How I Learned (and Unlearned) To Be a “Good Christian Girl”
Download more of Megan's writing in the St. Hilda's House Winter Quarterly.
Living in community has provided me with a helpful reminder: not everybody's experiences and struggles with Christianity are going to resemble my own. In my adolescent and young adult years so far, I've done much wrestling (or, depending on where we are in my timeline, cooperating) with the idea of being a “good Christian girl.” These expectations, which have featured so heavily in my own Christian walk, are expectations with which some of my housemates may be unfamiliar or perceive differently to me. Being in community gives me, as well as my housemates, opportunities to recognize the ways in which we've been shaped by our stories and articulate those stories to each other.
The first thing I probably need to articulate here is what I mean by the phrase “good Christian girl.” For me, this phrase serves as shorthand for many of things I once felt I had to be. It is more a stereotype than an actual assessment of someone's devotion to their faith. To me, being a “good Christian girl” once signified being positive and perky. A “good Christian girl” was not confrontational: instead they got along with everyone. A “good Christian girl” never swore. She'd never make a first move on a guy because a “good Christian girl” let a guy lead (and would one day be a good, submissive Christian wife). A “good Christian girl” was not comfortable talking about sex. She dressed modestly so as not to cause brothers in Christ to “stumble.”
These are just a few examples of what I considered to be a part of the “good Christian girl” package. Some of these attributes I managed to fulfill, at least for most of my teenage years (like never swearing, for example); others I never really managed (like always being positive and perky). Some of these beliefs I wouldn't have even articulated to others, feeling embarrassed as someone who was labeled one of the “smart kids” to be embracing ideas that I knew others might find backwards. And though I bought into many of these standards for myself, I still felt there would be something a bit outrageous about holding others to them. No matter my success or lack thereof in being this “good Christian girl,” however, the ideas were still significant because of the hold that they had on me mentally and the way they impacted my faith.
Some people come into contact with such ideas through their families and church communities. This wasn't actually my experience. The “good Christian girl” messages weren't what I was being taught at home or in my Catholic church. These were the messages I was finding as I made independent efforts to take my faith more seriously.
The Christian media I found aimed at girls my age was, generally, conservative. For instance, I subscribed to Brio magazine, which was a monthly publication for teen girls from the conservative evangelical group Focus on the Family. I sometimes read Bible passages from Revolve, a “Biblezine” for teenage girls that featured, next to the biblical texts, articles with advice like, “God made guys to be the leaders. That means that they lead in relationships. They tell you they like you.” One of my favorite music groups was Christian pop group Barlowgirl, whose song “Average Girl” featured lyrics such as, “Like sleeping beauty/My prince will come for me/No more dating I'm just waiting/'Cause God is writing my love story.” I was even a member of an online forum called PurityGirls, whose members often talked about courting instead of dating and saving their first kisses for their wedding days. Those particular stances seemed extreme to me, but I still immersed in that culture—albeit virtually. These ideas I was coming across seemed to line up with more literal—and what I though were more faithful—readings of Scripture, in terms of statements about topics like modesty and gender roles. I have also always been a perfectionist who wanted to please others, so it's no wonder I took to these ideas that framed much of the Christian walk for women in terms of being pleasant.
In conjunction with embracing these “good Christian girl” values, I began distancing myself from the feminism that had once been significant to me. As a precocious preteen, I wrote my own feminist e-zine, but by the time I was a freshman in college, I kept my hand firmly down when a professor asked who in the class identified as a feminist.
Despite that transformation, I ended up finding out that trying to be a “good Christian girl” was not sustainable—at least, not when confronted with lived experience or a faith that was growing more dynamic.
These concepts were particularly challenged by experiences with my friends. In college, I formed strong friendships with other women who greatly influenced me. I made friends who were passionate about feminist causes, friends who, I could tell, would only be stifled if they were ever subjected to the many expectations of Christian womanhood I had adopted. I could tell in my gut that being a “good Christian girl” would not allow them to live any deeper into being the marvelous people who God created them to be. And if these norms wouldn't benefit everyone, I had to wonder if they were really of God.
The recognition that these expectations were stifling for myself, as well as others, was also partially due to my friendships with other Christian women who faced similar expectations. I witnessed how these ideas were failing us. Trying to be a “good Christian girl” led me to censor myself, compare myself to others in a way that was emotionally unhealthy, and live my life with less honesty and boldness than I believed I was called to by Christ. As I developed closer relationships with women who fit the “good Christian girl” image better than I had, I saw that they, too, were much more complex than that categorization and the accompanying expectations allowed.
Academic study of religion also triggered this unlearning processes. I started out by just taking one class from the Religion department at my college. This blossomed into a minor which I bumped up into a second major. I felt invigorated by melding together critical thinking and academic inquiry with questions of faith. Prior to college, I had often struggled with how to reconcile my critical, often skeptical, nature with my belief in God. My professors, some of whom were practicing Christians, , modeled for me how those things can come together. I became more willing and well-equipped to question interpretations of the Bible that held up feminine submission and stereotypes while seemingly ignoring Biblical characters that complicated that narrative, such as Deborah, Jael, the female disciples of Christ, and women in ministry mentioned in the epistles of Paul—not to mention messages about God's liberation of the oppressed and equality found in Christ. I struggled as my relationship with the Bible shifted throughout college, but it was also freeing to realize that the Bible and my faith would not lose all its meaning if I dared to think that, for example, 1 Timothy 2:13-15 was way out of line.
One of the most significant factors in unlearning these “good Christian girl” precepts, however, was simply getting to better know Christ. In college, I became part of a Christian community where my faith deepened. Before this, I often felt as if I wasn't measuring up as a Christian. I was very critical of myself for doubting too much, not experiencing God enough emotionally, and failing to be “on fire” for Christ. I wasn't the “good Christian girl” I desperately wanted to be. I feared I wasn't cut out for faith.
Though I often need God to remind me of it, I now believe that Christianity isn't about being good or being good enough. I believe that Christians are called to love and action, but that it's through God's love, grace, and goodness that we are able to find our identities in Christ, not our own. I believe that God sees me as a whole, complex individual. I believe that God has bigger plans for me than a laundry list of Don'ts or a stereotype—that God intends for me to grow more like Christ rather than more like a restrictive and repressive model of “biblical womanhood.” I also began to see justice and liberation as more significant aspects of God's character than I had in the past. As I recently wrote on a post in my personal blog, “these convictions that were coming out of my faith were helping unravel those sexist assumptions I thought my faith dictated.”
In a lot of ways, moving on from this “good Christian girl” ideal made my life more complicated. When I had the “good Christian girl” as an aspirational figure, I knew what I was supposed to do, even if I didn't always do it. Letting that go meant that some decisions that were once straightforward became much murkier.
Overall, though, this is a good type of complicated that has ushered blessings into my life. It has allowed me to express myself creatively in ways that I may not have, particularly in the form of honest poetry about life as a young Christian woman, that I have been able to share without shame. It allowed me to stand on a stage during a school production of The Vagina Monologues and deliver a monologue that I wrote, which, among other things, called out the church for the problematic ways it talks about sex and ignores female desire. It allowed me to start a Bible study at my college with friends (many of whom were passionate about women's issues and many of whom were not religious) to talk frankly about women and Scripture. It allowed me to call myself a feminist again and even join our college's feminist group, though that membership happened regrettably late in my college career.
It is the type of complicated that is a part of my development into the person that God would have me become. That person may not be a “good Christian girl” (or, to cast it in more adult terms, a “Proverbs 31 woman”) as I once may have defined it, but that is okay. I do not need to meet those expectations to “grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 3:18 NRSV). I do not need to meet them to love.
I look forward to the ways in which Saint Hilda's House will serve as a continuation of my journey and will further my knowledge of God and myself. In the context of the different stories, personalities, and backgrounds of the other Hildans, I am prompted to reflection on the particularities of my own story, while being open to learning from the stories of my housemates as well. I pray God's presence may be felt throughout the year in the ways our stories both intersect and diverge.