For Dear Life: Confessions of a Christian College Adjunct
*This is a post I recently wrote for Kendra Weddle Irons and Melanie Springer Mock’s blog Ain’t I a Woman, which is dedicated to deconstructing images of Christian womanhood often taken for granted in evangelical cultures.
“I don’t know how you do it—how you can stay in a faith tradition that seems to hold women to impossible standards at every turn.”
“I think [my previous church] became a place where people just judged me without bothering to even talk to me. I started wearing black for a while, and the pastor thought I wasn’t a Christian or something.”
I said the first of these two statements over five years ago to one of my professors, having just returned from spring break junior year and a visit to the church of my friend’s grandmother. Since enrolling in Kendra’s Women and the Bible course the previous semester, I had made many trips like this one up the stairs in the Hoover building to her office with some sort of conundrum or revelation. In fact, I came to the conclusion that teaching at a Christian college would be worth its struggles while sitting by her bookshelves filled with every volume Joan Chittister had ever written.
This particular visit was clearly not so optimistic. Blond highlights aren’t inherently bothersome (unless they’re brassy), but I was nearly in tears as I explained, “I sat in the pew behind hundreds of perfectly styled heads of blond-highlighted hair while the pastor talked about men needing to step up and take leadership positions because they’re men when these women looked perfectly capable to me. I felt sick when the highlights all nodded in agreement!” After passing me a tissue and a chocolate peanut butter cup, Kendra said some things I will never forget: first, “I’ve learned to hold traditions loosely,” and second, “It’s our job as feminists to make sure these women’s voices are heard, too.”
The second statement was confessed to me over coffee a couple weeks ago by one of my students, who confided, “I go to a different church now, but I still understand when my friends avoid Christians because they don’t want to be judged. It still happens all the time.” When she concluded: “I’m a bit of a rebel when it comes to this sort of thing,” regarding the church’s involvement in social movements, I wanted to say, “Oh, sister, me too,” but instead I settled on, “Well, if you ever want someone to talk to, you can always come to me.”
As I finish up my first year of teaching, I’m still learning to navigate the space that includes sharing honestly with students about the problems in Christian communities while respecting the university that has nurtured, hurt, rebuilt, and employed me. It sure would be easier not to care—to be in and out of the office and repeat the university student handbook verbatim whenever someone comes to me in confidence. I could always feel apathetic when students write very vulnerable personal information in their reflection essays. But the college experience is about more than going to class, doing homework, and going back to class to turn in said homework.
College is about figuring out who you are, who you want to be, and what you value most. It kicks off that lifelong process of allowing yourself to grow and change for the better. And students at Christian universities need people they can trust to surround them, who will be real human beings and admit that members of this community don’t always fit the mold. How do I know this? For starters, I needed people like that when I was a student.
I’m going to let you in on a little-known fact. After my sophomore year at a Christian college I seriously contemplated taking time off—from school, from dogma, and whatever else I had felt obligated to do or be because of my gender and religious background. I had been a very dedicated and hard working student. I went through countless free coffee punch cards at the local coffee shop, tucking myself in a corner with caffeine and textbooks until the baristas started mopping at 11:00 pm. I had been a good Christian girl, too. I didn’t drink, or smoke, or have sex, or even make out on the benches down by Hess Creek. If Christian college were a poker game—which, ahem, it most certainly is not—you could say I was playing all the right cards, and I was gonna win, darn it. The problem is, the game kind of sucked.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad not to have a history of heavy drinking, hook ups, and drugs. My stomach lining is grateful for that, too. But during my sophomore year I had to tear away powerful and destructive messages that I had come to accept, some while growing up in evangelical Christianity and a lot while trying to fit in as a college newbie.
Guest chapel speakers, dorm hall conversations, student forums, and class discussions taught me key things that were supposedly true about myself, and any other woman in Christiandom: God designed extra special roles for women, bless our hearts. We can do whatever we want vocationally (except being a pastor in many congregations), as long as we remember that at our core, women are nurturing (I have been known to force-feed my students brownies), sweet (oops), spiritually and relationally intuitive (please tell me this develops with time), and submissive (double oops).
I learned Jesus loves me, yeah, but my value among peers and supposed role models depends on: the status of my hymen, how many times I swear or curse, whether I’m straight, and how well I can submit my will and ambition to the will of my future husband.
And to top things off, God is inherently masculine; we know this because he uses masculine pronouns to refer to himself in the bible, and masculine metaphors of the self, such as powerful, omniscient, and reasonable. End of story. But the story doesn’t end there, since to suppose a link between divinity and masculinity implies that women are less like God and for that reason less valuable. And for women who are taught to find their value in their relationship with God that feels really shitty. Really, really shitty.
As my sophomore year came to a close and junior year began, I started serendipitously connecting with professors who understood my experiences and sentiments. They didn’t wear sandwich boards reading, “Hey, I’m not sexist, racist, homophobic, or convinced I’m never wrong!” Instead they made it clear through the materials they assigned, the discussions they led, and the way they treated everyone—man, woman, A-student, D-student—with respect and kindness that they were safe people to be honest with. Without these faculty members, who I now call colleagues and friends, I would not be able to live with Christianity, even on the fringe.
I needed to have the opportunity to criticize Augustine’s take on women’s allegedly seductive nature in Kathy’s literature class. I needed Mark to come to my aid in our free will seminar when I had to admit honestly to a room of seven men that I didn’t know what a non-patriarchal epistemology would look like, and to call Cody a “Philistine” in Aesthetics after he slammed feminist art as seeking “a civil war.” I needed Melanie to see the humor in my cynical Valentine’s Day diatribe after my creative nonfiction classmates responded as if they were six-year-olds learning the Easter Bunny doesn’t exist. I needed Steve to hear and send my concerns to the person who released a poster on campus suggesting women were not candidates for youth ministry. I needed all of these people and many others on my journey through college to be proof-positive that some Christians really do exemplify kindness and peace, and that perhaps I could be like that.
It’s easy to stay angry over the ways an evangelical context has and continues to hurt us. I still get discouraged or flat out pissed off when I hear hate baptized with so-called biblical exegesis. These just so happen to be the times when I send snarky e-mails to my colleagues. I have not reconciled all my beliefs with biblical Christianity, nor do I plan to. And beware if anyone tries to tell my students that God’s love and acceptance is contingent on their race, gender, paycheck, immigration status, or sexual orientation. A person who believes that fodder doesn’t know the capacity these students have to love and be loved. That person has obviously not heard the stories my students can tell about the people they’ve lost, the hurt they’ve overcome, the crapshoot jobs they’ve worked, or the borders they’ve crossed.
Fortunately, Christian colleges are not filled to the brim with harsh, judgmental people—far from it. If that were the case I wouldn’t be here. There are people who want to hear those stories; you just have to look around and pay attention. And at the end of the day, if you find that traditions and histories are rapidly slipping through your fingers, find those people. You can hold on tightly to them, and they’ll help you pick up the pieces you can’t do without.