Beacon Press: Dating Jesus
Login Cart

Dating Jesus

A Story of Fundamentalism, Feminism, and the American Girl

Author: Susan Campbell

Growing up fundamentalist and female and maturing into a feminist

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 be baptized. But from the moment her robe floated to the surface of the baptistry water, she began to question her fundamentalist faith. If baptism requires complete immersion underwater, what does it mean, if a piece of fabric attached to a would-be Christian floats to the top? Does the baptism still count?

In Dating Jesus,, Campbell takes us into the world of fundamentalism-a world where details really, really matter-while wrestling with questions that would thwart any young woman intent on adhering to a literalist religion. If dancing isn’t permitted, what do you do when you’re voted part of the homecoming court? If instrumental music is prohibited inside the church, can a piano be played during your wedding? For a while, Campbell diligently plays by the gender-restrictive rules. She knocks on doors for Jesus rather than preach from the pulpit; diligently guards her chastity, refusing even to date; and memorizes long fragments from the Bible. But her questions continue to surface, and when dogmatic answers from her Bible teachers, family, and congregational fellows confirm that women will never be allowed a seat at the throne, her faith begins to erode.

After Campbell flees her church, she remains thirsty for an unwavering and compassionate faith she knows is out there, somewhere. To find it, she returns to the historical roots of religious movements, studies the works of early feminist thinkers and contemporary theologians, and rereads the Bible with the same fervor of her youth. Dating Jesus is a lovingly told tale of how one born-and-bred fundamentalist matured into a feminist while holding onto her sanity and sense of humor.
Bookmark and Share
“In her youth, Susan Campbell was the class virgin, the sophomore homecoming princess, and the perennial smarty-pants winner of her fundamentalist church’s Bible Bowl. But she was also a scrappy little outfielder and a self-described Missouri hillbilly whose budding feminism led her to question why girls and women should be content with second-class spiritual citizenship. That isometric push of irresistible force against immovable object followed Campbell into adulthood and is both the engine and the energy that drives her remarkable memoir, Dating Jesus. Simultaneously wisecracking and scholarly, both heartfelt and hilarious, Campbell’s story gives testament to a ‘Christ-haunted’ life that rejects the chauvinistic dictates of religious dogma and insists on fairness and equal footing for all. Amen to that. I loved this book!”
—Wally Lamb, author of The Hour I First Believed

“Engaging . . . seductively simple . . . intellectually honest . . . totally informed . . . affectionate and respectful . . . this confession of faith is all these things, and more too. I loved reading it, and I continue to enjoy savoring it.” —Phyllis Tickle, author of The Divine Hours

“While it may be true that Jesus loves all of us, Susan Campbell is clearly His favorite. Her writing cuts to the quick and slices to the bone, thereby cleaning and healing old wounds for every woman who’s struggled to find acceptance within, and without, conventional religion. Driven by anger and longing, but sustained by grace and joy, she offers the gift of her own journey to faith without sentimentality and with unmatched honesty and wit. An essential book.” —Regina Barreca, author of Babes in Boyland

Dating Jesus resists easy answers—or glib categorization. Susan Campbell is too bright—and funny—for that. From fundamentalist Christianity to why baseball trumps softball, from an exploration of Title IX to footnotes steeped in scripture (and the occasional 1970s TV reference), this book entertains, educates, and surprises.” —Lindsey Crittenden, author of The Water Will Hold You: A Skeptic Learns to Pray

“Throughout this captivating memoir, I felt the presence of the spirit of Jesus merging with the feisty spirit of a fundamentally faith-full follower, guiding her through and beyond religious rigidity with liberating grace.” —Miriam Therese Winter, professor of spirituality and feminist studies, Hartford Seminary in Connecticut


Review: PopMatters - March 30, 2009
“The title Dating Jesus evokes a strong feeling inside of me. This could be because it seems so absurd or even a bit sacrilegious. But in a way, it is what every Christian should want to do. They should want to walk beside him, follow in his footsteps, be part of his family.”
Review: Houston Chronicle - March 26, 2009
Dating Jesus is a mesmerizing, funny, impressionistic memoir of a spiritual and thoughtful person, one who has spent her life wrestling with religion, the meaning of faith and her feelings for the Divine.”
Review: BuzzFlash - March 17, 2009
"Few struggles rage with greater intensity than when a person grapples with doubts about deeply ingrained religious beliefs. Wed that to a young woman's need to define her own female identity, in a time when 'Ozzie and Harriet' ran smack into Gloria Steinem, and you get the drama that underlies Dating Jesus."
Review: St. Louis Post-Dispatch - March 1, 2009
Dating Jesus reads better than a review makes it sound. Campbell has both a sense of humor and a knack for religious research. She sketches out in easy-to-understand prose the similarities and differences of fundamentalists, evangelicals and Pentecostals. She introduces readers to the likes of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, William Jennings Bryan and John C. Danforth. And she weaves their stories in with her own.”
Review by: Taylor Chaplin Orci, BUST - February 1, 2009
"Campbell’s wry wit and ability to break down Scripture crown her the Sarah Vowell of feminist theology. A must read for anyone who’s wrestled with coming to terms with women’s social roles in her own faith."
Review: Christian Feminism Today - February 1, 2009
"Mischievous and fun-loving . . . Campbell's style romps happily from formal where needed to down-home whenever possible . . . Dating Jesus provides the reader with a short history of 19th and 20th century and contemporary feminism, and even ancient woman-positive moments, interspersing all of that with stories of how this American girl discovered that femininity gets an athlete nowhere fast, whereas being tough sometimes brings about a fair shake."
Review: Library Journal - February 1, 2009
"Journalist Campbell's funny, sweet, and yet biting memoir recounts growing up in a fundamentalist church. . . . Campbell writes of trying to be good and gain heaven, but even as a young girl she revels in small acts of subversiveness and continually asks questions that are never answered satisfactorily. . . . Campbell knows her subject well and hopes through this book to keep a dialog open about such issues as the role of women in the church and in the world and to refocus attention upon the teachings of Christ-unfiltered. She notes that Christ's teachings are truly egalitarian in their attitude and 'downright revolutionary.' Suitable for all public and academic libraries."
Review: The Joplin Globe - January 23, 2009
"Dating Jesus contains a number of humorous moments . . . but it also is the story of a young woman 'steeped in the culture of Christ' who begins to have questions about what she has been taught-questions that have no easy answers. . . . Eventually, she concludes that she spent years seeking a relationship with a version of Jesus she didn't believe in."
Review: Girl With Pen - January 21, 2009
"The book . . . uses humor, history, and memory to great effect in relating the author's personal evolution of faith and politics."
Review: The Middletown Press - January 20, 2009
"A rueful, funny autobiography."
Review: Mother Jones - January 1, 2009
"Rarely has a genuine feminist emerged from the modern evangelical movement. An exception is Susan Campbell."
Review by: Jane Ciabattari, More magazine - December 31, 2008
“Susan Campbell’s fundamentalist girlhood in the rural Missouri Ozarks left her yearning for Jesus but troubled by a church that relegated women to the sidelines. In her heart-felt memoir, Dating Jesus, she describes growing up in the 1970s in the Church of Christ, where she was taught that holiness is ‘entirely masculine’ . . . Her writing is striking for the compassion with which she views her younger self, a fledgling believer confined in a cage of man-made rules.”
Review: Hartford Courant - December 14, 2008
"Dating Jesus is a mesmerizing, funny, impressionistic memoir of a spiritual and thoughtful person, one has spent her life wrestling with religion, the meaning of faith and her feelings for the Divine."
Review: Ms. - November 15, 2008
“This fond memoir of growing up a rebellious tomboy in a fundamentalist church that expects women to be pious, subservient and, above all, quiet tells what it feels like to have Jesus as your boyfriend—and what happens when you want to break up with him.”
Chapter One: The Devil Is in an Air Bubble

The devil is in an air bubble floating beneath my baptismal robe.

This is troublesome, because I am trying to do the right thing--and, incidentally, avoid hellfire. I have walked to the front of my fundamentalist Christian church this Sunday morning to profess my love for Jesus and be buried with him in the baptismal grave. I will rise and walk anew, a new Christian, a good girl-- not sinless, but perfect nevertheless.

But this damn bubble is getting in the way. It is Satan, come to thwart me.

I am a fundamentalist. I know that in order to spend eternity in heaven with Jesus, I must be immersed completely in the water, be it in a baptismal font, like this overly large bathtub-type model at the front of my church, or in the swimming pool at Green Valley Bible Camp, where I go every summer, or in a river, or anywhere where the water will cover me completely.

I must be buried, figuratively speaking, because that is how Jesus did it with his cousin, John the Baptizer, in the river Jordan.1 It is how I want to do it now. I came to the earth sinless-- not like Catholic babies, who, I’d been told, drag Adam’s original sin around like a tail. Not me. Had I died at birth, I would have shot back to God in heaven like a rocket. But I did not die, and the time I’ve been on earth since my birth I’ve spent accumulating black blots on my soul, like cigarette burns in a gauze curtain.

And here Satan has floated up in a bubble beneath the thick white robe, and so I am not, technically speaking, completely immersed. My soul is encased in my body and my body is encased in this gown, and a small portion of it has swollen to break the water’s surface, like a tiny pregnancy, or the beginning of a thought. My head is under. One hand is clenching my nose shut and the other is crossed over my chest, half the posture of a corpse in a casket. But if this dress doesn’t sink with the rest of me, the whole ceremony will be useless.

I am a fundamentalist. We worry about such things. A ceremonial joining-together only makes sense. I am thirteen when I decide to make it official. I’d been flirting with Jesus since age eight or so, the way a little girl will stand innocently next to her cutest uncle, will preen and dance for attention with only a dim idea of the greater weight of her actions. I meant no harm. I just loved Jesus. He made me feel happy.

In my mind, Jesus had been flirting back, and why wouldn’t he? Our families were close. I went to his house three times a week, sat in his living room, listened to his stories, loudly sang songs to him. Our relationship was inevitable, and it seemed the simplest thing imaginable to declare my love.

And so on this bright and terrible Sunday morning I nervously slide out of my pew to walk up the aisle during the invitation song, the tune we sing after the preacher gives his sermon. The invitation song is a time of relief for those who think the preacher has gone on too long, and a time of trepidation for the sinners who are paying attention. Although the song varies depending on who’s leading the singing, all the invitation songs share a tone of exhortation firmly grounded in fear, meant to shake a few of the ungodly loose from the trees. And I am a sinner. I know that as assuredly as I know Jesus loves me. I am trying to live my life to meet the impossible ideal of perfection set for me exactly 1,972 years earlier by my boyfriend. The Bible said Don’t lie, but I lie several times a day. The Bible said Don’t steal, but I copied from a friend one morning in social studies because I hadn’t taken the time to do my own homework. The Bible said not to lust, and while I am not clear what that means exactly, I harbor a deep and abiding crush on a series of pop culture icons from Bobby Sherman on--save for Donny Osmond, because he is too Mormon and I don’t think I could convert him. But Donny is the only one from Tiger Beat magazine for whom I have no tingling feelings. I know, even though my church would frown on it because none of these boy-men are members, that if any of them save Donny drove up in a jacked-up Camaro and honked the horn, I would hop into the front seat without a look back.

Oh I sinned, all right.

As I begin to walk to the front pew of the sanctuary at Fourth and Forest church of Christ, I can hear the giggles and gasps from my girlfriends left behind. Most of them have already taken the walk to the front to declare their love for Jesus, but I have dragged my feet. I know I need to be baptized--it would sure beat spending eternity in hellfire--but it seems such an awesome step. I am walking toward the highest church office I can reach as a female-- that of a baptized believer--and for that brief moment, all eyes are on me. I will be a Christian. I will teach Sunday school and participate in the odd rite of church dinners, where the mark of distinction is given to any woman who can assemble an ordinary- looking cake out of ingredients you wouldn’t expect, like beer. Or potato chips. I will grow up and marry a deacon, the worker bees of our church, who will one day grow old--like, forty or so--and become an elder. I will raise up my children in the way they should go, and when they are old, they will not depart from me.2 I will wear red lipstick and aprons and gather my grandchildren to my ample lap (all grandmas being fat). And finally, I will recline in my rose-scented deathbed with a brave, faint smile as my family gathers around me, and then I will rise in spirit to my home in glory, leaving behind a blessed bunch who look and sound and smell like me and who point to my faith as their ideal. They will, of course, all be Christians, and they will marry Christians and beget Christians, and not some watereddown namby-pamby type, either, but fire-breathing and soulgrowing Christians, members of the church of Christ, saved by grace and fired with an obstinate belief in the black and white. Give me that old-time religion! Yes, Lord!3

It is all laid out for me, both in the Bible and in the talks our Sunday school teachers give us. I know my future as I know the St. Louis Cardinals lineup from the tinny transistor I sneak into my bed on game nights: Bob Gibson, Ted Simmons, Matty Alou, Lou Brock, Jos? Cruz, and the man who will ultimately betray my faith in baseball and become a hated Yankee, Joe Torre. Those Cardinals will win the pennant one day, but I will be a Christian today.

The sanctuary in which I walk is a high-ceilinged, cavernous room covered completely--walls and ceiling--in knotty pine that holds my secret sin. When I am bored--and during three-hour Sunday-morning services I am often bored--I attempt to count the knots in the panels behind the preacher. I lose count and start again, lose count and start again. I feel guilty about that, but I am sitting through three sermons a week and once I recognize the preacher’s theme (sin, mercy, salvation), I start counting knots.

The room seats roughly seven hundred souls. I say roughly, because we never fill it. It was built amid much discussion and hard feelings at a time when my church was among the fastestgrowing Christian groups in the country. Of course we would fill it, we told one another, even if our regular Sunday-morning attendance hovered around three hundred or so. God would provide. We just needed to have the right amount of pews. The interior looks as we imagine the ark of Noah would look--spare, with not one cross on display. Jesus hung on a real cross. Who were we to use the emblem of his shame as decor? And why would we, as girls, wear small golden crosses when the real one was so much bigger and uglier4 The pews are padded--another discussion--and there are no prayer benches, for fear that they would put us in company with the Catholics. Still, I never once saw someone drop to his or her knees during public prayer. We are, one visiting minister derided us, the only group of believers that sits to sing and stands to pray.

In fact, the building was built on prayer--and a painful schism. When you believe you are holy and have God on your side, you easily cross over into being dogmatic. We split over paving the parking lot. The anti-paving bunch argued that Jesus never walked on pavement, and that we shouldn’t be so fine-haired as to worry about muddying our good shoes as we scrambled to our (padded) pews. And besides, the money could be used for a greater purpose--namely, saving souls. The grandparents of this crowd had cheered at the outcome of the Scopes Monkey Trial. Consider them opponents of creeping and sweeping modernity.

The other bunch--and, oddly, my notoriously hidebound family sided with them--said that paving a parking lot was right and good, that it didn’t hurt to have a few creature comforts, and the anti-paving crowd hadn’t kicked up a fuss over the fancy new air-conditioning, now, had they? When the church splits, we stay with the paved group. And when it splits another time over whether the grape juice of the Lord’s Supper (the communion we enjoyed every Sunday) should come from one cup, as Jesus may have shared it, or from tiny shot glasses set into special circular trays made for such an event, my family again sides with the progressives. The others we derisively call “one-cuppers,” as damning a phrase as “dumb-ass hillbilly.”

It would be my family’s one concession to change. Among the literal-minded, schisms are just waiting to surface, ready to crack open at any moment. Elsewhere, the other churches of my faith--we had no central hierarchy, opting instead for home rule by a group of older men, the elders--would split and split again, over adding a pastoral counseling service, or a daycare center--more modernity, in other words, but that was later. For now, we felt the sheep were scattered, and when we brought them home, they could clatter across pavement to sit in padded pews and partake in the liquid part of the Lord’s Supper from tiny shot glasses meant for just such a purpose--and likely to form a barrier against the common cold as well.
  • Listen to Susan Campbell on The Faith Middelton Show
  • Read an interview with Susan Campbell on the Girl w/Pen! blog
  • Listen to Susan Campbell on Air America's State of Belief

You might also be interested in:

Dating Jesus

ISBN: 978-080701066-2
Publication Date: 1/1/2009
Pages: 224
Size:6 x 9 Inches (US)
Price:  $24.95
Format: Cloth
Temporarily out of Stock
Also Available In: