by Letha Dawson Scanzoni
Author’s note: Shortly after Virginia Ramey Mollenkott died on September 25, 2020, Christian Feminism Today invited me to write a remembrance of her and her work. Since numerous obituaries were already being written and highlighting her most widely known books and other achievements —see, for example, Anne Linstatter’s piece for Religion Dispatches, and Penelope Green’s feature for the NY Times, as well as the memorial on this CFT website— I decided to take a different approach. I have gone back to some of Virginia’s lesser known and less often discussed earlier works while at the same time revisiting some of our discussions and correspondence from nearly half a century of friendship and coauthoring a book together. The article below is divided into four sections to make it easy for readers to decide on starting and stopping points if they choose not to read the article in one sitting.
Most people might assume that Virginia and I became acquainted initially through our mutual interest in a Christian approach to feminism, gender, and sexuality issues, but such was not the case.
I first became aware of the name, Virginia Ramey Mollenkott, in late 1967 while leafing through an evangelical Christian periodical that had arrived in the day’s mail. Displayed on one page was a small advertisement from a new publisher, Word Books, announcing a book with a strange title, Adamant and Stone Chips. What grabbed my attention was the book’s subtitle: “A Christian Humanist Approach to Knowledge.” I ordered it immediately.
Although I wasn’t sure what the author meant by such an approach to knowledge, the ad made at least one thing clear: Christian humanism included loving God with both heart and mind. I was starved for such an approach. So much of the evangelical tradition (with which both I and the book’s author identified) was associated with a kind of anti-intellectualism. Christian young people were warned about “losing their faith” through exposure to scholarly pursuits and were told to steer clear of a dangerous secularism that left God out of the picture. If Christians read books from authors who did not write from a distinctly conservative Christian point of view, they should read such works guardedly. They must constantly be on the alert, looking for what was wrong about the ideas being expressed rather than being open to learning something new and valuable, no matter the source. The advertisement said enough to show me this book was different.
When Adamant and Stone Chips arrived, I grabbed a red pencil and soon was underlining sentences like these:
“Christian humanism . . . is not interested in suggesting a substitute for biblical Christianity, but rather seeks to close an unhealthy gap between Christianity and human cultural achievement.” (p.12)
“Study of the arts, then, is study of God’s handiwork in human creation, just as study of science is study of God’s handiwork in the natural creation. The point is to worship not the artist nor the art, but the God who provides both the individual insight and the artistic ability to embody it in enduring artistic form.” (p. 17)
“. . . contemporary evangelicalism, with its widespread divorce of zeal from knowledge and its widespread fear of all things human, needs to return to a healthy balance between Christianity and humanity.” To emphasize the point, the author went on to remind readers of the incarnation: ‘the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.’” (p. 26)
“The Christian humanist takes, then, a positive approach to academics, aesthetics, and human relationships.” (p. 29)
An author I could relate to
Virginia Ramey Mollenkott was an author I could relate to! She talked about avoiding “fragmentation,” while maintaining a “unified vision” so that life isn’t separated into two parts: our lives for and with God, on the one hand, and our everyday experiences of living and learning, on the other. She said we need to realize that the more we learn about the universe, the more intelligently we’ll “be able to worship the Maker of it all.” (See pp. 14-18.)
She applied similar reasoning on moral and ethical decision making, as opposed to a strict rule-based faith. Esteemed in academic circles for her expertise on the life and work of John Milton, Dr. Mollenkott drew upon Milton’s work to say that God is not interested in holding Christians in a “perpetual childhood of prescription,” but has given us the “gift of reason” to make moral decisions. “Milton distinguishes between sheltered innocence and actual virtue” she writes. “It is one thing to be naïve and ignorant of moral options; it is quite another thing to be aware of the options and to choose to obey God” (Adamant, p. 46).
Milton was only one of a wide range of authors from different times, places, and scholarly disciplines whose wise insights Virginia shared with readers of this and her later books.
I quickly became an enthusiastic fan, admiring both her intellectual brilliance and her devotion to God—and especially the way she brought these characteristics of her life together. I determined to look for more of her writings. Never would I have dreamed that she and I would someday meet, become lifelong friends, and even write a book together!
“In Search of Balance”
Her second book came out two years after the first, and again I opened it with the same sense of anticipation with which I’d approached the first one. And again, I was not disappointed. She titled the 1969 book, In Search of Balance.
This one was different from the first, much more personal. “In the quiet interim after the hurly-burly of graduate work,” she wrote, “it was a shock to realize that I needed to find a reasonable balance in my concept of God and life and myself, something I could build on, something I could live with” (Balance, p. 15).
She told of developing a new sense of self-knowledge, which began with feelings of discontentment. She had felt dissatisfaction with how her life was going, yet felt she had no right to make changes. She confided her feelings to a friend, who told her with loving frankness, “If you don’t like your circumstances, do something about them! You are not a victim!” She had never thought of her life that way. Her concept of God had led her to adjust to whatever happened in her life as God’s will and to think of herself as only a tool in God’s hands, “a passive receiver of [her] fate” (Balance pp. 13, 14). Now she wondered: Was her particular understanding of submission to God’s will a kind of victimhood? Where did her own responsibility come into play?
She began questioning much of what she had learned in the rigid Christian fundamentalism of her childhood. She searched the Bible anew and noticed many of its contradictory teachings and applications, while at the same time finding truth in seeming opposites. She wrestled with the concept of paradox. “The Bible is a big book, a realistic book,” she wrote on page 49, “and when apparent contradictions exist it is time to notice both sides carefully and to bring them into meaningful balance with each other.” She made many of her points by drawing on examples from the literature she taught in her college courses.
She also raised questions concerning many philosophical, theological, and ethical debates taking place in the larger society at the time, such as issues raised by Joseph Fletcher’s Situation Ethics and Ayn Rand’s The Virtue of Selfishness, among others.
Always searching for balance and spiritual growth in her own life, Virginia was laying the groundwork for helping other Christians wrestle honestly and realistically with ways to integrate their faith with life’s complexities. It wasn’t enough to base personal decisions on glib all-occasion generalizations such as “just let go and let God.” Where and how does human responsibility come in? Even in relating to other people, she pointed out, it was not enough to simply follow a ready-made, one-size-fits-all formula that would apply to every situation, every human encounter, just because we had learned in Sunday school that J.O.Y. means Jesus first, Others second, and Yourself last. Life is not always so simple!
The questions kept arising. Was it wrong to ever acknowledge and accept credit for success? Did avoiding arrogance and pride, being humble and “giving God all the glory,” mean never acknowledging one’s own part in life’s accomplishments (for example, the sacrifices and hours of practice behind a concert violinist’s outstanding performances)? In a chapter on “God’s Power and My Effort,” she told of making what she termed a “modest academic achievement” and being congratulated by an atheist friend. Virginia wanted to say the right thing, just as she had been taught in her strict religious background, so she quietly mumbled that God had done it for her. The shocked friend said, “For goodness sake, Virginia, don’t stand there and deny what you have done!” Virginia wrote of the shame and embarrassment she felt as her friend walked away. “I wanted to run after her, somehow to explain that it was paradoxically possible for me to have done it while God did it through me; but I wasn’t that clear on the subject” (Balance, p. 28).
Although I couldn’t have known it at the time, In Search of Balance was foreshadowing the kinds of topics Virginia and I would share in discussions with each other over the years yet to come —by correspondence, phone, and in person when we were together at conferences or during visits to each other’s homes.
How Virginia and I Met
We met in 1973, after Dr. Vernon Grounds, then president of the Conservative Baptist Theological Seminary in Denver, Colorado, invited Virginia and me to be among a group or evangelical scholars that he hoped would be presenters at a symposium called “Evangelical Perspectives on Woman’s Role and Status.” Neither of us had met him. He knew us only by our writings and our reputations as thoughtful Christians who were not afraid to raise questions about matters that many evangelicals thought were settled. In his letter, Dr. Grounds said that he felt it was “high time for a representative company of evangelical scholars to come to grips with: What are the role and status of women from a distinctly Biblical perspective?”
At this point, the conference existed only in his mind. It had little funding available, and— if his vision for the conference materialized—would take place in just four months from the date on the letter! He put together a tentative program out of “sheer faith,” he said, listing the speakers he hoped would say yes to his invitation and the topics he would like each of us to discuss. My assigned topic was “Woman’s Role in Christian Ministry.” Virginia’s assigned topic was “The Revolt of the Second Sex: An Overview.” We would be the only female speakers. There would be a mixture of views presented by the male speakers.
When I saw Virginia’s name on this tentative program (though having no assurance she would accept— or even if Dr. Grounds’s dream conference would ever take place), I knew I had to accept the invitation. Ever since I had read her 1960s books, I had been reading as many of her articles as I could find in various Christian periodicals, and I had wondered why she hadn’t as yet written anything questioning evangelical teachings on women’s roles and their emphasis on male dominance and female subordination. She would later explain to me, again reflecting her rigid childhood experience, that she had believed she had no right to speak out on any causes that would benefit herself and assert her own rights.
That belief gradually changed, of course; and right before Dr. Grounds’s May, 1973 Denver conference, she wrote about equality for women in an incisive article for the Christian Herald, which I was overjoyed to see. Christian feminism was one of my favorite subjects. I had been publishing articles on the topic beginning in 1966 and had coauthored a book on a “biblical approach to women’s liberation” (final title, All We’re Meant to Be), which was already with a publisher at the time.
If this tentative Colorado symposium on women in biblical perspective were to materialize, it might be a chance for me not only to hear Virginia speak but even to meet her and tell her how glad I was to find out she was a sister feminist!
The “women’s movement” of the 1960s and 1970s was in full swing. Nicknamed “women’s lib,” by many people, it was mocked and viewed with contempt by most conservative Christians as well as by many people in liberal, mainline churches or even by many who considered themselves entirely secular. “Women’s place,” subordinate to that of men, was considered “just the way it was”—the way society was ordered. Businesses, educational institutions, religious bodies, and government for the most part recognized that.
But now, here was the “women’s liberation movement,” claiming it didn’t have to be that way! The status quo was being challenged. Dr. Grounds had called it “one of the most pivotal and explosive of contemporary issues” and that’s why he had courageously proposed the conference, something for which he and the seminary would later face considerable criticism.
You can read a few more details of Virginia’s and my meeting each other at that conference by scrolling through to “an important invitation” (just under the photo) in a blog post I wrote here.
Our Correspondence Begins
Since Virginia’s assigned topic for the conference, “The Revolt of the Second Sex: An Overview,” struck some attendees as somewhat combative (even though the words “the second sex” had been changed to simply “women” on the final printed program), some people were quite cold toward Virginia—actually even cruel in their remarks to her (if they talked to her at all). Concerned about her feelings, I had tried to show support during the conference and decided to write to her after we returned home as well.
In my first letter, written on a greeting card that said, “A faithful friend is a strong defense” from the apocrypha (Wisdom of Sirach 6:14), I offered my support and encouragement and told her how much I had appreciated both her formal presentations and our informal conversations between meetings. I said I found her powerful opening speech packed full of information and challenge, and that I liked the fervent conviction with which she had delivered it. “If a few misguided people mistook that for hostility,” I wrote, “it only shows that cultural stereotypes of women as passive have blunted the ability to appreciate one who is strong.” I pasted a sticker at the bottom of my letter that said, “No love, no friendship can cross the path of our destiny without leaving some mark” (Francois Mauriac). Somehow I knew this axiom would prove true in our case.
Virginia’s reply was dated two days later, thanking me for my “loving and supportive letter.” She wrote, “The conference was, for me, enormously worthwhile just because I got to know you and Nancy [Hardesty] and Paul Jewett and other wonders of God’s creation. Don’t worry about me: I’m nothing if not resilient. I will go on saying what I feel must be said whenever the opportunity arises.” She added half a page more, sealed the envelope, pasted on an 8-cent commemorative stamp honoring Copernicus (which somehow seemed appropriate!) and sent it on its way from her home in New Jersey to mine in Indiana.
This was years before email, but we had connected immediately and found we were kindred spirits, intellectually and spiritually, and we wanted to keep in touch. It was the beginning of nearly a half century of correspondence, the biggest share of it carried on through the U.S. Postal Service. Some letters were typed, others were handwritten. (Virginia especially liked to write by hand, even her books. Many years later, I typed the manuscript for the first edition of her Omnigender [198 pages, printed], which she had written in ballpoint pen on a legal pad. So I knew her penmanship well.)
Deep sharing through letter-writing
In our letters, we discussed big and small ideas, told each other about the books we were reading and recommending, talked about interpretations of Bible passages, shared insights from theology, sociology, psychology, the college literature classes Virginia was teaching, and new courses she was proposing. We kept one another abreast of the next books and articles each of us was writing, our speaking engagements around the country, and the everyday happenings of our lives. Virginia began one letter by telling me her cat had run away. We talked about current news events. And we talked about the other special people in our lives. We were both mothers of teenage sons when we met so were always interested in each other’s family news. Along with our letters, we stuffed the envelopes full of clippings and photocopies of items we wanted to share with each other. (We could not have imagined how easy it would be someday to share such items through exchanging links in emails!)
Occasionally, Virginia would enclose a photocopy of some actual pages from a book or article she had read, complete with her underlining and penned-in notes in the margins. She would apologize for the markings, but I learned a lot from seeing how she had dialogued with the text and what had struck her as she read. Sometimes her reactions were strong. “Garbage!” she wrote in the margin of one piece. “Jesus never did this! Nor did Job!” The author of the essay she was responding to had claimed that genuine forgiveness means we must convince ourselves we deserved the wrongdoing that has been done to us and would benefit from suffering in silence. Virginia called this instruction “self-hating and unbiblical.”
Both of us were grateful to have an “iron sharpens iron” kind of friendship, as the writer of Proverbs described (27:17). We were each constantly learning from the other, mentor and mentee in interchangeable roles. We sometimes sought advice, counsel and comfort from each other, bearing one another’s burdens and thus “fulfilling the law of Christ” (Gal. 6:2) This was especially true years later when Virginia’s letters and phone calls provided strong support during the anguish I felt over my unwanted and unexpected 1983 midlife divorce. Similarly, I was able to provide support for her during difficult times she faced in her own life.
Planning a visit
Having experienced such a sense of kinship over our shared interests after our Denver meeting, it’s not surprising that we began thinking about getting together again in person—perhaps visiting one another’s homes. Because I talked about her so much, my husband and sons were eager to meet her too. Likewise, she wanted to meet them. John and I invited her to spend some time with us in the summer of 1975. A weekend in August seemed to work out best for all of us.
But, unknown to me, there was another reason Virginia wanted to get together. She had something important to tell me. Looking back now, I’m surprised I hadn’t guessed, considering hints she may have been dropping from time to time about her sexual orientation, but I had not the slightest idea. Once, after I had loaned her a slim paperback book about the importance of genuine openness and authenticity as contrasted with superficiality in human relationships, a popular theme for discussion in the 1960s and 1970s, she wrote, “I really loved Why Am I Afraid to Tell You Who I Am? and am now in the process of lending it around to my friends.” Puzzled by the two single dollar bills that had fallen out of the envelope as I opened her letter,” I read her explanation. “I will enclose $2.00 for you to get yourself another copy because I am afraid you have kissed this one goodbye. That’ll teach you not to lend me such good books!” Only much later did I understand how the title must have struck her.
But when we met in Denver in 1973, I knew only that she was in the process of ending her marriage of more than seventeen years to a man she had met during her student years at Bob Jones University—a marriage she described as “hopeless” in her 1980 book, Speech, Silence, Action (See chapter 1, “Survival Time. You can listen to her further remarks about why she had married him in this short talk she gave at a Harvard University in 2014.)
Even after she came out to me, it would be some time before she felt free to come out of the closet publicly and announce to the world that she was a lesbian and then go on to devote much of the rest of her life advocating for LGBTQ rights and sharing God’s love with LGBTQ people. But in the meantime, she wanted me to know— especially if we were to begin writing together at some point. She felt it would be unfair not to be open with me, especially given the climate of the times. But she wanted to tell me in person, and that wouldn’t be possible until her visit.
During our conversations at the 1973 Denver conference, Virginia and I had talked about projects we were working on at the time and had mutually agreed to exchange copies of our forthcoming books. I told her about Nancy Hardesty’s and my book, All We’re Meant to Be: A Biblical Approach to Women’s Liberation which would be published that next year, and she was excited about receiving a copy. I also mentioned a sexuality education book Regal Books had asked me to write for Christian parents. That book, Sex Is a Parent Affair, was with the publisher at the time and would be ready for shipment soon. Virginia asked what it was about, and I explained that I had written it to help parents teach their children about sexuality in general and then how to discuss specific questions (geared to age group from preschool through high school) about anything their children asked, including difficult and controversial topics such as masturbation, abortion, and homosexuality. Virginia’s eyes brightened. “Send me that book instead,” she said.
Shortly afterward she wrote to explain that when we had talked in Denver about exchanging our books, she had chosen the sex education book instead of the feminist book because she was curious about what I thought about “certain topics.” Since the sex ed book shipment had been delayed for a few weeks and she was leaving for an overseas trip, I decided to send her my earlier sex ethics book, Sex and the Single Eye. “Your book is what I expected from you: humane, warm, center-of- the road Biblical,” she wrote in her thank-you letter in July 1973. She added, “I do wish you had dealt thoroughly with the topics of masturbation and homosexuality . . . . But what you did deal with, you dealt with superbly.”
A month later, when I was able to send her a copy of Sex Is a Parent Affair, which did address topics such as those she had mentioned, she again called my writing “human and humane.” She commented on my handling of specific topics in a letter dated September 9, 1973. “As far as homosexuality is concerned, you did the most humane job that can be done without departing from the evangelical view of Scripture,” she wrote. She said she was grateful that I had “backed away from passing judgment on homosexual marriages—i.e., on people who try their best to be mature and honorable and faithful within the limitation of their sexual orientation.” She said my treatment of the topic showed good judgment because any other approach could cause such despair that a gay person might decide, “What the hell, since there’s no way for me to be what I am in an honorable way, I’ll just go wild and be as promiscuous as possible.”
As I said, I did not think that Virginia’s interest in homosexuality was personal or had any special significance. The topic in general was increasingly being discussed in several countries, including the United States, especially as various homosexual rights organizations and movements were becoming more visible and outspoken. Questions were being asked and debated as part of a national conversation. Was homosexuality to be considered a criminal offense as many state laws made it out to be? Was it in the category of “mental illness,” as psychologists and psychiatrists defined it? Or “deviance” as sociologists referred to it, that is, looked upon as a violation of societal norms? Or sin, as scholars in various religions spoke of it? Like so many other topics in the news, it was a subject Christians needed to discuss.
Virginia from time to time suggested that I write a book on the topic, but I disagreed. At most, I said I might someday write a few articles on the subject as part of my overall writing on human sexuality and ethics. I knew I had access to research materials that could assure my being scientifically accurate and up to date. And I could write with caring and compassion about gay people— and, in fact, was already doing so in a sociology college textbook on marriage and family that a major publisher had invited my husband and me to write. But such a book for college courses was, understandably, objective and not in any way religious.
I realized Virginia was envisioning something else, however. Yet I was not yet ready to take a public stand on the topic in the light of my Christian faith and traditional church teachings that considered homosexual behavior displeasing to God. At the same time, I knew that love between persons of the same sex was certainly possible without its necessarily being romantic or sexual, and I had already written an article for Christianity Today about deep friendship (“On Friendship and Homosexuality,” September 27, 1974).
A few months before her visit, Virginia sent me an article on homosexuality from Cross Currents. “Please put it in your file for that forthcoming book,” she wrote on May 17, 1975. “I want to discuss that book in depth with you, even the possibility of a collaboration if we could come to enough agreement about our attitudes (and, more importantly, biblical attitudes).”
In my reply to that letter, I reiterated what I thought I had made clear earlier, namely, that when I had sometimes talked about needing to do more study on the topic, I meant only as part of my general interest in Christian sex ethics, not for a book. Yet, I said, her urging me to write such a book was confirming my thinking that God might be leading me to do more research on the topic.
At the same time, I said I was especially excited about the two of us writing something together! I had been thinking about the idea of collaboration, too, but not for a book on a single topic. “Maybe we could coauthor a book on a number of tricky ethical issues from a Christian humanist standpoint,” I wrote, naming a few besides homosexuality, such as abortion, divorce, definitions of pornography and censorship—subjects that were posing new kinds of questions. “Sometimes we might not come up with clear-cut answers, but we could raise new questions and try to help the readers look for biblical guidance for themselves.” She wrote back saying she thought the idea of such a book was not only viable but would be for her “a very fine experience.” She began naming more possible subjects to cover. We would talk about it further when she came to visit that August. (In the end, our plans for an ethics book comprised about twenty-five topics arranged under seven different categories. Virginia wrote an introduction and two sample chapters before our ethical issues project was abandoned. But she was able to publish some of the material elsewhere.)
Virginia’s August 1975 visit to my home
In the new preface to the updated and expanded edition of our book, Is the Homosexual My Neighbor? (1994), we have told the story of Virginia’s first visit to my home. It was during that visit that she informed me of her sexual orientation. We were out walking on a sunny summer afternoon, eating ice cream cones and talking about Christianity and feminism. Suddenly, Virginia blurted out that she wanted me to know she identified as lesbian.
I wasn’t at all prepared for such a revelation; and, as I recall, simply stopped on the sidewalk and said in a quiet voice, “Oh?”
Virginia later told me she remembered the color totally draining from my face. It resulted from neither a judgment of her nor a rejection of her, but an involuntary physical response out of shock. The news of her sexual orientation had been so unexpected; and at that moment, I also knew that the topic could no longer be abstract but had become “up close and personal.” I wasn’t ready for this.
Before then, I had not knowingly ever met a person who identified as lesbian or gay so had been able to treat the topic of homosexuality in the abstract. (Unknown to me, I would soon meet many more LGBTQ people, although that initialism was not yet being used.) In December of that year, four months after Virginia’s visit, a city ordinance prohibiting discrimination against gay men and lesbians was passed in Bloomington, Indiana, where I lived at the time. A religious controversy broke out among conservative and liberal clergy and their churches, as well as among many townspeople, and I decided to interview people on both sides. In this way, I got to know many members of the gay community and wrote about it for The Christian Century [“Conservative Christians and Gay Civil Rights,” Oct. 13, 1976].)
No longer would I be able to avoid taking a stand. But as a Christian writer and speaker, was I ready to pay the cost of harsh criticism, rejection by other Christians, and being disinvited from speaking engagements? Would both Virginia’s and my ministries be damaged? What would happen when Virginia felt it was time for her to come out publicly to more than a few close friends?)
After we walked back to my house on the day Virginia revealed her orientation, I showed her several items that indicated I might be closer to rethinking the topic than she thought. The page proofs for John’s and my coauthored college textbook had just arrived from the publisher, so I let her read the section on “Gay Marriage” (in Men, Women, and Change: A Sociology of Marriage and Family, McGraw-Hill, First edition, 1976). I also showed her a brief news item in Christianity Today describing some rethinking on the topic among a few Christian psychologists.
I think Virginia might have been becoming aware that my position on the topic might not be so far away from hers as she —or even I— had realized!
Before she left to fly back to New Jersey, she told me I reminded her of Huckleberry Finn, “freckles and all.” She talked about Huck’s moral struggles over whether to return Jim, a runaway slave who, according to what Huck had learned in Sunday school, was considered property; and it would be stealing and sinful in God’s sight not to return him to the woman who had purchased him. But now, as Huck pondered turning Jim in, he realized this enslaved person had become his friend, not someone’s “property.” It was no longer a simple clear-cut decision of right versus wrong based on a certain interpretation of a handful of Bible verses.
Learning from each other
Although never for a moment was there any thought about dissolving our friendship, we realized our respective reactions meant we had a lot to learn from each other. For Virginia, my shock, visibly evident as the color drained from my face, reminded her again of society’s rejection of gay and lesbian people—something she had felt all her life. It was not just society in general, she pointed out, but attitudes of those in one’s closest circles. “We don’t feel accepted by our immediate family or our family of faith,” she told me.
Some of Virginia’s correspondence after she had returned home from visiting me reveal how she felt when she saw the color drain from my face upon learning she was gay. When I first heard about her honest feelings, I felt criticized and hurt. I thought I was being judged for a physical response that I had had no control over, and I reacted defensively and tried to explain.
“No matter why you went pale,” Virginia told me over several letter exchanges, “to me it is awful to be the sort of person who has to deliver such psychic blows to another Christian in the process of being honest about who I am. I was talking about my identity, my wish that I could be acceptable without trauma to others. I was not accusing you of being condemning.” She went on: “I was trying to express my inner agony at being a person who is not acceptable until after a person I admire has gone through all kinds of painful changes in order to be able to accept me without deserting their moral standards. (You accepted me all along; but at first you were ‘accepting the unacceptable’ out of a gracious instinct; only after much struggle did full acceptance become possible.) I was saying that I wish I had been CREATED ACCEPTABLE. It isn’t your fault I was not. I am crying now so I guess I’d better change the subject.”
Both of us were crying at points as we bared our hearts in those letters, and long excerpts from this correspondence (such as the paragraph above) are included in the preface to the 1994 paperback edition of Is the Homosexual My Neighbor? A Positive Christian Response, where we tell more of our backstory. In contrast, the preface to the first (1978) edition did not include anything personal except how we had met.
We have a book!
When Virginia returned to her home after her first visit to mine, we were still planning the ethics book and had divided up who would write about the various subjects. Virginia had suggested that I write the section on homosexuality. She moved ahead on several of her topics much more quickly than I, whereas my section on homosexuality kept growing ever longer and taking more time to finish because of some of my other projects and deadlines. She kept wondering and asking when I’d get it finished and, at that point, she was not at all even sure of what approach I was taking. (I am so grateful for the tremendous amount of trust she had in me, as her patience indicates.) When I finally sent my manuscript to her, she was elated. She phoned me immediately to say she loved what I had written and was enthused about the chapter’s basic approach and organization. With great excitement, she exclaimed, “Letha, you don’t have a chapter here; we have a book!”
From her background in literature and history she had much to add to all I had written, as well as providing further biblical, theological, and practical insights to blend in with mine, along with my sociological and psychological research.
And we found that our respective struggles about rethinking the topic of homosexuality, coming from our different points of view, meant we had learned different lessons which turned out to be an asset in putting the book together. Now I had learned to walk in Virginia’s shoes and see through her eyes the intense pain felt by God’s LGBTQ children because of church and societal attitudes. And Virginia, for her part, learned from my moral struggles the agonizing cost of leaving the relative comfort and safety of scholarly objectivity to take up the then very unpopular cause of advocacy for LGBTQ personhood.
Always more to learn, and working things out—a case in point
Sometimes we would slip into old ways of thinking and forget what we had learned together. Virginia would give in to her old feelings of “not feeling acceptable” in the church and society and wishing she could be other than she was. Given the historical period in which we were writing, that was not unusual, as costly and painful as it was. And for my part, I would have times of being afraid of how other evangelical Christians would judge me and how both Virginia’s and my ministries would be impacted. Sometimes we inadvertently hurt each other by blurting out our fears, forgetting or ignoring each other’s personal sensitivities.
I remember one such incident because it illustrates so well how we learned to work through—and talk through— such times.
I had flown out to Virginia’s home for a few days the next summer so that we could work together on finalizing the homosexuality manuscript. She wanted to introduce me to some of her friends, so we arranged to meet for lunch.
Shortly before leaving for the restaurant, as Virginia and I were talking more about our book, I shared my honest feelings of being scared sometimes, especially worrying about future reactions when she would be ready to come out of the closet publicly. Virginia, for her part, thought we had worked through all this in our letters and discussions so was profoundly surprised and hurt. It triggered her old feelings of not being acceptable. She clammed up immediately—this was not at all like her— walked out of the room, hardly met my eyes, and we drove to the restaurant in an awkward silence. I felt terrible; nothing like this had ever happened between us, and I didn’t know what to do or say. We tried to act normal during the group luncheon, but it was hard. I became ill with an upset stomach out of nervousness over the tension I felt between us, leading Virginia to become concerned about my well-being. So we finally talked about it on the ride back to her house.
I explained that, by no means, did I ever consider backing out of our project, but I also already knew from past experience how it felt to take an unpopular stand on a controversial subject. I remembered well the public criticism, loss of friends, charges of heresy, and requests to stop printings of All We’re Meant to Be, that Nancy Hardesty and I had gone through just a few years earlier after we spoke out for feminism and gender equality. In comparing hot button issues, homosexuality was even more controversial than feminism at that time, And one of the tools used by those Christians who opposed equality for women was to accuse feminists of sliding down a slippery slope into what they called “man-hating lesbianism.”
I told Virginia that in those rare times that I worried about how other Christians would receive our book (even though I knew I was totally committed to the project and had told Virginia I’d stand by her—no matter what), I’d have little conversations with God. “Why couldn’t you call someone else to carry out Your work this time, God?” I’d say, telling God I felt like Moses must have felt when he suggested his brother would be a better spokesperson than he could be.
Virginia’s face brightened at my reference to the story about Moses from Exodus. “Have you heard Ken Medema’s song about that story?” she asked, as we walked up the steps to her house. Once inside, she quickly placed an LP on the phonograph so I could listen to Medema’s humorous recording about Moses as a reluctant prophet. It was exactly what we needed to hear and discuss together.
After dinner that evening, Virginia suggested we go outside and continue our earlier conversation. We sat on some benches in a set-apart area of her yard she called “Meditation Point,” overlooking a lake. I remember how real God’s presence with us felt as the sun was setting, and we shared our hearts and fears and awareness of God’s calling.
Virginia told me that the problem we’d had earlier that day had reminded her of a poem by William Blake, whereupon she recited the first part of it on the spot:
I was angry with my friend;
I told my wrath, my wrath did end.
I was angry with my foe:
I told it not , my wrath did grow
—From “A Poison Tree,” 1794
I remember feeling so thrilled to have such an intellectual friend whose memory could always pull up just the right quote at the right time. And once again I felt the same awe and admiration I had felt when I first began reading her books years before.
I realized our talks that day, hard as they were at the time, had given me a new courage and confidence. I was staying in her son Paul’s room, which was now serving as the guest room. That night, I noticed an old manual typewriter in the corner and slipped some paper into it. I began typing the preface for our book about homosexuality and neighbor love. The thoughts began flowing quickly:
“The question in the title of this book shouldn’t be necessary,” I began: “After all, Jesus made it clear that every person is our neighbor. And the Bible is likewise clear on what our responsibility is to our neighbor. Love.
Yet it seems that all through history, some group or another has been singled out as unworthy to be our neighbor.“
It continued in that vein.
The next morning, as I walked into the kitchen, Virginia said, “I heard you really pounding on the typewriter last night.” She said she knew something was going on. I quietly handed her the two or three sheets of paper I had written, then waited for her response.
“Don’t you think that might be a bit too strong?” she said finally, voicing some worries about how our audience might react.
And then we both started to laugh. We had to acknowledge we were both sometimes afraid of how our book would be received. And, going forward, we would find that whenever either one of us was anxious or fearful, the other would be strong and supportive. That awareness was always reassuring. And it was always there.
Never enough time
We often exchanged advice and sometimes talked about feeling “mothered” by the other in the most positive sense of the word (even though we were only four years apart in age). We remarked about how comforting it was that someone understood and cared about the intense time pressures we felt as we were increasingly being asked to speak at colleges, seminaries, and conferences throughout the United States.
A few months after Virginia’s 1975 visit to my home, we were together again as speakers for the first large conference of the newly forming Evangelical Women’s Caucus (EWC, now officially titled the Evangelical & Ecumenical Women’s Caucus and more recently known as Christian Feminism Today). After hearing her speech at that Washington, DC conference a publisher invited Virginia to write a book on Christianity and gender equality, which she titled Women, Men, and the Bible (1977, rev. 1988). The days kept getting busier for both of us. It seemed one or the other of us was continually either planning a new book or actually writing it, while all the while continuing to work on our projected ethics book together and carrying on all our other life responsibilities at the same time. We were also becoming increasingly involved in the EWC organization. And Virginia still had a full load of courses to teach at William Paterson College of New Jersey (now called William Paterson University), as well as serving as chair of her department during some of the years of our correspondence. I had contracts to do more editions of the sociology textbook I had coauthored, as well.
In one letter, Virginia wrote about the loss of her research time, usually built into her semester schedule, but now adjusted for the next semester by her university’s administration because of budget considerations. She would henceforth have an even heavier course load. In another letter during the time of gasoline rationing in the 1970s, she wrote about sitting for two hours in a line of cars, having gotten up at 5:45 a.m. to get to a gas station opening at 6:30 and arriving to find a line already stretched for three-fourths of a mile. Everything in our lives seemed designed to eat up our time.
In fact, in looking through our letters to each other, I found the word “time” coming up again and again. There was just never enough of it. In addition to flying around the country fulfilling speaking engagements and writing our articles and books, we would respond to people who had read our writings and attended our speeches and then would contact us for counsel. We were always glad to offer it. But we each had a tendency to take on other people’s concerns and problems to the point of exhaustion. We frequently needed to tell each other to slow down. In one letter, she told me of spending two whole days catching up on correspondence, all the while deeply yearning to get back to her manuscripts.
Again and again, we tried to help each other with tips about self-care. Virginia’s favorite word, (and the goal she aspired to at such busy and pressured times) was centeredness. She considered it crucial in all aspects of life, including in friendships. In one of her letters to me, after I had apologized for responding late and having written in a rushed tone, she wrote: “I fully understand your being rushed and prefer that you should take time out for your own preferred methods of ‘being quiet’ or ‘centered.’” She continued: “When you are centered and I am centered, we are one and together with each other.”
We each had a strong work ethic and often felt guilt over “wasting time” whenever we felt we were not using it productively. Virginia remembered having developed a compulsive sense of duty during her childhood and was given the impression she must always avoid “wasting time”— even when she was sick.
In 1979, the year after Is the Homosexual My Neighbor? was published, our days were becoming especially busy as speaking and writing opportunities increased even more than before. “Life is good, but full,” Virginia wrote to me that October. “I try to keep centered, and it does take plenty of time. (Merton argues that one of the things that makes contemplative prayer so valuable is that you can’t do anything else while you’re doing it; you have to ‘waste time’ with God!!!).”
The punctuation in that sentence was Virginia’s, in her own handwriting. It indicates how strongly she felt about her spiritual life and growth.
In one of her letters written earlier that year, she had told me about a dream she had had. (We both tended to remember our dreams and often shared them.) She dreamed she was in a long series of conference meetings while holding a baby who looked much like pictures she had seen of herself as a baby. After an immense amount of time, the baby started to cry, and Virginia said she rather impatiently asked her why she was crying. The infant replied, “After all these meetings, I feel like an abstract.”
Virginia’s letter continued, “I interpreted the dream as two-pronged: (a) the baby within me needs more time to play (b) my mind needs more time to read and reflect, since an abstract is devoid of all the evidence and gives only the barest conclusions, Looks like I’d better cut back on speaking, huh!”
She would later talk more about that dream in her 1980 book, Speech, Silence, Action, where she explains that at the time of the dream, she was close to burnout. “I was working too hard and needed to make time for some fun” (pp. 38-39). She goes on to say the dream she was describing has lessons for all of us.
I had agreed with her interpretation in the May 12, 1979 letter she had sent me about the dream. And I had responded, urging her to cut back. She wrote back a week later, saying, “As a result of your letter with the first-rate quotation from Morton Kelsey and the maternal directives about slowing down, I have refused . . . .” [and here she listed six or seven speaking engagements she had either refused outright or had shortened the number of days she had agreed to be available over the rest of that year and the next year. She added: “Of course your letter was reinforcing what my still small voices were telling me. I don’t mean to shift responsibility on you; I take full responsibility for my own decisions.”
In that same letter, she told me that she was glad for the relief I felt at missing the deadline on a new textbook edition deadline and had worked it out with the publisher. She felt the relief on my behalf, too. I’m sure if she were still with us today, she would continue to pass on the advice we constantly shared with each other about balance and stewardship of time. Neither of us ever wanted to disappoint other people, and thus we found it hard to say no to any opportunity to serve. We cared so much about so many social justice needs in this world—and the full implications of loving God and our neighbor as ourselves—that we had to help one another learn what it means to love and take care of ourselves as a necessary requirement for loving our neighbor.
This concern about each other’s time pressures and the mutual admonishment to practice self-care are aspects of our friendship for which I’ll be forever grateful.
Time is all too short
But, of course, the problem with time is that it’s limited. It runs out. Occasionally, Virginia and I talked about death. But not often, at least in any abstract, philosophical way. It was just a part of life that we accepted in the light of our Christian faith. The last time we talked about death, as I recall, was when I told her about a comforting dream I had after her beloved spouse, Suzannah, died in 2018. Virginia appreciated my sharing the dream and spoke of eagerly looking forward to their being together again.
But I do remember something she wrote in response to a letter I had written to her on my fortieth birthday in October 1975. Ever the English teacher, Virginia alluded to the poetry of T.S. Eliot in a twist on one of his most famous lines. Virginia wrote:
“So: you are now forty. I have found my forties to be absolutely the best years yet. And I think the same will be true for you. Today when I looked at some oak trees aflame in their autumn colors, I thought, ‘I hope I go out like that when my time comes to die—in a burst of color, full of excitement—not with a whimper, but with a bang full of life even in death.’ Ever year so far is fuller and richer than the last, so maybe my wish will come true.”
Now she is gone from us, and I am convinced her wish has come true. The burst of color, the excitement, the “bang”—they continue to be seen in the countless lives that have not only been touched, but transformed, even saved— all because of the myriad of ways that Virginia shared God’s love. And I have no doubt that she is already finding out that every year will continue “to be fuller and richer than the last” throughout eternity.
© 2021 by Letha Dawson Scanzoni
© 2021 by Christian Feminism Today
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