Monday Book Talk: “Dating Jesus,” by Susan Campbell

I received this book for review through LibraryThing’s Early Reviewers Program.

Dating Jesus: A Story of Fundamentalism, Feminism, and the American Girl by Susan Campbell
Dating Jesus: A Story of Fundamentalism, Feminism, and the American Girl
Susan Campbell
Beacon Press, 2009 (hardcover) (ISBN 0807010669 / 9780807010662)
Memoir, 215 pages

First sentence: “The devil is in an air bubble floating beneath my baptismal robe.”

Random clip (page 149): “Though Roman Catholic, Flannery O’Connor was Christ-haunted. No matter how far she traveled or what she wrote, Christ was floating right by her, about a foot behind, whispering in her ear.”

Book description: By the age of twelve, Susan Campbell had been flirting with Jesus for some time, and in her mind, Jesus had been flirting back. Why wouldn’t he? She went to his house three times a week, sat in his living room, listened to his stories, loudly and lustily sang songs to him. So, one Sunday morning, she walked to the front of her fundamentalist Christian church to profess her love for Jesus and to be baptized.
Susan Campbell takes us into the world of fundamentalism β€” 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.

Comments: Despite the fact I haven’t been a regular churchgoer for several years – or maybe because of it – I still find religion a fascinating subject. I’m interested in both academic-style discussion of religious topics and personal accounts of experience with organized religion, especially struggles with it. I’m pretty sure that ten years of living in the Bible Belt contribute to a particular curiosity about fundamentalist beliefs and practices, and my own issues as a woman living within Catholicism draw me toward other women’s stories of their own religious issues. Susan Campbell’s Dating Jesus brings two of those lines of interest together.

Campbell is a journalist with the Hartford Courant, and her book, subtitled A Memoir of Fundamentalism, Feminism, and the American Girl, is a little different than I expected – lighter on the memoir, and heavier on history and analysis connecting fundamentalist teachings about women’s roles and the feminist movement in the 19th and 20th centuries. Campbell’s approach is thematic rather than strictly chronological, and she usually places the events she shares from her personal history into a larger context. Regardless of the emphasis, however, it was a pretty quick read, and accessible and thought-provoking throughout. (Well, thought-provoking for me, anyway, but I’ve already said this is an area I think about quite a bit.)

Campbell’s family became members of a fundamentalist church in Missouri when her mother married her stepfather, and young Susan initially embraced it wholeheartedly, Bible reading, outreach ministry, and all. However, as she grew into her teens and young adulthood in the 1970’s under the influence of second-wave feminism, she began to question the restrictive roles that her church demanded of women – but she came from a background that didn’t encourage questioning. Certainty, rooted in the belief in the literal truth of the Bible, is one of the hallmarks of fundamentalist thought. On that note, I found the distinctions Campbell makes between fundamentalism and evangelical Christianity enlightening; not coming from either tradition, I’ve tended to lump them together.

Campbell spent several years as an adult studying at the Hartford Seminary in Connecticut, and calls herself a “seeker” these days. She is without a “church home” now, and seems to have mixed feelings about that. She has re-framed some of her understanding about Christianity and women though direct reference to verses about Jesus’ interactions with women in the Gospels themselves, which seem to be much more woman-friendly than a lot of “official” Christian teaching, and seems to see some hope in a renewed emphasis on “social ministry” by some congregations.

I think I had expected the balance between personal and political in this book to be different, but I still found it a worthwhile read. I’m also a regular reader of Campbell’s Dating Jesus blog, which she updates frequently with links and commentary about both topics touched on in the book and less related posts. (And she does update frequently, sometimes with very short posts – someone needs a Twitter presence, methinks!)

Rating: 3.75/5

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  1. I also have somewhat of a fascination with religion and while I would not have normally picked up this book, I am very interested in reading it because of your great review. Thank you!

  2. Your first paragraph of your comment section sums up my interest in religion well. I too find it fascinating on so many levels.

    I’ve read a few of the posts on the Dating Jesus blog thanks to you. πŸ™‚ This book does sound interesting, especially from a woman’s perspective. I will have to add this one to my wish list.

    Thanks for a wonderful review, Florinda.

  3. Molly – This one grabbed my attention as soon as I saw it offered on LibraryThing’s Early Reviewers list – I’m glad the review has piqued your interest!

    Diane – It IS a good title (and she does explain what it means).

    Wendy (Literary Feline) – I have included links to Susan’s blog posts in a few Saturday Reviews (she provides a lot of material :-)). I hope you do get around to reading this one – I’d be interested in your take on it!

  4. Kathy (Bermudaonion) – She actually distinguishes them fairly well. Basically, not all evangelicals are fundamentalists, and not all fundamentalists come from evangelical denominations – of course, she details it much more, but apparently the terms are not interchangeable.