Thursday, July 14, 2011

Author Interview: Sarah Sentilles

Earlier I posted a book review of Sarah's new book Breaking Up With God (Harper One, 2011) an honest look at her own work and ministry as she prepared for official ministry in the Episcopal Church. Her own faith crisis and journey is an honest look at the difficulties and issues involved with a spiritual journey. While I didn't agree with everything in the book I do think that her honesty and openness about her faith is commendable. Below is an interview with Sarah:

Tell us why you wrote Breaking Up With God? How long did it take to write it?

I was almost an Episcopal priest but now I don’t call myself a Christian. I wrote Breaking Up with God to figure out what happened to my relationship with God. Technically, I wrote the book in two years, but you could also say that it took me my whole life to write this book. The seeds for Breaking Up with God were planted when I wrote A Church of Her Own, which examines the sexism women face when they try to lead churches. My editor for that project made me take out all the parts of the story that were about me and focus instead on the ministers I interviewed. I realized then that I had my own story to tell.

For whom was the book written—did you have a particular audience in mind?

I always joke that I had Oprah in mind when I wrote the book (what writer doesn’t?), but in reality I always try to write imagining my closest friends as my readers. I think this is part of what gives my book an intimate feeling. Several readers have written to me to share that after they read the book they felt as if we were friends, as if we had just had a conversation in their kitchens late into the night. Sometimes I write just for myself, a choice that allows me to take bigger risks with my writing because I don’t worry about what anyone else will think of my words. For this particular book, however, the audience I most often had in mind was the person who is trapped in a faith—or a job, or a relationship, or a home—that is making her feel small and alone and frightened. I hope my book will help her give herself permission to leave, help her know she’s free to go, that she can claim a different kind of God.

Were there any surprises you discovered in the writing? Any painful moments? Any funny ones?

The writing process is filled with surprises for me. I never know what a book will look like until I am finished writing it, which is what makes writing so life-giving and exciting for me. The biggest surprise that came with this book was the revelation that the story I had been telling about why I was not a priest was not the whole story. I had been telling people that I left institutional Christianity because the institutional church was sexist—which is true—but I also left institutional Christianity because my faith in God changed dramatically. I no longer believed what I once believed. I had also been telling people that I lost faith in God, but writing this book I realized that wasn’t exactly right either: I didn’t lose my faith; I left it. I think that’s why the break-up metaphor works so well.

I think the funniest moment writing this book came when I first saw the design for the cover. I happen to love the cover. And at the same time I am a little embarrassed as a feminist that I love the fact that my book has a beautiful model on the cover. I sent my friend Amy Walsh the cover when I saw the first version of it to see what she thought of it, and she reminded me how weird it was to have a model on the cover. She said she wished I was on the cover, which made me laugh, so my husband and I did a fake photo shoot, and remade a version of the cover with me on it. Instead of sitting next to a suitcase, I sat next to my own dirty laundry. And instead of looking beautiful, my hair was all greasy because I’d just gotten back from the gym and I hadn’t yet showered that day. We laughed for days. Amy later sent me an even funnier version of the cover that now hangs on my refrigerator and that is too brilliant to try to describe here.

Are there similar books out there, and if so, how is yours different?

Barbara Brown Taylor wrote a beautiful book called Leaving Church about her decision to leave the church where she was a priest. William Lobdell wrote a book called Losing My Religion about losing faith as a religion reporter for the LA Times. And there are, of course, all the books by the “new atheists”—God Is Not Great and The God Delusion and The End of Faith—but I think my book is very different from those. First, I am not an atheist. I am agnostic. And second, I understand the value of being part of a religious community, and I still very much miss that.

Is there anything in particular that you want readers to learn when reading Breaking Up With God?

That there is more to God than most of us have been taught in church. That faith is an imaginative, constructive, ethical enterprise. That theology matters. That the way we think about God has real effects on the earth and on other human beings. That we are the ones we have been waiting for. In the book I write, “This is my faith: a fragile hope in what humanity might be able to do when we stop looking for someone else to save us,” and I think that sentence sums up what the book is about.

I also think the book is an invitation, a way to let other people know that they don’t have to stay in faith communities just because they find themselves there by birth or by choice. It’s an invitation to come out—as a seeker, an atheist, an agnostic, a dissatisfied believer, a questioner. Sometimes you know something doesn’t feel right, but you force yourself to stay—whether it’s in a relationship that isn’t working, in a job that is making you miserable, or in a faith community that is making you feel small and scared. That is part of why I figured my faith in God as a romantic relationship. Just like you wouldn’t tell your friend to stay with a partner who hits her, you shouldn’t tell someone to stay with a version of God that makes them sick or scared or impedes her ability to thrive and shine and be her biggest self in the world.

What are you doing now professionally? Are you teaching? Doing more writing?

I am in the beginning stages of three books right now. I’m working on an edited volume with Karen King called Torture and Christianity. I’m working on a book about artists’ responses to torture. And I’m writing a novel based on the true story of a conscientious objector during World War II. I taught courses in critical thinking and art theory at a university when I lived in southern California. I am moving to Portland at the end of the summer and hope to find some teaching opportunities there. I’d love to teach in my field again, which is somewhere at the intersection of religious studies, ethics, visual culture, and theology. At the center of my work is a commit­ment to investigating the roles religious language, images, and practices play in oppression, violence, social transformation, and justice movements.