Wendy Reed and Jennifer Horne, eds. Circling Faith: Southern Women on Spirituality. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2012. 230 pp. ISBN 978-0-8173-1767-6.

Publisher's website

With this book, coeditors Wendy Reed and Jennifer Horne follow up on their 2006 collection of essays, All Out of Faith: Southern Women on Spirituality (University of Alabama Press, 2006). They explain in the new volume’s introduction that a reader emailed them after finishing All Out of Faith to say that she felt less alone. This message affirmed their efforts in gathering those essays together and inspired this new collection.

That story reveals a lot about the audience and objectives of Circling Faith. The book will be most interesting to readers embracing quests of their own. Reed and Horne desire to “inspire conversation and encourage vulnerability” (8). Readers looking for that kind of inspiration, like many of the women here, may have grown up inside religious traditions that now constrict and need altering (to pick up on the frequent clothing metaphors in the book).

The book’s title suggests that the subject of faith cannot be approached head-on, and these authors do not. But, as frequently happens with edited collections on any subject, Circling Faith may be too allusive, too sidelong, too idiosyncratic to advance substantive conversation. Is this loose collection enough to catalyze women’s community?

Circling Faith suffers from unevenness on several counts. The coeditors simplistically equate spirituality with faith, valorizing both of those phenomena over “religion” (mentioned but largely undefined here). Without a heavier editorial hand that might have introduced each chapter, or at least each subsection (there are five), the individual authors’ descriptions of “faith” collide and confuse. In the worst kind of outdated, Orientalizing, one chapter rhapsodizes about India as the ultimate mystical test. Another, by a NASA scientist, almost caricatures faith as a questionable route to incomplete or contestable knowledge, over against the (supposedly) secure path of science. Chapters such as these suffer by comparison with the stronger contributions: Mary Karr’s opening chapter (published originally in 2005 in Poetry magazine) about how poetry has functioned for her as a religious practice; Susan Cushman’s sketch of her voyage to Eastern Orthodoxy—which could have functioned well as the book’s introduction; Barbara Brown Taylor writing about blue jean cutoffs and “the vows between body and soul” (104); Rheta Grimsley Johnson’s funny reprinted piece about the Rapture; or Cia White’s fearless chapter, “What We Will Call Nature” (reprinted from the Kenyon Review). Clearly, one could hunt down most of the standouts in their original habitats.

With such a variety of voices, a reader may meet a chapter here or there that makes her feel less alone. Yet without a clearer sense from the editors of the distinctive southern, religious, or female networks giving rise to and welcoming the insights collected here, that reader may end up by feeling caught in a relationship that is going nowhere.