Reviewed by Anna Genevieve Winham | November 22, 2021
Eerdmans, April 2021
Hardcover, 232 pages, $22.00
On Her Knees: Memoir of a Prayerful Jezebel is the coming-of-age memoir of Brenda Davies, the former evangelical Christian behind the YouTube channel “God is Grey,” which has over one hundred thousand subscribers. The story snakes from the purity culture of Davies’s evangelical youth group, to her fall into lust, sex, a bad marriage, and divorce, eventually ending with an unexpected kind of redemption.
In this way, Davies has written her memoir in the Christian tradition of “giving testimony,” which is to share the story of one’s relationship with God with another person—often for the purpose of faith affirmation or encouraging conversion. The evangelical YouTube channels Davies’s “God is Grey” account so often addresses feature young believers whose breakout videos show them giving their testimony. These stories often detail a history of sex the church considers sinful, followed by an encounter with God and ultimately redemption—as long as the storyteller professes a rededication to purity. The young evangelical now feels forgiven for this history of sex outside marriage and devotes herself to waiting for The One. By rooting her (very sexy) memoir in this tradition, Davies turns expectations upside down when she departs from it.
As a person, Davies is thoughtful, self-aware, and media-savvy, and her stances on controversial issues in the Christian community are well-researched and considered. I know because I’ve spoken with her about her positions on birth control, abortion, coronavirus, and God. Even before speaking with her, I’d listened to hours of her YouTube channel, where point by point she calmly and rationally takes on evangelical diatribes against science and sexuality from what she calls a pro-science, sex-positive, modern Christian perspective.
So I know it’s no mistake that Davies’s memoir On Her Knees strikes a different tone. The narrator of the memoir is a younger Brenda, one still embroiled in a struggle against purity culture. The memoir’s narrator is adolescent and from a sheltered background, then suddenly thrust into the bright lights of Hollywood, desperately trying to get in front of a camera while somehow maintaining her sense of self. In On Her Knees, despite her reckoning against sexual shame and repression, the narrator often casts judgment on other women—for example, she says, “that fucking slut, Eve”—even when it’s a man who’s acted with sexual indecency. Young Brenda name-drops celebrities who are present at parties she attended with a studious casualness that will fool no reader, and she reveals that “people knowing [she] does drugs embarrasses [her] more than people knowing [she] own[s] a vibrator.” Chatty and easy-reading, this book might be mistaken for a simplistic reflection by the prodigal daughter of middle-American evangelicalism. It’s no such thing.
While she follows the evangelical testimony format of explicit and honest storytelling of a potentially regrettable sexual past, almost reality-TV confession style, Davies does not conclude that her actions (for the most part) were sinful. She does not conclude that she needs God to forgive her sexual exploration. She does not conclude that she ought to feel shame. Instead, in casting off the evangelical purity culture that pushed her into an unhealthy and dishonest marriage, followed by a period of rapid sexual exploration she jokingly refers to as her “trampage,” Davies ultimately finds a more personal, shameless, and intimate relationship with a kinder God. This memoir is her testimony, and in it, she finds a very different Christianity than the one her evangelical pastors preached.
On Her Knees makes for a captivating read. Davies’s conversational tone is intimate from the start—she frequently refers to her readers as “loves”—and her audience will feel drawn into the world of the awkward Christian girl who finds herself increasingly surrounded by the glamour and celebrities of Hollywood. As she explores friendship outside the church among actors and artists, she begins leading a double life to hide from her evangelical roommates. Legible to all, the book resolves the split while managing to speak to different audiences. Davies directly calls out to the conservatives or the Christians who might be reading, often encouraging them to fortify themselves as they forge on in the book. She hopes to persuade such readers, whose views used to represent her own, to question the strictures of purity culture, accept queer people, and, like her, find their own kinder relationships with God. Meanwhile, Davies hopes to persuade more casually religious or irreligious readers that it’s possible for someone to love Jesus, believe in God, be a Christian…all while having sex without shame, following science, and extending compassion to all.
Davies’s memoir is salacious, intriguing, dramatic, and honest. It uses the tradition of testimony to come to entirely nontraditional conclusions. Its very approachability is its key rhetorical device in the fight for compassionate Christianity.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Brenda Marie Davies is a podcaster and YouTuber whose channel God Is Grey—a “guide to becoming an inquisitive, fearless, SEX POSITIVE, free-thinking Christian in the modern world”—has over 100,000 subscribers.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER
Anna Genevieve Winham serves as Editor-in-Chief for Passengers Journal and poetry editorial co-lead for Oxford Public Philosophy. She also writes, performs, and grant-writes for The Poetry Society New York. Read more on her website www.annagwinham.com