And God Created Woman

Reviews of two books on faith — Taking Back God by Leora Tanenbaum and Dating Jesus by Susan Campbell

Photo: Bryan McCay

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 heartfelt memoir Dating Jesus (Beacon Press), she describes growing up in the 1970s in the Church of Christ, where she was taught that holiness is "entirely masculine." Women couldn’t speak from the pulpit, and they were required to keep silent during services. Campbell went to church three days a week, attended summer Bible camp, knocked on doors to proselytize, and stayed virginal through high school, imagining the litany of her faults that would be revealed on Judgment Day. But as she watched her brothers’ privileged treatment, she began to ask tough questions.As a student at Hartford Seminary, Campbell discovered the work of theologians like Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza, who termed Jesus’s egalitarian approach to women "inclusive graciousness." Campbell has since left her church. But she is still "Christhaunted," she writes, struggling to imagine a Jesus who wouldn’t have loved her less because of her gender. Her writing is striking for the compassion with which she views her younger self, a fledgling believer confined in a cage of manmade rules.In Taking Back God (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), Leora Tanenbaum gives voice to a chorus of American women from many denominations — Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, Muslim — who are challenging their second-place roles within religious communities. Tanenbaum argues that although Jesus and Muhammad and rabbis of the Talmudic era tried to improve women’s status, other men evolved the contemporary religious practices that subordinate women. She details the American efforts to shatter the "stained-glass ceiling." The first woman minister, a Congregationalist, was ordained in the U.S. in 1853. The Reform Jewish movement got its first female rabbi in 1972; the Catholic and Muslim faiths still prohibit women leaders.The challenges faced by the dozens of women Tanenbaum interviewed — all working to reform their religious communities from within — are moving. So is Tanenbaum’s personal struggle as an observant Jew who reveres tradition but chafes under its restrictions. Living with ambiguity, these women keep the faith while hoping for change.Originally published in MORE magazine, December 2008/January 2009.

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