HA note: The author’s name has been changed to ensure anonymity. “Lena Baird” is a pseudonym specifically chosen by the author.
My junior year at PHC, I was in a small creative writing group. We met every few weeks, and passed around our recent works—short stories, poems, novel excerpts—and wrote comments and critiques in the margins. One week, I wrote a poem in response to a chapel message that had upset me. It was yet another story, from another man, about how something terrible had almost happened—but because of faith in God, disaster was averted at the last moment.
I was sick of hearing those stories. My life experience had been nothing like that, but no one had ever told a story like mine in chapel. So I wrote:You listen to the story, confident,
knowing the happy ending will arrive,
and leave you satisfied, your mind content,
your questions answered – yes, he did survive: the usual miracle. But I could tell a story with another kind of end –
an end of dreams and hopes, a glimpse of hell –
and would you smile, applauding calmly, then? No, better to keep silent. For till you have wept for a miracle that did not come,
and found all answers hollow and untrue,
your questions mocked beneath a dying sun – till you have faced the dark with empty hands – you will not hear; you cannot understand.
Not a great sonnet, by any means; but it expressed how I felt. The chapel message was not my story. I was struggling to process trauma, and loss, and tragedy. (I was probably clinically depressed, but I didn’t know anything about mental health, because that was another topic no one discussed.) I didn’t feel like I could say this to any of friends. So I said it in a poem, and even that felt like pushing a boundary—saying something people might not accept.
When I got my poem back, with comments, no one seemed to realize I was talking about myself. I don’t have the sheet of paper with comments anymore, but one girl wrote something very similar to this: “This person just doesn’t get it. God is good—someone needs to tell him!”
Not only did she assume that I was writing from the perspective of a fictional character …. she also assumed that the fictional character was male.
I knew all about God. That was the problem. What I knew about God—the narrative of Christian evangelical homeschool culture, the only framework for life I’d been exposed to—did not fit my life, at all.
And even when I dared to speak—obliquely, through creative writing—no one heard my questions.
My literature professor liked talking about worldviews. He considered most authors inadequate; their lack of “a Christian worldview” invalidated—or at least diminished—their artistic merits. He talked, frequently, about the need for “a Christian renaissance” in modern literature. From what he said, I got the impression that literature by Christians pretty much stopped with Lewis and Tolkien. Gradually, I realized that this was not accurate. Gilead won the Pulitzer Prize while I was at PHC, but I never heard it mentioned in class. I discovered Flannery O’Connor, Walker Percy, and Graham Greene outside of PHC. They weren’t mentioned as examples of Christian writers, either—possibly because they were Catholics, and Catholics were suspect, at best. (Tolkien, despite his Catholicism, seemed to be infallible.)
I wanted to be a writer, and I wanted to express my faith through my writing; but by my junior year, my faith was more doubt than certainty, more questions than answers. I liked O’Connor and Greene and Percy because they wrestled with doubt; their stories expressed a complicated, conflicted, messy faith.
But there wasn’t room for faith like that in class discussions.
There wasn’t room for my story.
My literature professor also talked a lot about gender roles. He said, “If a wife gets up to pray and have her quiet time at seven in the morning, the husband should get up at six.” As leader of the home, apparently the husband had to outdo his wife in everything. It wasn’t a model of marriage that appealed to me—but it was what most of my fellow students seemed to want. They talked a lot about how men were leaders, and women were supposed to support men in leadership. Almost all my friends thought the husband should lead in marriage. Most of them also thought only men should hold leadership roles in the church.
I found this baffling. One day, in the dining hall, I questioned the logic of male leadership. “What if I’m a good musician,” I said, “and the choice for music leader is between me and a man? What if the man doesn’t know how to read music?”
“It doesn’t matter,” my roommate said. “You should step back, and let him lead.”
There were five or six of us at the table. I was the only one who thought knowledge mattered more than gender. I secretly thought women could be pastors, too, but I was afraid to say that. Instead, I listened while they all explained to me that God created all men as leaders.
Later, in literature class, my professor said: “God calls a man to a vision. He calls a woman to a man.”
What did that mean for my dreams? My visions? Couldn’t a man and a woman both have dreams, and support each other in pursuing them?
He didn’t open the floor for discussion. There wasn’t room for my voice.
Gender roles didn’t just factor into literature class and dining hall discussions—they permeated campus culture. The female professors were all single. The male professors were all married. Only men were invited to give chapel messages. On the rare occasions when a woman spoke, we had “split chapel”: the female students met in one room, and listened to the woman speaker. The male students met elsewhere, and listened to a man.
Only male students were allowed to lead singing in chapel. Female students could accompany singing on the piano, if they wished, or they could back up a male singer with guitar. But they were never permitted to stand at the podium and lead singing—except when we had split chapel. If only women were in the room, a woman could lead singing.
In student elections, the candidates for student body president were always male. At least one female student ran for student body vice president, but she wasn’t elected.
Part Two >