'Beyond Belief' provides thought-provoking essays

'Beyond Belief' provides thought-provoking essays

"Beyond Belief: The Secret Lives of Women in Extreme Religions" is an anthology edited by Susan Tive and Cami Ostman, who both chose to enter religious communities they weren't born into.

They met in a memoir writing class: Ostman has written a book about running a marathon on every continent, and Tive was working on writings about her years spent in Orthodox Judaism.

After discussing their lives over coffee and wine outside of class, they realized that their journeys were similar: Both experienced a faith that asked them to shun personal freedoms many women in the United States take for granted.

Both were expected to view men as the head of their married and religious lives. The more they talked, the more they began to question: "Why did we choose to join such restrictive religious practices? Why did we stay so long? Why was it so hard to leave?"

Then they wondered if other women had experienced the same thing in their lives. Because Ostman and Tive were writers, they developed the idea for the anthology, and "Beyond Belief" was born.

In the introduction, the editors explain that they had many ideas for how this anthology should look when they first got the idea. They were only going to allow women who had chosen to enter an "extreme religion," although they were not going to define extreme.

But they received many pieces on women born into their religions and the struggles as children and teens, and so the editors changed their minds. They ask readers of the anthology not to judge the true stories in the book on whether or not they are "extreme enough."

The bottom line is this book is filled with heartfelt and well-written essays which readers will find interesting and which often read as fiction, but they are not.

Maybe these narratives seem like they could be fiction because readers who grew up in a "nonextreme" religious household may be filled with wonder and disbelief when reading what some of these women have been through in their lives, all in the name of religion.

Many religions are covered, from Evangelical to Catholic to Baptist, from Mormon to Muslim to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

The stories are divided into three sections: "In the Beginning," where authors wrote stories about getting into these religions; "Burnt Offerings," an interesting section on the practices and beliefs of people in extreme religions; and finally "Exodus," about women who got out of an unhealthy religious situation.

Depending on readers' own religious beliefs, they may see themselves in the pages of the essays: parents trying to raise their children according to their beliefs; young mothers lost and struggling who need support and aren't finding it in church; or even women going through divorce and leaving a particular religion.

Many authors in this book are brave for sharing their most personal stories and inner beliefs. This book is not "preaching" that anyone should leave a certain religion or that there's even anything wrong with being religious. It's an honest look at the lives of these women authors.

Readers can learn from their stories — understanding religious customs, finding their own freedom, living life to the fullest, respecting elders and loving family members for whom they are.

If you are interested in religion, have been exploring different churches or even questioning where your beliefs lie, then you will appreciate the thought-provoking and touching essays in "Beyond Belief."

Margo L. Dill is the author of "Finding My Place: One Girl's Strength at Vicksburg," a middle grade historical fiction novel. She often reviews books as a columnist for "WOW! Women On Writing" e-zine and her blog, "Margo Dill's Read These Books and Use Them" (http://margodill.com/blog/). She lives in St. Louis with her family.

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