Growing in Circles, by Bonnie Casey

As you probably know if you frequent this site, I’m an avid fiction reader, but the only genre of non-fiction that I devour with the same urgency is the memoir. And among memoirs, the ones I’m most likely to seek out are memoirs by women about their spiritual journeys.

Sometimes these are about journeys toward faith (like Anne Lamott’s Traveling Mercies, or Lauren Winner’s Girl Meets God), but just as often they are about traveling away from traditional religion towards a more personal, eclectic vision of spirituality. I can now add Bonnie L. Casey’s Growing in Circles to the list of books I’ve enjoyed in this latter category, books such as Barbara Brown Taylor’s Leaving Church, Martha Beck’s Leaving the Saints and Sue Monk Kidd’s Dance of the Dissident Daughter.

Growing in Circles brings Bonnie Casey out of the “Where Are They Now?” file in my head where she’s been residing for several years. My personal “Where Are They Now?” file doesn’t contain questions about the biographies of failed pop stars and former movie actors, but rather curiosity about Adventists who shaped my faith from a distance when I was young and impressionable.

When I was a teenager, looking for examples of how to be a Seventh-day Adventist Christian, my quest for mentors extended beyond my local congregation to include Adventist writers, especially those who were associated with Insight magazine during its cutting-edge years in the 1970s. Names like Dan Fahrbach, Katie Tonn, Mike Jones, Penny Wheeler and others shaped my perception of what an Adventist life and worldview might look like. Music was almost as important as literature to how I made sense of the world, and when I began to immerse myself in contemporary Christian music I found nothing that touched me as deeply as the folksongs Bonnie Casey recorded, first with Take Three and later with Daystar.

Over the years, I’ve kept up with some of those mentors, while others have dropped out of sight. Bonnie Casey was one of those I lost sight of, and many times over the years I wondered what had become of my folkie faith-heroine of the ‘70s and early ‘80s.

So naturally I was excited to get my hands on a copy of Growing in Circles, and to find that it was another of those spiritual memoirs I enjoy reading. In fact, Growing in Circles reminded me in many ways of other memoirs, particularly Leaving the Saints and Dance of the Dissident Daughter.

I was surprised not to find any references to Sue Monk Kidd’s classic memoir about a conservative Christian woman’s quest for a more feminine-centred spirituality in the pages of Casey’s book, because feminine spirituality is a key theme of Growing in Circles. (While she doesn’t mention Kidd, Casey does give much credit to Clarissa Pinkola Estes’ Women Who Run with the Wolves and Robin Carnes and Sally Craig’s Sacred Circles as books that guided her in her explorations). Growing in Circles includes flashbacks to Casey’s early life, but it’s essentially the story of a decade in her life, from 1999 to the present, during which, with the companionship of a “sacred circle” of other women, she moved towards a more female-centered, earth-centered vision the Divine, while at the same time moving away from her marriage and from the Seventh-day Adventist church.

People’s stories about leaving a faith – especially a faith that you yourself are still engaged in – are often challenging, because there’s an implicit judgment there: “I’m spiritually enlightened enough to have moved beyond this narrow, oppressive religion; what’s the matter with you?” Bonnie Casey makes great efforts to avoid adopting this judgmental tone, pointing out that she recognizes that many people derive much comfort and spiritual sustenance from traditional religion, even from the Adventist church. At the same time, she doesn’t downplay her anger at the institutional church, particularly its patriarchal hierarchy. Casey’s hurt over the church’s 1985 decision not to ordain women to the ministry, and over the subsequent upheaval at Sligo Church when that congregation decided to move ahead unilaterally on the issue of women’s ordination, comes across very clearly.

I find it helpful when listening to (or, in this case, reading) people’s stories about leaving the Adventist church, to remember that everyone has left a different Adventist church. That is, we haven’t necessarily all had the same experience of the church even if we were all raised in it, and we each define the church in a different way. Many things in Bonnie Casey’s sketch of the Seventh-day Adventist church she knew are quite familiar to me, while others are alien. (Interestingly, in a brief thumbnail sketch aimed at non-Adventist readers, Casey defines the Adventist church as “a Protestant denomination whose aspiration to be aligned with evangelicals is continually thwarted by its fundamentalist tendencies,” whereas I’d define it as a Protestant denomination whose aspiration to be aligned with evangelicals is continually thwarted by the fundamentalist tendencies of many American evangelicals).

I found Growing in Circles similar to Martha Beck’s Leaving the Saints in that, despite her problems with the institutional church, Casey’s real impetus for abandoning church membership grew not out of theological disagreements but out of personal trauma. Indeed, as Casey tells us, she has had major reservations about Adventist theology for many years, but remained in the Adventist community because her it was such a deeply entrenched part of her life. When it became obvious that that community was not providing the help or support she needed but rather making a difficult life more difficult, she pulled away.

Casey is unstinting in describing just how difficult her life was: she had an abusive childhood, an early and bitterly unhappy marriage, severe clinical depression, chronic pain, and a child with behavioral, neurological and learning disabilities. She identifies her mother, husband, and son as the people who caused her the most pain, though in the case of her son and (to some extent) her mother, her criticism of them is tempered with compassion. Casey’s ex-husband is portrayed as the villain of the piece, a man who, because of his own difficult past, was consistently cold and unloving throughout their marriage. Casey makes mention of his numerous “betrayals,” though without going into detail. She takes the precaution of changing the first names of her husband and son, but this prudent step is, in a community as insular as North American Adventism, almost meaningless.

Writing about the family trauma and the breakup of a marriage is always tricky, and the parallel to Martha Beck (and, to some extent, to Elizabeth Gilbert of Eat, Pray, Love, whose ex-husband is alleged to be releasing a memoir of his own) comes with the awareness that if Casey’s family members were to tell their side of the story, it would, no doubt, sound very different.

A memoir is, by definition, an intensely personal work, though presumably any author considers her memoir worth publishing because she hopes there are universal threads in her story that others will be able to relate to and learn from. Bonnie Casey’s version of the breakdown of her marriage and her disenchantment with the Adventist church is, perforce, her own story, told from her unique perspective. But the reflections on women’s spirituality that provided her with guidance and direction throughout that painful process are of value to all women – even, I would argue, to those of us who remain within the structure of a traditional church institution.

One gaping absence, for me as a reader, in this story is that Casey makes no mention of her professional music career, and only passing mention of the role music has played in her life and in her spirituality. Perhaps her Take Three and Daystar days simply weren’t part of the story she needed to tell here. But since my interest in her stems from my love of her music, I wanted to know what those years were like for her. How did it feel, struggling with serious depression and an already-unhappy marriage, singing so beautifully about a faith that did not sustain her through those painful experiences? It’s something I often wonder as I learn more about the lives of artists and writers who’ve inspired me: how can the work they produced inspire me so much, while leaving the artist herself spiritually empty?

Bonnie Casey may have given up singing, but she is still an artist, and still inspiring. Growing in Circles is, like all the best memoirs, an immediately engaging read. It’s thought-provoking and often very funny – two of the most humourous pieces in the book are an imaginary personal ad Casey writes for an online dating site, and an imaginary obituary for her future self. Most of all, it’s intimate. The writing is so personal that I was hardly surprised when, after devouring the book in a single Friday evening, I went to sleep, only to dream that I was visiting Bonnie Casey at her home. She invites the reader into her life.

So, I’ve updated my “Where Is She Now?” file on Bonnie Casey. Would I be happier if I’d learned she was still actively and creatively involved in the Seventh-day Adventist church? For myself, honestly, yes I would. I value the contributions of women like Bonnie Casey and I think our church is poorer for every such voice we lose. But having read the vivid and painful story of her struggle, I am happy for her. I’m glad she has at last found some peace and joy in life, and that she has found a meaningful way to explore her connection to God Who is our Mother as well as our Father. Whether the Adventist church has changed enough to provide a more nurturing environment for women in the future is a story that will, perhaps, have to wait to be told by the Adventist women of my daughter’s generation.

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30 Comments

Filed under Nonfiction -- memoir

30 responses to “Growing in Circles, by Bonnie Casey

  1. MjWelss

    I just stumbled on this blog and had to laugh because i think we have the exact same taste in books!! I too only like memoirs and have to force myself to read other non fiction. I lot of the more random books you have reviewed are some of my favorites. Anyway, I was wondering if you could suggest a book to read during lent, something fiction, but deep and good for the soul.

    Thanks,

    Emily

    • Doe anyone know where to get her music these days? I have tapes that are long gone and I have only been able to find one on cd…help! Her music was so soothing to my soul…

      • Faye, if you look down the rest of the comments here, I’ve posted a link to her website, and I know you can buy the CDs from her. Ria also posted some info about another source for buying the Take Three albums on CD.

      • Hi Trudy,

        I contacted her back in March via your link and was told she no longer could send out her music. She must have worked the issues out. Thank you for your reply!

      • I hope that’s been worked out … if not, try the contact that was given in the Ria’s comment. I got two CDs from Bonnie and was very happy to get them … brought back lots of memories!! I hope you’re able to get them.

  2. Hmmm … if you’re looking for Lenten fiction, the best books that would fit that category that I’ve read lately are “Good to a Fault” by Marina Endicott, and “Gilead” and “Home” by Marilynne Robinson … of course, you may alraedy have read those.

  3. MjWelss

    Thanks for the book recommendations. I read Home for last year’s lent and Gilead the two before that 🙂 i tried to track down Good to a Fault, but have not found it yet. Do you have any more suggestions?

    my sister and I are desperate for a book, i am sure you know how that feels.

  4. Steve Vistaunet

    You are an exceptional writer, with a thoughtfully intimate style. I came across your blog in searching for material on Bonnie–and found this incredibly interesting, having also been positively influenced by her music in the past. Now I think the real find is your blog … keep it up!

  5. ria fisher

    I enjoyed reading about Bonnie Casey… I knew her briefly at Andrews University in the 70’s and like everyone else loved Take 3 and Daystar — still have my albums and acquired the digital CD remake of Jesus this is for you and Daystar from steve wallace a few years back. the address for purchasing the CD is as follows:

    Take Three was an Adventist folk music trio who performed and recorded during the seventies. To buy both their albums on one CD, you can contact:

    Steven Wallace Revival Ministries
    5454 Rabe Road
    Columbia Falls, MT 59912
    USA

    phone: +1 406 387 4848
    fax: +1 406 387 4074

    I relate to Bonnie Casey on so many fronts, and I guess I suspected that she wasn’t that happy –just from observation… but she also kept to herself, so it was difficult to get too close.

    I am happy that she is in a better place… I will keep her in my prayers.

    Thanks for the article on Bonnie… I will definately go get the book and read it.

    I appreciate your sharing!

    Sincerely,

    Ria Fisher

  6. Thanks … since posting this I have corresponded with Bonnie a couple of times. She has her Take Three and Daystar albums available on CD as well and sells them for a nominal fee … her website is
    http://www.bonnielcasey.com/

  7. Listened to Bonnie Casey as a teen, and still have a cassette sticking around somewhere that I play periodically – honestly had no idea that she was Adventist…
    Was reading what you wrote,”It’s something I often wonder as I learn more about the lives of artists and writers who’ve inspired me: how can the work they produced inspire me so much, while leaving the artist herself spiritually empty?”
    I have this belief that we filter things through our own experience, which makes the lives of the artists and writers irrelevant. Sometimes I know a song means something different to me than to the person who wrote it, for my revelation and beliefs may be very different. I am never devastated or disturbed when an artist that whose music has ministered to me reveals an appalling secret about their own life or ministry – I believe that gifts and callings are without repentance – you can be anointed to write or sing something that may be incongruent with your personal life. That anointing can still bless and minister to people who are receptive. I do not require in any way that artists measure up to any expectations that I may hope for for them, but take them instead as a cherry pie – eating the cherries that their music may represent to me, while spitting out the pits that may be the wreck of their personal lives and testimonies…I don’t mean to sound harsh, or as though I don’t grieve for personal shipwreck, but what I’m saying is that it doesn’t diminish the power or the effect that their music has had on my life….maybe that song was written for me, and not necessarily for them….

  8. That is a good way to look at it, Jessica ,and I try to think that way myself — I believe a book, or a piece of music, is just as much about what I get out of it as about what the author or composer intended. But I will confess to being very curious about the lives of creative people and I can’t help being influenced a bit if I know “the story behind the song.”

  9. Shirley Kinsman Shaffer

    So glad to find you, and news about Bonnie. Her music has continually lightened my life and I was looking to perform some again this weekend. I am so thankful for all you artists / writers who are willing to “open a vein and bleed” and thereby strengthen all of us. Reminds me the least the rest of us can do is open our hearts and pray for those who are showering us with these blessings. God bless you!

  10. BB

    I love her music. Love the 1Cor. 4 song especially.

    Sorry to hear about her marriage yet glad to see she is still on a journey with Jesus. That’s the most important thing.

    Bob Brown
    Former SDA Pastor

  11. Bruce Weaver

    Thank you for the moving and delicate review of Bonnie’s life journey as articulated in “Growing in Circles” and the willingness to place it in context with the genre of, “Leaving a faith” spiritual accounts. After reading your review, I ordered a copy of Bonnie’s work and am anxiously waiting its arrival. Also, I will be ordering a CD. Thanks Ria! Ria, did you work at Disney in the 70’s??

    I suppose for me the most disappointing part of being ex-SDA is that when reunited with former acquaintances who are SDA such as at college alumni gatherings, it is as if the, “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy was invoked. One cannot easily establish a dialog relating to growth in one’s personal spiritual journey if it does not center on or at least end up in the Adventist fold.

    I am not speaking about a debate with dueling or competing theological differences but rather a dialog of sharing a widening spiritual perspective that has unfolded in the life process, comparing notes on life’s journey. Safe subjects like the family are OK but so much of being an ex-SDA is not Adventistcentric and the conversation goes silent when wandering beyond vital statistics.

    Thanks again for your sensitive review.

    Respectfully yours,

    Bruce Weaver
    Greensboro, NC

  12. That’s a really interesting perspective, Bruce. I know that as someone who has remained in the church, I often do not pursue with old acquaintances the question of whether someone is still “in the church” or not. I never want to come off sounding judgmental, but I never want to BE judged either — i.e. I don’t want to be subjected to a scathing criticism of everything that’s bad about the church that ends with the actual or implied statement “I don’t know how you can be a decent person and still be part of such a terrible institution.” So maybe it’s the fear of being judged that keeps both sides quiet in such conversations — if only we could learn to be a little kinder to one another, we might be able to be so much more open and honest. Thanks for your comment.

    • Randall Billington

      Trudy, you spoke of your avoidance of discussions about whether someone is “in the church.” Whenever I hears someone use the phrase “the church” to refer to Seventh-day Adventism, I cringe a bit and think how awkward such usage would be in a conversation with Jesus. I have come to consider it a matter of proper doctrine to use the phrase “the church” as God would use it — to refer to His church or body of believers — not to refer to one particular particular doctrinal group or worship community. When one uses the word this way, the question of “leaving the church” doesn’t come up, unless one has forsaken Jesus. Instead, the question is, “What worship community are you participating in now?”

      Thanks for your gentle discussion about Bonnie Casey and spiritual journeys. Bonnie and Rob (from Take 3) were classmates of mine for the two years I was at PUC (70-72), and I was honored to have them perform my own musical composition-interpretation of Psalm 23 in some of their concerts.

  13. Bruce Weaver

    Trudy, thanks for the dialog. I’ve been sidetracked in developing a Vision Statement for the church I attend. I have more on the above perspective but wanted to share something else regarding Bonnie.

    I found my copy of “A Common Life We Share” from 1972 (Three Angels Press) that has the lead sheet music and lyrics to her lovely, “Jesus, the Spirit and Me.” When I turned to that page, began playing it on piano and singing it again for the first time in decades, I was immediately haunted by its opening lines:
    “When I’m all alone,
    “and no one seems to care,
    “Jesus comes to comfort me and love me,
    “always love me,
    “When my way is dark
    and I can’t find my shadow…”

    Wow! It stopped me in my tracks! At the risk of an unintentional pun, foreshadowing? I was moved…

    Is your impression that “Growing in Circles” may resonate or echo a theme found in Joan Gould’s, “Spirals” or Mary Catherine Bateson’s, “Composing a Life” and maybe also her “periphereal visions” where the spiral as a metaphor for a woman’s spiritual and emotional journey is offered?

    Just wondering and marvelling,

    Bruce

  14. Ed Shakespeare

    Does anyone have any info about where the other two members of Take 3 are today?

  15. Bruce Weaver

    Having now received a copy of “Growing in Circles,” I can report that I am immediately taken by her courage in writing out and sharing with us readers in some considerable detail her circuitous life journey. It is a gift, nay a treasure. My wife and I are begrudgingly taking turns sharing our copy, each intrigued and painfully seeing our own images reflected in many of the scenarios she describes so well from personal experience.

    Her description of the Sligo minister who seemed to have a fetish for animal cruelty et al is nearly a mirror reflection for an SDA minister I recall in my local church that so offended me at the time it became one of my personal goals for going into the SDA ministry–to better represent God. I was naive, little realizing on the front end that the culture harbored and protected certain of those.

    As for where Bonnie’s spiritual jouney has taken her to receive acknowledgment and acceptance I can understand, having seen a similar path manifested and the Estes work consulted when we were formerly part of a Unitarian Fellowship. We still have our HB copy of, “Women Who Run with Wolves.” Has the SDA church grown and matured to welcome and accept competent women in church leadership and ministry more openly in the interim?

    We find “Growing in Circles” a compelling read and will likely be purchasing several additional copies as holiday gifts for select acquaintances.

    Thanks again for the review and the prompt. More later as we further digest beyond the several chapters we have already drunk in, despite the reflections of personal angst that surface for us decades on.

    Bruce

  16. D. Nickel

    I remember inviting Bonnie and Friends to do a concert at CUC. They had problems at Canadian Customs so she was not a happy camper. She and the group did a great concert but her attitude kind of bombed with those of us promoting the thing. We tried to be upbeat but I guess she was ticked about customs. Then again it may have just been that time of the month. Her husband Steve was very cool about it all. Hope she can figure her life out and get things together because she is a great artist.

  17. Thanks for all the great comments on this blog post … it’s been awhile since I checked here! Glad to see Bonnie’s work still resonates with a lot of people.

    A reader contacted me awhile back to say that Bonnie’s website was down and he didn’t know how to get a copy of the book. Not sure what the problem was but Bonnie’s website is still alive and well: at http://www.bonnielcasey.com/ and, as she explains there, you can get a copy of the book on Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/Growing-Circles-Struggle-Myself-Everything/dp/1935097482 If the link doesn’t work, just search by book title. Hope this helps anyone who’s searching for a copy of Bonnie’s book.

  18. Mona

    Thanks for this great review. I want to read this book! I stumbled upon your site while looking for Take 3 music. Incredible that Bonnie had so many struggles and yet her singing and music was such a blessing to so many. This serves as a reminder that no matter our station in life, along with the struggles we face, God is able to use our talents to be a channel of blessing to others if we make ourselves available. Praise God that Bonnie did this, in spite of her struggles and pain. Some day, maybe not until eternity, she will have a more complete picture of all of the people she has helped over the years because of her willingness to be used in God’s service.

  19. Michele Robertson

    Where’s Bonnie now? I was a Facebook “friend”, but she is no longer on F/book and I have not received any of her blogs for a very long time. Loved her book, “Growing in Circles” and have read it through twice.

    • I haven’t been in touch with her in awhile, but I think you can still get in contact via email through her website, perhaps?

      • Michele Robertson

        I looked for her website, but that seems to have disappeared, too. Funny, one of the reasons why I bought the book was because I thought she would provide some insight into her music…and was really stunned when she made no mention of it at all.

      • Yes, as I said in my review, I thought that was odd too. Then I hoped maybe she had another book in the works about that!

        I will have a bit of a dig around and see if I can unearth any current contact info for her. I guess the statement I made further up in the comments here, that her website is still up and running, is no longer accurate.

      • Michele Robertson

        Yes, it looks as though it has been dismantled. Thanx for your help. If you track her down, just let me know. It’s late at night where I live (Australia), so see you another time.

      • Michele Robertson

        Bonnie is not well, and decided to take down her website and Facebook page. Do not know what is wrong with her, but if \I get any information that it is appropriate to share, will let you know.

      • Sorry to hear that. I hope her book is still available, and I wish her all the best.

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