There was a time when I believed the Great American Idea that your autobiography is your own personal story. Now, after years of exposure to a rich variety of people, customs, and traditions, I realize that our own personal stories are inextricably linked to the stories of our fathers, our mothers, and the people of our culture.
For over a hundred years, most of the members of my family were cotton farmers, people of the earth who had left the luxuries of Western Europe to try their hand in a new land. They had enough courage to traverse the Atlantic and half of the continental United States territory in search of a better life. They had enough grit and determination to prevail through both the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl of Oklahoma. They were a pragmatic, hard-working lot of people who gave little thought to their relationship with God. Jesus was reserved for Sundays – right along with fried chicken, sweet corn on the cob, and creamy mashed potatoes smothered with thick gravy. There was no real relationship with God, only a religion that had little to do with daily life on the cotton farm.
My family’s story is not unique among the families that have populated the southern regions of the United States for the last two centuries. Even today, many portions of the South still suffer from the Jesus-and-fried-chicken faith. For many Southerners, being a Christian means that you go to church on Sundays and sometimes pray before meals. Christianity did not involve a life-transformation or a close, growing, intimate relationship with God. This is the family and the culture in which I was born and raised, and my spiritual journey is the sun-dappled story of how a very real, omnipresent God broke through these false ideas and brought healing to the damage they had caused.
I don’t believe that Jesus-and-fried-chicken faith, that cultural Christianity, is unique to the South. I believe that anytime we get comfortable in our journey with God, when “Jesus AND money, ministry, work” becomes part of our conversation in our families and in our churches, when we focus on numerical growth rather than spiritual growth, when we become desensitized to the central message and calling of Jesus, when we experience a fragmentation in the church over issues of gender, worship, service, and textual interpretation, our faith is at risk of being reduced to a Jesus-and-fried-chicken faith. With Jesus, there is no “and.” There is only Jesus, the dusty-footed itinerant preacher who ushered in a revolution in the way we understand and relate to God.
I still struggle with all of the “ands” in my life and in my leadership roles. They often spring up in the most unexpected places, like weeds pushing up through the cracks in a concrete sidewalk. I forget about faith when I’m trying to piece together a life that is composed of a whole host of complex, competing roles, such as wife, future mother, writer, professor, and student. I forget about providence when I worry about budgets and finances. I forget about holiness when I focus too long on the various ministry tasks that I deal with on a daily basis.
I don’t want a Jesus-and-fried-chicken faith. I want Jesus. And I don’t think I’m alone. As Christian women leaders, we have to be willing to look long and hard at all of the “ands” that have made their way into our lives and our ministries. What are the other “ands” that impede our progress as women leaders? How can we, as leaders, begin to eliminate them first in our own lives and then in the lives of those we lead?