(RNS) — Candice Marie Benbow came to be a theologian by way of the death of Whitney Houston, who she considers “the ultimate church girl.”
Dressed like they were there, Benbow said, she watched the famous singer’s funeral on TV with her mother and grandmother and wondered how and why Houston was once hailed by the Black church, dissed by it when she had addiction and marriage troubles and later reclaimed by it. When the service ended, she started writing an application to seminary.
Fast-forward a decade, and Benbow is now a public theologian out with a new book called “Red Lip Theology: For Church Girls Who’ve Considered Tithing to the Beauty Supply Store When Sunday Morning Isn’t Enough.”
Both spiritual and religious, Benbow offers critique of the overall Black church but remains a member of an Atlanta congregation affiliated with the National Baptist Convention, USA.
Benbow, 40, has her own style of practicing and writing about faith, even as she challenges the Black church “to be its best self.”
She lowercases “bible” and doesn’t refer to God with pronouns. And she preaches a theology that calls on Black women in particular to move beyond shame into “a much more holistic understanding of what it means to be human and what it means to realize that we will not get it right all the time.”
Her book, which is set to be released Tuesday (Jan. 18) and was recently named among Amazon editors’ picks for best nonfiction, echoes the title of Ntozake Shange’s “For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf,” which was published in 1975.
“That choreopoem was one of my first introductions of what it looks like to blur sacred and secular and how Black women do that so beautifully in a way that allows us to just genuinely speak to the full interior of our lives,” said Benbow, the new lifestyle, education and health writer for Grio, a digital news outlet about Black culture.
She talked to Religion News Service about her writing about God and Black women, being “spiritually fluid” and moving past an affair with a married man.
The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Over the course of your book, you explain how you developed what you call “red lip theology.” How would you sum up what that is and how it compares to other theologies?
Red lip theology, for me, is the way I see and understand myself as a Black millennial woman of faith. I was formed as much by the church as hip-hop culture. The ways I would say it differs from other theologies is that there are very few that speak to women of my generation. Even just womanist theology, a lot of theology writ large, is about drawing from writers who contextualize their experiences and us trying to pull from that to fit us, but this actually centers us in a way others didn’t.
You are a strong critic of the Black church, including houses of worship like your childhood congregation that disparaged women, such as your mother, who had you “out of wedlock.” What is your principal charge against it? And do you have any hope for change within it?
I think part of what has always been unfortunate about Black church spaces is how necessary it has always been to center Black men and their truths and realities at the expense of women and girls. And I don’t think that will ever change, unfortunately. I think the Black church is committed to being a safe space for Black men, cishet Black men (who identify with the gender assigned to them at birth and are heterosexual), and I think in their commitment to being a safe space for them to lead, that means it is a dangerous space for everyone else. While I have friends who work very hard to change their individual church culture, I am not that optimistic about the entirety of the church as an institution.
We’ve seen too often where church leaders, mostly men, have galvanized around issues of Black men being harmed, but have not done a lot concerning Black girls and Black women when they’ve been in the exact same situation and for women, for me, it becomes a final straw.
Later in your book, you acknowledge that you love the Black church. What do you give it credit for, even as you point out its faults?
I will always love and revere the Black church because, one, even as my mom needed to walk away from one, she found refuge at another one. My oratory skills, my writing skills, a lot of those were honed in church.
How would you describe yourself right now, denominationally, since you said you are a part of a church?
I’m a member of a Black Baptist church here in Atlanta, Georgia. But my faith is rooted in the teachings of Jesus, the wisdom of my ancestors and the power of Black womanhood. I am spiritually fluid. There are traditions I draw from that also work in tandem with Christianity for me. I deeply revere the customs of the African traditional religions and ancestral veneration. I met with a Buddhist spiritual community every Sunday for a year and a half. There are practices from that community I still hold and engage in. I consider myself to be a seeker. And so I believe Spirit is everywhere.
So what is Spirit to you?
Spirit is God. It is the divine power that guides all of our life. I use God and Spirit interchangeably. In church contexts, I’ll just say “God.” But in a much more broader context, I say “Spirit.” For me, Spirit is the best way to articulate the force that grounds my fluidity and is always calling me home and is always calling me higher. And that Spirit is what I have been able to find everywhere I have looked for it.
You note that you reached a settlement with a predominantly white seminary that refused to give you leave after your mother’s death — condolences, by the way — or to give you a different apartment after you suffered a sexual assault. How did that shape your view of institutional theological education and your future in general?
It first taught me that within theological education, that people can write and preach about Jesus all day and not know him. At the end of the day, these are still rich white powerful institutions and I’m still a Black woman. And in this country and in this world, rich, white powerful institutions despise free Black women. I would be lying to you if I said that experience did not scar and jade my perspective of theological institutions.
You reveal you used to be involved with a married man who divorced and then married another woman. How do you relate your personal experience to the Gospel of John’s account of the woman caught in adultery?
I had to put myself in that moment. I put myself in John’s account and I was like, ‘OK, so what got Candice here?’ Believing the things he said to me got me there. But there were also parts of my brokenness — dealing with my nonexistent relationship with my father, not ever believing I was good enough.
It was about doing the work. Doing the work to expose the broken parts of me and wounded parts of me that caused me to make those kinds of decisions and then press toward healing those so that I made decisions that are always rooted in life and in light.
Your table of contents labels each of your book’s chapters with beauty supplies, from skin care to setting spray. What part of what you call “makeup therapy” is most important to you and is there a way you relate it to spirituality?
Even if I don’t do a full face of makeup, I’m always going to do my lips. From a faith perspective, I always want to speak the truth and I always want to speak boldly and confidently. And I always want to be able to say when I’m wrong and to apologize when I need to. But sometimes we need the courage to be able to say when we’re wrong, the courage to be able to name when we’re questioning, the courage to be able to name when we’re struggling. And so, for me, that’s what I always want to endeavor to do, is tell the truth.