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.