I Was A Fundamentalist Christian Until I Discovered Feminist Writers
Today it's finding feminism, not God, that makes me want to testify. But getting here took a long time.
I knew three things for sure in my childhood: Jesus was the only way to heaven, Democrats were ruining America, and women's lib was the most horrifying invention since evolution.
I was an earnest, evangelical, right-wing Christian fundamentalist in America’s heartland. I took the Bible literally, and I thought everyone else should, too. My family didn’t confine our beliefs to church, which we attended at least three times each week. We prayed aloud before eating in restaurants. We spent our summer vacations at missionary camp and occasional weekends at prophecy conferences, learning how the world would end.
Maybe some girls grow up hearing about Margaret Fuller instead of the apocalypse; I don’t know. Maybe they weren’t told that it was a disgrace when Susan B. Anthony’s face made its way onto a coin in 1979, when I was ten, and a scandal when Brooke Shields’ Calvin Klein jeans commercial started airing the following year. But I was led to believe that those feminists who thought women should flaunt themselves on coins and in blue jeans were as much of an affront to God as atheists and abortionists, and their every protest against the status quo was a slap in our collective, God-fearing face.
As far as I knew, the feminists’ main goal was that I should have to share a bathroom with men, as evidenced by the unisex-bathroom-driven agenda of the Equal Rights Amendment. I liked lots of privacy, especially as related to the bathroom, so between that and my affection for America and God, I warmed up to feminism late.
Today, I own a tank top that says “my Marxist-feminist dialectic brings all the boys to the yard” on it. I haven’t attended church — except for the occasional holiday service to spend time with my family — in 15 years, since the day I stood up and walked out halfway through a Sunday service. It's finding feminism, not God, that makes me want to testify. If you had known me as a girl, so sheltered that the first time I heard about the Beatles was during a school presentation about the evils of rock ’n’ roll music, you would never have seen that coming; I certainly didn’t. So what happened?
For a girl who spent nearly every spare moment alone in her room reading, it still surprises me that it took me so long to discover all the incredible women to be found in literature. But Nancy Drew and adventure stories about girls smuggling Bibles were as close to girl power as I got, other than a single Elizabeth Barrett Browning poem I found in an anthology gathering dust in our basement. I eventually made my way to a few poems by Emily Dickinson, and some Virginia Woolf, but even after majoring in English at a Christian college, I entered adulthood unfamiliar with many female writers.
It wasn’t until I arrived at graduate school in my mid-twenties that my life really changed, forever and ever amen. I met scholars with points of view that I knew should have sounded like warning bells. I was ready to dismiss their ideas, and had the arguments to do it after years of hardcore fundamentalist training, but some wiser part of me prevailed, and I kept listening.
In a class about women writers during the Middle Ages, I sat around the most ordinary table you’ve ever seen with six other women and had my mind blown every week. I read mystical nuns’ subversive poetry about the body of Jesus. I was inspired by Margery Kempe, who wrote what’s considered to be the first autobiography in English. I was astonished to read Christine de Pizan's 15th-century Book of the City of Ladies and realize how many of her arguments defending women still felt relevant. The word “patriarchy” entered my vernacular.
Slowly, the girl sitting quietly in a pew became a woman who asked questions.
In another class, books by Audre Lorde and Alice Walker showed me how sheltered I’d been, not only by my religion, but also by my whiteness. I saw for the first time what now seems obvious: that the system made itself look so necessary that I never questioned its rightness. It hadn’t even occurred to me that I was living in the master’s house, much less that I could dismantle it.
I felt grateful, humbled and cheated. These brilliant, generous thinkers had been there the whole time, and I’d thought the only thing that mattered was whether a person knew Jesus. They made me bold. Slowly, the girl sitting quietly in a pew became a woman who asked questions.
Grad school ended, but I kept reading: feminist theologians like Rosemary Radford Ruether and Mary Daly, who made room for themselves in their interpretations of scripture, and fellow former evangelical Bart Ehrman, and the brilliant Jungian analyst Marion Woodman. I let go of my literal take on the Bible, deciding that metaphors are more powerful anyway.
Of course, 20-plus years of being certain you could burn for eternity in a literal pit of fire gets a grip on your psyche. I left the Midwest, moving to San Francisco and then Los Angeles, but my break from religion took longer than my move across the country. I still identified as a Christian, even though the tenets of my faith felt less and less true. I felt bold without knowing what to do about it. Emily Dickinson wrote that “The truth must dazzle gradually / Or every man be blind.” My progress was slow, but I was starting to see.
One Sunday morning a few years later, midway through one of the church services I still sometimes attended in Los Angeles, I realized how much the pronouns of God — the incessant him, him, him, he, he, he, him, he — had gotten under my skin. Nothing anyone was saying from the pulpit sounded right, and none of the hymns sounded right, either. I couldn’t sing words that I no longer meant — or even stand in the same room while it was happening. So I left.
I excused my way to the end of my row and walked past each pew on the way to the door, resolute but not wanting to make a scene. As walks go, it was pretty short. But my world was shifting tectonically with each step.
I sought refuge at a coffee shop and sipped a latte, wondering if I would ever stop worrying that I might be wrong. I walked back outside and realized I didn’t mind not knowing.
Feminism gave me the perspective to see the world for what it is, and to locate my own authority in that world.
My family remains unimpressed by the so-called facts I discovered as I un-converted myself. My parents still believe the universe was made in six days, and my mother volunteers at a crisis pregnancy center, hoping to steer women away from abortion. I once requested, while eating dinner, that doctors who give abortions not be referred to as "baby murderers."
We've moved into a rather delicate detente that involves regular, if not frequent, communication and holiday visits. I've established that Fox News won't be the source for evening wrap-ups when they're visiting me, just as they have their own house rules. I hope to avoid all mention of Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign over the next few months.
Fundamentalism taught me to cede my power to an authority figure and to find my joy in pleasing others. Feminism gave me the perspective to see the world for what it is, and to locate my own authority in that world. Now I take up space without apologizing for it, and, usually, make noise without assuming I’ll be judged for it. That change was hard-won, one book, and one belief, at a time. But the result, to me, is dazzling.