Christianity in Sue Monk Kidd’s Novel, The Secret Life of Bees
Fayetteville State University
In Sue Monk Kidd’s novel, The Secret Life of
Bees, the Daughters of Mary
practice an unusual religion which permeates the story. In this paper, after
describing the religion, I’ll try to show how it can be a form of Christianity
despite a variety of appearances to the contrary.
At the start of the novel, the Daughters of
Mary are made up of a relatively small group of African Americans living in
South Carolina during the 1960s. The
members are May, June, and August Boatwright, and seven of their friends (Kidd 106). August organized the group and is its worship
leader. Worship takes place at the
Boatwright home on their honey farm. As
the novel progresses, the Daughters gain a few new members, including a
fourteen-year old runaway white girl named Lily.
Worship for the Daughters of Mary is built
around a statue depicting a strong, determined black woman whose right arm
extends straight out from her body and ends in a tight fist (Kidd 70). Even though the statue was formerly the
masthead of a sailing ship, they think of it as a statue of the Virgin
Mary. The statue, called “Our Lady of
Chains,” resides in the parlor of the Boatwright home
(Kidd 70). Its story plays an important role in their
religion, so important that it is periodically re-told as part of their worship
The story is set back in the time of the
slaves. The slaves were being
mistreated; they prayed to God every night for rescue, consolation, and
freedom. One day a slave named Obadiah
found the masthead washed ashore near Charleston. He remembered the slaves’ prayers for
deliverance, and he heard the statue’s voice in his heart saying, “It’s all
right. I’m here. I’ll be taking care of you now” (Kidd 108). He and two other slaves brought the statue
back to the slaves’ praise house. The
next Sunday he told his fellow slaves that he knew the statue was from God, but
that “he didn’t know who she was” (Kidd 109). Then Pearl, the oldest slave, got up and
said, “This here is the mother of Jesus” (Kidd 109).
They knew that Mary, as the mother of Jesus,
had suffered a great deal. They felt she
understood their sufferings, too. They believed as well that she had a loving,
constant, strong heart. Thinking she
could help them, they “cried and danced and clapped their hands. They went one at a time and touched their
hands to her chest, wanting to grab on to the solace in her heart” (Kidd 109). Touching her heart inspired them with strength
to endure and a spirit of resistance.
Some made bold escapes from bondage, and those who remained behind lived
with “a raised fist in their hearts”
When the master found out what she meant to
them, he tried to chain her away in the carriage house. Despite his many attempts to chain her away there,
she would always break free and return to the praise house. For this reason, they called her “Our Lady of
Chains,” not because she wore chains, but because she broke them.
The statue and its story passed from generation
to generation until finally May, June, and August Boatwright, became their
guardians. The statue and its story had
inspired their mother to become a Catholic while their father remained an
“orthodox eclectic” (Kidd 90). May, June, and August, nicknamed “the
calendar sisters,” took something from each parent to make their own religion
How do the Daughters worship? Nightly the calendar sisters kneel before the
statue and say Hail Mary prayers (Kidd 191).
On Sundays, all the Daughters (and some Sons) come for worship, which
includes reading from the Bible, particularly Mary’s Magnificat prayer
crossing themselves, playing traditional Christian hymns, such as “Amazing
Grace” and “Go Tell It on the Mountain” (Kidd 110),
dancing in a conga line, and touching the heart of the statue.
Like many Catholics do, they celebrate an
annual Feast of the Assumption, which commemorates Mary’s rise to heaven. Near the beginning of this two-day
celebration, the Daughters have a communion-like ceremony, where they feed each
other a piece of honey cake while saying “This is the body of the Blessed
Mother”(Kidd 226). Then they re-tell and re-enact the story of
Our Lady of Chains.
The Daughter’s worship practices raise a number
of questions. Given these practices, can
they reasonably be considered Catholics?
August says that the religion of the Daughters is part their “Mother’s
Catholicism” and part their “own ingredients”(Kidd 90). Their religion does include Catholic elements,
such as, kneeling before a statue of the Virgin Mary, crossing themselves, and
reciting the Hail Mary prayer. Their
religion, however, is not an orthodox Catholic religion because, unlike
orthodox Catholicism, none of its worship services are built around a
Eucharistic feast in which bread and wine are consecrated by an ordained
Are they worshipping the statute itself
then? There is no clear indication that
they are. They may simply regard the
statue as a representation of Mary, as a window through which she receives our
concerns, and as a result, may intercede on our behalf with Jesus. From this point of view, then, they are
asking her to pray for them. Kneeling before
the statue does not necessarily mean worshipping it; it could just be a way of
venerating or showing respect for what the statue represents.
Are they worshipping Mary then? If they are worshipping Mary, then their
religion is not a form of Christianity, since within Christianity, Mary is not
considered to be divine. There are three
pieces of evidence that they are worshipping Mary, but each piece is dubious
because it is open to other possible interpretations.
Here is the first piece of evidence. Lily, a fourteen year old runaway white girl
who is intrigued by the religion, asks August why the label on the honey jars
shows a black Madonna. August answers that
when the other Daughters first saw the label, “it occurred to them for the
first time in their lives that what’s divine can come in dark skin”(Kidd
140-41). This suggests that the Daughters regard Mary
as divine. But another interpretation
here is that the phrase ‘divinity in dark skin` need not be referring to Mary
at all; it could just be referring to her son Jesus. In that case, the thought that was dawning on
the Daughters for the first time in their lives could have been that Jesus,
divine son of the black Madonna, was Himself black, not that Mary, His Mother,
was herself a divinity.
The second piece of evidence comes from the
Daughters celebrating a communion-like meal based on the body of Mary instead
of the body of Christ
Each of them feeds a piece of honey cake to another, and says, “This is the
body of the Blessed Mother”(Kidd 226). This suggests that they worship Mary instead
of Jesus. Another interpretation is
possible here, though, because it is not really clear what this rite means to
them. For all we know they are just
honoring Mary as the first believer, the loving Mother, or the model
Christian. If the Daughters are honoring
Mary as a model Christian in her complete faith in Christ, then when they take
honey cake as her body in a communion-like rite, that could just be a way of
expressing their resolve to become more like her in their devotion to
The third piece of evidence is based on August
telling Lily that Mary is inside of us and that she is enough
(Kidd 289). Saying that Mary is enough suggests that
there is no need for Jesus. A problem
with this interpretation, however, is that it takes August’s comment out of
context. August is discussing whether
Mary could stand in for Lily’s real mother, Deborah, who has passed away. She says that Lily doesn’t need to touch Our
Lady’s heart to get strength but can get it by touching her own heart, since
Mary is inside of us. August says, “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’”
(Kidd 289). But given the context of whether Mary could
stand in for Lily’s mother, Mary’s words can mean `Lily, don’t ever be
afraid. If you ask for my help, I can
help due to my special relationship with my son. Because of this relationship, I am enough to
make you feel loved and protected as a child’.
In that case, August’s statement that Mary is enough does not have to
mean that Mary, even leaving Jesus out, is enough.
all of this evidence that the Daughters are worshipping Mary can reasonably be
interpreted in other ways, and as a result, it does not provide good evidence
that they are worshipping Mary. Is their
religion then a form of Christianity?
Even with the longstanding and ongoing
disagreement about the character of Christianity, one way to characterize it is
by looking for its core beliefs. A good
place to look for a consensus of opinion about its core beliefs is the World
Council of Churches (WCC).
When the World Council of Churches formed in
1948 as an ecumenical group, it faced the question of core beliefs squarely
when it aimed to develop criteria for membership. The Council’s question was “What would a
church need to affirm in order to qualify as Christian?” At that time, its
one-hundred and forty-seven member churches adopted an answer in a description
of the council as “a fellowship of churches which accept the Lord Jesus Christ
as God and Savior” (https://www.oikoumene.org/en/about-us/wcc-history).
Soon thereafter, however, critics advocated
amending these criteria to include reference to the scriptures and the
Trinity. As a result, in 1961 the
Council revised its description of itself to “a fellowship of churches which confess the Lord
Jesus Christ as God and Savior according to the scriptures, and therefore seek
to fulfil together their common calling to the glory of the one God, Father,
Son and Holy Spirit” (https://www.oikoumene.org/en/about-us/self-understanding-vision/basis). The member churches
approved the revision by a vote of 383 in favor, 26 against, and 7 abstaining (https://www.oikoumene.org/en/resources/documents/other/theological-and-historical-background-of-the-wcc-basis). The
revised version still stands today.
The WCC encompasses a wide cross-section of the
world’s Christians. It has church
members from “more than 110 countries and territories
throughout the world,” and it represents “over 500
million Christians and include(s) most of the world's Orthodox churches, scores
of Anglican, Baptist, Lutheran, Methodist and Reformed churches, as well as
many United and Independent churches. At the end of 2013, there were 345 member
This WCC description of itself suggests a
core-beliefs standard (cf. Olson 30) for determining whether the religion of
the Daughters of Mary can reasonably be considered a version of
Christianity. According to this
standard, Christians affirm that Jesus Christ is God and Savior as described in
the Bible and that there is one God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
I think this is a reasonable standard to
use. It is not so lax that almost any
religion can count a Christian. For
example, an Adoptionist belief system which denies the divinity of Jesus (Olsen
234) cannot satisfy the standard. At the
same time, the standard is not so strict that only one’s own denomination can
meet it. Episcopalians and Baptists may
disagree about the meaning of communion without either one being classified as
non-Christian. The WCC’s widely accepted
description of Christians is the basis for the standard, and it highlights
distinctive Christian doctrines such as the incarnation, the atonement, and the
Given this standard, I believe that we can
reasonably say that the religion of the Daughters is a version of
Christianity. Their stories, hymns, and
prayers provide reason to think so. For
instance, one of their hymns, “Go Tell It on the Mountain,” says that Jesus is
our savior, and “God sent us salvation that blessed Christmas morn”
1982). In this hymn, then, Jesus is the one savior
and redeemer. In another one of their
hymns, “Amazing Grace,” Jesus, the bearer of grace, relieves our fears. We no longer fear punishment for past sins,
since his death on the cross has fully atoned for them. We no longer fear death because we are
promised eternal life if we believe in Him(Smith 316). Hence, the hymn says, “how precious did that
grace appear the hour I first believed”
(The Hymnal 1982)! This hymn shows the Daughters’ allegiance to
God the Father, who sent Jesus to atone for our sins. It also makes it clear that it is Jesus, not
Mary, who reconciles us to God and delivers us.
One may question whether the Daughters actually
sing these hymns, and so question whether they know their lyrics enough to
believe in them. I think, however, that
because of the widespread popularity of these hymns, it is reasonable to assume
that the Daughters understand their messages.
For instance, whether they are singing “Go Tell It on the Mountain” or
not, I think it’s reasonable to assume that they’ve heard this hymn sung enough
to have a joyful understanding about why they should be going to tell it on the
mountain. In playing the hymns, they
worship God and Jesus.
One might also question whether they regard God
as Father, since their worship does have a feminist focus. It seems to me that they could still believe
in a triune God even if they do not regard the Creator God as male.
According to feminist scholar Rosemary Radford
Reuther, the problem with the image of God as Father “is not simply that it is
male, but rather that it is based on a certain construction of fatherhood or
male parenting, as the paterfamilias, an
all-powerful rule that keeps us, as women, children and servants, in a state of
permanent dependency” (141). Elizabeth
Johnson, Distinguished Professor of Theology at Fordham University, puts the
point this way: “patriarchal naming of
God in the image and likeness of the powerful ruling man has the effect of
legitimating male authority in social and political structures” (1).
It’s not clear, however, that the Daughters
would give up the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit formula. Even if the Daughters would reject a paterfamilias Father, they would not
necessarily have to reject all references to God the Father. They could take it instead as a convenient
way to refer to an incomprehensible yet loving being.
Without rejecting the doctrine of the Trinity,
the Daughters could also broaden its interpretation. Though Jesus did pray to “Abba” or “Father,”
they might ask whether he should be taken literally. Johnson cites it as a rule for interpreting
expressions about God that “no expression for God can be taken literally”
(7). If she is right, then what can the
expression mean? It could be
metaphorical, comparing the relationship between Jesus and God to that between
a child and a parent (cf. Reuther 141).
Can the Daughters be Christians if they don’t
take the Trinitarian formula literally?
It seems so. While claiming to
hold the Trinitarian formula dear, Johnson says, “it is not a literal formula,
nor was it ever intended to be the only way that Christians name God”
(19). One may say that tradition should
be followed in naming God, but it may be traditional primarily because of the
patriarchal nature of the society in which the Bible was written.
Further, there are other cases in the Bible
where God is not referred to in male terms.
For instance, God is compared to a woman giving birth (Isaiah 42:14) and
to a woman looking for a lost coin (Luke 15:
8-10). Given such cases, religion
scholar Bradley Hanson concludes that scripture “itself suggests that we should
use female as well as male images for God” (42).
Unhappiness with the language of “God the
Father” or its consequences would not force the Daughters to give up belief in
a non-literal reading of the Trinity.
They do not have to subscribe to a strict patriarchal belief system to
Their Hail Mary prayer, which plays such a big
role in the Daughters’ worship, also provides support for the claim that they
are Christians. It goes like this:
Mary, full of grace,
the Lord is with you;
blessed are you among women,
and blessed is the fruit of your womb, Jesus.
Holy Mary, Mother of God,
pray for us sinners,
now and at the hour of our death. Amen(Kidd 90 & 191; Lawler 570).
In this prayer, Jesus is specifically referred
to as God, and Mary is honored because of her relationship to her divine son,
not because of any divinity of her own.
She is a special woman, but nonetheless a woman, not a god. As the Mother of God, she is close to Him,
and because of this, she can help us. Thus
the Daughters believe in Jesus as God and Savior.
The Daughters also use scripture in their
worship, particularly the Magnificat prayer from Luke 1: 46-55. In it Mary praises God as her Lord and
Savior. She says,
soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for He has regarded the low estate of His handmaiden.
For behold, henceforth all generations will call me blessed;
for He who is mighty has done great things for me,
and holy is His name” (Kidd 107 &267; Lawler 575-76).
Praising God as her Lord and savior, Mary is
not on the same level as God. She is not
a divine being, but a creature like us, yet the handmaiden of God. Henceforth all generations will call her
blessed because of her special relationship to Jesus, not because she herself
is a divinity.
There is reason to believe that the Daughters
also believe in one God, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as well. August, their leader, claims that she has an
intuitional gift. From listening to a
bee hive, she says that she can hear deep within herself “silent things,” such
as the Christmas story (Kidd 144). In
this narrative, God the Father sends the angel Gabriel to announce to Mary the
virgin birth, the Holy Spirit brings about her conception, and the fruit of her
womb is Jesus. Does August believe in
what she claims to hear with her special gift?
Given her beliefs about the importance of Mary, as shown by her daily
prayers, it’s reasonable to think that she believes in the Christmas story and
that it will be part of the Daughters’ worship during the Christmas season.
Thus the Daughters’ hymns, prayers, and stories
provide good evidence that they are honoring Mary as the Mother of God, not worshipping
her. Instead, they, along with
her, worship one God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit and take Jesus to be God and
Savior. The view that they worship one
God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit and take Jesus to be God and Savior makes
better sense of their words and deeds than the view that they worship
Mary. Therefore, the religion of the
Daughters of Mary can reasonably be interpreted as a form of Christianity.
Not everyone will agree with me about
this. I want to end the paper by
considering some criticisms of my point of view. First, one may say that the
Daughters’ prayers are not good evidence for their Christianity, since they may
just be saying them without meaning them.
If they are, then their prayers don’t show that they subscribe to Christianity. It is possible that they are just going
through the motions, but it is unlikely that this religion that includes much
of their own making would include prayers that are meaningless to them. For instance, if I say the Lord’s Prayer
every day, it is likely that it means something to me and that I mean it.
Another possible criticism is that the religion
of the Daughters is not Christian since it is really an African-derived
religion, and such religions are not Christian.
But this criticism fails because there is not good reason to believe
that the religion of the Daughters is an African-derived religion. According to Elias Bongmba, African-derived
religions are those “religions transplanted to the Americas with the
enslavement of Africans …”
(Bongmba, Religion - African Disapora). Examples include Vodou in Haiti, Santeria in
Cuba, and Candomble’ in Brazil. The
traditions of such religions are traceable to West Africa and Western
Bongmba says, “African-derived religions
worship a divine being and several divinities”(Bongmba, Religion - African Diaspora - Divinity). If belief in a supreme deity and
lesser deities is part of being an African-derived religion, then the religion
of the Daughters of Mary is not an African-derived religion unless they
consider Mary to be a god. We saw
before, however, that there is not good reason to think that they consider Mary
to be a god. What they say and do shows
that they consider her holy but not divine.
Her holiness is derivative from her relationship to Jesus, her divine
Dianne Stewart has a somewhat different idea of
an African-derived religion. She says
that such religions “exhibit six major features that have distinguished them
from Western Christianity: 1) a notion
of the divine as a community (communotheism), 2) ancestral veneration, 3)
divination and herbalism, 4) ritual food offerings and animal sacrifice, 5)
possession trance as essential in worship, and 6) a belief in neutral mystical
power which can be accessed by humans”
(Stewart 21). Nearly all of these features are absent from
the religion of the Daughters of Mary.
They do not worship the community, venerate ancestors, use divination,
sacrifice animals, or go into trances during worship. Their religion does, however, contain
something like the last feature, the feature regarding spiritual power.
August tells Lily that Mary’s “spirit is
that Mary’s “something inside you … a
mother inside yourself”(Kidd 288). She further says, “And whatever it is that
keeps widening your heart, that’s Mary, too, not only the power inside you but the
love … “(Kidd 289). All of this suggests that Mary is some kind
of spiritual power of motherly love.
Even so, that does not mean that their religion is non-Christian. There is no conflict between Christianity and
the view that Mary is inside us, as the mother of all
a spiritual power ready to intercede on our behalf with her divine son. Therefore, not only is it not clear that the
religion of the Daughters of Mary is an African-derived religion, but also even
if it includes elements of African-derived religions, it can still reasonably
be interpreted as a form of Christianity.
A third criticism is that the religion of the
Daughters is syncretic and so cannot qualify as Christian. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, “syncretism” is almost always used in a
derogatory way. It means “attempted
union or reconciliation of diverse or opposite tenets or practices, especially
in philosophy or religion.” The Daughters’
bringing in a diverse belief or practice, however, would not mean that they
could not be Christians. That would seem
to depend on whether the diverse belief or practice would conflict with a core
belief of Christianity. For instance, if
Lutherans believe that only the Holy Spirit has a role in humans’ regeneration
and Catholics allow a role to the human will as well, that would not mean that
either one of them should then be considered as non-Christian. Their difference concerns a secondary matter,
not an essential one. In contrast, if a
polytheistic group claimed to be Christian, their polytheism would conflict
with the essential monotheistic belief of Christianity.
The religion of the Daughters of Mary does not
appear to be syncretic in this last sense, however. Even though the Daughters do have religious
practices that differ from those of most Christians, they still hold the core
beliefs of Christianity. Thus their
unusual religious practices are not enough to disqualify them as Christians.
In this paper, I have described the religion of
the Daughters of Mary: its membership,
the role of Our Lady of Chains and her story in the religion, and the
Daughters’ style of worship. Description
of their worship led to a number of questions:
Are they Catholics? Are they
worshipping the statue of Our Lady? Are
they worshipping Mary? Are they
I noted that they are not Catholics, since
their worship services are not built around a Eucharistic feast; and, I
maintained that their kneeling before the statue was not necessarily
worshipping it, since it could just be a way of venerating what it represents.
I considered three textual reasons for
believing that they were worshipping Mary:
1) the black Madonna on the honey jar label prompted the idea that the
divine can be dark; 2) their communion-like feast which focused on Mary instead
of Christ gave the impression that they worship her instead of Him; and 3) the
claim that Mary is enough suggested that there is no need for Jesus. I tried to show that all three textual
reasons were weak, because they could all be reasonably interpreted in ways
that would not support the divinity of Mary.
In referring to a dark divinity, August might just have been referring
to Jesus. The communion-like feast with
the body of the mother could just express a resolve to be model Christians like
Mary. The idea that Mary is enough could
just be saying that Mary can be enough to make Lily feel that she has a
Inspired by the WCC description of itself, I
applied a core-beliefs standard of Christianity in an attempt to determine the
classification of the religion of the Daughters. According to the standard, Christians affirm
that Jesus Christ is God and Savior as described in the Bible and that there is
one God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Using this standard, I cited the Daughters’ hymns, prayers, and stories
as evidence for their Christianity. From
my point of view, the view that they worship one God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit
and take Jesus to be God and Savior makes better sense of their words and deeds
than the view that they worship Mary.
It is true that because of their feminist bent,
they might find the language of “God the Father” questionable. Yet, even so, they might use this
metaphorical language on occasion for convenience. They would not necessarily be committed to
exclusively male language, however, if they were willing to give the Trinity a
non-literal reading. Their unhappiness
with the language of “God the Father” would not force them to give up belief in
a non-literal reading of the Trinity. In
such a case, they could still be Christians.
At the end of the paper, I considered three further
criticisms of my evidence: 1) their
prayers are not good evidence since they might not mean what they say; 2) they
are not Christians because their religion is an African-derived religion; and
3) their religion is syncretic and so cannot qualify as Christian. In response, I argued that since they created
much of the religion themselves, there is good reason to believe that they mean
what they say in their prayers. I also maintained
that there is no good reason to consider their religion African-derived and
that even if it has some elements of African-derived religions, it can still
reasonably be interpreted as a form of Christianity. Further I claimed that they could be
Christians as long as their unusual ritual practices did not conflict with
their belief in the essentials of Christianity.
In my view, the Daughters are Christians
because they affirm that Jesus Christ is God and Savior as described in the
Bible and that there is one God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Theologian Raymond Brown has a similar view
about the boundaries of Christianity. He
says that Christianity “exists in a vast diversity of different styles and
forms of organization, but all are agreed that the figure of Jesus is the
disclosure of God and the means of human reconciliation with him”
The Daughters also agree on this, as
their hymns, prayers, and stories show; and therefore, I believe that their
religion can reasonably be interpreted as a form of Christianity.
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