Toward the end of 2021 I participated in a virtual book club through my alma mater, Georgetown University, in which we read Sue Monk Kidd’s The Book of Longings (Penguin Books, 2020). This post is a review of the book based in part on the comments I made as part of the virtual book club. I really enjoyed this book partly because of the connections that I made as I read to works of feminist biblical scholars—some of which I’m sure were an inspiration to Sue Monk Kidd since she has said that feminist theology was an inspiration to her in writing this book. She explains in the readers guide in my edition, “I’d been exploring feminist theology for years and writing about silenced and marginalized women and the missing feminine within religion” (guide, p. 4). This book is about the recovering of the voices of women in a culture that hides them, and that idea was constantly on my mind as I read the book.
And, just as a warning: spoilers ahead. Though, really, it’s only the story of Ana, Jesus’ wife, that can be spoiled because I’m assuming that readers don’t need a spoiler alert that Jesus is crucified in the end.
The Book of Longings is about a woman named Ana who ends up married to Jesus. The book begins, “I am Ana. I was the wife of Jesus ben Joseph of Nazareth. I called him Beloved and he, laughing, called me Little Thunder” (p. 3). She lives with her parents and her aunt, Yaltha, in Sepphoris. Her brother is Judas—technically the son of her mother’s cousin, but whose father had been killed and mother sold into slavery because of a Jewish uprising against Roman occupation in Sepphoris. He comes in and out of the story because he is a Zealot, fighting against Rome. She is an upper-class, educated woman and her family arranges a marriage to an older man that is not at all to her liking. She gets into some trouble and is accused of fornication. Jesus rescues her from stoning in part because he claims that they are soon to be betrothed—a hint at where the story of Jesus’ rescue of the woman caught in adultery would have come from (John 8:2–11). After this point, the story shifts to Nazareth where Ana and Yaltha live with Jesus’ family as he comes and goes, seeking out work in carpentry. Although there is a pause in this while Ana is living in Nazareth, the story is often about Ana’s writing—she writes the stories of women in the Old Testament, of women she knows, of herself.
One of the sources that Sue Monk Kidd used in this book is a real poem called The Thunder: Perfect Mind. The moderator of our book club shared the link to this poem with us. In this poem, I really liked the following excerpt:
And it is with me that the spirits of all humans exist,
and it is within me that women exist.
I am she who is honored and praised and who is despised scornfully.
It seems to express here the idea that God is present in all humans and so implies also that we have access to the divine through our relationships with others. I connected this in my mind to the Last Judgment in the Gospel of Matthew (Matthew 25:31–46) since I had just read that at the very end of the semester with my students. While Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel says that whatever you do to the least among us, you do for him, this passage identifies that both those who are “honored and praised” and those who are “despised scornfully” and “all humans,” including women, have the presence of the divine in them. One of the other participants commented in response to my idea about relationships, that we have access to the divine through love which, of course, makes sense given the idea that “the one who does not love does not know God, because God is love,” (1 John 4:8).
Now, having recently written a post about the work of Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza and feminist historical theology, I continually saw connections between her work and The Book of Longings. Schüssler Fiorenza writes about how to recover women’s voices in early Christian history, and I am convinced by her evidence for women’s voices having been drowned out—or intentionally silenced and opposed—by patriarchal male voices, especially as Christianity became an accepted part of the Roman Empire. Our moderator noted how part of what interested Sue Monk Kidd was how Christianity might be different if Jesus had been married (Author’s Note, p. 409). Sue Monk Kidd herself has said, “What mattered to me was imagining he had a wife. I think there is a need in the human psyche to imagine this missing wife. In a way she symbolizes the missing feminine within religion. I was inspired by how reimagining the past, creating an alternate history, so to speak, might open up new ways of seeing and thinking” (guide, p. 4). So, the question our moderator asked was if Christianity would have been different if Jesus had been married and I think that’s absolutely true. Even if Jesus hadn’t been married, I think there is a bigger issue with the suppression of women’s voices in the context of a patriarchal culture, and I think Christianity itself would look different today if we had always had access to some of those voices.
The Jesus in The Book of Longings is very much the human Jesus. At the end of the book, there is a hint of the shift between the Jesus portrayed in this book and the Jesus of Christianity. Ana receives news of Jesus’ followers continuing to meet and telling stories about Jesus. “‘They speak of Jesus as having had no wife,’ Lavi told me. That was a conundrum I puzzled over for months. Was it because I was absent when he traveled about Galilee during his ministry? Was it because women were so often invisible? Did they believe making him celibate rendered him more spiritual? I found no answers, only the sting of being erased” (p. 406). I appreciated having Ana not present for Jesus’ ministry because it explains in part why the Gospels do not hint at his having a wife. It also allows for her story alongside the story of Jesus to focus entirely on his humanity since she is not present for any of the miracles. She also leaves Jesus’ story after the crucifixion and before the discovery of the empty tomb, even though there is a hint at the plan of the women to go and anoint the body more properly for burial after the Sabbath.
In the end, however, I wanted more of an explanation here. How did we get, in the world created by this story, from the human Jesus to the Christian beliefs of today? There are a lot of places where the story hints at stories that will appear in the Bible—many in John’s Gospel. For example, we could look at the story of the wedding at Cana, where the Bible reports the miraculous happening—Jesus turning water into wine (John 2:1–12). In The Book of Longings, this wedding is of Jesus’ sister, Salome. We don’t get to see the wedding because Ana must flee for her safety to Alexandria. Prior to this, Jesus explains his plans to her, saying, “After Salome’s wedding in Cana, I will announce myself at the synagogue in Nazareth, then Judas and I will go to Capernaum. Simon, Andrew, Philip, and Nathanael are waiting for me there, and I know of others who may join us—the sons of Zebedee, a tax collector named Matthew” (p. 242). Similarly, Ana makes a comment when she returns to Jerusalem because of the threat to Jesus that Lazarus looked much healthier: “He looked well, not nearly so yellow and pallid as when I’d seen him before” (p. 360). This seemed like a hint at Jesus’ raising him from the dead (John 11:1–44).
Now, I know that some Christians might be upset about the idea of a fully human Jesus, but I really enjoyed that portrayal—an imagining of what the human Jesus would have been like. As one of the other participants pointed out in our conversation, this is really an Arian Jesus. As I read the story, I kept wondering if in Sue Monk Kidd’s mind Jesus was entirely human or if there was an aspect of the divine in him that would have allowed such miracles to take place, even though they were only hinted at, not ever described. There is also a hint at something having happened at Jesus’ baptism that could indicate a recognition of his divine nature, but there is never any confirmation of that in the story. Ana is, in fact, present for the baptism, unlike many of the other stories, and she describes it in this way:
I spotted him out in the river, standing before John with his back to me, descending into the water. I watched the place where he disappeared, how the circles of water spread slowly outward and the surface grew quiet and still.(p. 219)
He bounded up, shaking his head, creating a swirling spray. He lifted his face to the sky. The sun was sinking toward the hills, pouring itself on the river. A bird, a dove, flew out of the glare.
Later, he explains to Ana, “I told you once that when my father died, God became father to me, and today in the Jordan I heard him call me son. Beloved son” (p. 221). It is after the baptism that Jesus decides to become a follower of “John the Immerser,” starting what would then lead to his own ministry beginning after John’s arrest.
The most powerful part of the book, for me, was the description of the crucifixion, of which Ana is a witness along with other women, including Mary, Jesus’ mother, Salome, and Mary of Magdala. Sue Monk Kidd’s writing is very powerful in this whole episode, and I felt emotionally invested at this point. Now, I am an emotional person when it comes to works of fiction, generally movies and TV shows. I cried at the end of both Supernatural and The Originals, for example. But I think this is the first book that I’ve read where I’ve cried over the book and in part that is because Sue Monk Kidd allows you to witness the brutality of the crucifixion firsthand through the eyes of Ana. And, for Ana, the pain is doubled because it is, of course, her brother Judas who betrays Jesus and—with the news of Judas’s suicide—she loses both her husband and her brother in the same day.
Now, one of the questions that our moderator asked about this book was about our reactions to the misogyny of the time and culture. There are many situations that Ana gets herself into in part because she is a strong, educated woman, and one who wants her voice to be heard. Even in Nazareth with Jesus’ family, although Jesus supports her, we see how part of her ability to write was tied to her class in Sepphoris and living with Jesus’ lower-class family restricts that access. There is much more of an emphasis in this situation on what her role as a woman should be in the family. But the moderator’s question about misogyny itself struck me as kind of odd. I almost didn’t notice the misogyny of the culture in the book—that is, it didn’t stand out to me as all because of course that was how things were then.
One quote that particularly struck me as I read was, “We women harbor our intimacies in locked places in our bodies. They are ours to relinquish when we choose” (p. 186). Ana makes this comment after the birth of her stillborn child and in response to her aunt’s story of her daughter who had been taken away from her. As a mother myself, this quote really stood out to me and I think there is something to say about the physicality of the experience of giving birth and, to go back to the question about how Christianity would be different if Jesus had been married, perhaps the emphasis on the spiritual over the material would not have been so pronounced if Jesus had been married.
In the end, I liked this book so much that I passed my copy on to my mother to read. So, has anyone else read The Book of Longings? What did you think of it?