Wednesday, July 22, 2009

by Susan Campbell

excerpted from Dating Jesus: A Story of Fundamentalism, Feminism and the American Girl, Boston: Beacon Press, 2009.

Still, after all these years, it takes one phone call from a Congregational minister--a man who seems nice enough on the phone--to unhinge me over the prospect of stepping into a pulpit. Certainly, I tell him, a religion as large and diverse as Congregationalism can do better for a Sunday-morning speaker. Surely there is someone better qualified to address the topic of the day, whatever that is. But the minister is gently insistent. He has been reading my stuff for years, he says. He thinks I have something to say from the pulpit. I hang up after telling him I will think about it, although I have no intention of doing any such thing.

I go home to talk to my husband about it, but he's no help...A pulpit is just like a lectern, only bigger. What's the big deal?

And I find I can't explain it to him. There is a vast divide between a lectern and a pulpit. The symbolism of one--authority based on one's own autonomy--in no way compares to the symbolism of the other--authority as granted to the speaker by God.

OK. I know I sound like a nut, trying to explain that because the way was barred for me so long ago, I told myself I didn't want to be in a pulpit anyway. And now an opportunity presents itself for me to climb into the pulpit, and I didn't even work for it, and certainly I didn't ask for it. Like with my earlier vow of virginity, I have, on some level, promised myself I will never want this (preaching or sex)...

I am thinking about this far too much, and what if it turns out that I do want to be in a pulpit? The upheaval in my life will be immeasurable. I will have to quit my job, go back to the seminary--only this time with a real and defined purpose. I will have to become holy. I will have to give up cursing and talking bad about people.

Over the next few days, I find myself picking at a scab I didn't even know I had.

But you've never expressed any interest in being a minister before, my husband reminds me. You went through six years of part-time studies at the seminary and never once heard that still, small voice.

I have a dream that night that lightning splits the roof of that old Congregational church and strikes the good people as I talk. I am hardwired to understand that I don't belong in the pulpit. As big a feminist as I am, I have on some level embraced the limitations set before me. And I fear bucking them. And that makes me both sad and angry.

...As far as I'm concerned, I resolve nothing, but the next time the minister e-mails me, I say yes. I don't know why. The answer falls out, unbidden. I think I am tired of being a chicken. I think it is best that I just go ahead and do this and get it out of my system, whatever the outcome, however big the lightning strike and great the number of casualties.

...I can hear my heart pounding in my head and I honestly think I might faint. I don't have this reaction, as a rule, to public speaking. In general, give me a microphone and I am very happy, but here I am, standing before God and all the members of the Congregational church, preparing to fall face-forward onto the nice carpet.

And then I am sitting at the front in one of those chairs that looks like a throne facing the congregation, waiting for my turn to start. By now I've sweated through my pants as well as my jacket. I have written a speech, I remind myself. Or, at least, I have a lot of good leads on one. I sit berating myself that I didn't type out precisely every word I wanted to say, that I honestly thought the Holy Spirit would be interested in the likes of me. Why after all these years would the Holy Spirit make an appearance? I no longer trust myself to wing it but I have left myself no other option. Ha, ha. Silly me. If I had a script--and I desperately want one right about now--I wouldn't trust myself to stay on it. This is going to end badly, I think, and then I run through the scenarios that would be most displeasing, starting with me running off, unable to go on, and progressing to my being overcome with some kind of syndrome that makes me say curse words in public--Tourette's, is it? I wonder what I'll do if someone heckles me. I do not worry about having a comeback. I worry about having a comeback that is clean enough for church people...

This is church, I remind myself. Hecklers rarely visit church.

...The service is going on around me and I need to pay attention--I am trying, I promise--but the voices in my head are getting increasingly loud. This is going to end badly. This is going to end badly--

...And then a quartet quietly stands--all men--and the kind-faced bass singer smiles at me and they sing, for my benefit, "I'll Fly Away." The ministers had asked me earlier if I had a favorite song, and I believe I thought of that one because I like the theme of escape--which I very much want now to do.

The others in the church don't know the words and they're scrambling to find it in their songbooks, but it isn't in there, I bet, because their songbooks look pretty new...A few of the older people are singing along as best as they can on the chorus, but I know every verse, and I am adding my faulty alto to the mix. I am calling up the words of a song I literally have not sung in two decades, and I am remembering every word.

And suddenly, right there in front of the whole church, my heart opens up and I am crying. I am flat-dab crying and I realize with horror that this is something I didn't think to include in my ending-badly list, sobbing in front of the whole congregation before I even get started...

It wasn't an act of God--at least, not like one I'd have expected after all my cogitating. It was just a phone call. So the journey wasn't that difficult, anyway. And what, I think, nearly hiccupping, if this is my still, small voice? I'd been like Elijah, up on the mountaintop looking for God in the wind, the earthquake, the fire. And God just picked up the phone? I fashion a quick prayer: Oh God, let me stop crying and let it be soon...Just let me get a grip here...

...the quartet ends, the man singing bass looks at me with another smile, and I take a deep breath and stand up. This is my cue. This is my chance to say all those things that have weighed on me since that long-ago Sunday school class when I asked, in the vernacular,

"Why cain't a woman be a preacher?"


JTB said...

Campbell states in the book that she grew up at the Fourth and Forest church of Christ, in southwest MO (pages 3, 10).

She is now a reporter and columnist for the Hartford Courant.

You can find more info about Susan Campbell and Dating Jesus at:

Mike said...

Thanks for this posting. Yes, Susan grew up just down the road from me. (Joplin and Neosho are just 18 miles apart.) I knew her brother well from Green Valley Bible Camp.

A bit more here:

JTB said...

Mike, thanks so much for posting that link! I may move it to the post itself so others won't miss it. No idea you actually knew Susan!!! (Clearly I am a delinquent blog reader these days. Delinquency proportional to dissertation progress.)

my commentary on the discussion thread (since it ended months ago, I post here rather than your blog):

It's interesting to scan through the comments and see the reactions: some recognition, some defensiveness. Some insistence that because there are lots of women in the CofC who don't claim Campbell's narrative or some version of it as their own that there's really no interesting choice about whose experiences will be allowed to be relevant. Those experiences that conform to (male) expectations are valid, those that question aren't. And I can't help but note, too, that those narratives of joyful conformity are being voiced a man. Perhaps his wife really doesn't feel oppressed. But apparently she can only say so through her husband.

(Snarky? Yeah, just a bit.

I'd go so far as to say downright rude.

If that will provoke some of these missing voices to start speaking up themselves, then good.

That's the point.)

Carolyn said...

I've been meaning to read this book ever since I read about it on Mike's blog. Thanks for posting the excerpt here.

Katie said...

I read Dating Jesus and closed the book with a heavy sigh. So many details of her experience rang true to me, but the overall tone was not something I could share. I might call the missing ingredient "tenderness" -- a gentle, grieving love for what has been lost, for what could have been. Not everybody has to have it; not everybody has to experience their loss the same way. But I hope people reading Dating Jesus will not assume that everyone who has left has the same bitter taste in their mouth. It's more like bittersweet, for me, I guess.
peace -- Katie H.