Jeanine Thweatt-Bates holds a PhD in Theology and Science from Princeton Theological Seminary, and is author of Cyborg Selves: A Theological Anthropology of the Posthuman. This review was first presented at the Christian Scholars Conference in June 2010.
Dating Jesus: A Story of Fundamentalism, Feminism, and the American Girl
by Susan Campbell
Reviewing a book such as this, when your experience reading it has been as emotionally intimate as this has been, is a bit terrifying—knowing that whatever I say about it, I am saying much more about myself, in many ways, than I am about this text. But to say this is in some ways offering the highest tribute possible to Susan Campbell’s memoir of growing up in the [small] c’s-of-C: her journey precedes mine chronologically, is distanced from mine geographically, and differs in personal particulars, but nonetheless describes what it means to come of age as a girl in our denomination in words so honest that not only does my narrative echo hers at certain points, but the contributed bits of the many guest bloggers’ narratives at “rude truth” do, as well.
This is not actually a very happy thing to observe. One would have hoped, after all, that the church which Campbell describes as “frontier revivalism frozen in amber” (38) might have unstuck itself from its fossilized convictions about gender in the years that separate my coming of age from hers. But, as she rightly observes, anachronism can become a veritable badge of righteousness, and on this issue, there is still no quicker and more effective rebuttal to the attempt to voice women’s experiences as relevant than “we cannot let culture dictate the practice of the church.”
Campbell’s voice is strong, and compelling, and like many of us who have found that strong female voices are unwelcome—not just in our official assemblies, but in our formal leadership structures, and anywhere at all if they’re asking pesky questions—she has found an alternative venue for expression for this somewhat troublesome gift of God. It may be that, as Katie Hays observed to me somewhat wryly in conversation last year at this conference, no one misses these female voices when the women who possess them leave our churches—because they never got to use them in the first place. Perhaps years have passed without anyone wondering what happened to the voice of that pre-teen girl in Sunday school who asked, why a woman can’t be a preacher. She grew up and became a reporter for the Hartford Courant, and I suppose anyone who thought about it might have concluded, “and she lived happily ever after.” Luckily for us, the same courage that propelledCampbell to verbally spar—and hold her own!—with her Sunday school teacher has produced a memoir which once again brings her voice back into our midst, even if it has to happen cloaked in the “authority of the text,” the same evasive maneuvers performed historically by so many medieval women mystics. Now, we know what we’re missing; even better, we might even figure out why.
That is, we might, if we read, and read with ears ready to hear a narrative that is both heartbreakingly funny and gut-wrenchingly sad, with some moments of prophetic pissed-off-ness in between. Not everyone is, still. Like the comment I received from a first-year seminary student’s first encounter with James Cone, “I feel like he’s yelling at me through the pages,” there are moments of, say, “snark”—not least of which is Campbell’s habit of footnoting scriptural references for the c’s-of-C practices she describes, and it’s not an aspect of the memoir designed to court a reluctant audience.
In my opinion, to consider this a weakness of the book is to entirely miss the point. It is not the memoir’s only strength, but it is one of its strengths, and without the “snark” it would not be the honest narrative that it is. As one blog commenter observes, “it made me feel like I was sitting at the table with her”—and what better observation could there be of the profound, dare I say, sacramental even, intimacy made possible by the disarming honesty of an author, reciprocated in the receptive honesty of a reader?
Moreover, it misses the point—never articulated directly by Campbell, and perhaps I am over-interpreting—that snark is a coping strategy. Robert A. Heinlein—another quite snarky author, come to think of it—wrote that the difference between human beings and our primate cousins is that we have a sense of humor; we laugh, and we laugh because it hurts. It is when we can no longer snark, no longer laugh, no longer grin and bear it, that we find we must walk away.
It seems that Campbell reached that point, a point which I still hope will never manifest itself for me, and yet, as so many of us find, walking away does not exactly translate into leaving behind. There is a reason why my Episcopal priest husband still corrects himself in the instinctive use of the first-person-plural when speaking of the Churches of Christ. There is a reason why there is a thriving online community of ex-Cof-Cers. There is a reason why a successful Pulitzer-prize winning reporter and author finds herself revisiting the narrative of her coming of age and the way in which her life is mysteriously and inextricably bound up with the church of her youth.
And, fantastically, the reasons are not all bad. You have to willfully ignore Campbell’s words, selectively read only the sarcasm, to miss that the description “revivalism frozen in amber” is immediately followed with, “If that sounds grim, it isn’t. If it sounds soulless, it isn’t that, either. The traditions plant in the believer—even someone who walks away from the church—a deep and soulful need” (38).
Unfortunately, the reasons aren’t all good either, and the double bind which Campbell sketches from early childhood on, the message that 1) you must do everything you can to make yourself ready and 2) a woman can’t [fill the blank], becomes a message she describes as an adult as “hardwired” (149). “I was hardwired to understand that I don’t belong in the pulpit”—a dreadful perversion in modern metaphor of Jeremiah’s experience of the fire shut up in his bones. “As big a feminist as I am,” she writes, “I have on some level embraced the limitations set before me. And I fear bucking them. And that makes me both sad and angry” (149). Yeah. Me too. And how many, many others.
Unlike Campbell, my first experience speaking in a pulpit did not leave me sobbing in front of the congregation before I even got started. But, in the first unprecedented moment in which my body (thankfully) moved on autopilot from the front pew to mount the steps up to that honest-to-God pulpit in West Islip Church of Christ, I felt lightheaded, and my surroundings, misty and surreal. It is not an easy thing to do, rewiring your circuitry. But what else can you do, when you wake up in the middle of the night and realize that, after all, all those years ago, you’d been dating the wrong Jesus?