On the heels of Gwen and Tonni’s awesomely informative post-inaugural post on religion, I’m thrilled to bring you this Q&A by GWP reader-now-contributor Allison McCarthy, a graduate of Goucher College who was recently accepted into the Master of Professional Writing program at Chatham University.  Allison’s work has previously been published or is forthcoming in magazines such as The Baltimore Review, JMWW, Girlistic, Scribble, Dark Sky, and The Write-Side Up.  Winner of the 2007 Maryland Writers Association Short Works Contest, she is currently a features and profiles writer for ColorsNW.  Here she is!  -Deborah

Susan Campbell, 49, is a journalist for the Hartford Courant, the oldest continuously published newspaper in the U.S. and author of Dating Jesus: A Story of Fundamentalism, Feminism, and the American Girl.  The book, published by Beacon Press in January 2009, uses humor, history, and memory to great effect in relating the author’s personal evolution of faith and politics.  She currently lives in Connecticut with her family and sometimes feels mortified that she wrote a memoir, which she says is a “vain thing to do,” and then has to talk about the memoir, thus rendering her “doubly-vain.”  Campbell recently spoke to Girl With Pen about her experiences with writing, feminism, and her ever-contentious relationship with Christianity.

GWP: How did you come up with the title Dating Jesus?  Were there other working titles attached to this project?

SC: It went for a long time without a title at all – I’ve never been able to write a headline and I suck at titles.  I don’t get a lot of great thoughts in the middle of the night, but I woke up laughing because it was almost like I was dating a boyfriend that I didn’t like very much.  The Jesus I was introduced to as a girl wasn’t very human; he was very judgmental and unhappy, fairly sanitized, and in retrospect he mimicked a lot of the adults around me.  He wasn’t very radical at all and this is not a person I would get along with much as a friend, let alone a boyfriend or someone I would worship.  But I tried to hammer myself into that box, anyway.

GWP: You include a lot of footnotes, which seems to be very popular among post-modern memoirists.  What was the significance of this literary device in your novel?

SC: As a trained fundamentalist, you have to back up everything you say with Scripture.  You have to have supporting documentation.  I knew this was going to be read by people like me who want proof.  It became a verbal tic and I couldn’t quit doing it!  I thought I stole this technique from a memoir about the family who came up with Sweet and Low.  The footnotes in that book were often as funny as was what came in the text.  Originally, my intent was pure, but I found it was great fun to put these irreverent footnotes in.  I don’t think of myself as irreverent, but that’s what I’ve been told it is, so I’m going to stick with that.

GWP: In the book, you mention the role of Elizabeth Cady Stanton in criticizing the gendered roles of contemporary Christianity.  What other feminists influenced your eventual shift from fundamentalism?  Do you currently identify with any communities of feminism?

SC: When I was growing up, the only feminist I knew was Gloria Steinem and I only knew what I read in the media.  I was a fairly wide reader.  I eventually met her and tried on her aviator glasses.  I read Betty Freidan and as a young woman, I thought she made a lot of sense.  I knew enough at that age not to identify myself as a feminist because it was a dirty word.  The stereotype is so silly.  I studied Womanism at Hartford Seminary.  I think that some critics of mainstream feminists complained that it’s a movement for white, middle-class women and it overlooks the challenges faced by other demographics.  That’s a valid critique and I think even the early feminists who sprang from the abolitionist movement were women of leisure who had the time and money to devote to this very important cause, but were also looking particularly at their own lives and not necessarily to women on a different socioeconomic rung.  At this point, I don’t know what school of feminism I would say I belong to.  I’m a feminist, but I’m uniquely aware that the movement as a whole has sometimes not paid enough attention to everybody.  I think there have been time periods where a lot of people left off the bus.

GWP: You currently subscribe to, in your words, a “floater” version of religious expression.  Can you explain your use of this term?
SC: Whether or not I meet someone’s idea of what is Christian is immaterial to me.  If I’m not Christian enough for you, that’s your problem.  My own definition of floater is that I believe in the basic premises of Christianity.  It’s the one religion I’m most familiar with and most comfortable.  On the other hand, it drives me crazy!  I don’t care if you’re baptized, sprinkled or skip it altogether.  I think it’s important to look out for people with less, and money spent on elaborate churches could be put to better issues, like homelessness here in Connecticut.  You tell me how important it is to have your stained glass windows or new altar as opposed to having no room in homeless shelters when the National Armory is being opened to warehouse people as a last-ditch effort!

GWP: Are Christianity and feminism compatible, in your experience?

SC: Absolutely – Jesus was more of a radical than most people admit!  Some of his closest advisors and friends were women.  But hey, if I was a member of the ruling class, and in some ways I am, I would fight to keep this position as well.  I understand those who cling to patriarchy and the notion that only men can serve in the clergy.  Whatever little power I have, I want to hang onto, too.  But it’s wrong.  Both feminism and Christianity are sufficiently large enough to leave a lot of room for interpretation.  When you try to define something as large as either one, the definition goes on for pages and pages.  Arguing dogma means stuff doesn’t get done and things don’t change because we divide ourselves over minutia: who’s a feminist, who’s a Christian, etc.

GWP: What were your motivations in writing this book?  How did your previous experience as a journalist affect your progress?

SC: I belonged to a writer’s group with Wally Lamb.  It’s scary how nice he is.  Even though he’s so nice and supportive, you never want to read your stuff after Wally has read his!  I was working on a novel that basically stinks.  After reading the same chapter over and over, I got so sick of the novel that for a while, I wasn’t taking anything to the group.  One night, I thought, “I’ve got to write something.”  I sat down and wrote three pages about my baptism, which became the beginning of this book.  I have been writing about my feminist upbringing for the Hartford Courant for years, to the point where people were getting sick of it.  Readers in my group thought this could be a longer essay.  So I started writing and the essay became a chapter.  Then it got out of hand and became a book.  My training as a journalist came in handy.  I never agonized over my keyboard thinking I had nothing to say.  It was a joy to write.  I wrote all day at the paper and came home to write a home.  I’m not a tortured artist.  It’s just fun to do!

GWP: What has the response of readers been to “Dating Jesus” since its publication?

SC: It’s still fairly fresh, so I haven’t gotten a lot of negative responses.  It’s been kind of gratifying because a lot of different religious backgrounds tend to restrict their members from full citizenship from the kingdom of God.  I’ve gotten emails from a wide variety of people, very detailed and personal letters.  They’re seeing someone else talk about dissatisfaction with their religious upbringing and know they can talk about their own, too.  I so respect their stories and I want to answer them quickly and fully, even if that’s not always possible to do.  It takes guts to email someone you’ve never heard of before.  I’ve not done it.

GWP: What current writing projects are you working on now?

SC: Very little!  Mostly, I’m trying to keep up a blog on the book’s website (www.datingjesus.com).  Some days, I’m more successful than others.  I want to start on a biography of an early feminist in Connecticut, Isabella Beecher Hooker.  Her sister was Harriet Beecher Stowe and it’s really hard to compete when your sister wrote a book that started a war.  She was considered the “pretty little sister,” but she really was a woman of substance and I’d like to write about her.  Other than that, I’m keeping up with my columns and my head above water!

–Allison McCarthy


Dating Jesus: A Story of Fundamentalism, Feminism, and the American Girl