My children, with whom I am in labor again until Christ is formed in you . . . (Gal. 4:19, NRSV)
Sitting down at my desk with a freshly brewed cup of coffee, I began the routine: open laptop, adjust lamp, and click the blue icon to begin another Zoom call. This particular day, my co-host and I were interviewing Dr. Natalie Carnes for the Mutuality Matters podcast. While reading her latest book, Motherhood: A Confession (Stanford University Press, 2020), I was astounded by her precision of thought and raw vulnerability.
As a professor at Baylor University, Carnes teaches many classic texts to her undergraduates each semester, most notably St. Augustine’s Confessions. Like other classic texts, Confessions contains both treasures and shortcomings—especially in its perspective on women.1 As she taught it semester after semester, Carnes began to ask, “What do we do with the looming presence of patriarchy in many classic Christian texts?”2 Instead of directing her students down the well-trodden path of depersonalized critique, Carnes discovered a different way. Resonating with Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s descriptions of reparative reading, Carnes decided to enter a relationship with the text where “[she] repairs the text [as] the text repairs [her].”3
The result is a dialogue with Confessions, celebrating this classic work while confronting its shortcomings. Her maternal confessions place Carnes’s own experience in conversation with Scripture, church history, and contemporary events. Instead of entertaining arguments for patriarchal gender roles, Carnes encourages us to see embodied motherhood as a site of theological work, with its dignity and complexity fully intact. In placing her own experience next to Augustine's, Carnes midwives a quiet subversion of female exclusion in the dialogue of what it means to be human.
What’s more, Carnes brings voices such as Delores Williams, Macrina, Catherine-Hypatia, Mamie Till, and others into her dialogue, filling a gap in both her own and Augustine’s perspectives—an acknowledgement that experience is itself limited in view, regardless of its holder. As the stack of pages in our left hand grows, the vision becomes clearer—motherhood is a site of theological reflection, an icon revealing the God who both fathers and mothers us.
For Carnes, motherhood is a prophetic lens through which she sees the revelation of “human life as it encounters and fails to encounter divine presence” in female as well as male flesh.4 In the natal processes of her body, Carnes finds charity being made “natural” to her. She learns from her unborn child to embody hospitality that prepares her to “learn to receive Christ.”5 In sharing with her daughter’s suffering, she awakens to the fact that God's mercy is “a love acquainted with grief,” not distant from the pain of the vulnerable.6 In her daughter's singleness of desire, Carnes sees the fissures of her own divided self and the invitation back into oneness.7
Rather than solely being an exercise of deconstruction or reclamation, Motherhood invites readers into the labor of having Christ “formed” in us anew (Gal. 4:19, NRSV). The meditative nature of Carnes’s prose, like Augustine’s original, compels us to pray and worship. Carnes’s elegant weaving of autobiography, theology, and history propels us to participate in a prayerful reimagining of what it means to be male and female in the face of the Divine, and how we all may be like Christ to one another.
This book review is from “Motherhood,” the Spring 2022 issue of Mutuality magazine. Read the full issue here.
- Natalie Carnes, Motherhood (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2020), 3–5.
- Carnes, Motherhood, 4–6.
- Natalie Carnes, “The Saint and I: On Augustine and Writing about Mothers,” Literary Hub (Literary Hub, April 29, 2020), https://lithub.com/the-saint-and-i-on-augustine-and-writing-about-mothers/.
- Carnes, Motherhood, 3.
- Carnes, Motherhood, 14.
- Carnes, Motherhood, 54.
- Carnes, Motherhood, 41.