To Drink from the Silver Cup: From Faith Through Exile and Beyond
by Anna Redsand
Sante Fe, N.M.: Terra Nova Books, 2016.
Reviewed by Virginia R. Mollenkott, Ph.D.
Anna Redsand’s new book is part memoir, part theological contemplation. She begins by describing her initial identity, using concentric circles to establish her early sense of belonging. The innermost circle, her close-knit family, were missionaries to the Navajo Nation. Then came the small valley of Teec Nos Pos that embraced her family; and third, the sandy arroyo with its huge cottonwood trees that arose out of the arroyo’s sandy bed.
The fourth circle of belonging was the group of Christian Reformed missionaries serving the Navajo Nation and the nearby Zuni Pueblo, always seeking converts and always concerned to rescue the “backsliders.” And finally there was the fifth and outer circle, the Christian Reformed denomination as a whole, centered in Grand Rapids, Michigan. The missionaries sometimes called Grand Rapids Jerusalem or The Holy City.
The memoir traces Anna Redsand’s loss of the reassuring sense of belonging that those concentric circles had supplied during her early years. Feeling discarded by that community, she enters a forty-year quest in the wilderness, always seeking a group she could fit into, but always winding up feeling excluded within a few weeks.
During those forty years, Redsand tried 12-Step programs, karma yoga, Dine’ (native American spirituality), Judaism, the Metropolitan Community Churches, Unity, the United Church of Christ, Buddhism, and Unitarianism. She comments, “By the time I was fifty seven, I had moved sixty-four times, living in three countries on as many continents and in seventeen U.S. cities or communities.” (p. 200).
But then, at long last, she finds a Christian community — a “home” — at St. Andrew United Presbyterian Church in Albuquerque, New Mexico. For her, finding her home at St. Andrew was about “belonging to a gathering of humans and sticking with them for better and for worse because we are learning how to be the face of God in the world” (p. 278). Having found a sense of belonging, Redsand congratulates herself for having “endured until I could drink from the silver cup,” a symbol she drew from the song “Lonely People” as sung by the group America.
What could cause a mystically faith-oriented person to feel utterly discarded by the comfortable community of her early years? Certainly the most basic issue was Anna’s discovery of her lesbianism, a sexual orientation rejected within the Christian Reformed tradition. During Redsand’s second year at St. Andrew, the Supreme Court made same-sex marriage legal, and St. Andrew joined several other congregations to successfully petition the General Assembly of the United Presbyterian Church to accept marriage equality. So the “more light” attitude at St. Andrew was a major factor in Redsand’s feeling of being accepted there.
But another issue in Redsand’s exile was her growing awareness that Christian missionaries were seeking to replace native culture with their own personal brand of Christianity. To the Navajo people, “All of life is one sacred whole” (p. 36). But the missionaries separated Navajo culture from Navajo religion, telling themselves that they could change the religion without destroying the culture. Redsand eventually recognized this form of denial as “cultural genocide, perpetuated by people to whom I was still bound by love, ambivalence, and deep-seated training” (p. 126).
But perhaps the most profound issue in Redsand’s exile was the starkly binary thinking in which she had been trained, where “Everything depended on what we believed…[a] division of the world into believers and unbelievers” (p. 180). This either-or binary became so engrained in Redsand’s mind (combined with her own shame about herself) that she could never endure a community for longer than eight weeks. By the time she tried St. Andrew, she was willing to live with others “for worse” as well as “for better.” Until then, her perceptions were always binary to an alienating degree. “I didn’t want half-way measures. I was at the point of all or nothing” (p. 259). I can’t help wondering whether Redsand could have found “home” much sooner had she not been hampered by a binary sense of shame (“I’m not like them”) that made her feel outcast even in an accepting community.
Although Redsand committed herself to St. Andrew with a marriage-like determination to be faithful for “better or worse,” Redsand still struggled with “the unsettling feeling that because of my lack of belief in…Jesus’ blood atoning for my sins” (p. 275), she was “a fake.” She had been helped to accept herself as a lesbian Christian by the book I wrote with Letha Scanzoni, Is the Homosexual My Neighbor: Another Christian View. But binary insistence that only one doctrine can be true was still tormenting her. I hope that Redsand has since connected with the many progressive Christians (myself included) who no longer believe in blood atonement but rather see the cross as a demonstration of the love that forgives people who don’t know what they are doing (Luke 23:34).
Already, however, Redsand has learned to focus less on ego and self-consciousness and more on communion — “more awareness of the connection with others than of oneself” (p. 277). And she supplies the reader with three Appendices: first, a statement of faith she released to her family in 2011; second, her version of the Apostles’ Creed (2012); and third, a message based on the Book of Esther as delivered in 2014.
The conclusion of the 2014 homily thanks God for the empowering Spirit and asks for “the courage of those who have gone before us – Joseph in Egypt, Esther in the Kingdom of Persia, Rumi in thirteenth-century Turkey, and Viktor Frankl in the time of the Holocaust” (p. 313). This conclusion links three Jewish heroes with one Muslim hero in a Christian message that clearly reaches beyond Christianity to a trans-religious, universal spirituality.
The memoir as a whole makes clear that Redsand has been deeply influenced by Judaism and humanism as she has journeyed toward “home.” I love her description of life’s purpose: however we find our own particular work in the world, the idea is to “remember the deep root of [our] being…and give [our] life to the one who already owns [our] breath and [our] moments” (p. 312).
Amen, sister Redsand, amen!
Virginia Mollenkott was brought up in the fundamentalist Plymouth Brethren Assemblies, doctrinally similar to Redsand’s deeply binary early training. And like Redsand, she now identifies as trans-religiously spiritual, resonating to her Christian background but willing to learn wisdom from anyone of any tradition. She regards doctrine as an aspect of the knowledge that will “vanish away,” whereas surrendering to Love has eternal value (I Cor. 13:8-13).
© 2016 by Christian Feminism Today