25: Jennifer Crumpton
reverend and media commentator
Rev. Jennifer D. Crumpton is an author, media commentator, columnist for Patheos and Huffington Post, and public speaker on topics at the intersection of women, religion, politics, social justice, and popular culture. After more than a decade as an advertising executive for Fortune 500 companies, she reconsidered her calling and went on to earn a Master of Divinity from Union Theological Seminary, where she studied feminist theology, inter-faith social justice, and social/structural ethics. Jennifer is active in various organizations and publications around women's equality, multi-religious peace and security movements, and LGBTQ equality. Jennifer lives in New York City with her husband, Dave Ross, and is affiliated with Park Avenue Christian Church.
Emma Noelle is a student and photographer who lives and works in New York City. Specializing in portraiture and documentary photography, Emma works with analog mediums to tell stories and evoke poetry through her images. Emma's work is largely influenced by her lifelong love for art, music, and literature. Through portraiture and documentary photography, she is able to unite her constant desire to return to the past with her ability to observe and engage with the world around her.
This interview was conducted by Sophia Richards on March 28, 2017, in Jennifer's Manhattan apartment. Emma Noelle photographed and witnessed the conversation.
SOPHIA: Talk to me about your experience of girlhood.
JENNIFER: I grew up in Birmingham, Alabama, a very conservative, Evangelical Christian town. There was this time that I remember of girlhood before being drawn into those conservative Christian narratives, and having my reality defined for me by a patriarchal system. I remember being three or four years old and playing outside. I just loved being out in nature. I loved playing in the woods and running around the neighborhood and getting to know the squirrels and the butterflies and the scraggly old neighborhood cats and the dogs that were penned up in backyards. I just remember standing outside one day and the wind was blowing, it was sunny, and it was so warm in Alabama. The sun was lighting up the tops of the trees —these big old trees down south. It looked like they were sparking, like they were on fire. They looked like sparklers to me. The wind was blowing, and it was moving the leaves, and they were sparkling and dancing, and I had this feeling that, "This is God." And I thought "This is a part of me. This is where I come from. The trees and the sunshine and the cats and the pavement…” That was my first sense of God.
I recall having this feeling that was…pre-religion for me. I didn't know anything about Christianity or what was to come in my life —what I was going to be inculcated into— but I knew that this was God and that it was a part of me, and that there wasn't anything that I had to do or say. God just was, and was a part of all of us.
Then fast-forward a couple of years, and I remember playing down in our basement. I was on one of those little bouncy ball things, and I very distinctly remember having this conversation in my head about gender norms.
JENNIFER: Of course I didn't know that I was thinking about that, but I remember...I was around five or six, and I had just started to realize that people would say things to girls one way, and they would say things to boys another way. Particularly, I was starting to realize that things were sort of male-centric in my church. So I just remember thinking, "I'm a guy! Clearly I'm a guy, because I can do anything I want to do!”
JENNIFER: I just had that child's sense of confidence in my body and my ability to run and jump and play and think and learn, and I just came to this conclusion that even though I technically knew I was female, I had to be a guy. [laughs] Later on, when I could look back on my childhood and be able to name things better, I realized that there was just this vibrancy about life. There was this constant change and ebb and flow. I was very sensitive to moods and even to lighting. I later found out that I'm just a sensitive person. When you're a sensitive person, stimuli are overwhelming a lot of the time.
As I grew up in this white, suburban, middle-class, insular world where I was being told what to think and believe, that magic was just lost. It was just taken, and sort of preempted by this big, towering, patriarchal version of Christianity. I don't speak for all of Christianity when I say that; it was just one small part. I don't know how many people are able to keep that [magic, or sense of life] until they get older, but [the search for] that has guided what I've done later in life. When I made certain career changes on the later side of my life, like going back to grad school when I was thirty-five, I did them because I was trying to recapture that innate joy of living and belief in myself, and in good God that doesn't require things of you or strike you down with lightning bolts. That's girlhood for me. There was a lot of loss.
SOPHIA: You wrote: "I started to experience some cognitive dissonance, as so many of us do with our traditions, over the way it affected my growth, self-worth, impact, and life as a female adult." Can you talk more about that period in your life?
JENNIFER: I guess it sort of started in my twenties, but it really peaked in my thirties. I moved from Birmingham to New York City when I was thirty years old. I had gotten a divorce from a really great guy. I had realized at some point in my late-twenties that everyone down [south] got married in their mid-twenties or even earlier, and...I graduated from this small Christian college in Birmingham, and I was like an old maid because I hadn't gotten engaged while I was in college.
JENNIFER: I realized while I was married, "Wait a minute, I've just kind of gone along with this whole sequence of life, and now here I am with the house and the picket fence, and my husband's ready to have kids," and I'm thinking, "Wait, I'm still a kid. I need to somehow raise this child that I still am. I’m not ready to do that." But I guess that I had told him I was [ready], because I was just so used to saying what people wanted to hear. You're not really a person in many communities as a female until you get married. Like "Oh, now you're an adult."
SOPHIA: Because you're like “unmatched.” It's associated with prostitution —being a “public woman.”
JENNIFER: Clearly something's wrong with you and you must be restrained. But it was ironically getting married that made me start thinking about freedom. I was only married two years, and I wrote a ton of poetry, and it was all about exploring the experience of hearing something in my psyche, my heart, and my gut that was telling me to get divorced and run. Go find adventure, go live, go grow up. I had gone to college in my hometown, literally five minutes from my high school and the house that I grew up in.
So I struggled for two years about how I was going to [get divorced.] Because in my religious tradition, you're going to hell if you get divorced. And my family would be devastated. I had two older sisters, and they were both married with kids, and I was terrified. I was trying to reconcile the fact that I was hearing this voice that seemed like God to me when I would pray, that was telling me to do things that the God I was raised to believe in would send me to hell for. [laughs] And it was confusing. What's truth? What's the truth of this situation? Am I willing to risk being shunned socially, in my religious circles, and in my family in order to find my life? And how weird is it that God is telling me to do that? It was a time of huge risks for me. It felt like my life was at stake. And really it kind of was. Because I very easily could've stayed there, stayed married to this very nice guy, had a bunch of kids, probably be in the fetal position on prozac or something...I don't know.
JENNIFER: So I got a divorce, and there were wild rumors about why. People talked about me behind my back, and my family was not supportive. It took me a couple of years to get the courage to move to New York City, which was a big transition. I had to totally recreate my life. But it was totally worth it [laughs] There was a lot of trepidation, but what I think is so funny is that I feel like it was led by a higher power. It was lead by God. All these things that the people I knew would think were the opposite of anything Godly.
SOPHIA: What are you most attracted to within feminist theology and why?
JENNIFER: My first introduction to feminism was feminist theology. We don't think about [religion and feminism] that much because feminism flows along a sort of secular spectrum, and people tend to think "If religion is going to get involved, it's going to screw it up." So many people believe that feminism and religion are just intrinsically opposed forces, and in many ways they are. [laughs] I'll be the first to admit that. But for me, growing up, feminism was a bad word. I didn't learn anything about feminism in school. If it was brought up, usually because of something on TV, the whole rhetoric around it would be, "Feminists are just whiny, angry, confused, godless.” In fact, I would say it was a threat to our lifestyle, in a sense. It was a threat to that hierarchy that upheld our religious beliefs.
In my late twenties and early thirties, I loved to go to bookstores, walk around, and see what spoke to me, and I remember seeing Reviving Ophelia. I got the book and then I got some stuff by Naomi Wolf. I started voraciously consuming it on my own, and that's where a lot of the cognitive dissonance came in. Because I'd be reading it and I would be like, "That can't be right...or can it?"
JENNIFER: I was scared of it! Because when you've been inculcated into the belief that if you step outside certain boundaries, God is going to hate you and you're gonna be condemned to hell…there’s a sense of these tectonic plates shifting, and it feels like your whole world is trembling. When they start separating, you don't know whether you're going to get sucked in.
So I think feminist theology is often overlooked in feminist discourse, and it's extremely important because it can address so much of what many of us build our lives around, which is our faith. It reconstructed everything in my head, and allowed me to tear a bunch of old crap down...That's the technical term.
JENNIFER: And rebuild [my faith] in a context that actually served me as a woman.
JENNIFER: I also think that all the stuff that's going on in our politics harkens back to patriarchal religion. It's the same concepts. Raping the earth. Putting women in their place. Taking away any control that we may have over our own bodies. Forcing an economic system upon us that doesn't serve the greater good or the most vulnerable. You can look back at Augustine and so much of early Christian theology, and you hear the same narratives as when you watch CNN today. It's mind-blowing. It's something that we can use, because we're having to fight against those same forces today. Religion is such a fascinating place to do feminism.
SOPHIA: On your website, I saw that you wrote "He," referring to God, in quotation marks, and I was wondering what your ideas are about the gender of God.
JENNIFER: "He" is God in most of Christian thought, writing, and discourse. Rarely do we ask, "What's a little girl going to feel about the idea of 'male as Lord?'" There are so many confusing things in the Bible, hymns, and stuff like that about who God is —this big He. You get the image of this big man in the sky with the flowing white beard and the fierce look on his face. He's so forceful. I think and talk a lot about how we refer to the gender of God impacts girls and women. So many times, it translates to feeling like you're under the thumb of this big scary male God, and yet you're taught that he's loving and merciful, and it's so confusing. Personally I believe that God does not have a gender. It's silly that we ever even called God a "He." It's ridiculous. We're all in a gendered body, but we're all just spirits and souls, you know? And those don't have a gender. I think if each of us stops and thinks, we all possess qualities of both genders. Sometimes those are repressed or shamed, but that's, to me, the way that we're created in the image of God. When we gender things, especially God, we lose who we are as human beings. We lose the totality of the creations that we are, the potential that we have, and what we can do in the world.
Like I said, I was thirty-five years old when I went to seminary, and at Union, it's part of the rules that you have to be gender-neutral about God in class. You can say "He," but in your next sentence, you need to say "She." A lot of the time, people just say "God" or "God's self." And I was furious when I first went to seminary, because I was like, "God's a He!" I didn’t even necessarily believe God was a "He" at that point, but it was so offensive somehow. I realized how deeply ingrained this was, because it just tweaked me. So as I went along my first year, I started to ask myself, "Why would I fight something that frees me?" It really opened my eyes to how I was raised as a female, as a Christian, to fight everything that would free me —and to fight for things that would imprison me. Why would I not be happy to take this opportunity to explore what God as female looks like, or God as non-gendered? So I was like, "Ok...well hell, I'm going to do this."
I actually came to understand God as something that was made for man's image. In so much theology, particularly early Christian history, God was a projection of male power. For instance, the God of the Jews, Yahweh, was a reflection of everything that was going on with the Israelite people as they wandered around and as they were oppressed. The whole Bible was the Israelites asking "God, why are you doing this to me?” Why are you destroying us? Why have we been captured?" But as we moved into Roman times, God became the perfect male, the ruler, the king, and all that kind of stuff. Ultimately, God's self is not any of the things we project God to be in our likeness.
SOPHIA: Do you want to talk about the condition of women in the church as a whole, or imposing an "unwanted feminism" on women whose religious beliefs instruct them to be submissive to men?
JENNIFER: Interestingly, I see those two questions as very integrated with one another. It's really hard to articulate [the position of women in the church], because at this point in history, I feel like Christianity and the church is really opening up. Like, the church that I was ordained in, there are female pastors; I was able to get ordained. And just by the nature of my career path, I've been able to meet so many people —particularly men— who strike me, because they are so invested in giving women the space in the church to lead, to be the ones to interpret scripture, and to speak for God. So that gives me so much hope. We're starting to really see more and more of that as denominations liberalize. They're becoming LGBT-inclusive and ordaining gay people. So there's that, but there's also still so much of the old-way of doing it.
Right before I started seminary, I decided to go to Birmingham to visit my family. While I was down there, I heard about this mega-church in the suburbs which had just appointed a twenty-nine year old guy as the senior pastor, which is a really progressive move for a super conservative Evangelical establishment. So I was like, "Maybe I'll go by while I'm down there to listen to a sermon and see what's up with this." Because at that point, I wasn't even attending church anymore. So I get my mom to go with me, and we go, and we're sitting there in one of those big, cavernous auditoriums with the screens, and they’re all wearing headsets, and everyone's in jeans and button-downs...the whole thing. And there's this huge constructed river-looking thing with rocks and a waterfall where people get baptized. [laughs] It's like out of control. It's a production.
I said a prayer on the way to church. “God, I'm about to start seminary. I don't know why I'm going to seminary. Maybe this is an interesting context for you to speak with me today, with this like twenty-nine year old pastor. Because I haven't been to church in so long." So I go, and I'm kind of excited. I'm like, "I'm going to hear something or feel something today, I just know it." And he gets up there and proceeds to preach a sermon about the fact that they're nominating elders and deacons. He gets into 1 Timothy and gets super literal with it, and the second half of the sermon is about why women can't be elders or deacons. And I am like, flabbergasted. I'm like…“This guy is younger than me.”
JENNIFER: There are all these little girls sitting in the audience, and the women in the audience are all very prominent in the community. I'm sure there were some female city-counsel members. So I'm sitting there thinking, 1) Ok, God. Screw you, because I asked you to say something positive to me about why I'm going to seminary, and you have this little dude up here telling me why women can't be elders or deacons. And 2) I'm looking around, and I'm like…“Is anybody else pissed off about this?" He's so serious up there and everybody's just rapt. All these little girls are sitting in this audience and hearing this guy tell them that God won't let them be a leader in their church. Nor can their moms be. He preached very close to the scripture in 1 Timothy, which talks about how an elder or deacon should be, and of course it talks about it in male terms, because it was written a long time ago! So this sermon is just based on the fact that it excludes any female pronouns. I'm just sitting there incredulous. And I'm in the car driving my mom back to my parents' house, and my poor mom…I spent the whole ride home recounting stories in the Bible that contradicted his sermon and venting about how wrong the pastor was....using many choice words.
JENNIFER: "Who the hell does he think he is getting up there preaching this sermon?" I'm just going off. Later that day, it hits me. I haven't been to church in years. Why did I decide to go this one mega-church on this one day before starting seminary? I was supposed to there to see that this is still freaking happening. That this is still going on. That little girls are still hearing this stuff about themselves, and that just like me, they're going to lose all their confidence and question their abilities. I got pissed. I was like "This is why I'm going to seminary."
I think there's still so much, and the state of women in the church is changing, but it's also not. Again, I just have to say, we see it reflected in our politics every day, We see it in being able to elect a man who says he grabs women by the pussy. And they love it. And he can because he's powerful and rich. Does it come from behind the pulpit? Do we hear it on CNN? Do we hear it from our president? Do we hear it from Congress? It's all the same, really. So often as feminists, we're tempted to say, “That's so messed up. Let's just not even bother [to change it]. Because those people believe what they believe. Their scriptures aren't gonna change. They hymns they sing aren't gonna change." But that behavior is also the seat of so much of the [oppressive] rhetoric that we see playing out in all sectors of society. Obviously there's freedom of religion and people are allowed to believe whatever they want, but there's a danger in that, as well.
It's like the whole debate over "Do Christians who believe that being gay is wrong have to bake a cake for the gay couple?" It's this whole catch-22 where it's like "It's my religious belief, so I don't have to do anything for anybody that I don't want to." But that's the opposite of how Jesus operated. So it becomes this clash, not just the gay couple's rights being stepped on because of your religious beliefs, but also deciding [whose rights] are more important. Jesus was for the oppressed people. He was for all races, ethnicities, genders, and ways of being. He didn't talk about those things, because they weren't what he was there to talk about. That society was all about oppression by the Romans. But we can extrapolate how he was and who he was, and it's so important to all facets of society that we talk about that question that you just asked me.
SOPHIA: What do you believe that women in the world need or can do for each other presently?
JENNIFER: The first thing that we need to do is tell our stories. This is why your website is so important.
SOPHIA: Thank you!
JENNIFER: There are very limited venues for women's stories. Our stories have been so squelched over history, and they still are in so many ways. We're scared to be honest about certain things because you get either ridiculed or pigeon-holed. Let's take the whole construct of sexual-assault, and how it's finally being talked about. So many women are still too afraid to tell their stories. A lot of the Cosby-women came out, but a lot of them didn't. A lot of them only came out after the first woman came out, and they were attacked. How can we create our own lives, develop our potential, and create a world that's good for women if we can't tell our stories? I think that every woman needs to be brave enough to tell her darkest, deepest story. For me, that was talking about being raped when I was nineteen. That's what this Time article was about.
It's so tempting, especially in this age of…Instagram. I'm so thankful for millennials, because y'all are just like "We're doing what we want to do. We're moving forward." I wish that would've been more the thing amongst women when I was in college, but it just wasn't. But I think that the generation gap kind of skipped from women who were afraid to do anything, to women who were like "I'm going to do everything perfectly all the time." There’s the temptation to do that without talking about hardships. So I would especially call on millennials to really talk about the shitty stuff. We can't forget the gap even just between your generation and my generation —what women were not allowed to talk about, and what stories we couldn't tell because we would be so shamed. It's important to tell our stories for the sake of other women, so that they can stand up.
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