Beautiful and Terrible Things
A Dog on Hind Legs
It was a hot Texas day, the kind when the air conditioners ice the inside of the buildings and when you step outside the heat hits you in the face like you’re walking into a brick wall. It was my sophomore year in college and it was early afternoon—universally the worst time of the day to be in any class.
I’d always been a great rule-follower, and going to college was what I was supposed to do. Every day I sat in class so I could meet requirements, graduate, and . . . get married? But beyond checking boxes, my classes led me to notice new ideas that stretched me to think in ways I’d never considered before. I sat in History of Catholicism and began making associations between what I was learning and how I experienced the world.
I registered for courses that were taught by brilliant, accomplished female professors. Shocking even myself, I started to imagine myself in a role like that—one in which I led a room instead of sitting obediently in the crowd.
I attended lectures in which I was introduced to ideas I’d never heard before. Feminism? Pacifism? They all seemed foreign and, because of their unfamiliarity, a little sinister—but oh, so exciting.
I’d come to college with the vague ambition of studying history, but more and more my attention was captured by courses in the religion department. I didn’t give much thought to what I would do after I graduated. I saw only one trajectory in the lives of the women around me: good grades and, eventually, a nice Christian husband. Without giving it much thought, I assumed that would be my path, too.
On that hot Texas afternoon in my sophomore year of college, I walked into my Women in American Religion class, an elective I’d added to my schedule after several semesters of religion courses. I admired the professor, the only woman on the faculty of the otherwise all-male religion department. Curiously, there happened to be only a few women in the class; most of the students were male upperclassmen finishing religion degrees and in need of electives to wrap up their course requirements before they headed to graduate school to prepare to work as pastors of churches. The professor had assigned an exercise, to rewrite a traditional Christian song text using language that was intentionally gender-inclusive. For example, the line in the familiar Christmas carol “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing,” “Pleased as man with men to dwell,” might become “Pleased with us in flesh to dwell.”
The purpose of the exercise, the professor explained, was to illustrate the pervasive use of male-dominated language that runs through every part of our experience and practice of religion. I heard the professor’s explanation with detached curiosity; I’d frankly never even considered this obvious reality until she pointed it out. In fact, this was my first introduction to the phrase “inclusive language.” Until then, I had been only vaguely aware of a movement, which was building in some parts of the Church, to change pronouns for God and to use only gender-neutral pronouns in holy texts. The idea was to make the religious experience more universally applicable. I hadn’t yet encountered these viewpoints on gender inclusion and spirituality; I didn’t yet know there were women in the Church who assumed that Bible readings including the words “he” or “him” or “men” just didn’t apply to them. All of that male-dominated language was just familiar and comfortable to me.
When the professor opened the class that day, she asked us to share the songs we’d chosen and our feelings about the exercise of rewriting them with new language. Looking back, I can see that her aim was to lead us toward a conversation about the many ways in which religion in America functioned, and functions, as a limitation on the full expression and inclusion of women, but at the time, I still held a pretty sheltered view of that reality.
I grew up in a religious tradition in which women warmed casseroles, taught children’s Sunday school classes, and sometimes—with the endorsement and supervision of the male pastor—taught women’s Bible study classes. It’s not that I had ever heard anyone preach or teach about specifically why women couldn’t be pastors, it was just that I’d never seen a woman pastor. I honestly didn’t even know such a thing could exist.
Even as I approached eighteen years of age, that critical edge of adulthood, the mystery of vocation—the way God’s Spirit wanders in and out of our lives, nudging and pulling, sometimes drop-kicking us into foreign territory and pushing us to change—hadn’t planted itself deeply enough for me to know I was breaking any rules by wanting to work in the Church. I just knew I loved Jesus and could organize a church potluck with one hand tied behind my back. I’d learned all my life, after all, that I was supposed to somehow discover God’s mysterious and perpetually just-out-of-reach “plan” for my life. My primary focus was to find a husband with whom to build a family, and whatever job I had would support that goal.
With all of this wondering about my future swirling around me, it seemed like the best course of action, though still vague, was to do something like marry a pastor. That would check many of the expected boxes, and I thought it might also fill a need in my own heart to do something . . . anything . . . meaningful. I wanted to serve God, to help other people in my community. But I didn’t have a clear idea of how.
As the discussion in class that day began, I heard some sniffling, gradually louder, until it became clear that a woman sitting somewhere behind me was crying. Finally, she managed to choke out, not just distress, but a deep objection to the exercise; to her, this assignment was sacrilegious.
Since I hadn’t yet considered the role of organized religion in the oppression and exclusion of women from the Church (and from all societal systems, as a matter of fact), I am sure I thought—if I’d given it any thought at all—that feminism was something bad, if not verging on satanic. After all, Phyllis Schlafly was a name I knew; talk of the evils of the Equal Rights Amendment peppered conversation at my childhood dinner table, and my mother participated in organizing efforts to defeat it. While I’d always secretly wondered why people having equal rights was something we should object to, I valued obedience above all, and I never openly questioned my parents’ beliefs. My mother stayed at home caring for five children, but we all knew of her considerable academic and professional achievements; her work at home with us was a choice she’d made. The message was clear: A woman who chooses a domestic role was making the virtuous choice; anything else was vaguely . . . wrong.
In that refrigerated classroom that afternoon, my thighs sticking to the avocado green plastic seat, something began to shift. Writing a song with gender-inclusive language wasn’t that big a deal . . . was it?
When I heard my fellow student crying, I was first curious, then viscerally annoyed—seriously, she’s crying about this?
The professor pointed at me. “Miss Dill,” she asked (that was me back then), “is there a problem?”
I stammered “No” and lowered my head, desperate not to let my facial expressions give me away.
But what I really wanted to say was that it seemed ridiculous to cry about this assignment; that perhaps there might in fact be some male bias in the Church; and that it could be interesting to think a bit more deeply about this question . . . in an academic way, of course. I felt dismissive of my classmate’s tears because I didn’t yet recognize what they represented.
As I recall, the girl sitting behind me seemed like the type who was even more intent on finding a husband than I was. For her, the professor’s words did not present an opportunity for thoughtful consideration, but more likely a challenge to the gender roles that defined her goals and her future. An assignment as simple as rewriting song lyrics represented to her a dismantling of the framework by which she lived her life, and within which she imagined her whole future. Of course she was upset, and probably afraid. Why did I feel so dismissive of her emotional reaction? Maybe it was because I didn’t want to look any closer at what the assignment signified for me; it was too scary.
Since that day, I’ve come to think that nothing fundamental changes in us humans until we cry about something—that is, until it impacts us in ways that challenge our assumptions and change our hearts. Crying is the manifestation of the knowledge that change is on the horizon, the external evidence that we are in the process of being transformed. It’s likely that my classmate was a little further down the road of “deconstruction,” the experience of clearing out and totally rebuilding what you believe. That experience is never a walk in the park; it always hurts if you do it right.