Adrian Shirk didn’t grow up religious, but she recalls a childhood shaped by a “spiritual pastiche” of New Age ideologies, Presbyterian escapades with neighborhood friends, shamanistic ceremonies, and the legacy of matriarchs who followed the teachings of Christian Science founder Mary Baker Eddy. Eventually, each of these elements led Shirk on a religious journey as a churchgoer, tarot practitioner, and now, a believer in the power of spirituality.
Shirk’s first book, And Your Daughters Shall Prophesy: Stories from the Byways of American Women and Religion, examines and exalts the often overlooked histories of religious movers and shakers like Linda Goodman, the Fox Sisters, Marie Laveau, and Aimee Semple McPherson. By looking at the theological origins, politics, and paradoxes of each woman’s life, Shirk contextualizes her own pilgrimage toward fostering a tolerant and open understanding of spirituality, and offers as a timely antidote to our culture’s current schism between fundamentalist conservatism and radical progress.
When asked what the prophetically dynamic women of her book taught her, Shirk’s answer feels as divine as her prose. “They freed something in me,” she says. “They freed up the space for me to think about theology creatively.” Bitch spoke with Shirk about the legacy of American women within religion, how theology can benefit from imagination, and spirituality as a viable tool for dismantling the patriarchy.
Growing up, what role did religion play in your life?
I was born and grew up in Portland, Oregon. I didn’t come of age with any sort of religious education, but there was a lot of New Age and spiritual pastiche that I was around. When I was in my early adolescence, my father became very involved in this Lakota community in the northwest, so I was exposed to Lakota shamanism and ceremony. That was the closest thing that looked like a religion or theology. I also grew up next door to a family that wasn’t really religious, but brought their children to a Presbyterian church on Sundays. I went to church with them from the time I was 6 or 7 until the time I was 12. My family knew. They were kind of bewildered, but tolerant.
How did your relationship with religion change in adulthood?
When I was in my early 20s and living in Brooklyn for college, I was thinking about religion a lot but had no outlet. I started going to church, but I left Brooklyn a couple years later and felt kind of bummed out about how apolitical so many other churches were. [They were] unwilling to address the absence of women [in leadership roles] within the church. [They didn’t address] human sexuality, or queerness. [They wouldn’t] take a stand to differentiate themselves from fundamentalism.
That’s when I started looking at the lives of women like Linda Goodman. I was reading a lot of her books at the time and [thinking], “What if I think of what she’s doing as theology?” That was the starting point. I was also thinking about my family’s relationship to Christian Science, which brought me to Mary Baker Eddy. After that, it was just a series of [random] encounters with these historical figures as I tried to make sense of how their lives produced theologies. I don’t know if there was a point where I identified with them or their beliefs, but they freed something in me. They freed up the space for me to think about theology creatively.
In the book’s introduction, you write, “There has been a long tradition of women being cut off from their own history… Our lives were not considered worth keeping record of.” Each of the women featured in your book flip this patriarchal misconception on its head. How did examining their lives help you dismantle the aforementioned tradition?
I think each of the figures in the book offer a different answer. In the introduction, I find myself in Seneca Falls with a friend and thinking about how the Declaration of Sentiments, like the Declaration of Independence, made use of theological language. It showed how the women’s suffrage movement made use of this language to frame a social-justice movement. I had never thought [about] the role that religion might have played for the suffragists themselves in terms of articulating ethics. That’s never been the way I was taught about the suffragist movement. There was something really stirring about that for me, to think about all the ways women have used religion and theology to make sense of social justice.
Many of the women you celebrate, like the Fox Sisters, Marie Laveau, and Mary Baker Eddy, were viewed as unconventional by their contemporaries. How can these women inspire contemporary feminists?
One of the things that they all commonly model is inhabiting a space that is avant-garde. I borrow this use of the word avant-garde from a woman, a wonderful friend and former professor of mine, who runs this press called Belladonna which identifies itself as a feminist avant-garde collective. I thought about the importance of changing forms, surprising people, and taking the mat out from under the Man, so to speak. Surprise, play, disruption, and invention can be used to dismantle authoritarianism. It helped me realize the role that the avant-garde played in the approach and methodologies of the women I was looking at. It was important to be able to figure out what was useful and to figure out where invention and imagination needed to enter more fully into the present.
I was really amazed at how women like Linda Goodman and Sojourner Truth were able to use entrepreneurial ingenuity to amplify their theological ideologies and activism. It’s like they were able to find a way to make the system work to their benefit, despite patriarchy’s prominence.
Exactly. [They] had to make use of the private sector because the cultural institutions that existed were not necessarily for profit, so there was no way to ascend the ladder in the way men did. And women in churches could not ascend. At the beginning of her public career as a minister and social-justice [activist], Sojourner Truth designed her life by writing an autobiography with the help of a friend, and producing tintypes of herself. This is the currency that made her known and memorable. She was able to sell these things when she went to speaking engagements, tent meetings, and revivals. This impulse and infrastructure made it possible for them to establish themselves in conventional and traditional religious institutions that denied them ascendency.
Did writing the book teach you anything new about yourself or religion? What aspect of this journey resonated most for you?
This might be a terrible metaphor, but it feels like I just gave birth. I have no control over it anymore. [Writing a book] shows you things and teaches you things you didn’t even know and it has its own relationships with other people. It changes. It shifts. One of the things that made me happiest is that this project put me potentially in dialogue with people about religion in a way I haven’t been able to do outside of any the churches or religious communities I’ve been a part of. I get to talk to people about religion and that’s really special. It puts me in communion with a whole strata of progressive religious Americans who have been absorbed by the narrative of American Christianity as tantamount to fundamentalism or social conservatism. It feels important to me because it feels urgent to have progressive secular alliances right now.