Why Women Writers Should Read The Book of Longings by Sue Monk Kidd
More about writing than faith
In retrospect, my hesitation at reading The Book of Longings is laughable
It’s absurd, really. I had purchased a copy of Sue Monk Kidd’s book, The Book of Longings when it was released through my Book-of-the-Month subscription, but I put off reading it. I had it in my head that I might be committing some kind of quiet heresy by indulging myself in a story that “re-imagined” Jesus’ as a married man.
My childhood upbringing of weekly church services and standard Methodist dogma got in the way and delayed my reading of one of the best books I’ve held in my hands this year.
I try never to rate books. I also try never to berate them. The worth and value of books are completely subjective based on each reader’s experiences, background, and tastes.
So I understand when other people don’t feel the same way that I do about a book, but for me, a woman with a passion to write, a woman of faith, a woman who feels a “largeness” of spirit within, The Book of Longings hit all my sweet spots.
Ana, a woman that writers will understand
Penguin-Random House, the publisher of The Book of Longings, advertises the book this way:
“Grounded in meticulous research and written with a reverential approach to Jesus’s life that focuses on his humanity, The Book of Longings is an inspiring, unforgettable account of one woman’s bold struggle to realize the passion and potential inside her, while living in a time, place and culture devised to silence her. It is a triumph of storytelling both timely and timeless, from a masterful writer at the height of her powers.”
The above blurb does not say that the woman in question was a rebellious, beautiful, intelligent, 14-year-old Jewish girl whose father was the chief scribe to Herod. All her life, Ana had been surrounded by the tools of her father’s trade.
Papyrus, reed pens, and inks concocted from ash and tree sap were something Ana had handled from the time she was a child as her father taught her to read and write in several languages, giving her an education unheard of for women of the time. She feels a “largeness” inside her and does not want to be constrained into the traditional roles of a young female.
Her feelings and ideas flow from her in words. (Writers will understand this.)
Ana, frustrated by the constraints put on her because she’s a girl, spends her time recording stories of the forgotten women of her faith, one scroll at a time, never stopping, the need to write as powerful as the need to breathe. (Writers will also understand this.)
The book blurb also does not say that Ana becomes the wife of Jesus of Nazareth.
The imagined story of Ana + Jesus
Ana first sees Jesus near a cave where he’s gone to pray. She has gone to hide her scrolls from her mother. From that day forward, she is drawn to Jesus.
Many events and circumstances occur which eventually bring Jesus and Ana together in a loving marriage. Jesus, however, must search for work in neighboring cities, so he’s often away from home. Always devout, Jesus, like Ana, begins to feel that there is more that God wants him to do than just be a carpenter and a stonemason. Once he meets John, the Immerser, he knows what he’s meant to do and leaves to start his ministry.
Criticism of The Book of Longings
In The Washington Post, Ron Charles writes a not very flattering review of The Book of Longings. He mentions that the idea that Jesus might have married no longer has the same power to shock people that it did in 1988 with The Last Temptation of Christ.
Twenty-five years after The Last Temptation of Christ, author Dan Brown provoked people with the same idea. The premise of the bestseller, The DaVinci Code, was that Jesus had married Mary Magdalene.
Charles, The Washington Post Critic, states that the feminist core of the book isn’t that interesting any more and the idea that God surely has a feminine side is no longer novel.
But I think he missed the point. The book was not meant to shock, but rather to “reimagine” the traditional story, exploring the idea that — since women were often silenced — some details of the story were left out. It’s possible that Jesus lived a traditional lifestyle of a devout Jewish man until God called him to his ministry.
He married, went to bring forth the kingdom of God, and then died, the records of his wife lost because women weren’t important enough to mention in the dealings of men.
Ron Charles, a male book critic might have not been able to understand the depth of frustration at being suppressed and subordinated because you’re a woman. He can’t have felt the deep and abiding bonds of friendship between women, and quite possibly, he has never been denied the freedom to do what comes naturally to him, as Ana was denied the joy of writing openly, without hiding her talent. He could only focus on the story that Jesus was married, missing the mark.
This is Ana’s story. Not Jesus’.
Sue Monk Kidd wanted to explore the spiritual life of women during Jesus’ time, focusing on how the largesse of God might manifest itself to women who could find him in feminine form, a being that empowers them rather than silences them.
Fiction, Not Fact
The book is a fictional work, not intended to shock or make claims. The Book of Longings isn’t presented as a true story. In fact, Kidd says in her Author’s Note,
“the aim of the novelist is not only to hold up a mirror to the world, but to imagine what’s possible.”
The Whisperings That Jesus Had a Wife
If you’re interested in trying to find evidence that Jesus might have had a wife, you’ll be fascinated by this article in The Atlantic that examines the history of a scrap of papyrus with the phrase,
“Jesus said to them, My wife.”
While the papyrus has never been scientifically debunked, its trail of provenance and the questionable background of its owner make its authenticity questionable.
But it doesn’t matter. The Book of Longings is a novel, not a treatise or theological proof.
How The Book of Longings Helped Me
Reading this, I felt like I was in the old cities of the Bible. The air of Jerusalem and the heat of Nazareth soaked into my bones. Figs and dates, olives and ossuaries, felt real. I clearly envisioned the time period because of the hundreds of cinematic details that Sue Monk Kidd included, like this.
“I wrapped my arms about her caved-in shoulders, and we sat like that for a long time, quiet and dazed, listening to the garden. Birds chirping, the rustle of lizards, a tiny zephyr in the palms.
But it was more than the realism of the setting. One of the best things about reading The Book of Longings is how I was able to see what Jesus, the man, might have been like.
From my childhood, I was taught of his divinity and his spirit, but I had never glimpsed what the young man, Jesus, might have been like before he left to start his ministry: the sound of his laughter, the fact that he supported his family with his carpentry and stonemason jobs, the grief at the death of Joseph, his horseplay with his brothers.
I saw Jesus as a human being living a normal life among us before he took up his ministry.
Finally, the aspect that helped me the most in my faith-walk was getting a grip on Judas’ motivation in betraying Jesus. All my life, I’ve been frustrated by how a friend and disciple could betray Jesus for money. It never seemed possible to me.
But adding in the motivation of a political zealot bent on revenge along with the idea that Judas wanted to get the revolution going faster finally gave me enough motivation to understand Judas’ actions.
A writer’s prayer
Ana, like many of us, is working to find her purpose in life. She wants to determine how best to use her God-given talents and abilities. (Me, too.)
The best part of the book for me, is the prayer that Ana writes:
“Lord our God, hear my prayer, the prayer of my heart.
Bless the largeness inside me, no matter how I fear it.
Bless my reed pens and my inks.
Bless the words I write.
May they be beautiful in your sight.
May they be visible to eyes not yet born.
When I am dust, sing these words over my bones:
She was a voice.”
And lately, I’ve found myself uttering fragments of this in my quiet evening prayers before I drift off to sleep. “Bless the words I write. May they be beautiful in your sight….” and modifying them with, “Help me use my voice to bring joy or insight or relief or kindness to someone today.”
Surely other writers feel what Ana expresses about the power and beauty of words:
“I tell you, there are times when words are so glad to be set free they laugh out loud and prance across their tablets and inside their scrolls. So it was with the words I wrote. They reveled till dawn.”
(Don’t you just love the ideas of your words reveling around, joyous in their newfound freedom after being released from the prison of your mind?)
Ana wants to proclaim her innermost thoughts and longings to God, but such an act was not permitted for a woman because it’s too powerful. The mere act of writing creates an energy and force that continues through the ages.
“To write down a prayer — this was a grievous and holy thing. The act itself of writing evoked powers, often divine, but sometimes unstable, that entered the letters and sent a mysterious animating force rippling through the ink.”
Ana, however, knows better:
“When the longing of one’s heart is inke into words and offered as a prayer, that’s when it springs to life in God’s mind.”
Writing advice from Aunt Yaltha
Ana’s mentor is her Aunt Yaltha, an educated, but outcast, widowed woman.
Yaltha encourages Ana to use her gifts. To be herself. To write what she knows.
“A man’s holy of holies contains God’s laws, but inside a woman’s there are only longing….Write what’s inside here, inside your holy of holies.”
Aunt Yaltha reminds Ana that she has what she needs to be successful.
“What most sets you apart is the spirit in you that rebels and persists. It isn’t the largeness in you that matters most, it’s your passion to bring it forth.”
Any writer, male or female, understands that what is required to be a great writer is the passion and persistence to bring ideas forth.
Beautiful language and sensory imagery
I recently read a prominent bestseller. It was a good read with an interesting story, but I felt like the language was simplistic and flat. Not so with Sue Monk Kidd’s style.
Beautiful, rich language and sensory imagery were everywhere:
“The darkness in the room was suffocating, like being inside a ripe, black olive.”
“As Lavi and I traversed the city, sunrise was loitering about the streets, pink lights everywhere like little doused flames.”
“I saw her lip quiver ever so slightly, the commotion of a bee’s wing.”
“As the night drew around us, Martha lit three lamps and set them in our midst. All of their faces shone suddenly, cheeks and chins the color of honey”
“We work quickly, listening to the sea slap against the rocks far below, to the marjoram bushes alive with honeybees, the vibrating world.”
If you enjoy pairing books with similar themes, read The Red Tent by Anita Diamant, another one of my favorites. This historical fiction expands on the Biblical story of Dinah, a daughter of Jacob and Leah. The Red Tent was published in 1997 and became a bestseller, now sold in twenty-five countries.
“A minor character from the book of Genesis tells her life story in this vivid evocation of the world of Old Testament women. The only surviving daughter of Jacob and Leah, Dinah occupies a far different world from the flocks and business deals of her brothers. She learns from her Aunt Sarah the mysteries of midwifery and from her other aunts the art of homemaking. Most important, Dinah learns and preserves the stories and traditions of her family, which she shares with the reader in touchingly intimate detail. Familiar passages from the Bible come alive as Dinah fills in what the Bible leaves out concerning Jacob’s courtship of Rachel and Leah, her own ill-fated sojourn in the city of Shechem and her half-brother Joseph’s rise to fame and fortune in Egypt.
. . . . Diamant succeeds admirably in depicting the lives of women in the age that engendered our civilization and our most enduring values.”
— Publishers Weekly
I’ve found my epitaph:
Obviously, I loved the book because it worked with my beliefs and ambitions.
But I never would have guessed that reading The Book of Longings would inspire me as a writer.
I never would have imagined that this fictional book would present me — like a wiseman bearing gold — the epitaph I want carved on my headstone when I’m gone:
“When I am dust, sing these words over my bones:
She was a voice.”
Photo by Rafał Rudol on Unsplash
Award-winning teacher, entrepreneur, and writer. Marketing manager in the HVAC and Plumbing industries. Author of The Magic of Ordinary, a memoir of a "Daddy," his daughters, and the power of one good man to change the world.