Thursday, March 4, 2010

Book Recommendation: Dating Jesus

Dating Jesus: A Story of Fundamentalism, Feminism, and the American Girl Dating Jesus: A Story of Fundamentalism, Feminism, and the American Girl
Susan Campbell

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Susan Campbell grew up in the extremely conservative church of Christ (lowercase c correct), believing in a Jesus that scared the shit out of her. Her church banned musical accompaniment (for the bizarre reason that it was not in the bible--hello, David?), beyond all the other typical things fundamentalist Christians often eschew.

She struggled against her traditional upbringing, especially the fact that she had chores, while her brothers didn't. She also went door to door, trying to convince people to come to her church, because she believed it was the only way to save her soul. (She notes that in all the years of doing this, she had only one success--a man in a stained t-shirt who only came to her church once and never returned.)

At the age of 10, she began chafing against her church's view of women, and she began rewriting bible stories about women, imagining their expanded roles (a la The Red Tent). Campbell, now a journalist, was a writer in the making. This reminds me of my own adolescence, when I took felt pen to my bible and started crossing out all the passages I disliked (mostly in the Old Testament) and making comments in the margins. (Me, an editor in the making!) Her supportive grandmother paid her for the stories until she was discovered and told to stop.

When she asked her Sunday School teacher some hard questions about the roles of women in her church (or the lack thereof), the teacher went to retrieve Campbell's mother to escort her out of Sunday School. Campbell had to stop teaching Sunday School herself at a certain point, because the boys in her class were getting too old (age 12) to be taught by a woman. She had to stop teaching so that she would not "usurp authority over men."

Campbell weaves her own story with biblical references and the history of feminism. She also chronicles her realization that she had been dating the "wrong Jesus":
"It took me 40 years—and a year of intense scrutiny as I wrote—to realize I didn’t date the real Jesus. I didn’t date the radical Jesus who drew women to him as equals, as leaders in the early movement that would be the Christian church, who [taught:] that there were neither slave nor free, male nor female—and meant it. I dated the Jesus handed to me by the patriarchy, and it’s taken me THIS long to realize that’s not the right Jesus. That’s not even a real Jesus. That’s a construct. And I can’t be mad, but I can get excited that the real Jesus just might be someone pretty wonderful." (This from an article on Christian Feminism Today).

In the book she notes, "The real Jesus wouldn’t have loved me less because of my gender. The real Jesus wouldn’t have weighed me down with rules—a list of do's and don'ts that serve no real purpose. The real Jesus would have had a sense of humor about the whole thing, goddammit."

Campbell clearly still mourns her loss of church, but she has not found anything to replace it, and I sense that grief in her writing. When she was invited to speak at a progressive church, she was scared to death as well as disappointed that it was not churchy enough for her. She seems to have deep-seated, painful ambivalence about anything related to church.

The only thing about the book I found disappointing was that we didn't get a clear picture of why Campbell ultimately ended up leaving the church. She mentions marriage and divorce, along with motherhood, and her church making her feel unwelcome because of the divorce, but it is only in passing. She also mentions making peace with her brothers, although she had challenges with them when she was a child. I wanted to know more about her family life and her journey as she made the decision to leave it all behind her. Perhaps another book?

I have discovered Susan Campbell's great blog, and I will continue to follow her and look for more of her books.

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