Colleen Carpenter Cullinan has produced a work that draws together central elements in the stories and traditions of Christianity and the stories of contemporary literary fiction. Cullinan’s is an exquisite voice and she articulates keen insight into each of these elements. As a superb theologian, she has both known personally and reflected on suffering in light of the Christian Gospel. She also recognizes a good story wherever she finds it, whether in the real story of her own life, marriage and motherhood, or in the fictional stories created by women, about women.
With the same eyes she reads the stories of Jesus and three works of literary fiction: The Beloved by Toni Morrison, A Weave of Women by E.M. Broner, and Animal Dreams by Barbara Kingsolver. Underlying this reading she asks: “How does Jesus fit in to the way women construct their understanding of themselves, God and the world?” (p.59)
In her reading of The Beloved Cullinan notices important differences between the way dominant male voices need to define life, and the way women choose to “either speak toward…or [let] their silence point loudly to where redemption is needed.” (p.42) In their struggle toward finding the wholeness which they desire, women’s maternal voice discovers that “Redemption is not about getting rid of the bad to make room for the good…it is big enough to surround and change even the absolute worst into something that is part of God’s blessed and redeemed creation.” (p.54)
Women’s experience of God as feminine in Broner’s work has Shekhinah/Sophia at the center of the Exodus story, rather than the more familiar warrior God. The focus is on “God’s presence” as a living, necessary and saving presence in which women are invited to dwell in joy.
The truth that Kingsolver writes about is embedded in the relation between dangerous memories and hope. Citing theologian Elizabeth Johnson, Cullinan finds in the novel evidence of something related to that central mystery of life: “suffering is not the truth of our lives…death is not the end for us, because we know that God is faithful.” (p.117)
Her life as theologian, woman and mother leads Cullinan to reflect thoughtfully on human experiences of suffering, in part through those that are most accessible: her own. She relies on both the skills of analysis and the freedom of imagination to help her rediscover truths that have been buried in a tradition too often remembered in the images and language of interpreters and their understanding of the vengeance of an angry God.
This is one of those books that can be useful for those who spend time in classrooms or who prepare for preaching. The topics of struggle, suffering, and redemption, as viewed through the experience of women, are relevant for courses in Women’s Studies, Religious Studies, Theology or Literature. The stories she pays attention to are stories that live in the hearts and lives of many people, particularly those who strive to see their life’s journey as one that will take them into “the very heart of God.”