Monday, May 28, 2012

Dating Jesus

Susan Campbell, writer extraordinaire.

Who is Susan Campbell? Well, if you live in Connecticut, you might know her as a columnist at the Hartford Courant. Or, if you grew up in the Church of Christ, you might have heard of her book—Dating Jesus: A Story of Fundamentalism, Feminism, and the American Girl.

But … I used to live in CT, and I was raised in the CofC, and I had never heard of Susan Campbell until someone posted a comment about her on a blog (not mine … there are a few others out there). The comment piqued my interest, so I bought Susan’s book, and I emailed her. (I’m not sure if it was in that exact order.) And the conversation began...

Here’s some stuff you might like to know about Susan:

  • She’s smart as all get out.
  • She’s interesting, and she has interesting stories to tell.
  • She’s a prolific writer. (Just try keeping up with her blog for a few days … not to mention Twitter, when she gets on a roll.)
  • She’s a truth-teller.
  • And, possibly the most impressive thing … she is the former Bible Bowl champion of Green Valley Bible Camp in Rogers, Ark. (Now I know I have your attention.)
  • She’s funny too. Or too funny. However you’d like to say it.

So Susan and I have exchanged a few emails and Facebook messages, and I finally twisted her arm for a blog interview. And luckily, I caught her at home on a day after knee surgery, so that she was a little bit woozy and ready to spill the beans.

This week, I’ll highlight a little bit of Susan’s book and our phone conversation. Let’s consider this part 1 of an I-don’t-know-how-many-parts series.

If you’re interested in checking out Dating Jesus sometime, it is very very good. In the narrative, Susan tells a part of her story, about growing up in a small-town CofC and about her spiritual journey later on. Throughout, she weaves in some of the history of feminism and “fundamentalism.” If you were/are a part of the CofC, there’s plenty of lingo and stories that will likely resonate … but there are also some more progressive thoughts that you (and I) might not always be comfortable with. Personally, I think the uncomfortability is a positive thing. It makes us think. Examine. Maybe even change our perspective a little bit?


And now, on to the interview … (part one … a paraphrased version):

How the book came about …

Susan: I didn’t start out to write a book. I started out writing essays at Hartford Seminary, where I was a student. The essays led to the book.

At the seminary, I was exotic, because I was a fundamentalist Christian. They loved me because I could give them a different perspective. [Fundamentalists] are not big scary right-wing nut-jobs that you see so often in the media. There’s a broad spectrum there, which includes the nut-jobs.

I wanted to be able to talk about the love that I felt in the church of Christ and the support I felt there. There was condemnation there also, but I didn’t want to be making fun of [those] Christians. I’m very careful when I’m giving speeches or talking about the book, because I still identify myself [as fundamentalist]. There’s something there, in my DNA … even though I would not be accepted in my own home church.

On growing up in the Church of Christ (in Missouri) …

Susan: For me, for all of the good I got out of the church of Christ—and I can’t even count all of the good I got out of the church of Christ—there were some bugaboos there for me. Things like the role of women and the exclusivity of the theology that made me so sad.

For example, my friend Alan is Catholic, and I’m supposed to believe he’s not going to heaven? But I know he’s so sincere. And what about those children in Africa that I’m not going to get to? They’re not going to heaven?

I came from a fairly hard-shelled church of Christ. There wasn’t a whole lot of room for discussion there. We would not have accepted people on the more progressive end of the gamut. If there was even a [congregation that discussed] women leading songs on Wednesday night, we would have dismissed that church as not “church of Christ.” I mean we were really hard core.

On the humor and sadness of the book …

Susan: I think all humor is grounded somewhat in disappointment. It’s funny, and you’re laughing, but you’re kind of wincing at the same time. It’s like watching Carol Burnett. I can sit here and laugh at her, but I also know there’s an emptiness that she’s filling. There is something in her that’s lacking.

I still give speeches about the book here [in Connecticut], which is kind of weird because it’s not a new book. People will laugh, and it is kind of funny, but I’m thinking sometimes, “This is not funny.”

Yes, I think there’s sadness there, because ultimately it’s about my disappointment.

A few words about Bible class …

Susan: I told my brothers, “You can’t do your Sunday school lessons in the car on the way to church.” They did it anyway, but I did not. I’d sit down—I’m a geek—and fill out all of the blanks. I’d draw pictures to illustrate my points. I’d remember verses that supported what I was saying.

And so to me, reading the Bible with a child’s eye, I would sometimes come away with a different message than what was being taught. I respected the adults, and yet I was coming up with a different message at times, and that was scary to me. I just assumed that I was wrong, because they were the grown-ups. As I got older, and went back to these verses again, I thought this might not be exactly what they were telling me.

There was a lot of good theology there, though. In Sunday school, I learned to look out for people who had less than me. I didn’t learn that anywhere else, and that’s a great theology.

On people who might disagree with her …

Susan: As long as it gets a conversation going, I’m actually okay if someone hates my insides … as long as we’re talking.


Susan mentions a favorite song in her book, and we shall conclude (for today) with this:

“I drew for my inspiration [for doing good deeds] on a really great rousing hymn with a strong bass part: ‘A Beautiful Life,’ that includes the words, ‘Each day I’ll do a golden deed by helping those who are in need. My life on earth is but a span and so I’ll do (and so I’ll do) the best I can (the best I can).’”

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Lessons from the back row

A couple of Sundays ago, Cheryl and I walked into church early. As we entered the auditorium, I saw Cheryl’s friend Martha sitting on the back row.

The back row.

I love sitting on the back row.

I elbowed Cheryl and pointed toward Martha. Cheryl hesitated.

She hates sitting on the back row.

This has been a source of bitter (okay, not really bitter) disagreement in our marriage. Cheryl likes to be closer to the front, where there are fewer distractions. I, on the other hand, like to be closer to the rear for quicker exiting and easy access to the restrooms.

We usually compromise and sit somewhere in the middle. Except for this Sunday … thanks to Martha.


My love affair with the back row began in high school. At the College Church, the elders or deacons posted a sign on the 2nd and 3rd rows of the auditorium saying:

This section is
reserved for
our students in
grades 7-12

And so that’s where we sat throughout junior high. But there were some of us, maybe around 10th grade, who began to drift to the back. I wish I could remember the exact Sunday, when I ignored the pleading eyes of my fellow students at the front and just cruised on to the rear.

If the College Church auditorium were a baseball diamond, then we ended up sitting in left field … on the warning track.


Lessons I learned on the back row:

1) Sometimes you just need a little nap.

2) Life is more enjoyable with your arm around a girl.

3) Sharing (a songbook, or whatever) is a good thing.

4) Eat a hearty breakfast … it will keep your stomach quiet all morning long.

5) A good antiperspirant is priceless.

6) There’s always room to squeeze in an extra friend.

7) Leaders appear less flawed when viewed from a distance.

Monday, May 7, 2012

White girls don't get married in black churches

My life can be divided into two segments. From age 0 to 25, I lived in Arkansas and was surrounded by mostly white people who were very much like me. Then, from age 25 to now, I have lived in a bunch of different places surrounded by a bunch of racially, culturally and religiously-different people. To borrow a well-worn cliché, it has been an eye-opening experience.

And when I take some time to reflect, I have been particularly fascinated by looking back on how these race differences played out in the church. For example, why did we have “black churches” in the communities surrounding Searcy? And why was Harding College not integrated until the 1960s? Was prejudice there or was it just a pesky resistance to change? Are things better now?

Maybe you've had similar thoughts.

And recently, for some reason, I was reminded of a story Deana Hamby Nall shared with me. Who is Deana Nall? Well, you may already know her since she has about a zillion Facebook friends. And if you don’t, well, Deana is a terrific writer who runs her own business WordWorks and who blogs at Deanaland. She is also related to a former neighbor of mine in Searcy, so we have likely been within 50 yards of each other, even though we’ve never met face-to-face.

Here’s Deana’s story, "White Girls Don't Get Married in Black Churches” (originally posted in January 2011).  I hope you like it as much as I did.


“We are just two people. Not that much separates us. Not nearly as much as I’d thought.”—Skeeter Phelan in The Help
I love my hometown of Beaumont, Texas. I haven’t lived there since 1993, but I still feel a connection to it and I always will. Memories of stately oak trees heavy with Spanish moss, the crushing humidity, and the sweet/toxic mix of magnolia blossoms and oil refineries in the air are as fresh in my head as they were when I was young. The Hamby family has lived there since the Great Depression and no matter how long I’ve been gone or how much it changes, it will always be home, in a way.

When you truly love something, you are forced to acknowledge its negative aspects. And Beaumont has a big one.

I don’t know if I noticed the great divide between the races when I moved there with my parents in 1983. But a line was there. A line that divided the town according to the skin color of its residents. There were white parts of town and black parts of town. If black families began moving into a white neighborhood, that neighborhood was suddenly considered to be “going downhill.” There weren’t many black people in my church or school. I didn’t think about it much. It’s just the way things were.

One day in 9th grade, I overheard a classmate tell someone that the reason she was in our private school was because her parents didn’t want her being around black kids at a public school. I was surprised to hear this and later shared what she had said with a close friend of mine.

“Oh,” my friend said. “That’s why I’m here, too.”

That’s the problem with growing up in a place like Beaumont. There are things you don’t see; questions you don’t think to ask.

In high school, two of my friends transferred to a large public school. My school got out before theirs did, so some days I would drive over there and hang out with my friends after school. It didn’t take me long to notice how self-segregated this school was. There was a white parking lot and a black parking lot. My friends told me there was a white section and a black section in the cafeteria. Beaumont schools had desegregated years earlier, but that line was still in place.

I know other towns have lines. But when it's in your own town, it becomes personal.

Beaumont also had a “whites only” country club. This wasn’t written anywhere, but everyone knew the only people with dark skin inside that building were wearing uniforms. There were black funeral homes and white funeral homes and black debutante balls and white debutante balls.

But what grew to bother me the most were the separate churches. This led to perhaps the most scandalous thing I’ve ever done. When I was planning my wedding in 1993, I wanted instrumental music in the ceremony. Having come from a family with deep Church of Christ roots, this was pretty nervy in itself. The leaders of my home congregation didn’t even have to think about it. Absolutely not, they said. Other congregations in town with whom my family was connected said the same thing.

Then I thought of 11th Street Church of Christ. They had a new church building that was much prettier than my own church, which carried an appalling theme of brown and burnt orange. The preacher there was an old friend of my dad’s. His name was Brother Randolph. I called him up.

I explained my predicament. I wanted instrumental music in my wedding and a church that would let me have it.

“Deana, I think the world of your dad and we would love for you to get married here,” he said. “And I don’t care what kind of music you have.”

So on Aug. 14, 1993, I packed that black church full of white people and blasted Handel’s “Music from the Royal Fireworks” out of the church P.A. system. It wasn’t without criticism. And not so much about the music. After the invitations had gone out, a few people pulled me aside and wanted to know why I was getting married there. I explained that I wanted instrumental music and a center aisle. And no burnt orange.

But it was more than that. I wanted, if for just a couple of hours on an August evening, to make that Beaumont line a little blurry. In Beaumont, white girls don’t get married in black churches. But I did. I’m sure it did nothing to improve race relations in that town, but I’d like to think it meant something. It meant something to me.

We had a beautiful wedding, and Brother Randolph didn’t even charge us to use the building. I’m sure comments about my getting married in a black church were whispered behind my back. I truly didn’t care.

I finished reading The Help on MLK Day last week. The Help is all about the line, just in a different town. The line that divides people in many communities, including the one I live in now. It’s amazing to me that something like the Berlin Wall, which hundreds of people died trying to cross, can crumble to pieces to unite a country while this invisible line between the races can still exist in schools and churches and communities across America.

I don’t know how to fix the line. I think no one does. But talking about it helps. That’s what The Help is about. Telling our stories leads to better understanding, and I think better understanding can blur the line. Maybe, eventually, the line could even disappear.

When Julia was in kindergarten, I walked into her school cafeteria the day after MLK day. She was sitting with her sweet friend Simeon, and the two of them were talking and laughing and having fun. It’s kind of a shame, I thought, that Martin Luther King and so many others fought and sacrificed for black and white children to go to the same schools, and now these kids don’t even know it. To Julia and Simeon, there was no line. They didn’t even know there was supposed to be one.

But on second thought, isn’t that how MLK would have wanted it? For the races to get along in a way that seemed like the most natural thing in the world? For the line to be not only gone, but forgotten as well?

* "White Girls Don't Get Married in Black Churches” was first posted here: