By Sue Monk Kidd
Reviewed by Catherine Bailey
Meet Ana, the wife of Jesus, in Sue Monk Kidd’s latest work of fiction, The Book of Longings. The concept of Jesus as a married man requires the reader of this fascinating book immediately suspend any preconceived ideas of Jesus as a celibate deity and consider that he was a man with human desires.
If you are thinking this sounds like a romance novel with Jesus as the male actor, you would be wrong. Instead, the reader is taken on a journey of Ana’s life. The narrator is Ana herself, and the reader witnesses her development from a young girl with dreams and intellect to a woman who has a distinctly feminist point of view and acts upon her desires.
We are reminded early in her story that women and girls of this time were required to be silent and were essentially invisible, with no real rights in society. Marriage was expected, and women were the property of their fathers first, and then their husbands. Ana’s story revolves around the tension of her nature as a headstrong woman in a world that fundamentally prohibits female independence and rebelliousness. When she learns as a young teen that her parents have arranged for her to marry an older widower (primarily a business proposition to benefit the family), Ana does all she can to prevent the marriage from happening. It is during this time that Ana first encounters Jesus. He is 18 years old. She immediately understands that he is different from other young men, and her intense longings for a life of her own creation, including him, take hold.
Ana’s closest confidante is Yaltha, her aunt, a woman who bears emotional pain and secrets but provides great compassion and companionship to Ana when there are few people Ana can rely on, including her parents. She encourages Ana’s desire to write when it was otherwise forbidden and intercedes on her behalf when necessary. When Ana commits an act that puts her in peril with the ruler Antipas, she flees to Egypt with Yaltha, where Yaltha’s secret waits to be uncovered.
Another key figure in Ana’s life is her brother Judas—yes, that Judas—who breaks away from the family early and seeks freedom from authoritarian rule. His actions as a young man are radical and politically subversive, yet he provides periodic, important intelligence to Ana that helps guide her actions and protect her.
Within the context of Ana’s life story, Jesus is seen as very human. We see his personal evolution from life as a physical laborer to someone who comes to understand his life’s purpose as a leader, healer, and prophet. Ana moves to Galilee upon her marriage to Jesus, and we become acquainted with Jesus’s mother Mary and the extended family through the eyes and experiences of Ana. We also come to know of the difficulties the family endures due to questions about Jesus’s parentage, specifically his father. We find Jesus first as a follower of John the Baptist and then as a man sent by God to upset the status quo and bring reform and liberation to God’s people. It is Judas who prompts Ana’s return from Egypt but only in time for her to experience the trauma of the death of her husband and the betrayal of her brother.
The Book of Longings is rooted in the history, culture, and politics of the time but also takes many liberties as we come to understand the author’s imaginings of what Jesus’s wife could have been like and what she could have contributed to the life of Jesus and his followers. As Sue Monk Kidd states in her Author’s Note, the Christian New Testament does not say that Jesus was married but neither does it say that he was not. If women as spouses were invisible then, why would any of the authors of the New Testament even speak of her?
Monk Kidd takes us on her journey of fiction and, in it, we see familiar historical events intertwined with the personal longings and relationships of the feminist heroine Ana. This is a story that will make you think, wonder, and conjure up your own speculations about the lives of Jesus, his family, and his followers. It certainly did for me.
© 2022 by Christian Feminism Today.
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