Jesus Girls: True Tales of Growing Up Female and Evangelical
Jesus Girls is a truly beautiful array of humbling feelings and bittersweet experiences, from fears of generational sin to tales of exchanging the pants off your own body with those from a hitchhiker. Divided into sections—community, worship, education, gender and sex, and story and identity—many of the stories were first printed in publications like Geez Magazine. To be clear, the writers are both reformed Christians and current believers.
Trained to tell the story of one’s life as personal “testimony,” editor Hannah Faith Notess instead describes her “un-testimony”—a reverse conversion of sorts, though admittedly usually a less linear, much more complicated, character-filled than a come-to-Jesus testament of personal awakening. Notess explains that whereas Jesus and your sinning self are the primary roles in evangelical conversion narratives, experiences of conversation—in either direction—never happen in a vacuum and are often heavily influenced by our own church communities.
Notess also made a special point to emphasize women’s voices in this collection. “Even in evangelical circles that approve of women’s leadership, it seems, too often women are only called upon to speak on ‘women’s issues,’” she explains. She also points out that in many evangelical traditions, women are taught to be silence in church congregations, even while their testimonies are often just as—if not more—powerful than men’s stories of conversation and salvation.
The collection is based largely on stories of North American evangelism, and while many types of evangelical congregations are not included, that is hardly a weakness of this book. Some of the stories are more interesting or personally relevant than others, and some—like Anastasia McAteer’s “Exorcizing the Spirit” or an essay about swimming lessons—are admittedly startling amidst tales of DC Talk CDs, test-run mission trips to India, and those stiff paper candle skirts that catch candle wax. Perhaps because accounts relating to gift subscriptions to Brio magazine and Jack Chick comics so excite me, a few of the more serious accounts failed to seize me altogether.
Several of the accounts feature women under ten regularly choosing to accept Jesus into their hearts or experience voluntary baptism. As someone who did both of these things during the same developmental periods of my life, these stories were comforting in the normalcy. There are also stories of a different kind of acceptance, like protestant Angie Romines’ desire to be in her story’s namesake, the “Catholic club,” or Kirsten Cruzen’s story of surviving life as a child of missionaries—“a missionary kid, an MK.”
Most comforting for an agnostic such as myself—if also most disturbing—are stories of early confusion, like Shari MacDonald Strong’s account of her inability to grasp women’s supposed original sin at only five years of age. Despite her love of greater knowledge and the Bookmobile, by her teen years, she has been effectively desexualized and demoralized by her church. Later, codependent and abusive relationships stem from so little self-esteem, personal empowerment, and knowledge of the opposite sex. No doubt many feminists who grew up in a church—myself among them—have had to navigate similar quandaries.
Some essays offer engaging, seemingly unintentional contrast as well. Stephanie Trombari details her battles with mental illness that led her to Toronto Airport Christian Fellowship, a “tent revival meets United Nations” faith healing community. And in Carla-Elaine Johnson’s “Family Time,” nurse-type attendants standing around the sanctuary to take care of anyone who “fell out” during rhythmic “stomping.” Depending on whom you believe, faith will either make you collapse or find true healing in concepts like “emotional health gospel.”
One writer tells of having an abortion at nineteen, a devastating event that nevertheless made her move “from pro-life or pro-forgiveness.” After living through myriad scandals including adultery, suicide, and her church splitting in two, unable to choose one of two pastors, Paula Carter writes, “I worry that people who grow up in the church learn to deny their own humanity.” It became clear to her that the church people were simply unable to live up to their own standards. With a bittersweet sentiment that made me laugh out loud, Carter wrote, “It is hard for me even now to reconcile the expectations of church and the reality of being alive.”
From the very real experience of being called to ordination to the confusions of the trappings of faith—as in, the belief that the right music and the right books will yield a saved self—Jesus Girls is a joyous, if sometimes harrowing, exploration of what it means to grow up female, evangelical—and sometimes, even feminist.