I have always enjoyed the writings of Sue Monk Kidd, so when I saw The Secret Life of Bees, I was eager to add it to my collection of books to read. I first discovered Sue Monk Kidd in the Guidepost magazines we used to subscribe to and came to highly respect her after reading When the Heart Waits. She’s an excellent writer and I began crying on the first few pages of Bees, continuing as I read it non-stop in one afternoon.
The story is of a fourteen-year-old white girl whose mother died when she was little, whose peach-farming father was harsh, cruel and abusive and who was raised by a black nanny living nearby. The year is 1964 in the American South, the summer blacks were granted to right to vote and racist bullies tried to stop them.
When her nanny is jailed and beaten for insulting three white men, Lily hatches a plan that springs them both from their imprisonment and sets them on a journey to discover what they can about Lily’s mom. When they arrive at the home of three black, bee-keeping sisters in a town two hours away, they find a welcome and love they have both craved.
A centrepiece of the lives of these women is an old statue of the virgin Mary that once graced the bow of a sailing ship. Ensconced in the sitting room, this statue is their object of worship. Although this bothered me some, I decided they were simply living out a form of Roman Catholicism and read on.
It wasn’t until near the end of the book, when the women and their friends celebrate the Feast of Assumption, which they called Mary Day, that I began to become alarmed.
After the evening meal that began the celebrations, they stood around the kitchen table. “‘These are Mary’s honey cakes, Cakes for the Queen of Heaven,’ August said.”(1) Cakes for the Queen of Heaven? I immediately remembered the story of the prophet Jeremiah and the scant few Jews who had been left in Jerusalem after Nebuchadnezzar had exiled the rest to Babylon.
Nebuchadnezzar had made Gedaliah governor of the remnant of Judah so a man named Ishmael not only killed Gedaliah but all the Jews and Babylonians who were with them him and took the remaining Jews as prisoners. Johanan managed to rescue the prisoners and took them to Egypt in fear of Babylonian retaliation—despite Jeremiah’s warning that if they went to Egypt, the sword and famine they were trying to evade would follow them.(2)
They not only disobeyed what God had said through Jeremiah, but returned to the idolatry that had caused the exile to Babylon in the first place—the women burning “incense to the Queen of Heaven...making cakes like her image and pouring out drink offerings to her.”(3) The men were complicit because they knew and didn’t stop them. Because of this, God promised to completely cut them off:
“For I am watching over them for harm, not for good; the Jews in Egypt will perish by sword and famine until they are all destroyed. Those who escape the sword and return to the land of Judah from Egypt will be very few. Then the whole remnant of Judah who came to live in Egypt will know whose word will stand—mine or theirs."(4)Making cakes for the Queen of Heaven, that very action, is soundly condemned in the Bible. Why is a Christian writer presenting this as a good thing to do?
Those gathered around the table broke off a piece of cake, put it into the mouth of the person beside them and said, “This is the body of the Blessed Mother.”(5) Say what? It is the body of Jesus that we are told in the Bible to eat, not that of Mary! A few pages later, August, the woman who becomes a mother-figure to Lily tells her:
“Our Lady is not some magical being out there somewhere, like a fairy godmother. She’s not the statue in the parlor. She’s something inside of you.... This Mary I’m talking about sits in your heart all day long, saying, ‘Lily, you are my everlasting home. Don’t you ever be afraid. I am enough. We are enough.”(6)She is equating Mary with God!
In the introduction to "A Penguin Readers Guide to The Secret Life of Bees" at the back of the book, Sue Monk Kidd sheds more light on her position about this. She writes:
“The Secret Life of Bees is a powerful story of...the often unacknowledged longing for the universal feminine divine.... In the end, though she cannot find the mother she lost, Lily...falls in love with the great universal mother.”(7)I am disappointed with this change in someone whose writings have previously pushed me to God. No longer can I recommend her to others as a good Christian author. It also points to a situation of growing alarm. Sue Monk Kidd is not alone. There are many Christians, Christian leaders and churches who are embracing a spirituality apart from Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
In “Syncretism in the Church,” George Conger quotes Episcopalian theologian Kendall Harmon of South Carolina: "To be a Christian is to worship Jesus.... To lose that is to lose the center of Christian truth and identity." The Bible agrees and so do I.
God, help us to keep Jesus and him crucified and raised from the dead as central to our faith in you. Protect us, Lord, from theology that attempts to soothe our souls apart from you. Lord have mercy!
Return to Fiction Read in 2009
(1) page 226
(2) Jeremiah 41-43
(3) Jeremiah 44:19 NIV
(4) Jeremiah 44:27, 28 NIV
(6) pages 288, 289
(7) pages 2, 3