Friday, December 19, 2008

Book Review: Dating Jesus

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 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


  1. That sounds like an interesting book. Jesus did heal everybody, a lesson too often forgot by the grandstanders that have come to represent the Evangelical movement. In my view, some of them are more interested in fame, power, and money than they are in the gospel.

    There is one interesting area that seems to disprove the fundamentalist notion of a harsh God. Cardiac arrest patients, and other patients who die and are brought back to life, sometimes have a common memory. About 15% of patients remember dying, seeing their own body, floating up to a light, hearing music, seeing a relative or a religious leader to greet them (the religious leader can be Jesus, but it can be Buddha or Muhammad or the highest Hindu God (name escapes me at the moment), Native American Gods or a passed rabbi. In short the welcomer is merely a cultural symbol meant to put the soul at ease.

    Patients who have this experience universally describe this being as a friendly, loving and non-judgmental. Some people have a "life review" and are asked why they did certain things--but it was not gay sex that this being cares about--it was actions and words that really hurt other people. Nobody is condemned to hell, but people do get a greater understanding of stupid actions. Apparently, patients who recover have been known to call up people twenty years later, and apologize for random slights.

    There was a great article in the Lancet about it a few years back. It seemed to prove that this common story was true, as people had intricate knowledge of the procedures the doctors used to revive them (they apparently watch from above). The article said that these people were dead too long to have brain waves, though some dispute that and think that this is a way PTSD patients explain what they heard, even if they were unconscious, at time of extreme stress.

    When these people come back from the dead, they stop caring about money, power, and fame. In short, if you believe that God created the universe and that we are doing a portion of God's work here on Earth--as all fundamentalists believe--then it logically follows that we all have some value to God, and that God must love us all because we are his creation, despite our numerous flaws.

  2. Eureka!I have sucessfully returned to my favorite professional blogger's page.
    Gee, I am so excited I don't know where to start.

    Jen, I'll start by saying how very much I have missed you (and every one else) too!
    Regarding this post. It may be unwise to admit this publicly, but I am an agnostic. I was adamantly convinced, when I was younger, that I was an athiest.

    The funny thing about getting older, at least for me, is I have become less convinced about anything. I have found it much easier to simply say, I don't know.

    In my experience and for most people I have met and know intimately, admitting to and owning their own not-knowingness is harder than you would think.

    After all, we pride ourselves in being a collective nation of passionate and highly educated and scientific experts! Do we not?

    This morning, as I read the headlines to the various newsletters and blogs, to which I am subscribed, while mulling over where we are as a nation (economically, ideologically, politically, and spiritually divided, our ranking in health care delivery as compared to similar nations, etc.) I am not so convinced we are a nation of experts on anything.
    Now, regarding this post.

    "The article said that these people were dead too long to have brain waves, though some dispute that and think that this is a way PTSD patients explain what they heard, even if they were unconscious, at time of extreme stress".

    As a survivor of three (yes, I said three) near death experiences (NDE) and since then, being diagnosed as having PTSD, I am able and will attempt to share my thoughts about about the topic.

    I remember two of my experiences, (the first one happened when I was only two weeks old) fortunately or unfortunately, as though they happened only moments ago.

    Right now, I can close my eyes, see, smell, remember how the adrenaline tasted, hear everthing and actually feel the pain, etc., with great detail.

    Does this make me special? Not really, it makes me, somewhat different from the majority. Just remember, in our experiences,we are all different.

    It has also been my experience that no two people experience the same things in exactly the same way. Will there be non-perishable similarities, absolutely!

    Over the years, I have learned to actually appreciate these NDEs. They have given me an unusual perspective on "life, the universe and everything".

    To those reading this and who may be "dying to ask,what was it like". I'll stop here and say, with some degree of certainty, after only a few seconds and at the point you realize or surrender to the notion you are dying or are actually dead;

    There is no fear, no recriminations, no anger, no doubts,no regrets, no pain, no gentle souls greeting you, no angry ones either, no music, no angels, no bright lights, there is only what I can attempt to verbally describe here as complete peace!

    I felt what some have described as being "at one with the universe".

    I hope this helps you all (reading this) feel better about the prospect of dying someday and what happens afterward. Trust me, there are a whole lot worse things than dying.

    Have a beautiful day.