By David Nilsen
There are book reviews that are relatively easy to write. I’ve written about poetry books that have knocked me over with beauty, novels that have charmed me with wit, and memoirs that have provoked me to reflect on my own journey. Even though the word count on some of my reviews has pushed 3,000 words, those words have usually flowed pretty easily. Very few have left me staring at my screen for as long as Sera Beak’s new book Red Hot & Holy: A Heretic’s Love Story (Sounds True, 2015). I wish I could say that was for wholly reassuring reasons.
I’m probably not the person to be reviewing this book. I am not a part of any organized belief system, and the only belief system I ever was a part of would find this book to be past the territory of the heretical and firmly rooted in the soil of the blasphemous (which is one of the few reasons I liked it). I don’t do yoga, I think crystals are pretty but I don’t think they have special powers, and I have never once engaged in sacred prostitution, all of which place me outside the spiritual circle the book sits within (probably in the lotus position).
Sera Beak spent the first part of her life as a Catholic before branching out to explore the worlds of Eastern religion and New Age spirituality. This is her second book on the topic of spirituality, and she goes to her task here with gusto. I admire how unapologetic and passionate she is in expressing convictions and experiences many casual readers would find bizarre. She is certainly committed.
Those beliefs themselves are hard to nail down. They involve a lot of goddess worship, a general cherry-picking of Eastern religious thought, a merging of the sexual and the spiritual, a personal pursuit of the divine feminine, and a lot of stuff about energy. I know I sound flippant, and I don’t mean to. I don’t personally hold to a belief system of any kind right now, but I think spiritual beliefs are fascinating, I endorse the right of any individual to believe what they want (and to practice and express those beliefs how they want, provided the rights of others are not infringed upon), and I am glad any time a spiritual book shows up at our library that diversifies our religion shelves. I think the idea of the divine feminine is beautiful and compelling, as is the idea of informing sexuality with spirituality. I would love to sit down with Sera or anyone else who holds similar beliefs and hear them explain more about their convictions.
That said, I have no practical idea what to do with this book. It’s not my job to cast a verdict on the truth claims of religious writers, so the fact I find Beak’s to be flimsy before the winds of basic rigor isn’t really relevant. If you are open-minded and interested in these topics, I’d love to have you read the book and discuss it with me. You can even submit a review and this journal might publish it. As for me, I thought the book was usually interesting, at times confusing, at times titillating, and at times just annoying.
There is a pseudo-Christian writer named Rob Bell who has written several books, some of which have been bestsellers, all of which have stirred the pot of controversy in the Evangelical world, and one that got him declared a dangerous heretic by more than one popular voice in that world. He’s a great speaker, a thought-provoking spiritual philosopher, and a distractingly poor writer. He does this really annoying thing where he
breaks up his lines
so that sentence fragments
and sometimes individual
are on separates lines.
Sometimes he even
on the page.
It’s silly and distracting and his sentences don’t generally justify the affectation. I wish he would stop, even though I generally like him. I only bring this up here because Sera Beak does the exact same thing,
It makes me want to
across the room.
Beak also likes to invent words like “Redvolution.” I don’t really have a commentary there, I just thought I would let you know.
Red Hot & Holy begins with an introduction that sets the tone for the whole book (as far too few introductions successfully do), and I’m going to share the beginning of it here. I’m going to post it in its original cherry red text, because you deserve that:
To God’s Wife, Buddha’s Buddhette, Shiva’s Shakti, Mohammad’s Missus, J.C.’s Magdalene, El’s Asherah, Great Spirit’s Snuggle Bunny, Our Mother Who Isn’t Only in Heaven, The Great SheBang, Yo Mama, She She Powa, Madame Mojo, Soul Sista, The Original Redvolutionary, The Secret Lineage Hopper, The Holy Grail Grinner
This goes on, unbroken, for two full pages, and includes such zingers as Profundity’s Panty Raider, Creation’s Centerfold, and The One Who Mud-Wrestles Spirit (and wins). Honestly, these were my two favorite pages of the book. These stream-of-conscious riffs on Deity are amusing, often clever, and sometimes even thought-provoking if they can be stripped of their somewhat irritating context.
You’ll pick up from those monikers the large role sexuality plays in the book and in Beak’s spirituality, an amalgamation she refers to as the “mystico-erotic.” She even talks in the book about her experiences with tantric sex and sex that achieves spiritual healing and awakening for the participants, and discusses a sort of sacred prostitution in which one of the goals is spiritually nourishing the soul of the other participant. I would like to see this idea explored by a more reflective writer. I suspect sex-partner-as-priestess will be a shocking idea to many readers, but why should it be? Even Christianity, a religious system that can still be guilty of putting forward puritanical sexual restrictions, has long viewed sex between marriage partners as holding a spiritual element, and what Beak is presenting here isn’t really different in type so much as degree. People have sex for far more frivolous reasons than spiritual health, and as long as it’s safe and consensual I am wholeheartedly behind the right of consenting adults to engage in the sexual activities of their choosing. If you want to throw an element of spiritual triage into that, knock yourselves out. Actually, don’t knock yourselves out, as that would violate the “safe” prerequisite, but you know what I mean. If we are spiritual beings on some level (something I believe on most days), then why wouldn’t sex touch that in some way?
Oh, completely unrelated, one of the jacket blurbs is attributed to Mary Magdalene. Just wanted to lay that out there.
Overall, I’m glad we have this book on our shelves. I think most of its claims are logically weak and much of its format is annoying, but Beak is hardcore behind her idea, and it’s nice to see someone with strong beliefs raise her voice for sex positivity and explore the feminine aspects of spirituality and divinity. If you have a chance to check this book out, let me know what you think.