Sarah Bessey, lay theologian, writer, and blogger is a Canadian whose voice has emerged to lead a generation. Convivium’s Hannah Marazzi interviewed Bessey by correspondence about the changing nature of theology in the public sphere, the importance of literature to a life of faith, and the imagery of the author’s beloved Canadian landscape that finds its way into all of her writing.
Convivium: You published Jesus Feminist, a lay-theological examination of the role of women in the life of faith, in 2013. You have referred to it as your “little yellow book” and in public lectures have said that those words were, at the beginning, a “sure way to burn down the Internet.” Can you speak to the response you received from readers?
Bessey: Well, if there is one sure way to irritate almost everyone, it’s putting those two words together. Back in 2013, the conversation about Christian feminism had retreated to academia, and I wanted to bring it back to the local church, back to our homes, back to our regular walking around lives. It was never meant to be a theory of Christian feminism. Scholars have done that work, and much better than I could. Rather, both then and now, I saw Jesus Feminist as a book about the Kingdom of God, about what it means when men and women are walking in wholeness and in shalom.
Overall, I was pleasantly surprised by how well it was received even by people who profoundly disagreed with my conclusions. I repeatedly heard from critics that, at the very least, they now know those of us who believe in women’s full flourishing and equality believe it because we love Jesus and because we love Scripture.
I hear daily from women and men who found incredible freedom through the book. It’s a humbling thing to know that you got to be a small part of what the Holy Spirit is up to in marriages, in churches, in families, in communities, in people’s lives.
Now almost four years later, the book is still stirring up needed conversation. For instance, with the Women’s Marches worldwide, more and more Christians are once again wondering about that intersection of Christianity and feminism, and I’m still here saying, “Yes, I’m a feminist and it is entirely because I love and follow Jesus.”
Convivium: Your entry into the theological and literary sphere came by way of blogging. Can you share how you navigate this ever-evolving space of Internet writing, and also speak to the transition you made to publish your own print book while retaining your voice in this digital medium?
Bessey: I never imagined myself publishing a “real” book. Christian publishing isn’t usually for people like me. I’m charismatic and a bit of a mystic. I’m not American. I’m a woman. I am not formally trained. I’m not a pastor or an important leader, and I could go on. But here we are. And it’s because of blogging. Blogging not only helped me to find my writing voice but it created a community of fellow wanderers and wonderers for me.
I’ve been blogging since 2005. It was never with the idea of a book deal or anything like that. It was just my space to wrestle with God, my altar for encounter. I was only ever writing about what I believed, thought, knew, and even hoped about God - and the best way I knew to do that was through telling stories and finding God in my right-now life.
That’s the wonderful thing about blogging or other social media: it gets us past the establishment gatekeepers. I have always said that the best and boldest, the most authentic Christian writing happening right now is happening online.
So, while it’s been a joy to write my two books so far and I’m deeply grateful for that privilege, I’m still loyal to blogging and social media as a means for reaching people, for connection, for conversation, and for amplifying underrepresented voices and experiences. It feels communal and grassroots to me. I love writing books and I love writing online. Both are a form of theological art.
Convivium: Your latest book Out of Sorts: Making Peace with an Evolving Faith was published in 2015. It narrates your personal theological and spiritual journey. Can you say what prompted you to write it?
Bessey: I wrote the book to leave the light on for the ones who are wandering and wondering in their faith. Honestly, I probably wrote the book that I wished I had in my own hands 15 years ago. Most of us go through a season of grief or doubt or questioning. We think we have only two options: to double-down on what we believe and pretend we’re totally fine, or burn the whole thing down. I believe this book offers a third way, the way of trusting that this season, this wilderness, is part of your story, part of your journey, and there is an invitation from the Holy Spirit to lean into your questions and your doubts until you find that Jesus is there, too.
Convivium: Who would you identify as leading literary voices of the day grappling with the challenge of speaking about faith in the public space?
Bessey: I’ve deeply appreciated Idelette McVicker of SheLoves Magazine and the voices of women she curates there in that space: diverse, authentic, global. I would also recommend Lisa Sharon Harper’s Very Good Gospel. A few other writers worth our time are Shauna Niequist, Nadia Bolz-Weber, Jen Hatmaker, Lauren Winner, Walter Brueggemann…too many to name I feel. Of course, I was deeply influenced by Madeleine L’Engle, Kathleen Norris, and Barbara Brown Taylor.
Convivium: What is on your bookshelf currently?
Bessey: I usually have a stack of books on the go at a time. I like to read widely and often am in the middle of several books at once, reading as my mood strikes. Right now, I’m reading When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi, The Book of Strange New Things by Michael Farber, Fieldstream by Mary Oliver, and a few others waiting for an endorsement. I just finished Tish Harrison Warren’s Liturgy of the Ordinary, which I adored. I’m also halfway through reading Charlotte’s Web with one of my tinies, too. Best reading of the day.
Convivium: How have you encountered God through literature? How do you see literature as a tool in the life of faith?
Bessey: Reading has always been one of the primary ways I have met with God. It’s been a tool for transformation. And almost always it has been through story more than through non-fiction or self-help or official “discipleship” books. I was deeply shaped by reading in my childhood and now I find that reading stories still does that same work. My friend Nish always says: “It’s easy to tell someone your opinion; what’s hard is to tell them your story.” And stories are what change us. Jesus told stories for a reason. I find empathy, compassion, wisdom, and transformation hiding in literature.
Convivium: What is the most enduring challenge you have encountered as someone who balances this vocation of motherhood, public speaker, and author?
Bessey: I think the key challenge in your question in the idea of balance. I don’t know that balance is really realistic for most of us. Life won’t ever be easy or convenient or without challenge, but that is not our calling. A meaningful vocation, motherhood, marriage, a rich life - that is what makes life worth living. But sometimes it’s a mess as you figure out your flow. Some days are harder than others, but for the most part as a family we’ve hit a good stride where everyone feels like we’re in a good flow. There isn’t a moment that I’m not leaning on Jesus and seeking to follow Him well.
Convivium: There is this wonderful through line in all of your work – both digital and print – of Canada. You refer to uniquely Canadian pieces of literature as authored by L.M. Montgomery etc. and the vast Canadian landscape, in particular Alberta and British Columbia in your writing. How does your identity as a Canadian inform your worldview and perspective within the broader North American spiritual conversation?
Bessey: I’ve heard that almost all of our theology is rooted in autobiography, and that’s certainly true for me. My “place” has deeply shaped me. I’ve written a few times about the “theology of place” - about how where we live shapes our spirituality and how we understand God and the metaphors we use for God, let alone our stories. I grew up in Saskatchewan, Manitoba, and Alberta, but now I live on the West Coast. So I’m deeply Western Canadian in my ethos, my language, my way of understanding the world, my perception of beauty, culture, all of it. So of course that shows up in my theology. I think that is a strength. We need people rooted in their place, testifying from where they are, not from the place they wish they were, or the place where the action is happening. It’s beautiful to be rooted. The action is right where you are. Testify from there.
Convivium: You speak on the “holy work of waiting in the darkness,” love as a choice,” and the “blessing for the ordinary things.” You have also said of yourself and your husband, “We don't really want to change the world anymore. We want to love our world.” What do you hope for in 2017?
Bessey: I feel like Canadian Christians are in a unique position to lead in our world. In 2017, my hope is that we would truly love and follow Jesus, allowing Jesus to disciple us, shaping our beliefs, our opinions, our habits, our choices, all of it. It’s rarely a big “one-time” moment, but the thousands of daily moments where we work out our salvation and choose to follow Jesus well.
There will be a counter-culture aspect of following Jesus and it’s not always what we think. It will be counter-cultural in that we’ll be the people of welcome; the people of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control; the people who embody the Gospel.
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