A couple of pages into Dating Jesus: A Story of Fundamentalism, Feminism, and the American Girl and I was already in love with Susan Campbell’s witty, raw, and often wry writing voice. The style of this book really intrigues me—creative nonfiction, a bit of research thrown in for good measure, and it’s written in present tense.
The book chronicles Campbell’s spiritual and ideological journey. She was raised in a fundamentalist Christian church and saw sexism in both her church and community at large, which profoundly impacted her as a girl. “I love Jesus,” Campbell writes, “but if all believers are urged to stay on the straight and narrow, there seems to be an especially narrow road built for women” (Campbell 64).
From Dating Jesus to “It’s Complicated”:
As a child Campbell took her faith very seriously, attended church every time the door was unlocked, knocked on neighbors’ doors in hopes of being able to win someone to Christ, and memorized large portions of the Bible. And in high school when the cute boys weren’t pounding down the door, she decided to think of Jesus as her honorary “boyfriend.”
But when Campbell began wondering about some of her church’s theological stances on women and their role, she was immediately shutdown. Her Sunday school teacher didn’t know how to answer her questions, so he handled the situation by making her leave the classroom and escorting her to the nursery where her mother was babysitting as if she’d done something wrong. “The meaning,” Campbell recalls, “is not lost on me. For asking questions, I will be placed among the babies who slobber and fill their pants. It is a public shaming” (Campbell 22).
Thanks to the lack of willingness from her church to dialog or be accepting of different interpretations of some of those tricky gender-related verses, Campbell and her boyfriend Jesus’ relationship continued to get even more … well …complicated.
Made for Each Other:
As Campbell continued to work through her own ideas on theology, human rights, and equality, she found herself fitting less and less into her church’s narrow box of what a “real” Christian should look like.
“But for a few minor points of disagreement, feminists and evangelicals seemed mad for one another,” Campbell says discussing the history of both movements briefly throughout the text. “In their purest form, both required a marked devotion to a great idea—feminists to the rights of all … [and] evangelicalism, with its devotion to social justice and reform, pointed to the early church as an example of utopia, or God-on-earth” (Campbell 93). And treating women with respect fit right in. Jesus even “showed special attention to women at a time when such attention must have been like water—everlasting or garden variety, it doesn’t matter—on a dry tongue” (Campbell 174).
But, sadly, as far as her fundamentalist church was concerned, there was no room for feminists at their table. And that left Campbell out in the cold.
Highly Entertaining and Thoughtful:
I found myself relating with a lot of Campbell’s questions and frustrations. And even though my own journey isn’t identical, I can really relate with what it’s like wrestling with those kind of theological issues that have a fair amount of identity tied up in them, too. Whether or not you’ve been on a spiritual journey or have ever “dated” Jesus, Campbell’s memoir is a touching and thoughtful book. I’d caution self-identified fundamentalist Christians to keep in mind, though, that Campbell is sharing her own experiences, not what’s true of every fundamentalist or fundamentalist church.
Although Campbell does touch on some issues of church history and theology, this is not a theological book—it’s the story of an American girl trying to figure out who she is as an individual and as a woman, and what to do with that Jesus guy. It’s her story.
While being a highly entertaining read, I also found myself thinking that perhaps Campbell is right. Maybe we do “all think we know Jesus, but mostly, I say, we use Jesus as a template for our own fears and desires. And in the end, we miss the point entirely” (Campbell 156).