In Dating Jesus, Susan Campbell, a reporter and columnist for the Hartford Courant, describes her upbringing as a member of a fundamentalist church and explores how the church’s teachings affected her as a girl, and how they resonate with her today. Her focus is on her childhood church’s view of women, but she also touches on salvation, scripture, and social justice.
Campbell’s personal story is enjoyable, often humorous, and sometimes heart-breaking. The chapter on “knocking doors” for Jesus had quite a few laugh-out-loud moments. And when Campbell describes some of the more distressing incidents, such as when she was sent out of Sunday School for questioning the church’s position that women cannot preach, she tells the tale straightforwardly, without rancor. She always seems to assume that the people in her church meant well, even if they were wrong. The main emotion that comes through is sadness for the women who’ve felt left out of full participation in the church:
The traditional patriarchal Christian message—not Jesus’ original message, but the one we hear today—has had a chilling effect on today’s church. In reaction to the boys-only club of some churches (including the church of my youth), women have thrown up their hands and gone far afield from Christianity in search of an alternative approach.
Do you blame us?
Campbell does an excellent job explaining how the message of her childhood church is not necessarily the message of Jesus. Although she doesn’t currently attend church, she considers herself a Christian still and is clearly in love with Jesus, or, as she says, “haunted” by Jesus. She recognizes that the church of her youth (part of the church of Christ) is not representative of Christianity as a whole, or even of all evangelical churches. Her childhood church is properly defined as fundamentalist, and Campbell notes that “while every fundamentalist is an evangelical, not every evangelical is a fundamentalist. An evangelical can be downright ecumenical—meaning an evangelical can be perfectly accepting of other faiths. Not so a fundamentalist.” As an evangelical myself, I appreciate the distinction Campbell makes and wish that more journalists were as religiously literate as she is.
I could find plenty of theological points in the book to quibble with. For instance, I find the all-too-common feminist rejection of the apostle Paul to be wearying and unnecessary, and Campbell says outright that she simply doesn’t like Paul. I would have preferred for her to explain a little more about how some feminist evangelicals have reinterpreted Paul, instead of dismissing him. (Christians for Biblical Equality is a great source of information on this topic.) Despite this, I found her theological discussions to be generally accurate and potentially very helpful.
The book’s organizational scheme is more thematic than chronological, with each chapter exploring a different aspect of her youth. Some chapters were more interesting than others, and her use of the present tense when describing past events created some unnecessary confusion. And we never really get to see Campbell go from being a die-hard believer who’s at church three times a week to someone who doesn’t go to church at all. Gaps like this might have been less problematic had the book been presented as a series of autobiographical essays, instead of a straightforward chronological memoir.
Overall, however, I found this book to be a balanced, honest, and even-handed account that avoids anger and accusation but still manages to enrage and inspire. It probably won’t land on my list of favorites of the year, but I could recommend it without hesitation to anyone who complains that the church oppresses women. Campbell’s story provides a helpful “yes, but…”.
Edited to add: I could ramble on about the theological ideas in this book all day long, but I know not everyone would be interested. But if you are interested, I do ramble on a bit more about feminism and Christianity in a post on this book at my brand-new experiment in theology blogging. If you’re interested, pop by and check it out.