Author Sarah Sentilles’ churchless faith
It was a photograph that gave writer Sarah Sentilles the final push to leave her faith and her dream of being a priest. As she sat painting the stations of the cross, she saw an image on the front page of a newspaper. A man, arms spread, standing on a box and hooded, holding electrical wires. This image of a prisoner at Abu Ghraib prison being tortured, and the resulting torture memos – the documents prepared by the Department of Justice outlining the United States’ “enhanced interrogation techniques” – became the focus for her ethical questioning: how can we do such things in the name of God?
Sentilles wanted to explore why the Abu Ghraib photographs were seen as “crucifixion images” and understand what happened when that particular Jesus narrative was imposed on the body of a tortured Muslim man.
“Would that make people resist torture?” she asks, when we meet during her recent visit to Melbourne. “Or would it make people think God somehow ordained it? That violence would do something good to save the rest of us?”
It became a crisis of faith, she says, feeling to her like Christianity was being used to justify war and torture. Reading the torture memos consolidated her thinking. “A disregard for innocence or guilt, this idea that you can cause violence and protect people, seemed to me very much like atonement theology,” she tells me.
When Sarah was a little girl in Texas, she used to pray constantly. With a Catholic father and a mother who’d converted from an Episcopalian faith, she spent many hours in church. After her baptism, Sentilles says that God became her “first story”, and along with God, she spent her childhood conversing with things that were invisible, including two elephants in her backyard, Euphronios and Eustacia.
Sentilles imagined God was always watching her, a male figure from the sky, as she had been taught. With this God there was comfort and solace but the prayer she said before bed – if I should die before I wake – didn’t help her sleep. She lay in bed thinking about God up there in the darkness and knew she had to please him; if she died in her sleep it was because she wasn’t the kind of girl he wanted her to be.
In person, Sentilles’ voice has the gentle lilt and persuasive passion of a Southern preacher. You can imagine her at the pulpit, her use of repetition, of rhythm, and all of her books carry this voice through, exploring leaps of faith and imagination; an enduring fight for social justice and an urgency to put right the suffering of others.
In Taught by America: A Story of Struggle and Hope in Compton, she describes the classrooms in which she taught in Los Angeles, where she had to personally buy all the resources the kids needed. In A Church of Her Own: What Happens When a Woman Takes the Pulpit and Breaking Up with God: A Love Story, she interviews women preachers and interrogates herself about an often strained relationship with the church’s teachings, the deeply held beliefs of congregation members, and how to continue loving God in a culture of entrenched racism, sexism and homophobia.
While Sentilles was studying her master’s of divinity at Harvard, she told everyone she was going to be a priest. The study opened her up to exciting ideas on Christianity and the many versions of God possible, to creativity and feminist theology, to gospels where women had a central role to play. But as the ordination process unfolded, Sentilles found a chasm developing between the God she believed in and church doctrine. She sat facing the congregation, mouthing the words of prayers she knew well until that became too difficult and instead she bent her head and closed her eyes; she could no longer even pray.
At the suburban Boston church where she worked, the church rector told her people were complaining about her sermons. As Sentilles preached (“What if the burning buildings – the Red Cross tent and the smouldering abyss that was once the Twin Towers – are a contemporary burning bush?”), it became clear that she was asking the kinds of questions members of her congregation didn’t want to contemplate. In her most recent book, Draw Your Weapons, she continues to ask those questions.
Draw Your Weapons was inspired by two photographs: the Abu Ghraib image and another she saw in a newspaper of an elderly man with a violin. Seeing them as “two sides of a coin”, she says both photos changed her life but for different reasons.
A few years after seeing the Abu Ghraib photograph, in a period of great despair and self-doubt, she saw the photograph of a man named Howard, “illuminated, filled with light”, being handed a musical instrument. Even before she read the article, she says she knew she wanted to write about him. She later learnt he was a conscientious objector and protester against Japanese–American incarceration who’d been in prison during World War II, where he learnt how to make a violin on the basis of instructions sent in letters from his wife. “I was drawn to the figure of a person who said no,” she tells me, “and used their life to resist what they felt was unjust violence.”
She met Howard and his family at a time when he was losing his memory because of Alzheimer’s disease, and this thread is interwoven in her book with the story of Miles, an arts student in her class, who has returned from time as a soldier in Abu Ghraib.
Draw Your Weapons is most innovative in its use of structure, and Federation Square, where we meet, seems the right place to talk about fragmentation as Sentilles points to the architecture around us, a jumble of pieces arranged like mosaic. A collection of text fragments, the gaps in her narrative, leave literal space for the reader to invest their own stories. When I liken her work to a flautist looking for a time to breathe, for a gap between the notes, she says: “I wanted to have the reader animate the text and figure out why I’d put things together for themselves.”
Writing Draw Your Weapons involved physically cutting up pages, assembling them into piles of like ideas by theme or image and taping them to the floor in different positions. She did this more than 70 times, shattering the text into pieces. “Each time I typed it in fresh to commit to each word … By physically placing them together, it shows you what doesn’t fit.” There’s a touch of regret when she says she had to leave her imaginary elephants behind.
Sentilles is also interested in blank space as a kind of negative theology, the idea of “saying and unsaying and a reminder that we can never say what we mean”. Here she leads me back to iconoclasm. “They would remove the nose on the statue or the eyes to remind the people that the statue is incomplete, that it points to something other than itself.”
This idea of what is hidden or revealed, of a fragment stepping in for the whole, is one of Sentilles’ key concerns in Draw Your Weapons: the pixelated genitals of the tortured men, “framing them as sexual, shaming them”; the redacted torture memos, where she fills in the gaps using her own words; what’s seen and missed and misinterpreted in images; and what our rights are as both viewer and subject of photographs.
She believes photographs can capture more than the photographer intended. “They’re almost like religious objects to me, they’re bigger than what was meant.”
Sentilles has spent a lot of time looking at the sky. She describes it as the “theological gesture to look up”: the small girl searching for God in the dark; the woman who watches red kites flying and birds that turn into fighter jets; the drones in a clear blue sky, a sky now coded for children in Yemen to mean fear and tragedy.
US military drones are a recurring feature of her work. Realising that drones were being built in a factory not far from Portland, Oregon, where she was writing, Sentilles says she felt complicit in the destruction they caused. When she learnt that US drones were launching attacks based on images sent back to a person looking at a screen, she wanted to explore what it meant to be watched by cameras that could kill.
“I also understand drones to be these theological objects, these all-powerful, all-seeing little gods flying in the sky.”
She started to collaborate with her teacher, writer Nick Flynn, on the Drone Alert Sutras project, a creative response to alerts of US drone attacks, shared on Twitter and apps such as Ephemeral. Artist Josh Begley had generated the alerts based on government reports of drone strikes in Yemen and sent a phrase or sentence to his Twitter feed. When Sarah got an alert on her phone, she’d take turns with Nick developing meditative prompts: “meditate for seven minutes and then film one minute of the end of the world”. Eventually others started to follow and their video responses are uploaded at dronealerts.org.
“The alerts would come through, and they are really poetic and strange,” she says as she searches on her phone for one to read to me. “On Wednesday two missiles hit a house in the mountains. I drove away as fast as I could… We saw it as a collective response to state-sanctioned violence, taking something that was supposed to be kept at a distance and making it near.”
Sentilles says she calls herself a pacifist but that she was always uneasy in her faith in God. Sitting in church, her mother would whisper, “There’s other ways to see.” But she interprets this questioning as a positive force in her life, a faithful way to be.
“If God is bigger than anything human beings can say about God, then all the things we say are going to fall short. So if you’re not questioning them, you’re actually engaged in idolatry of some kind. Doubt, to me, is very ethical.”
While Sentilles has left religion behind, her faith continues in art and the natural world, and the intersections between them. As a child she “felt that images contained all these stories and new ways of seeing the world”, and she seems always on the lookout for the chance to experience a sense of renewal, remaking connections with people around her, this time looking for love in all the right places.
She now lives in a small town in Idaho, in an area called Wood River Valley, among mountainous terrain with rivers, where she hikes and goes cross-country skiing. “The landscape has been really good medicine for me, under the Trump presidency,” she says. “Something about the time scale of the mountains helps relativise what’s going on in my country, so I find reminders of what balance looks like, what it means to tend and be in love with the landscape. So I’m trying to put more of the natural world in my next book.”
Sentilles characterises Draw Your Weapons as a “song for the dead, for all the bodies that don’t get grieved”. She says she feels a personal obligation to carry these bones and when I ask her why, she says she doesn’t know exactly, but she wants to “offer some kind of rest”. Her work might shine a light on confronting images and religious ideas that many want to turn away from, but she doesn’t see herself as writing in dark times.
“In the United States, ‘dark’ gets coded as everything negative, so we forget that the dark is where seeds grow, and night where you get rest and where things are uncertain, so there’s possibility. So in that way a writer’s job is to sing into the dark, through the dark, not just to illuminate it, but to call attention to all the different ways we act in the world.”
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 31, 2018 as "Faith no more". Subscribe here.