My imagination is often captured by the treatment of religion in stories. I just read The Secret Life of Bees, by Sue Monk Kidd. It was a well written and thoroughly enjoyable book, although several passages would upset many Christians.
"[Rosaleen] never went to church herself, but… I’d seen her special shelf with a stub of candle, creek rocks, a reddish feather, and a piece of John the Conqueror root, and right in the center a picture of a woman [her mother], propped up without a frame…. Her shelf had to do with a religion she’d made up for herself, a mixture of nature and ancestor worship." (page 29)
The 14-year-old white protagonist Lily and her black nanny Rosaleen escape Lily’s emotionally abusive father and run away to South Carolina in 1964. The story centers on Lily’s search for a mother, the desire to be mothered, and to have female friendship and community. She finds love and guidance from three black bee-keeping sisters and their religion.
"[August] said, 'May and June and I take our mother’s Catholicism and mix in our own ingredients. I’m not sure what you call it, but it suits us.'” (page 90)
At first, this religion seems based on rituals and symbols. The sisters own an old ship figurehead in the shape of a Black Madonna. They practice a nightly recitation of Hail Mary’s before the statue and have a “Daughters of Mary” Sunday service with a few other women in the community. In the first service Lily attended, they read a Bible verse about Mary and told the story of the history and miracles of the statue. While playing “Amazing Grace” each women danced and touched the heart painted on the statue for strength.
Rituals are not inherently evil. Going to church, taking communion, or saying prayers are all types of rituals. An image or a repeated phrase can be a teaching tool or a mediation device to gain focus. As long as the thing is not worshiped, it can direct worship to God. Although, the women's devotion to their statue has gone way beyond that point. It shares too much in common with ancient idol worship. The Apostle Paul criticized those who “exchanged the truth about God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator.” (Romans 1:25a)
I was pleasantly surprised to find that this invented faith was not based on ritual alone. Near the end of the book, August reveals a deeper level of understanding to Lily.
“'Our Lady is not some magical being out there somewhere, like a fairy godmother. She’s not the statue in the parlor. She’s something inside of you. … You don’t have to put your hand on Mary’s heart to get strength and consolation and rescue and all the other things we need to get through life,' [August] said. 'You can place [your hand] right here on your own heart.'” (page 289)
It’s good that August, (who is unofficially the church leader) is not trying to bring back basic idol worship. She recognizes what’s in the heart is important.
Certain truths in this passage, and the following, stand out to me. It is certainly positive and uplifting to read, and I almost dare to ask, Is it the Right Idea with the Wrong Name? Can I place “Jesus” in for “Mary” and make this Biblically acceptable?
One aspect seems to me: has Lily always had Mary in her heart? Was there a turning point? Part of literary analysis is identifying such changing points in the story. I would argue that Lily makes a choice to let divine goodness enter her heart. But this moment is mostly ignored in modern story-telling. It’s too unpopular, like the “Born Again” testimony of Christians. A more palatable suggestion is that Mary has been in Lily’s heart all along, and she is only now realizing it. This is a subtle but important difference.
August’s speech continues:
… “'When you’re unsure of yourself,' she said, 'when you start pulling back into doubt and small living, [Mary’s] the one inside saying, ‘Get up from there and live like the glorious girl you are.’ She’s the power inside you.'” (page 289)
So Mary is a power and a voice. Lily heard a voice encouraging her to run away from her father. But was Lily a “glorious girl” at the beginning of the book? No. Lily clearly recognized herself as a sinner. Although she was distracted by misplaced guilt over her mother’s death, she still knew her feelings, her actions, and her happiness were not what they ought to be.
… “'And whatever it is that keeps widening your heart, that’s Mary, too, not only the power inside you but the love. And when you get down to it, Lily, that’s the only purpose grand enough for a human life. Not just to love- but to persist in love.'” (page 289)
God actually promises a new heart to believers. “I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.” (Ezekiel 36:26)
How is it accomplished that one can have a new heart and persist in love? “If anyone acknowledges that Jesus is the Son of God, God lives in them and they in God. And so we know and rely on the love God has for us. God is love. Whoever lives [persists] in love lives in God, and God in them. This is how love is made complete among us.” (1 John 4:15-17a) (The NKJ uses the word “abides”) Here, Paul teachers that God is Love. August believe Mary is Love. Again, the incomplete theology of this religion leaves me unsatisfied. Does Mary exist somewhere independent of me (as a true goddess with power?) Or is “Mary” just a word to describe good things that are intrinsic to my own nature?
… “'This Mary I’m talking about sits in your heart all day long, saying, ‘Lily, you are my everlasting home. Don’t you ever be afraid. I am enough. We are enough.’” (page 289)
I thought of Paul being comforted by God’s words: “But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient [enough] for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” (2 Corinthians 12:9a)
I admit I don’t understand why temporal Lily would be Mary’s everlasting home. (Unless Mary does not exist independently of Lily.) Although Jesus lives in the hearts of Christians on Earth, it’s a temporary deposit for a future in Heaven. “[God] set his seal of ownership on us, and put his Spirit in our hearts as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come.” (2 Corinthians 1:22) Because God is all powerful and independent of us, He is capable of making an everlasting home for us. Nothing we do makes a worthwhile home for God.
Sadly, there is a time for these comparisons to end. I enjoy studying other thoughts and continuing to recognize that all true wisdom can already be found in the Bible, but I can’t continue to replace the name of Jesus for Mary.
From the first scene with a Black Madonna, it was clear that the author thought names were not important. In her interview, Kidd explains that Black Madonnas are one type of “archetypal feminine images of the divine” and that “their blackness is purportedly not related to race or ethnic origins, but has to do with obscure symbolic meanings and connections to earlier goddesses.” (page 9 of Penguin interview, back of book) The name “Mary” is simply a replacement for or blend of another belief system: a common religious syncretism that exists beyond this one book.
Without or without the physical idol, this is idol worship. Whether a specific goddess is worshiped, or if we worship some vague divinity found only in ourselves, the worship of the Feminine Divine ultimately leads away from God. There is no confession, no repentance, no accepting of a new heart. Although “The Secret Life of Bees” has several beautiful ideas and truths, I know that Mary is not in my heart, and no goddess can save me. My feminine strength, wisdom and community may be good things, but they are not enough to save me from fear, or help me persist in love. The source of my salvation and my strength is Jesus. In the end, the Name matters.