I have to start with a disclosure. This book has nothing (at least nothing obvious) to do with healthcare. But its author, Susan Campbell, is a columnist and reporter for the Hartford Courant and someone I am proud to call my friend. I waited for months for this book to arrive after pre-ordering it from Amazon.com. I wasn't sure what to expect; I knew Susan was raised a fundamendalist Christian, and I knew that she no longer practices that particular brand of religion, so I knew the book would trace that movement in Susan's spiritual life. What I didn't know -- and, frankly, didn't expect -- was how incredibly powerful and universal her message is.
Dating Jesus is, in fact, about Susan's spiritual odyssey, but it's also a lot more. First, I knew very little about fundamendalism and how it differs from other Christian sects before reading this book. It turns out that the fundamentalism of Susan's childhood believes in a very literal interpretation of scripture -- it's sparse and spare and very technical. There was no dancing, no acknowledgement of sex, no indulgence, all of which can be hard for a kid who sees other kids living with looser rules. Early on, Susan embraced the structure in her life. She devoted herself to loving Jesus and trying to help others come to love him. She taught Sunday school as soon as she was allowed. She "knocked doors" (not knocked ON doors) to try to educate the unenlightened. And she didn't mind having a good excuse to avoid the fear of communion with the other gender in ways other than playing sports.
But also early on, Susan noticed that there were limits to what she was allowed to do within the church because she was a girl. By about 9 years old, she had started asking questions. This fascinates me because that's about when I started asking the same questions, and for me, it had nothing to do with being a fundamentalist. I'm Jewish, and was raised in the reform tradition, which has very loose rules. But I was required to go to Sunday school and Hebrew school, just like my brother. Although I had no intention of being bat mitzvah'd, my parents insisted that I attend these classes. I remember one big fight I had with my Sunday school teacher about the role of women and my belief that a just and benevolent god would treat all people as equals. And I remember that, when I hit age 13, I insisted that I no longer be required to attend these classes -- if I were a boy, I'd be bar mitzvah'd at that age and would then not have to keep going to class, so why should I have to go any longer than my brother would?
Is there something inbred in some of us that makes us question inequality? Susan in the Missouri Ozarks and me in overprivileged Long Island, New York; Susan a fundamentalist and me a Jew; Susan a tomboy and athlete, and me a guitar-playing hippie wannabe -- we couldn't have been raised more differently. Yet, something awakened in us both at roughly the same age. Susan has hit on something universal here that was both surprising and comforting to me.
But Dating Jesus isn't just about Susan's awakening as a feminist. It is full of insight into scripture, most of which is foreign to me since the scripture I know a little about is Old Testament, and Susan's goes way beyond the Old and New Testaments to secondary tracts. It's also full of insight into the role of women in religious life, and the way in which women's rebellion against second-class status in the religious context is intertwined with the feminist movement as a whole historically, beginning before the suffragettes. I've read lots of books about the women's movement, but I've never focused on the involvement the early feminists had in religious life. So I'm fascinated and enthralled with Susan's historical account. Familiar names like Elizabeth Cady Stanton in a different context than that on which I've focused in the past.
Although Susan's book taught me a lot of historical and religious information that I did not know previously, in the end, what moved me most is her personal journey. There is an incredibly funny passage in which Susan prepares to give a talk from the pulpit of a Congregational church, having been invited because of her Hartford Courant columns about religion and equality. Having left her church, Susan never wanted or expected to be delivering a sort of sermon from any church, even a more tolerant New England variety. She -- who is a very experienced and comfortable public speaker -- was scared to death of standing at the pulpit -- so afraid that she avoided responding to the invitation for several days, and then arrived two hours in advance, and cried at the song the choir sang before she got up to speak. This part of the book is laugh-out-loud funny, mostly because Susan is a very talented humorist and tells the story for laughs.
But the book packs a real whollop at the end, as Susan realizes what the fundamentalists got wrong in her view. A trip to Haiti, where Susan sees the poorest of the poor, the sickest of the sick, helps her to realize that the Jesus she really loves is the one who treated women as equals, who ministered to the poor and the sick, whose Christianity is about eliminating poverty, embracing lesbians and gays and all who are in any way different -- about love and forgiveness. And so it is that Susan realizes that she was simply dating the wrong Jesus. As I read the passage of the book where Susan makes this realization, I found myself crying along with her. Indeed, writing this now chokes me up. Susan is a deeply committed spiritualist who doesn't pick her fights carefully -- she fights them all -- and who loves Jesus's message of love, even though she no longer loves the church she grew up in.
I don't know if I would have been called to read this book if I didn't know Susan. But what is so exceptional about the book has nothing to do with knowing Susan. I don't remember the last time any book made me laugh out loud, or made me cry -- and I certainly don't remember the last book that made me do both. Susan blends her own story with so much information and knowledge that impresses me to no end. The balance and intertwining of the personal and the political -- an intermingling that, for me, IS feminism -- is pulled off with exceptional skill.
You don't need to know Susan to love this book, but reading the book will make you love Susan. It is intensely, unwaveringly honest and real and exceptionally smart. It's a must read.
And really, the "right" Jesus's message IS about our healthcare mess, as it is about all inequality. So although the book is not about healthcare, it's really about everything that matters, including healthcare.
Buy it. Read it. Thank me. Jennifer