Blessed Are the Untamed

Glennon Doyle’s Feminist Spirituality

I picked up Glennon Doyle’s new book Untamed at the recommendation of a friend who wrote to me in response to my Rebecca Solnit post. I was hoping, as I do when I pick up new memoirs, to escape into Doyle’s life for a few hours. I especially wanted to hear about Doyle’s marriage to soccer god Abby Wambach.

I soon found that Doyle’s purpose was not to rehash her story, but to ask me to reflect on my own. Her overarching goal — written in short, fiery bursts — is to teach women “untame” themselves, i.e. to challenge the external structure (*cough* patriarchy) that has molded women into a common, unhappy shape.

The task that follows recognition, per Doyle, is to remake oneself according only to an inner sense of the good. Doyle calls this her inner Knowing.

“So instead of asking ourselves what’s right or wrong, we must ask ourselves: What is true and beautiful? Then our imagination rises inside us, thanks us for finally consulting it after all these years, and tells us a story.”

Glennon Doyle, Untamed
Let’s get a good look at that vibrant cover art!

Based on the style of Untamed and Doyle’s corresponding social media presence, one might say that Doyle has become more preacher than memoirist. Rather than dwell on her long journey through pain and chaos, by which she finally arrived in the light, Doyle spends most of her time sharing the light she has found. Each short chapter of Untamed reads like a sermon, beginning with a personal anecdote and moving into a generally applicable metaphor about life, truth, and being human.

What makes Doyle unique, of course, is that she preaches to women, and the higher power she points them towards is found within.

No topic, question, or situation is excepted from the filter of Doyle’s inner Knowing; nothing is left to any external authority. Not even (or perhaps, especially not) the Bible. According to Doyle, the moral of the Adam and Eve story in Genesis is not “when a woman wants more, she defies God, betrays her partner, curses her family, and destroys the world.”

Instead, Eve’s is a story of creation that begins with self-trust (replacing blind obedience), by which humanity enters into continuous, refining process of regeneration that is Life itself:

“Maybe Eve was never meant to be our warning. Maybe she was meant to be our model. Own your wanting. Eat the apple. Let it burn.”

-Glennon Doyle, Untamed

Even John Milton, who would probably disagree with this take on Eve, would have to affirm Doyle’s right to filter the Bible through her inner Knowing. In 1644, in late-Reformation England, he argued against literary censorship in Parliament, saying:

“Truth is compared in scripture to a streaming fountain; if her waters flow not in a perpetual progression they sicken into a muddy pool of conformity and tradition.”

And further:

“The light which we have gained, was given us, not to be ever staring on, but by it to discover onward things more remote from our knowledge.”

John Milton, “Areopagitica”

Doyle is not the first feminist to reinterpret Eve’s act as laudable. I found an archived New York Times article from the 1972 reporting on a feminist religious service in which the attendees recited the following in unison: “We hold that Eve performed the first free act.” But Doyle may be the first to help answer the question that follows after such an assertion: What next?

* * * *

In a gender studies class during my junior year of college, we read an article that posited that Christian notions of morality are primarily helpful for men seeking to become whole. For example, in my husband’s favorite Gospel narrative “The Sermon on the Mount,” (Matt. 5-7) Jesus teaches men to recognize the beautiful, undervalued capacities they have for building the kingdom of God; qualities tamed by patriarchal norms of masculinity. Jesus enumerates them as follows:

From The New Testament by David Bentley Hart. Matt. 5:1-12. He uses the word “blissful” instead of the traditional “blessed” because he says the Greek word originally had a connotation of “divine or heavenly bliss.” (Alternatively, this blog might have been titled: “How Blissful the Untamed.”)

It’s hard to imagine, based on the way Jesus operated, that he was speaking to a crowd of destitute mourners — gentle, merciful, and fighting for righteousness, when he first taught the Beatitudes. He was not known for preaching to the choir, as it were. He was known for challenging everything people thought they knew about God and religion. Surely, when he gave the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus was speaking to a group of people who were not expecting to hear this message. Perhaps his audience was men in power, out of touch with the suffering masses; out of touch with strengths within themselves that might change their society for the better.*

*(As I have been taught, the book of Matthew was written for a well-educated, monied Jewish audience.)

Clearly, the Beatitudes are not an assertion of patriarchal masculinity, but rather a call to its opposite. It’s strange, then, that the male keepers of the Christian tradition have applied the Beatitudes to women to uphold their secondary, subjugated, tamed condition within patriarchy. This message might be summarized as: “You are already virtuous, you who suffer and are subjugated, so keep doing what you’re doing.” According to a NIV bible I recently acquired (for research purposes…) called “The Woman’s Bible,” the “Beatitudes for Women” are as follows:

The “description” column is surely not advising a woman to leave her unfulfilling marriage to a man, upset her three children, and marry a woman, as Doyle did.

As I see it, there are a few approaches for untaming our understanding of God — particularly as women inheriting a patriarchal spiritual tradition. We can (1) change how we read the words of our spiritual texts; (2) keep some pieces and toss others; or (3) put aside the old texts and teachers and spend time in learning from newly untamed, female spiritual teachers.

One writer who works to challenge common interpretations of the Bible is Mary Karr. In her poem “Who the Meek are Not,” Karr redefines meekness as follows:

“Who the Meek Are Not” by Mary Karr, from Sinners Welcome. Found here.

My now-husband, Thom, borrowed Sinners Welcome from me when we were seniors in college just getting to know one another. When he returned it, he highlighted this poem as one that had really resonated with him.

I had never taken particular notice of it, but I liked his noticing of it. Four years later, I can see how Karr’s portrayal of meekness describes Thom and how he moves through the world. There is great power within him — occasionally unleashed on the dancefloor — but he spends most of his time holding it back, listening intently.

It strikes me now that in order to understand Karr’s vision of meekness, one has to know what one is capable of. A woman must learn her unique strengths in order to exercise them. She must know recognize her power in order to check it. Doyle’s goal, in Untamed, and in preaching to women who follow her on Instagram, is to teach them to find the stallion’s great power within. (Except in her metaphor, it’s the cheetah.) Without knowing wildness, one cannot practice true meekness. It is useless for a woman to listen for the call of her inner Knowing if she does not believe in her ability to respond to it.

I have tried many times to figure out how to make the Bible speak to me without the impediment of patriarchy, or even the assumed-male reader. For example, I recently tried to change all of the pronouns in Proverbs:

After reading Untamed, I’m ready to put down project of re-writing the Bible and instead to let Glennon Doyle, and others, be my teachers for a little while. Beginning in late March, Doyle began conducting “morning meetings” on her Instagram, in which she spends approximately 10 minutes talking to her followers about her current emotional and/or spiritual state and offering wisdom.

I have started tuning into these meetings. Although the material is often repeated content from the book (likely spurred by having to cancel her release tour due to COVID-19), she makes it new for the day at hand. Occasionally we get to hear from Abby Wambach, too. One can tell that Doyle feels great responsibility for the spiritual wellbeing of her readers and followers. For a writer, this daily communing and encouragement is certainly above-and-beyond. I find myself in admiration of it, of her.

Snapshot from a “Morning Meeting.” Check out her instagram here.

To close, I encourage anyone, especially women, to check out Untamed. And I offer its author, Glennon Doyle these rewritten Beatitudes:

Blessed are they who seek what is true and beautiful,

For they shall find it.

Blessed are they who listen to their inner Knowing,

For God is within them.

Blessed are they who see and challenge their taming,

For they shall be untamed.

Anne Lamott’s Latest Falls Short

I first discovered Anne Lamott last fall, when I mentioned to my friend, Grace, that I was “getting into Catholic writers again,” like Mary Karr and Thomas Merton. Grace recommended Christian writer Anne Lamott and suggested I start with her recent spiritual memoir, Small Victories (2014).

I liked Lamott immediately. I found her witty tales of growing up among the liberal literati familiar and enlightening, and her story of addiction, recovery, and faith inspiring.  I picked up three more of her shorter books: Help Thanks Wow, Stitches, and Bird by Bird. As I continued to enjoy her flippant yet humble storytelling, I pre-ordered her new book, Hallelujah Anyway: Rediscovering Mercy, several months ahead of time (unprecedented).

When the much-anticipated title arrived on April 4, I smiled at it’s salmon-and-silver jacket. Flipping through the purple typeface, I thought “wohoo, Anne is back!”


Or was she?

After reading the first few pages, I had no memory of what I’d just read. I read and reread the sentences, but they weren’t cohering. Did I need sleep? Coffee? Exercise? Earplugs?

I put the book down. I’d try again later.

To regain confidence in my reading comprehension, I picked up Elif Batuman’s new book The Idiot. My quest was a success – The Idiot is not only intelligible, but one of the best novels I’ve read in the last few years (review to come).

A week later, I opened Hallelujah Anyway again. I started from the beginning, hoping for a fresh start.

Again, I met frustration. It soon became clear that Lamott’s writing – the very same writing I had grown to love and trust in Small Victories, Stitches, and Help Thanks Wow – was at fault. Something had gone terribly wrong.

Take the excerpt on the back cover, for instance:

“I’m not sure I even recognize the ever-presence of mercy anymore, the divine and the human: the messy, crippled, transforming, heartbreaking, lovely, devastating presence of mercy. But I have come to believe that I am starving to death for it, and my world is, too.”

This should’ve been the first clue.

That is eight adjectives to describe mercy, the majority of which conjure abstract concepts. Anne invites us to “rediscover mercy” via the dictionary.

Sentences like the one above comprise seventy-five percent of the book. Lamott flits from line to line, paragraph to paragraph tacking so many different descriptors to mercy that the word begins to fade out of focus.

“Mercy means radical kindness. . . Mercy brings us to the miracle of apology, given and accepted, to unashamed humility when we have erred or forgotten. . . Mercy, grace, forgiveness and compassion are synonyms, and the approaches we might consider taking when facing a great big mess, especially the great big mess of ourselves – our arrogance, greed, poverty, disease, prejudice.”

Lamott’s writing does not live up to the promise of its deep purple font.

Lamott gives us too many options. Mercy is a, b, c, and maybe also d; it’s the f and g of h and j. Her sentences feel urgent and unsettled, losing the reader with sharp turns at each comma. I found myself re-reading often, searching for the elusive pearls of Lamott wisdom I had come for. But by the next sentence, Lamott had apparated elsewhere, leaving me sighing with annoyance.

There are moments where Lamott slows down, where glimpses of her former self appear. These are instances in which she approaches mercy anecdotally. For example, Lamott tells the story of her Jesuit priest friend Tom’s experience at an AA meeting in LA, in which a drunk man soils himself walking into the meeting and a team of people help him shower and clean up. She describes retail exhaustion in Zoologie (surely a thinly disguised Anthropologie) in which a salesgirl finds her on a couch and offers a tiny paper cup of water.

Unfortunately, these stories are few and far between. One must trudge through the muck, braving confusion and whiplash:

“Something is at work mending the cut on my hand right now, as if hidden in the skin with atomic knitting needles. Over the years, when it has been in the mood and has its nursing cap on, this something has imperfectly patched up the rifts in my damaged family, the deeper dents in my heart, let alone evil in South Africa, has transformed us from clenched, victimized, and shut down, to taking gulps of fresh air like a baby pinking up.

“Horribly, it does not issue printed schedules.”fullsizeoutput_244c

As Washington Post contributer Anne Bauer aptly put it in her review: “I’m sorry. What?”

In Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life (1994), Lamott likens writing to hosting. She suggests that readers arrive at one’s pages seeking communion, and it’s the writers’ job to welcome them home. In Hallelujah Anyway, Lamott is a well-meaning but harried host – multi-tasking and inattentive. She’s dodging through rooms greeting newcomers, moving appetizers in and out of the oven, rearranging the shoe pile, looking for a ladder to fix a burnt-out bulb. One wishes she would put it all down, come sit by us on the couch, and do what she does best: tell a story.

Lit by Mary Karr

For the first few weeks after reading Lit by Mary Karr, I could not walk into a restroom without thinking of prayer. While struggling to accept the customary Higher Power imperative of her 12-step AA program, Karr reluctantly offers her first prayers on the cold tiles of more than one bathroom. One such prayer closet lies within the same Cambridge “loony bin” (Karr’s term) where poets Robert Lowell and Anne Sexton may too have knelt during their respective stays.


Published in 2010, Lit is the third of Karr’s bestselling memoirs. While The Liar’s Club (1995) and Cherry (2002) delve into the author’s turbulent childhood and teenage years respectively, Lit traces the journey of the adult Mary Karr from low-income college student at a Midwestern LAC to acclaimed poet, memoirist, and professor of creative writing. Lit‘s 386 pages primarily contain Karr’s first marriage and subsequent divorce, her struggle with alcoholism as a young mother – transitioning her journey to sobriety and religious conversion.

Prior to Lit, my personal exploration of Karr’s work was limited to The Liar’s Club and her most recent poetry collection, Sinners Welcome (2009). Yet again, I found Karr’s particular gift to be a profound, pleasantly irreverent voice and a figure skater’s finesse with a sentence. For example, standing in the kitchen, pregnant with her first child, and just having learned that her first poetry book would be published:

“I chew my caramel, satisfied as a brood sow in a mud wallow. Neither good nor ill can reach me.”

While skilled with imagery, Karr also knows how to drop metaphoric fluff to great effect:

“I keep getting drunk. There’s no more interesting way to say it.”

Despite Karr’s engaging wordsmithery, I sometimes found her adult emotional life difficult to access. For example, Karr repeatedly emphasizes that her son, Dev, is the reason she was able to become and remain sober. Dependent-free twenty-two-year-old that I am, I found myself wondering: What do you mean you looked at him and knew you had to stop?

I imagine a collective sigh from mothers around the world as they look wistfully past my genuinely confused face, and offer former Notre Dame football coach Lou Holtz’s poetic yet unhelpful description of Notre Dame:

“If you’ve been there, no explanation is necessary. If you haven’t, none is adequate.”

I raise this only because I’ve recently read the mother’s perspective better conveyed. Creative nonfiction writer Maggie Nelson excels in this area in The Argonauts (2015), in which she explores every detail of having a child in a way that challenges and enlightens. After a thorough description of giving birth to her son Iggy, Nelson writes:

“He is perfect, he is right. He has my mouth, incredible. He is my gentle friend. He is on me, screaming.”

There is much to discuss with Nelson – a blog for another time.

Yet I didn’t pick up Lit for Karr’s journey to sobriety, her account of motherhood, or even her story of becoming a professional writer – I picked it up because of one line on her Wikipedia page: “[Lit is] my journey from blackbelt sinner and lifelong agnostic to unlikely Catholic.”

Seems to have the secrets.

Prior to reading Lit, I mentioned my interest in Karr’s “unlikely Catholicism” to a friend. His response: “This might be what does it: Liz the Catholic.” Despite 16 years of Catholic schooling and a genuine interest in spirituality, I had taken a well-advertised break from Catholicism while in college. As someone who had recently bowed-out (with a bit of sound and fury), I had to know: why would someone choose Catholicism after having no religion for 30+ years?

Flipping through my crinkled copy of Lit, which had been baptized with coffee, I notice that my annotating hand was particularly drawn to passages that confess spiritual reluctance. Karr calls this her”outlaw ethos.” Rather than delving into disagreements with doctrine or skewering corrupt popes, she openly discusses a deep aversion to the basic idea of God.

For example, “I’m trying to start hearing the word God without some reflexive flinch that coughs out the word idiot.”

Any word on whether kindles are coffee-proof?

Karr’s hilarious forthrightness about her internal ego battle is the highlight of Lit. In successfully living beyond addiction and igniting spiritual healing, she is particularly accessible for those (like myself) who have become flippant about religion due to various news items, life events, etc. More than ‘we the flippant’ would like to admit, spiritual isolation can be a painfully empty feeling, and it requires a major push to turn around and proceed in the opposite direction. Perhaps surprisingly, it may help to read every possible facetious comment articulated by a well-respected poet.

Following a prayer journey begun in a bathroom, Karr delivers a glimpse of the other side: “The spiritual lens . . . is starting to rewrite the story of my life in the present, and I begin to feel like somebody snatched out of the fire, salvaged, saved.” Karr’s is a narrative worth encountering.