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Monday, 16 March 2009 20:58

Susan Campbell's 'Dating Jesus' is a Spiritual Journey from Religious Subservience to Independence, From Fear to Freedom

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The phrase I heard growing up so much is "help mate."  I was being raised to be someone's help mate.  I would marry a young man who would become a deacon and then an elder, which was the hierarchy in the church, all male, and I would be his wife.  I would be there as his support system to raise his children, keep his house going, and find my reward later in Heaven, because that life appealed to me about as much as plucking out my own eye with a screwdriver or pliers.

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

* * *

Few struggles rage with greater intensity than when a person grapples with doubts about deeply ingrained religious beliefs. Wed that to a young woman's need to define her own female identity, in a time when "Ozzie and Harriet" ran smack into Gloria Steinem, and you get the drama that underlies Dating Jesus: A Story of Fundamentalism, Feminism, and the American Girl. Journalist Susan Campbell takes a look back through her personal coming of age memoir, in which fundamentalist faith and feminism battled for her heart and soul. In a recent conversation with BuzzFlash, she expounded on Jesus, patriarchy, and the fear of God.

As the Beacon Press advance synopsis outlines: Dating Jesus is a lovingly told tale of how one born-and-bred fundamentalist matured into a feminist while holding onto her sanity and sense of humor. Susan Campbell takes us into the world of fundamentalism, a world where the details really, really matter. And she shows us what happened when she finally came to admit that in her faith, women would never be allowed a seat at the throne.

* * *

BuzzFlash: First of all, how did you come up with the name Dating Jesus as a title?  That's pretty catchy.

Susan Campbell: I woke up in the middle of the night.  I probably think about this kind of thing more than the average person, and maybe anyone who grew up fundamentalist Christian thinks about Christianity, Jesus.  I have struggled with my upbringing since basically, really, I had an upbringing, and had always thought of myself as kind of a virgin for Christ. I couldn't figure out why that particular entity I was worshipping didn't work out for me.  It was like a bad boyfriend.  I woke up laughing one night because it hit me.  You know when you're in that kind of dream state?  You're not awake and you're not asleep?  It just hit me, though, that I had dated Jesus in high school, but I dated the wrong one.  I dated the Jesus who was introduced to me by my fundamentalist church, who was not a good boyfriend.  And the Jesus I was coming to know from my studies as I became an adult was quite a different person, and one much more to my liking.  And I don't mean anything weird by dating Jesus, but that very close, loving relationship that I had not enjoyed early on was most likely because that was not the historical Jesus I was worshipping.

BuzzFlash: When did you come to this realization and have this sort of semi-awake epiphany?

Susan Campbell: It wasn't that long ago. I would say probably a good five or six years ago.

BuzzFlash: How old are you?

Susan Campbell: I'll be 50 next birthday. But I have spent a good, 30-35 years thinking about this.  Why am I not fitting into this category of "Christian" or "fundamentalist Christian"?  Why?  I liked the idea of helping people who have left the median.  I like the idea of keeping your heart open.  But it's hard to establish.  It's such a drag.  And I was easily in my forties before I felt, oh, man, all that, you know?

BuzzFlash: So, in that period, did you go to church?  Did you have your own religious relationship?  What had you evolved into in terms of your religious perspective?

Susan Campbell: I don't even know how to answer that question, because I think I'm still evolving.  In the time period when I stepped away from the Church of Christ, which was my church of origin, I attended just about any church you could name.  I went to temples.  I went to a mosque.  And was never necessarily looking for Jesus in a mosque, but looking for a religious past that I could embrace, and not one that's comfortable for me.  I don't think religion's necessarily supposed to make you comfortable.  But one that seems right to me after my rigorous study of the scriptures.

What I settled onto is I don't know what I am.  I still have a relationship with the holy.  I believe in God.  I believe in Jesus.  I don't believe that Jesus was the only path to salvation, which puts me way outside my church origins.  I think for some of us - I'm even okay with people who don't buy into any of it - but I think for some of us, we need that relationship with something outside of ourselves that will call us to be a higher person.  And when I say that, that doesn't mean I am one.  But if someone asks me what are you now, I usually say I'm just trying to be a Christian.  Again, with that stamp of fundamentalism, that's a pretty high office.  That's something you actively seek to be every breathing moment.  And I can't say that I do that.  That was a long answer to a short question.

BuzzFlash: I think many people do have a faith, and although some people reject the faith they were born into, most people do continue on.  I was born Jewish.  If I was born Hindu, I'd be a Hindu now, probably.  If you look at adoptions, let's say a couple adopts a baby from China.  If the adopting parents are of the Muslim faith, the child would be raised as a Muslim and probably practice the Islamic faith when they grow up.

Susan Campbell: And be comfortable doing it.

BuzzFlash: And be comfortable doing it.  One of the ironies of faith, to me, is that most people believe faith is divinely inspired.  In reality, from a sociological perspective, faith is passed on from generation to generation through the family and community structure.

Susan Campbell: Yes.

BuzzFlash: There are people who convert, of course, but it's not like, in the hypothetical Chinese adoptee, that person suddenly wakes up and Christ enters his or her body.  They could choose to change the faith, but that's the exception rather than the rule.  It's just a curiosity to me personally.

Susan Campbell: Well, it's interesting to me. That makes me think:  What the hell happened to me?  Because I was very much inculcated.  I mean, I was very much a fundamentalist in a fundamentalist family.  And I can remember thinking, when I started reading, one summer, everything that Isaac Bashevis Singer wrote:  I wonder if you could be a "cultural" fundamentalist.  I have friends who are culturally Jewish.  They're not observant as far as the ritual, but they're very much Jewish, and they're very proud of that culture.  I wish the fundamentalists had that concept - you know, the food's awesome.  The twangy bluegrass music - I still can't sit still for that.  And yet, we don't get to be just culturally connected.

BuzzFlash: That's the nature of fundamentalism, I assume.  But certainly in the Judeo-Christian heritage, you can choose the level of participation, and you can choose the denomination.  In Judaism, there are different groups, such as Reform, Conservative, Orthodox.  You can choose that, and then you have a lot of leeway in terms of how you bring that religious denomination into your life.

Susan Campbell: My older brother attends an Evangelical church, which is different.  I describe this in my book - a moment when I'm with him at his service, and people have their hands on their heads, and they're swaying.  We didn't do that in our church as children.  Our songs were all scary get-your-ass-to-church songs.  I look at him, because I'm uncomfortable.  Can I sway?  Is that dancing, because that's not allowed in the church.  And he said this is religion lite, or this is Christianity lite.  And I thought:  Oh, that's it.  That's why it feels so weird, because he also said - any of the good lines in my book come from my older brother Dan - he said that fundamentalism is the sword that broke off in us, where you can never feel quite comfortable in any other Christian setting because you're judging.  You look, oh, at the piano, and Jesus didn't play piano.  Who cares?  But this is not something to draw a theological line on.  This is stupid.

BuzzFlash: I don't think they had a piano at the time.

Susan Campbell: I mean, where you do you draw the line? Somehow we manage to drive cars and walk on pavement, which is also something Jesus didn't do.

BuzzFlash: When you were dating Jesus, when you were younger, and you were a fundamentalist, what was your relationship?  How would you describe that?

Susan Campbell: I can distill it in a word.  It was fearful.  I think I did a lot of the good works that I did knocking on doors, taking food to the poor, out of a fear.  I feared Hell more than I loved Jesus.

I can't necessarily lay all of the blame for that on the church's doorstep.  But these stories of condemnation resonated with me in a way that the stories of love and forgiveness just went right by.  So I was fairly frightened.  There would be a thunderstorm and I would think:  This is it.  This is when Jesus is coming.  What a weird way to go through a childhood - any minute now, I'm going to Hell.

BuzzFlash: Did you feel a sense of him in terms of a physical presence?

Susan Campbell: No, I worshipped a Norwegian Jesus - you know, the Jesus in my Bible was this blonde, and really rather good looking, but I never thought of that physical presence - that would be blasphemy.  I just had this idea that he was like an older, slightly older, man than I, and he was pretty angry because I was never measuring up.  And any time there would be a news event - at this point there would be the Vietnam protests and everything - it hit me.  And some women didn't wear bras, and all these horrible things were going on in the country.  And those news stories would be discussed through the idea that Jesus is not happy.

You're at a party and someone tries to pass you a joint, would you get out of there.  Jesus is not happy with that.  Jesus is coming - look busy.  Or Jesus is coming, and boy, is he pissed.  Or whatever the bumper sticker is.  It's funny, how that sounds now.  But that was pretty much what I thought of when I thought of Jesus.  And certainly God - God was like times ten that.  God was really angry.  Look at us - we're doing everything wrong.  When you have a list of do's and don'ts, and so often you see that you don't, it's really hard to think of God as benevolent.

BuzzFlash: Doesn't this emanate from the most basic assumption of Christianity, which is Jesus died for our sins.

Susan Campbell: Yes.

BuzzFlash: Therefore, if we Christians and particularly fundamentalists are working to compensate for those sins, it means proving ourselves every day and not be sinful.

Susan Campbell: Yes. Then, when you are talking about the good things and the happy times, the community that you can feel when you're with like-minded people, which I still miss - as I said earlier, that doesn't resonate, because you are continually striving and trying to prove yourself, and earn your way into heaven.  I could recite four verses from the Christian scriptures that say you can't earn your way to heaven.  On the other hand, the message is:  You better try.

BuzzFlash: It was an essential element of Puritanism or the New England settlers, if I recall from college, that you would never know if you were chosen into heaven.  But you had to constantly act as if you were going to heaven, because if you didn't, you certainly wouldn't go to heaven. But you would never know if all those deeds added up until you were in line up there.

Susan Campbell: For us, you had to wait until the gate clanged behind you, shut, and you'd made it in. Even if you had full assurance of salvation simply because you had been baptized by immersion, and performed good works, and been faithful and prayed heartily, and all those things, still, a any moment, you could have a dirty thought about a nice-looking man or woman. You know, when Jimmy Carter told "Playboy" that he had lusted in his heart for other women, fundamentalists said:  Um-hmm - I know how you feel, brother, while the rest of the culture's going:  What a wack job.  Of course you lust.  And we're thinking:  No, you don't lust, because it's the same as committing the sin physically.  And I remember being confused.

I didn't read "Playboy," but I remember reading about the conversation, and everyone making fun of Jimmy Carter.  And first of all, I remember thinking - well, he was Baptist, so he was going to hell anyway because he wasn't a member of the Church of Christ.  But I totally understood what he was saying - that you're not to lust.

BuzzFlash: So he was, from your personal perspective of a fundamentalist, confessing committing a sin.

Susan Campbell: Absolutely.  And the reaction was rude.  Stop it - he told everyone.  We did that after church, after invitation.

BuzzFlash: He was being forthright.

Susan Campbell: He was being honest.  And here were these turds making fun of him.  That's just so mean.  And looking back, it does sound very naïve.  But even if he could have said that better - perhaps explained, in my theology, thinking of a sin is the same as committing it - it wouldn't have mattered.  They still would have made fun of him.

BuzzFlash: How do you explain that, particularly in American, Christian denominations, there's this perplexing sort of conundrum, which is to say that to be pro-peace in some fundamentalist groups is to be anti-Christ?  Many Christian denominations are very peaceful and encourage peace, and see Jesus Christ as the Prince of Peace.  But there are many fundamentalist groups that believe in that wrathful God, and that war is really a war for Christianity. With the "war on terror," George W. Bush, in essence, said this will be a crusade against the Islamic hordes.  And Bush believed this was not just spreading freedom, but it was spreading a Western Judeo-Christian ethic unto a culture that believed differently.  War was the way to do this.

So, there seemed to be people who are digging Jesus who believe Jesus is whispering "advocate peace" in their ear.  And other people believe Jesus is whispering "spread my word and the word of God through war" in their ear.

Susan Campbell: I can't speak for the ones listening to the Jesus who's saying do this through war, because you win, what you win them to.  And if we're using guns and weapons to democratize, it's not working and it never has.  I would invite the ones listening to the Jesus saying spread my word through war to read the whole book, as opposed to verses.

There aren't that many verses actually that encourage Christians to pick up arms.  I'm trying to think of one and can't.  The overall message has always been love.  And it's hard to love someone if you're invading their country. And the choice of the word " crusade," it was disturbing to the extreme. I would question whether some of the people you're describing intend to spread a Judeo-Christian anything.  There's no "Judeo-" to what they're seeking to spread.  And that's so damaging.

Just quickly, I can remember being asked if I wanted to be a missionary in Papua, New Guinea, because we had a couple from my church who were teaching there.  And I remember thinking that would be so cool.  I'd never been to Papua, New Guinea.  But then I said no, because it struck me that the people there probably have their belief systems in place.  And this is when I was still heavily involved in the church.  They had their belief systems in place, and my theology - what I was raised in - says if you are presented to the gospel of Jesus, and you rebuke it - refuse to accept it - you're going to Hell, no question.  There was a grey area of what happened to you if you never heard the gospel.  So my thought was, why put these people at risk - very literal, very fundamentalist approach to this.  If they never heard the gospel from me, then they can go off happily to whenever Papua, New Guineans go when they die, never having to listen to me yammer on about Jesus.  So my feeling on that is if you are a true fundamentalist, give these people a break and let them believe however they believe.

BuzzFlash: Which is a very Christian thing to do.

Susan Campbell: Looking back - and this is probably another book or being written by people smarter than me - Jesus came to talk about adhering more to the spirit of the law more than the letter.  How do you interpret that law?  And here you have people like people from my tribe continually trying to head the conversation back to the letter of the law.  Yes, but in verse this, it says this.  And as a fundamentalist, you can say, yes, but in a verse, it says this.  So, forgive me, it's about a pissing match over who knows more Bible. And in the meanwhile, people are going under.  Okay, what are you spreading exactly?

BuzzFlash: Again, if you accept faith completely and absolutely and literally, as fundamentalists do, then the Bible is the holy book.  It is a book of faith. One of the ironies is that historically, the words of Jesus were written long after his death.  How could one ever verify that he said all these things?  It wasn't written while Jesus was alive or even shortly after he died.

Susan Campbell: If you say that to a fundamentalist, we will say we're taking this on faith.  On the one hand, I can say I'm going to take it on faith - the mystery of what was recorded by who, and were the nuances in the language of the time properly reported.  And then I'm going to turn it around and interpret it literally.  Wait a minute.  There's a gap.  If you push this conversation, I will change it, because I have nothing to stand on.

BuzzFlash: Let me ask you about community.  It seems in the US, many of us need faith - something to believe in. My own personal theory is that we need faith to answer the riddle of why we were born and why we die.  We need some higher power because life terminates, and there are misfortunes in life.  There are wars and epidemics and natural disasters. The only way to live through this for many people is faith.  God has ordained this.  We're in God's hands.  And this is a comforting thought.

In our tribal identities, along with faith, we have a sense of family and our loyalty to our immediate family, but then we have a community also.  And the faith community is an important community if we go to church.  And we're part of a structured community.  We worship together.  We have education classes together.  We have the rituals of marriage and death conducted there.  Many friendships are formed.  Children go to religious school.  And so it gives us a community.  Was that an important part of fundamentalism to you when you get beyond the personal faith issue?

Susan Campbell: It is absolutely the thing I miss most not being there.  I used to say I missed the singing and that was it.  I miss having people who, for all of our faults, and we all had them, we were trying to do what we thought was right.  And I miss talking about in a group the poor kids in the neighborhood, and what clothes we could give them, and what toys we're not playing with anymore. I miss that more can I can say.  And I think for the social fabric, these faith groups, when they're acting right, serve such a vital role in moving the culture to something better.  That's not to say all of them do.  But I miss it.  That's all I can say.  I walk into another church and, I may be wrong, but I can sense if this is a church that's really connected, or this is a faith group where they're there for one another.  And I don't have that.

BuzzFlash: One of the sociological explanations I have read for the megachurches that have formed in the Evangelical wing of churches is that they tend to be in exurban areas - and they're composed of people who've moved from another part of the country, or maybe from suburbs, exurbia.  And this is their community. Otherwise, they don't know many people.  They've moved into a new subdivision, and the megachurch becomes a huge social center.  They have entertainment.  They have day care, movies, youth groups, senior groups.  They're extraordinary structures and diverse entities with all different support networks and care for the community.  And that is one of their chief attractions.

Susan Campbell: I think you touch on something important.  And as you were talking, I was thinking of the megachurches and how they're huge.  It's a large body of people.  But they're very individual in the services that they offer.  I've read about Rick Warren.  Didn't he knock on doors and ask people what would you want to see in a church, and then formed his church based on that?

BuzzFlash: This is marketing research.

Susan Campbell: And you think:  Why didn't anyone else think of that?  Because that makes perfect sense.  I'd love to go to church, but I need daycare, and I have a special needs child, so I need a particular kind of daycare.  And wouldn't it be great if there was an ATM in the lobby?  And things like that where you would not necessarily think of that in the old brick-and-mortar kind of church I went into.  But why not have counseling services for families that are struggling?  Why not have education classes that talk about finances and things like that?  That probably was to a certain extent what the early Christian churches were.  They shared things together frequently, and they had meals together.  So that makes sense to me.

I have only attended a few, just as an observer, but they're kind of one-stop shopping.  Not to be a bat in a butterfly box - the thing that concerns me is, those are your only friends?  If you can be at church every night doing something - the men's prayer circle, the cooking class, the entertainment - do you ever see anyone who doesn't look and smell like you?  Because churches often tend to be fairly homogenous and I would worry that you're not mixing it up with people who are different from you.  That, I think, is the Christian thing to do.

BuzzFlash: The cover of your book presents a photo of you as a young girl.  Is that correct?  Is that you on the front?

Susan Campbell: That's correct.

BuzzFlash: And it's Dating Jesus. Can you talk a little bit about the relationship at that time, before you went through this epiphany of women within the fundamentalist movement?  After all, Jesus was a man.  God is generally portrayed as a man unless you're in a progressive sort of denomination that now says he-slash-she.  It's a male hierarchy.  You look at the fundamentalist preachers and don't see many women in this group that includes Dobson and Robinson and LaHaye.  I don't see any women here.

Susan Campbell: No, and you find that their wives tend to have separate ministries, but definitely separate ministries.  They're ministering strictly to women.  The phrase I heard growing up so much is "help mate."  I was being raised to be someone's help mate.  I would marry a young man who would become a deacon and then an elder, which was the hierarchy in the church, all male, and I would be his wife.  I would be there as his support system to raise his children, keep his house going, and find my reward later in Heaven, because that life appealed to me about as much as plucking out my own eye with a screwdriver or pliers.

What you find for the most part, I would say, across the board in fundamentalist churches, is that there is no female in the hierarchy.  What's happened lately is, they may let the women have their own ministry, but where they only talk to women, because women aren't to usurp authority over men.  If they lead a class and there's a man in the class, they're usurping authority.  It's insane.

So as a little girl, starting to hear this - and I was a tomboy - I was blessed to be a tomboy - they're now called athletes.  But I enjoyed playing baseball with my brothers, and I would argue everything out there, because life needed to be fair, and then just slip into a pew, and suddenly I'm being told I'll be a help meet.  I had no desire to be a minister, but I'll be damned if someone was going to tell me I shouldn't be.

To me, it was just like an extended baseball field.  I will argue that call.  And I think I've come to find since the book came out that there were a lot of little girls and boys sitting in the pews with their hands folded and saying this can't be right. Especially in the time when I grew up. And I was starting to read about Gloria Steinem and all these feminists in New York, which is where I thought they all lived - I couldn't argue my case on the baseball field during the class and then go into church and become someone entirely different.  And I could not imagine that Jesus wanted a woman like that - that Jesus wanted me to grow up to be a woman and to subjugate myself to anyone but Jesus.  It felt like idolatry, the way I was told I would need to behave around my future husband.  It kind of made me sick - and there's a lot of us out there.  And there are women who are choosing to protest in place, and stay within the fundamentalist religion.  My hat is off to them.  I don't know how they do it.  I did not have that core strength.  I just got too angry.  But I hope and pray for women in the churches that they understand that whatever compromises they're making, God wants them face to face, not going through anybody.

BuzzFlash: Well, thank you very much, Susan.

Susan Campbell: I appreciate it.

* * *
BuzzFlash interview conducted by Mark Karlin.
* * *


Dating Jesus: A Story of Fundamentalism, Feminism, and the American Girl by Susan Campbell, available from the BuzzFlash Progressive Marketplace.

About Susan Campbell

The "Dating Jesus" Blog

Susan Campbell's columns at the Hartford Courant; and her columnist bio: "Susan Campbell's writing has been recognized by the American Association of Sunday and Features Editors; National Women's Political Caucus; the Sunday Magazine Editors Association, and the Connecticut chapter of Society of Professional Journalists. She was also a member of the Courant's 1999 Pulitzer Prize-winning team for breaking news. She is co-author of a travel book, Connecticut Curiosities and she lives in Connecticut with her husband."


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