I’ve been thinking a lot about religion. For many years I tried to avoid the topic. I grew up Catholic, have 13 years of parochial education, and a degree from a Jesuit university. I felt done.
But this is a year of my past coming back, through old friends, hometowns, religion, and the reevaluation of everything. A good friend is a liberal feminist Christian blogger; another, an outspoken atheist. There’s everything in between on my Facebook feed. I now identify as agnostic. I can’t get behind the Body of Christ anymore, but I’ve resumed my yoga practice for more than just the exercise. Many of my friends are also in their thirties, so perhaps we’re all reevaluating. Faith is deeply personal and often fraught.
I approached Lisa Takeuchi Cullen’s novel Pastors’ Wives with some trepidation. I was fascinated by the subject matter: what happens when a woman marries a man of God? How exactly does that relationship work, and what if her faith is significantly different from her husband’s? They still have sex, right? (Hey, I grew up Catholic. It’s a valid question.) Are all pastors’ wives as outspoken as Annie Camden?
Like me, Cullen was raised in the Holy Roman Church and had no idea herself, until she wrote a Time Magazine article in 2007 about pastors’ wives, their lives and their growing social networks. Pastors’ Wives is a novelization of this article, focusing on three very different women in an Atlanta “megachurch.” Ruthie is the new girl in town: also a former Catholic (are you getting a theme here?), she and her husband lived in New York until he felt “the calling” and uprooted them South to serve as an associate pastor. Candace is the wife of Aaron Green, Greenleaf’s super-pastor who charms the masses, drives a Prius to reduce waste, and works with a rabbi and imam to foster positive interfaith relations. Ginger is Candace’s nervous daughter-in-law, deeply faithful but personally unsure: her pastor husband is away on mission trips more often than not, and Ginger lives in fear of someone discovering her torrid past.
I’m fascinated by the megachurch culture, but fearful too. Even just reading about it feels dangerous sometimes. Cullen did an excellent job of pulling me in as a reader while making me feel safe too. I immediately identified with snarky, questioning Ruthie, which was probably the idea: the book alternates perspectives among the three women, but Ruthie is the only one who narrates in first person. I could understand her confusion: in some ways, it’s cool to see people come together (really, that’s the main theme of The Book of Mormon musical), but at what cost? Greenleaf has an “ex-gay” group, but Candace also takes down a preschool teacher who tries to tell her grandson that dinosaurs didn’t exist.
Speaking of Candace, she’s a force. I loved how this character was written: she embodies an entire generation of women (religious or no) who don’t take any credit, but get stuff done. Candace is petite, pretty, and terrifying. She’s fiercely loyal to Aaron, her family and community. She cleans up huge personal messes and directs a fabulous Christmas pageant. I liked Ginger as well, and enjoyed seeing her journey from timid housewife to strong advocate.
I could not put this book down, digging in on the bus, in a hotel lobby waiting to meet a friend, in my armchair until the very last page. I didn’t agree with all the beliefs, but I loved these complicated characters, Cullen’s clear and precise writing style, the very fair portrayal of evangelical Christians and exploration of faith. The epilogue is a bit cliche – and I won’t give any spoilers, but Cullen could have used a better framing device – but at the same time, I liked how not every loose end was perfectly tied. The three women felt even more real, evolving, processing. Kind of like faith itself.
Note: I was sent Pastors’ Wives free of charge, with no obligation to review.