book review: dance of the dissident daughter: one woman’s journey from christian tradition to the sacred feminine

“You know the feeling you get when you stumble on a moment…

like some great mystery has brushed your shoulder? (157).”

This is perhaps my favorite line in a book full of phrases, images and revelations that call readers away from rigid, hierarchical, patriarchal Christianity and toward a spirituality grounded in feminine divinity.

Sue Monk Kidd’s memoir of awakening is not about one moment but many, as she chronicles encounters with the divine that are noticed only by one practiced at the art of paying attention. This is as it should be, for anyone who has lived a rigorous life knows that transformation is not the stuff of one conversion but of many.

In four movements, Monk Kidd engages the work of theological giants like Mary Daly, Sallie McFague, and Elizabeth Schussler Fiorenza. Even more, she engages the deepest parts of herself, opening wounds long sealed off, and this is the more difficult and more revealing work by far. Feminist thought provides a framework, but personal journey is the soul of this work as she writes through her own Awakening, Initiation, Grounding, and Empowerment.

As the story begins, Monk Kidd is a typically good Christian woman, dutiful in her responsibilities, but her worldview begins to unravel as she discovers the dissonance between her true self and the gendered hierarchies that shape her family and faith. At great risk to her marriage and career, she begins to “unlearn” the lessons of patriarchy by asking penetrating questions:

  • Why do I silence my real self?

  • Why do I fall into driven and perfectionistic patterns?

  • Why do I work so hard to fulfill outward expectations?

  • Are these things emanating from the feminine world?

  • And how can I keep ignoring them? (36)

Monk Kidd steps outside her Baptist church and finds other outlets for spirituality, exploring the archetypes of mythology and creating rituals to represent release and discovery alike. She records her dreams and practices Jungian analysis and learns about the time when the Goddess represented the divine. She prays the prayer of early Gnostic Christians, saying, “From thee, Father, and through Thee, Mother, the two immortal names, Parents of the divine being” (150). She reclaims not only her faith but herself in earthy, natural ways, entering alternative spaces where women are celebrated and valued.

She settles into a sacred feminine spirituality marked by images of nature, silence, and female connection and articulates a refreshing wholeness.

My one significant critique of this work relates to Monk Kidd’s reliance on gender binaries that profoundly shape her own journey. Conceptions of dominance and submission that she categorizes as patriarchy extend well beyond the feminist realm, and so her theological work is relevant in more holistic ways than she names, as womanist, liberation, and queer thinkers have aptly noted. The journey toward the sacred feminine or any alternative spirituality comes from many places of deep truth in a world where complexities transcend binaries of any kind.

All in all this is a penetrating, honest, and personally risky work that I commend especially to those willing to challenge personal and cultural norms that bind men and women alike. No doubt it is the kind of read that has started many others on a journey into the depths of their own experiences to discover piece by revealing piece all that we are worth.

membership’s beginnings

If I could say one thing about living in Columbia for twenty months, it might be this: I’m on a first name basis with my mail carrier.

I see M- about once a week or so. I see her because I live in an old neighborhood with sidewalks, and the mailboxes are up on our front porches. She parks the USPS truck, usually one house down, and she circles the block on foot every afternoon.

In the last ten years I’ve lived in six different places and had at least a dozen different addresses in three regions of the country (South, Pacific Northwest and Midwest if you’re counting).

But this is what it’s like to start to sink into a place.

These brilliant spring days when I get home from work, the first thing I do is change and go outside. I tinker around in the yard, fussing at the now familiar weeds; or I sit on the porch to read the paper tossed onto our lawn each afternoon; or I go for a leisurely run up and down the streets in my neighborhood to notice which houses are on the market as the furious spring sales gear up in this college town.

We’ve spent two falls and two winters here, and soon it will be two springs and summers. More and more I don’t go anywhere without seeing someone I know. As I write this, my neighbor steps out to sit on his porch for a while, and we wave across the way. My friend drives by and stops in the street, rolling down his window to say hello.

Wendell Berry writes about membership in a place – not residence in a place or living in a place, but membership. I think this is how it starts to happen.

When I was growing up, our farmer neighbor church friend Merrill was the mailman. To this day I wonder how many miles he covered on Rural Route 1 each day, where the houses were definitely not walking distance from one another. We were Box 29 before they switched over to house numbers and street addresses, and we always knew he’d arrive about mid-morning. From time to time we’d go outside to wait. If the gravel road had been freshly graded, the four of us kids would draw our initials in the sand and wait in individual boxes. When Merrill arrived, he’d stop and without fail, he’d pull out candy – those soft chewy caramels, which still make me think of him.

Since then, the arrival of the mail has been a high point in the emotional arc of my day, which is perhaps why it seems so significant that there have only ever been two places where I’ve known the name of the person who brought it: Rural Route 1 and Ripley Street.