by Letha Dawson Scanzoni, editor, Christian Feminism Today
Susan Campbell likes to ask questions. She always did, and it’s a trait that has served her well in her work as a twice-a-week columnist and feature writer for one of New England’s most prestigious newspapers, the Hartford Courant.
But at age eight, a question she asked a Sunday school teacher got her into big trouble. The question? “Why can’t a woman be a preacher?”
The teacher, a church deacon, responded in the usual dismissive way: Jesus was a man, and the 12 disciples he chose were men. Wasn’t she aware that her church in Joplin, Missouri, true to scriptural principles, never had women ministers? The Bible said that women shouldn’t teach or “usurp authority” over men (1Tim. 2:12) and that women were forbidden to speak in church but to learn in silence (I Cor. 14:34).
Being the youngest of three children in her family and the only girl, Susan says she was “schooled in rhetoric” from arguing with her brothers about what girls could and couldn’t do. One of her brothers at age 12 was already building a reputation in the area as a boy preacher. Susan saw no reason a girl couldn’t be called to the pulpit, too, though she had no interest in such a calling herself.
So that day in Sunday school, she wasn’t satisfied with her teacher’s answers. She told him that she had read an article about Dale Evans Rogers in a popular magazine. The Hollywood star, a dedicated Christian, quoted a Bible scholar who had explained that the verse about women learning in silence simply meant women weren’t supposed to chat during church services when they were supposed to be listening.
“I just kept asking more questions,” Susan told me in a phone interview, “and I don’t think I was disrespectful—of course you never think you are—but I pushed it too far, and the Sunday school teacher finally notified my mother.” Her mother, who was working in the church nursery, came and escorted Susan from the Sunday school class and took her to help care for the babies. Susan still remembers the embarrassment—and the fact that the questions she raised in response to her teacher’s comments were not adequately answered.
She shares her experience of growing up in fundamentalism in a new book titled, Dating Jesus: Fundamentalism, Feminism, and the American Girl, to be published by Beacon Press next January.
The book’s unusual title comes from her times of talking and joking around with newsroom friends about her childhood in the foothills of the Ozarks.
“Back here [in Hartford], I’m ‘exotic’ because of (1) my accent, and (2) my upbringing” she says. “We don’t get a lot of fundamentalist hillbillies in Connecticut!”
She and some of her Hartford friends, also transplants from other areas of the country, would sit around joking about whose background had been “weirder.” When a couple of them mentioned having grown up Baptist, she told them that her church had considered Baptists “loose” and less spiritual. “Ya’ll danced and we didn’t,” she’d say with mocked gloating. She would often tease with comments like, “I can show you how you are scripturally in error no matter what you’ve done.” One of her feigned taunts was, “When I was in high school, I dated Jesus, and you didn’t.”
She was not speaking irreverently but just poking fun at the assumption made by members of her childhood church that they were spiritually superior and closer to God than others— that their interpretations of Scripture were the true ones.
“This joking around was years later with adult friends,” she emphasizes. “During my teen years, I would not have joked about it because I was actually ‘dating Jesus’ at the time very seriously.” She loved Jesus passionately as a child and adolescent. He was the object of her heart’s desire.
Buried with Christ in Baptism
She had walked to the front of the church to profess publicly her love for him and wanted to express her identification with him through baptism by immersion, a requisite for membership in the churches of Christ (spelled with a small c), an ultra conservative distant offshoot of the Disciples of Christ denomination (although, she says, the churches of Christ don’t like to admit that).
“You have to go all the way under water to signify burial with Christ,” she explains, “and the opening of my book is about the baptism where my baptismal robe had an air bubble under it, and it wasn’t going completely under the water. I was being held underwater by the minister and thinking, ‘It doesn’t count; some is sticking up! You don’t bury someone with clothes sticking up out of the ground!’ I didn’t know if I could take my hand off my nose and smash the bubble down. You worry about little things. I was very literal. I mean I can still parse a verse to the point where you won’t ever want to read it again!” she laughs.
The Wrong Jesus
What she realized many years later was that as she had “dated the wrong Jesus”— the “scary Jesus” who might come back as a thief in the night and condemn her to hell. She worried about that a lot. She feared that maybe some little thing (or big thing) in her attitude might not have been quite right that first time she went to the front of the church, so she went forward repeatedly when the invitation was given and was baptized more than once.
She told me about all this rethinking last year after I had emailed her to commend her for one of her newspaper columns. I had also said I’d like to send her some complimentary back issues ofChristian Feminism Today (which she received enthusiastically). She said that my mentioning Christian feminism “certainly got [her] antennae up” as she proceeded to tell me she was on the last chapter of a book she was writing. “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” (Personal correspondence, Feb. 24, 2007).
After her ill-fated effort to learn from her Sunday school teacher why women couldn’t be preachers and her exile to the church nursery for what probably struck the teacher as impudence, Susan stopped her direct feminist efforts (before she even knew the word, feminism). Instead, she concentrated on “being good” and becoming an outstanding student of the Bible. She “knew the books of the Bible backwards and forward,” she says, “and the 12 apostles, 12 tribes, and all that stuff that gives you a cultural foundation about two religions anyway. You don’t know the details of the one but you got an idea. And the Old Testament—the Hebrew Scriptures stories—are wonderful. I love those. I still read them. You don’t get any better soap opera than David and Bathsheba.”
She shudders to think of the boring, “deadly” way Bible stories are often presented. “I don’t know how you can mess up Bible stories, but I’ve sat in Sunday school classes where people dragged the life and guts out of them, and I think that’s a crime,” she says.
On her 10th birthday, Susan’s mother gave her what had been her mother’s old typewriter, and Susan began re-writing stories of women in the Bible, “beefing up their roles.” She sold these stories to her beloved grandmother, charging 25 cents a page, which paid for large-size candy bars. In her book, Susan describes her jubilance over this first paid writing job: “I am in high cotton, and I and my Grandma Marrs unwittingly join the feminist theological movement, hillbilly branch” (from ch.1, Dating Jesus).
Serving in the Church
Susan’s mother had joined the church of Christ upon marrying her second husband. Susan was seven then. The family left their previous church, the First Christian Church in Carterville, and became totally involved in Susan’s stepfather’s more strict, ultra conservative church. They attended three times a week and any other time the doors were open.
Her teenage years revolved around the church. She performed puppet shows for children and nursing home residents, taught vacation Bible school and Sunday school, and especially enjoyed the church’s huge bus ministry, “a popular outreach in the South in the ‘70s,” she says. It awakened her social consciousness. “I taught on the bus for the hour when we picked kids up from the poorer neighborhoods in Joplin, Missouri. I would lead singing, do flash cards, do basically a Sunday school on wheels. We even had picnics for them. I loved it!” On Saturdays, she’d knock on doors to build the route. “The church eventually stopped that ministry because they weren’t drawing in the parents—the original intent. I didn’t know that; I thought it was enough to have these smelly little kids in church, but the church wanted adults. That really made me mad.” She continued teaching Sunday school but soon ran into another injustice. Church authorities decided the young boys in her class were getting too old (age 12) to be instructed by a woman. She was told to quit teaching the class to avoid the sin of “usurping authority over men.”
Susan earned her journalism degree at the University of Maryland, met and eventually married a fellow student (a Roman Catholic, to the dismay of both families who “disapproved of marrying outside the faith”), and eventually ended up in Hartford, Connecticut, where she began writing for the Hartford Courant in 1986.
Not long after the move, the marriage ended in divorce. By then the couple had a two-year old son, Sam, and they have remained friends. (Sam, now 22, chose his father’s Roman Catholic faith and is now a student at the nondenominational Hartford Seminary.) A few months after her divorce was finalized, Susan met her present husband, Frank, at an event at Sam’s daycare center where Frank’s preschool son, Ryan, also attended. After five years of dating, she and Frank (a firefighter and occasional actor who has appeared on TV’s Rescue Me) were married in 1993.
Susan had been active in a Hartford area church of Christ until she began feeling less welcome after her divorce. She then stopped attending church altogether and says her decision to leave the church felt like another divorce. She especially misses the congregational singing. The churches of Christ denomination forbids instrumental music in worship and won’t even permit a piano to be brought in for a wedding. But the robust blending of acappella voices was beautiful, and Susan remembers that sound—and the sense of community—with nostalgia.
Religion continues to be of deep interest to her and frequently shows up in her newspaper column—even though, as a lifestyle columnist, she’s not officially a religion writer. She does, however, write a quarterly “Religious Books Round-Up” in which she reviews the latest books from a variety of faith traditions.
Her yearning to find answers to some of those unanswered questions from her childhood led her to enroll in Hartford Seminary where she earned a master’s degree in religious studies.
Susan says she is “Christ haunted” and thinks constantly about morality. And though she says she frequently fails, she looks for ways to reflect Jesus in her life. “I take the lessons I learned in Sunday school to heart”—especially lessons of compassion. True, fundamentalism didn’t address social injustices in the systemic sense, but her bus ministry (“really just rolling social work”) included sharing food and clothing and telling families about social agencies that could help. “It wasn’t a huge leap for me to see that dealing with the symptoms of poverty and racism would take us forever, so why not go to the core issues?”
Homelessness and hunger are frequent topics of her columns. She grieves over the plight of those who live on the streets or under bridges or who suffer malnourishment. She has twice signed up to survive for a time on the food stamp allotment of $4 a day, temporarily experiencing firsthand what many must experience indefinitely. But some angry readers blast her for soft heartedness. “People want to pretend hunger and homelessness don’t happen in rich Connecticut.” Or else they claim that poor people are themselves to blame.
Poverty (as manifested in hunger and homelessness) is one the four topics that elicit the most angry responses from readers of her column. The other three are Jesus, homosexuality, and women. Susan explains the why of each one.
Jesus. “I have an unusual take on our Savior and people sometimes get offended,” says Susan. One reader called her “the whore of Babylon.” She deadpanned, “But I’ve never been to Babylon.” Another time, she suggested that the Sermon on the Mount was “rambling and took a long time to get to the point. People threatened to stop their subscription because of that! I think Jesus and the words in the Sermon on the Mount will survive my critique,” she says. Never mind that Bible scholars say it is unlikely that all these sayings of Jesus were delivered at one time as a single sermon.
Homosexuality. “I grew up as prejudiced as the next person.” Susan admits, “but I didn’t hang onto it. Because it’s wrong. I don’t see anything in the Bible that would send these people to hell, so we don’t have the right to.” (She champions full civil rights for homosexual persons, including marriage, and writes on the subject often. I first learned about her in 2005 when she phoned me for an interview about my book with Dave Myers, What God Has Joined Together: The Christian Case for Gay Marriage. She was writing a column on a Hartford church that was using the book for an adult study course.)
Women. This topic upsets some people, she says, “because any time you write about women and God, there is a certain element in society that will take offense because they want the status quo to continue.” She states proudly that she is a feminist, “and that’s the ‘f’ word that can really get people going. I think it’s sad that the media turned on that word like we did with being a liberal—the notion that that’s a bad word.” She’s even OK with being called “a liberal knee-jerk feminist.”
What about younger women who don’t like the word? “Well, I think they’re being influenced by us, the media, unfortunately,” Susan replies. Her message to them would be: “Rock on . . .pay attention to how you feel in your gut and what you think the world ought to be, and then go out there and make it be that and don’t listen to the ‘second waves.’ We haven’t done such a bang-up job of it. We can give you some information and help you avoid some pitfalls. But it’s a different world now, and we need a different approach. If shouting in someone’s face, ‘I’m a feminist!’ is the best delivery of the message, then do that. But if your point is not so much to assert yourself that you’re a feminist but to get a point across that might be a little more universal, then do that. I just wish we would use the word feminist as it is properly intended. I wish we weren’t afraid of it.”
Other Column Topics
Certainly not all of Susan’s columns are controversial. They can have a decidedly local slant or they can reflect on political and other concerns far beyond Connecticut. Always warmly human, they can be funny, sassy, touching, reflective, profound. Some make fun of her own human foibles (and ours), and some display the boldness of a prophet. For all the problems with fundamentalism, she says, “it helped me grow fangs which have served me well in my adult life” including developing a defensive stance.
“Growing up in what was considered an odd faith also taught me a lot about compassion for people who don’t walk in lock-step with everyone else,” she says. Her columns show genuine concern for those who are perceived as “different” or defenseless.
Her empathy for abused children shows up frequently in her columns. She knows firsthand about the shame and secrecy and anguish such children suffer. And she is furious over the way some pedophiles get away with their activities because they hold prominent positions, and authorities choose to look the other way. In Susan’s own case, her mother had knowingly married the strict, religious man who became her stepfather—even though he had a criminal record for molesting a little girl in another state. “My stepfather should not have been allowed to raise chickens, much less children,” Susan wrote as she dedicated a Father’s Day column to a softball coach, one of the surrogate fathers, teachers, and other adults who had seen her potential, taken a personal interest, and encouraged her talents (June 17, 2007). “You can have a really horrible home life and survive it if you’ve got people like that,” she told me.
She is public about what happened to her because she knows that breaking the silence is crucial to bringing about justice and healing. In “That Day in the Woods,” a heartrending feature article written for the Hartford Courant’s Sunday magazine (Oct. 9, 1994), she tells of sobbing after it happened that first time (she was around eight years old) as her stepfather warned, “Don’t tell anyone, because if you do, I will leave your mother and she will give you all away, and you will never see her again” (p.8).
For years, all that horror was buried deep within her, but now she has a platform to speak out. And speak out she does! Not only about child abuse, but about the innumerable challenges in our world today—especially for young girls.
“I think today’s girls are given a great advantage for understanding the sky’s the limit,” she says. “Now if we could only tailor our appetites in the media to reflect more on the beauty of the girl inside, rather than the surface nonsense that gets in the way….”
Article initially published in Christian Feminism Today Vol. 32, No. 1, Spring (January – March) 2008. © 2008 Evangelical & Ecumenical Women’s Caucus.