A book review of
by Glennon Doyle
(Random House, 2020)
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“And they picked up stones to stone him,” recounts John in his gospel when Jesus, knowing the full consequence of His claim, declared before all the assembled religious throng in the temple, “Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I Am.”1 Those ancient, earth shattering words resounded in the ears of His enemies — biblically literate, law-abiding men who understood that He was claiming to be God. Ego eimi, I am, could simply be self-referential — I am hungry, I am tired — but paired with the claim to be an eternal person who was before Abraham, Jesus’ opponents rightly recognized His application of the divine name to Himself. This name was held by them to be so sacred that no ordinary creature should give it voice, instead saying “The Lord” whenever he came to the Tetragrammaton on the page. No wonder the leaders of Israel were incensed and angry to hear the divine name falling unabashedly from the mouth of a mortal man.2
Imagine my surprise, then, to come to the final passage in Glennon Doyle’s latest memoire and read:
What are you, Glennon? Are you happy? Are you sad? Are you Christian? Are you a heretic? Are you a believer? Are you a doubter? Are you young? Are you old? Are you good? Are you bad? Are you dark? Are you light? Are you right? Are you wrong? Are you deep? Are you shallow? Are you brave? Are you weak? Are you shattered? Are you whole? Are you wise? Are you foolish? Are you sick? Are you healed? Are you lost? Are you found? Are you gay? Are you straight? Are you crazy? Are you brilliant? Are you caged? Are you wild? Are you human? Are you alive? Are you sure? I am. I am. I am.3
Here, by themselves, these words may seem no more than a useful self-examination at the conclusion of an exhausting day or some unexpected trial, but if you labor through Untamed, you will see that they are the culmination of a compelling yet idolatrous claim. Doyle says it in a swift rushing river of prose:
When I talk like this, my wife raises her eyebrow and asks, “Aren’t you just talking to yourself down there?” Maybe. If what I’ve found in the deep is just my self — if what I’ve learned is not how to commune with God but how to commune with myself — if who I have learned to trust is not God but myself — and if, for the rest of my life, no matter how lost I get, I know exactly where and how to find myself again — well, then.4
Well then is exactly right. But first, who is Doyle and why should Christians be on a wary lookout for her name and her work?
Who Is Glennon Doyle?
Doyle stepped into the spotlight in 2012, like so many, with a single post on her blog, Momastery, entitled “Don’t Carpe Diem.” In a single witty, incisive missive she wrote what every mother thinks silently to herself as she muscles a full cart of children through Target only to be interrupted by well-meaning grandmotherly types who declare, among other things, “I hope you’re enjoying every moment.” Rather than answering back when it happened one too many times, Doyle distilled her thoughts into a sane, practical vision for parents of little children. You can’t seize the day, she says, that way lies madness.5
Therein arises Doyle’s undeniable appeal. She articulates what is on the tip of everyone’s tongue. She catches the wave of the moment and rides it to its peak. In Carry On, Warrior (Scribner, 2013), she encouraged women to do the hard thing — to go to therapy, to go to rehab, to show up for themselves and for their children. A teenage victim of bulimia and alcohol and drug addiction, she knew of what she was talking. Women anxious to more fully live their own lives snatched her book off the shelf.
Tragically, as Carry On, Warrior hit the market, Doyle’s husband confessed to serial adultery over the whole course of their marriage. Desperate to rescue her own life, and, she admits in Untamed, her own plot line, she winched her disintegrating marriage back together, leading to her second bestseller, Love Warrior (Flatiron Books, 2016), the story of marital reconciliation no matter the cost, of dealing head on with the heartbreak of betrayal. But in the very first week of the launch of Love Warrior, Doyle saw Abby Wambach across a crowded room and fell in love. Doyle went home, broke up with her husband, and a year later she and Wambach were married. Untamed is that story — how she finally let go of all that “society” taught her to value, how she “burnt it all down” and found her true self.
Many Christians have never heard of Doyle, preferring to focus their Christian discipleship close within the spiritual confines of the church rather than the internet. But in a time when Christian identity, like all identity, is increasingly imagined to be up to the individual to craft and shape according to preference and desire, Doyle’s writing is ringing true for those even inside the church. A brief slog around the blogosphere and social media reveals innumerable women of every creed applauding Doyle’s honesty and courage. Indeed, the modern word “Influencer” is not even the half of it.
The Cheetah and the Untaming
Doyle undertakes an at once aesthetic, but at root, didactic task in Untamed. She will teach women to be wild, to discover themselves and trust what they find over any other authority or cultural institution. The final product is a how-to in discovering the divine within, in becoming god. She achieves this end by cutting bits out of the Bible, mashing them together with her own thoughts and experience, and serving up the uncanny antithesis of each untamed morsel. Whether or not Doyle undertook consciously to subvert and reinterpret the Scriptures as perfectly as she does, I do not know. The answer to that question would be fascinating to discover but is not essential for understanding her task — to uphold the concept of faith, to recast it so that it becomes self-knowledge, and finally to elevate that knowledge into the place of god.
She begins with the aggressive image of a cheetah, an animal she observed on a zoo trip with her children. They watched a cheetah, Tabitha, chase a dirty pink bunny tied to a string, which was tied to a jeep. The bunny had already been caught by Tabitha’s “best friend,” a cheerful lab named Minnie. Minnie chased the bunny, then Tabitha chased the bunny, then Doyle realized that she herself had been chasing not just one pink bunny, but all the bunnies offered to her by organized society and religion. “I am a cheetah,” she discovered, leading to further discoveries about what it means to “find the Knowing,” and how to “remember her wild.” Doyle wrote the book hoping the reader would feel the breathless energy of a cheetah, of being a beautiful, powerful creature who has the will and ability to tear asunder all the constricting, “taming” mores that keep women in their place.
The Stillness, the Knowing, and the Gold
The two chief mores Doyle seeks to burn down are religion and marriage. In the aftermath of discovering her husband Craig’s infidelity, she was launched into the natural turmoil of not knowing what to do. Should she stay with her husband? He was a great father. They had a stable home. What should she do? She consulted all her friends, she read every corner of the internet, and then she “opened a card from a friend that said, in bold, capital, thick black lettering: BE STILL AND KNOW.” Doyle explains, “I’d read that verse many times before, but it struck me freshly this time. It didn’t say ‘Poll your friends and know’ or ‘Read books by experts and know’ or ‘Scour the internet and know.’ It suggested a different approach to knowing: Just. Stop.”6
She went into her closet and sat on the floor and, she describes, “sunk” down deep within herself. There she discovered “liquid gold”:
I can know things down at this level that I can’t on the chaotic surface. Down here, when I pose a question about my life — in words or abstract images — I sense a nudge. The nudge guides me toward the next precise thing, and then, when I silently acknowledge the nudge — it fills me. The Knowing feels like warm liquid gold filling my veins and solidifying just enough to make me feel steady, certain. What I learned (even though I am afraid to say it) is that God lives in this deepness inside me. When I recognize God’s presence and guidance, God celebrates by flooding me with warm liquid gold. Every day, I returned to the closet, sat down on the floor littered with T-shirts and jeans, and I practiced sinking.7
It was out of this stillness, this “knowing,” this “liquid gold” that, when she ultimately came back up to the surface, Doyle opened her arms wide and accepted the sweeping desire she had for Wambach as good and true and right. It was the first time she had so completely wanted anything and felt free to embrace her desire without reservation or inhibition. The revelation of giving way to what she wanted was the first step in reordering not just her own life, but of all those around her. It was essentially a new kind of faith — faith grounded in personal self-knowledge. She writes:
I have learned to live by faith, which does not mean that I live by a set of unwavering beliefs or dogma that men laid down ages ago to keep their power by controlling others. My faith has nothing to do with religion anymore. To me, living by faith is allowing the swelling and pressing inside me to direct my outward words and decisions. Because to me, God is not a being outside of me: God is the fire, the nudge, the warm liquid gold swelling and pressing inside me.8
Doyle gives instructions to her readers for how to do the same thing:
HOW TO KNOW: Moment of uncertainty arises. Breathe, turn inward, sink. Feel around for the Knowing. Do the next thing it nudges you toward. Let it stand. (Don’t explain.) Repeat forever. (For the rest of your life: Continue to shorten the gap between the Knowing and the doing.)9
The Apple and the Martyrdom
Female desire now becomes central in the reordering of society. Doyle believes her lust for Wambach in particular — and being free to embrace it — is central for making sense of the world around her. Her “love” is good and holy. But it is only the first step. Everything that women want is good. “The blueprints of heaven,” she writes, “are etched in the deep desires of women. What women want is good. What women want is beautiful. And what women want is dangerous, but not to women. Not to the common good. What women want is a threat to the injustice of the status quo.”10
Doyle contrasts the untamed desires of women to overturn societal, familial, and religious order with the Christian view of “self-lessness,” which she mischaracterizes as self-inflicted martyrdom: “Women who are best at this disappearing act earn the highest praise: She is so selfless. Can you imagine? The epitome of womanhood is to lose one’s self completely. That is the end goal of every patriarchal culture. Because a very effective way to control women is to convince women to control themselves.”11 Recasting the Christian vision of letting go of oneself into the arms of Christ as “self-annihilation,” as being effaced rather than as trusting an omnipotent, omniscient and eternal God, Doyle then takes the Genesis account of the fall and turns it on its head:
If we unlocked and unleashed ourselves: Imbalanced relationships would be equalized. Children would be fed. Corrupt governments would topple. Wars would end. Civilizations would be transformed. If women trusted and claimed their desires, the world as we know it would crumble. Perhaps that is precisely what needs to happen so we can rebuild truer, more beautiful lives, relationships, families, and nations in their place. 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.12
Maybe Don’t Try to Be a Cheetah
Though the implications of what Doyle advocates are as far reaching as they are pitiful, it is her misuse of Scripture that I believe to be most ruinous. In each instance throughout the book, she takes what would have turned the reader out of herself and towards God — that only true and perfect hope for life both in this world and the next — and, by leaving part out, or redefining a word, she thrusts the individual back onto herself. “Be still and know” comes from Psalm 46 and is only half the line. The second part is “that I am God.” It comes at the end of the psalmist’s superlative description of the victorious power of God over His enemies. “The nations,” He cries, “are in an uproar, and the kingdoms are moved…O come and behold the works of the LORD, what devastations he has brought upon the earth. He makes wars to cease in all the world; he breaks the bow, and shatters the spear, and burns the chariots in the fire.”13 The destruction wrought upon the earth can be laid at the door of the Almighty who will be “exalted among the nations,” and who is “with” Jacob as his refuge.
When Jesus steps onto the world stage to save Israel, and — bringing even those gentiles who were once far off near by the blood of the cross — the world, He did claim to be God. But He did not sink down deep within Himself. He did not “burn” anything down. He united human flesh with His divine Sonship, becoming incarnate in the womb of a young woman who gave freely and completely of herself to His life. She was “self-less,” counting herself as nothing before the surpassing glory of knowing her Lord. The Lord, Jesus, the God-Man calmed the storm, healed the sick, restored the lame, gave sight to the blind, and opened the way to life that never ends by the power and mercy of His own blood. His claim to be God was vindicated by His resurrection from the dead, witnessed by those who saw Him alive with their own eyes, who ate with Him, who touched His hands and feet. The person who lets go of herself into His merciful grasp doesn’t lose anything. She is saved. She is given a life so glorious, so beautiful that no paltry, earthly, contemptible human desire can ever destroy or mar it. Indeed, the sweeping work of the Holy Spirit, uniting the believer to Christ forever, remakes and reorders the desires of every believer.
So far from being a destructive, devouring cheetah, the believer is a sheep. When she has erred and strayed, when she has followed the “devices and desires”14 of her own heart that, Paul says, are so wicked they can never be trusted, they should never be followed,15 the Shepherd opens the eyes of her heart to behold what is truly good — God and His perfect holiness. She is remade in the very image of the Son rather than remaking her family and society in order to satisfy herself.
“Breathe through the heats of our desire,” concludes the hymnist John Greenleaf Whittier in “Dear Lord and Father of Mankind,” “thy coolness and thy balm; let sense be dumb, let flesh retire; speak through the earthquake, wind, and fire, O still, small voice of calm!”16 There is no more fitting prayer for the person tantalized by so destructive a vision of idolatrous human appetites.
Anne Kennedy, MDiv, is the author of Nailed It: 365 Sarcastic Devotions for Angry and Worn-Out People (Kalos Press, 2016) and blogs about current events and theological trends at Preventing Grace, a blog on Patheos.com, https://www.patheos.com/blogs/preventingrace/.
- John 8:57–58. All Scripture quotations are from the English Standard Version.
- For a fascinating scholarly Jewish perspective, see K. Kohler, “The Tetragrammaton (Shem ham-M’forash) and Its Uses,” in The Journal of Jewish Lore and Philosophy, Vol. 1, No. 1, January 1919, https://www.jstor.org/stable/42956616.
- Glennon Doyle, Untamed (New York: Random House, 2020), 327–328, Kindle Edition.
- Doyle, Untamed, 59.
- Glennon Doyle, “2011 Lesson #2: Don’t Carpe Diem,” Momastery, January 4, 2012, https://momastery.com/blog/2012/01/04/2011-lesson-2-dont-carpe-diem/.
- Doyle, Untamed, 56.
- Doyle, Untamed, 58.
- Doyle, Untamed, 64.
- Doyle, Untamed, 61.
- Doyle, Untamed, 121.
- Doyle, Untamed, 115–116.
- Doyle, Untamed, 121–122.
- Psalm 46:6–10.
- The Book of Common Prayer and Administration of the Sacraments (Huntington Beach, CA: Anglican Liturgy Press, 2019), 12.
- See Romans 1:18–32.
- John Greenleaf Whittier, “Dear Lord and Father of Mankind,” 1872, https://hymnary.org/text/dear_lord_and_father_of_mankind.