate doctors who perform abortions or plant bombs in clinics is, for many of us, what really feels like madness. Watching the increasingly tightly bound ties between nationalism and religion, white supremacy and religion, and homophobia/transphobia and religion and the stripping away of the health care mentally ill people rely on is like witnessing a collective episode of mental illness in light of what the gospels actually preach. If the purpose of religion is to make us better people, more concerned with others, and participants in the liberation of all humanity, the religious right has foresworn belief in the opposite. 

The hatred, suspicion, and fear of visionary women is real, too, including in the Catholic Church, which has transformed its wild and untamable female saints into squeaky-clean, obedient, silent enigmas bereft of personality and representative of not much more than purity and piety. It is easier for religious or political institutions to point the finger and dismiss a woman as "crazy" than it is to unpack the overlapping social, cultural, and religious forces that exacerbate so many women's mental health issues in the first place. If those saints were just more crazy women littered throughout history, they're also easily erased. 

~pp. 62-63 of The Defiant Middle

Here's why I bought The Defiant Middle by Kaya Oakes, a description included in a review I read:

For every woman, from the young to those in midlife and beyond, who has ever been told, You can't and thought, Oh, I definitely will!--this book is for you.

That makes The Defiant Middle sound like it might be a book of positive thinking for women and the above quote shows that it's not that at all, although you may come out of the reading feeling like you're ready to grab your sword and take on the world and its ridiculous expectations. Author Kaya Oakes talks about how patriarchal society has influenced everything from the words in the Bible to the societal pillars for how women should behave, as well as how women through the ages have been punished for simply being who and what they are. The second paragraph from the publisher's description gives you a better feel for it:

Women are expected to be many things. They should be young enough, but not too young; old enough, but not too old; creative, but not crazy; passionate, but not angry. They should be fertile and feminine and self-reliant, not barren or butch or solitary. Women, in other words, are caught between social expectations and a much more complicated reality.

The author weaves her personal history as a Catholic and her knowledge of saints into the narrative about how women have been suppressed, notable women have been erased from history, and unique women have been treated as if they're nuts or, worse, heretics. 

Unfortunately, while I recall the author talking a lot about the conflicting societal expectations for women, it's been a bit too long since I read it to go into any detail beyond that of the publicity material. I do recall that it all made sense to me and made me steam. And, when I closed the book I immediately thought, "I'm going to need to reread this."

Highly recommended - A solid read that describes womanhood and the challenges of being female in a patriarchal society through a spiritual lens. Excellent and definitely discussion-worthy.

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