With ‘Red Lip Theology,’ Candice Marie Benbow rewrites her own narrative—and we can, too

TheGrio’s new daily lifestyle writer releases her first memoir—and explores how shame and religious dogma might be holding us back.

One of the first things Candice Marie Benbow and I discovered we had in common was a love of red lipstick. The year was 2017, and as I was making a major career pivot into journalism as a newly minted editor, Candice was one of the first contributors I hired, having followed her online for years.

Being a former Catholic and self-avowed heathen, I found Candice’s candor and occasionally cringeworthy vulnerability about life as a millennial church girl turned legitimate theologian refreshing; a reminder that perfection isn’t God’s mandate, but a human one—and being human is inherently messy. But like Black women have done for generations, we put on our faces and face the world anyway, often wearing our makeup as armor, our red lipstick daring the world to say something.

Cover: Penguin Random House; Photo: Cuemadi White

Fast forward just a little over five years, and Candice and I are now officially colleagues: she is the new daily lifestyle writer at theGrio, where I am the new lifestyle editor. As we celebrated both our new role,s along with the start of new year, Candice had another triumph to celebrate: the Jan. 18 debut of her first book, a memoir titled Red Lip Theology: For Church Girls Who’ve Considered Tithing to the Beauty Store When Sunday Morning Isn’t Enough.

Having witnessed this theology in its gestational stages, I was eager to talk with my friend and colleague about what this moment means for her—and what she hopes it will mean to those who engage with it. 

As the title suggests, Red Lip Theology is a woman-centric approach to being “churched”—and an honest and deeply candid examination of how the dogma of the traditional Black Church does and doesn’t serve us. When we sat down over the holiday weekend, Candice and I chopped it up about religion, spirituality, sex, gender, shame and where those of us who seek unconditionally loving relationships with God and others can hope to go from here.

“I truly believe that there are people who want to know that another way is possible, and they believe that another way is possible and they need and want people to show them that way,” she explained. “And so, I think that for me, Red Lip Theology—and every other book that I’m going to write—I hope that it leads people to realizing that that’s not the case…something that says, ‘You don’t have to live like this.’ I think we want that more than, unfortunately, we can find it in church spaces.”

“I really want women to recognize that their lives can be instructive to how they form deep spirituality and faith, and that they don’t have to feel like they have to listen to anyone else other than the sound of their own familiars,” she added.

Photo: Kenneth Branson; courtesy of Candice Benbow

“In order to do that—and in order to tell that effectively—I had to model it. That meant putting [on display] some of the most painful, some of the most private and intimate parts of my life, and making them available to people in a way that hopefully allows women to do that with their own hidden parts and their own experiences, so that they can journey to healthier places of spirituality and ultimately, self-love.”

Candice’s own journey ain’t been no crystal stair, to say the least. Like many of us, she’s been through self-destructive behaviors and relationships, coped with abandonment, disappointment and devastating loss, and reckoned with the impact of all of the above on her sanity. Perhaps that’s what makes her memoir so relatable; she’s not preaching from a mountaintop, but as one who’s walked through the fire.

“I am not the only person who has done something that they may be disappointed in. And I’m not the only person who may look back at a moment in time and cringe,” she shared. “I don’t have the power to change the past, but I can empower my future.

“There’s so much shame around things that really, at the core of them, are outside of our control,” she continued, “and I had to learn and hope that when women read this book, they see for themselves that there’s grace for you, too.”

Ahead of its release, Red Lip Theology was endorsed by several of our greatest thinkers; bestselling author and academic Brittney Cooper called Candice “a once-in-a-generation theologian,” while the book’s foreword was lovingly penned by Melissa Harris-Perry. But not everyone has been receptive to her exceptionally open-minded approach to Christianity; a resistance as much tinged by sexism as by spiritual debate.

“The truth for a lot of folks, is that [for] a woman to take an authoritative stand about faith and spirituality and not be backed by a man is dangerous and murky water, just because of the way that sexism is always gon’ sexism,” she admitted, adding: “My work is to look at the relationship that God has with the world, the world has with God, and the world has with itself and think deeply and meaningfully about that.”

“It comes from a deep and abiding space of believing that God wants the best for us, and that our thriving in all areas of life matters to God. And I also would hope that [readers] would also know how much I am committed to Black women being well, in every area of their lives.”

The result is an unapologetic discussion of how the church, as many of us have known it, both saves and suppresses its most devoted members—Black women—with its unflagging devotion to patriarchy.

“I really wanted to have a conversation about God and Black womanhood that did not center cis-het men,” Candice explained. “I wanted to have a conversation that did not that did not give the male gaze a certain permission to speak. And I felt like what does it mean for me to have these theological conversations talking about grace and talking about salvation and creation care and and ascribing gender to God? Like, how do I have these conversations with Black women in a way that is familiar to all of us and can be easily discussed?”

One of the most familiar aspects of Candice’s story is her relationship with her late mother, Debra Louise Benbow, who grounded her daughter in the church even after being maligned by it as a single mother. Red Lip Theology is a love letter to Debra, as well as a deeply empathetic exploration of the nuances and tensions of even the most loving mother-daughter relationships.

“I would not know church, and I would not know God if it weren’t for my mom, and I had to be very honest about the anger and the rage and the confusion I felt about her loss and how totalizing it was to lose her,” said Candice. “I wrote it to her and for her because I believe that other mamas and daughters have to find a way to understand each other more.”

“I think for many of us, that is the most difficult relationship that we navigate—how are you the daughter that your mother wants and the woman that you’re becoming at the same time? Too often, they’re not congruent. And I hope that a mom can read Red Lip Theology, read my stories, read my journey, and understand her daughter more. And I hope that a daughter can read it and understand her mom more.”

Ultimately, Red Lip Theology is both a testimony and an invitation for Black women to mold our spirituality in our own glorious image, stepping beyond respectability politics into a genuine communion with an unconditionally loving God—and unconditional love for ourselves.

“I’ve found a space where I’ve been able to thrive outside of the expectations because I’ve abandoned and rejected them,” Candice told me. “And so, I hope that people who read this give themselves permission to go on the journey; to recognize that they’ve already been on one, and to give themselves over to it. I think that’s the most powerful part: readiness to give yourself over to the journey.” 

Red Lip Theology: For Church Girls Who’ve Considered Tithing to the Beauty Store When Sunday Morning Isn’t Enough is available now wherever books are sold.

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