Cameron Dezen Hammon (@camerondhammon) is a musician and author. Her debut book called This Is My Body: A Memoir of Religious and Romantic Obsession. It is a journey into her conversion from Judaism to evangelicalism and her gradual understanding of the difference between having a strong faith and being obsessed with religion. Saadia Faruqi (@saadiafaruqi) is a Pakistani American interfaith activist and author of the popular children’s series Yasmin. In this interview, Saadia interviews Cameron about her new memoir where they discuss faith, obsession, human behavior, and feminism in religious spaces.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Saadia Faruqi, Sojourners: You and I have talked in the past when we were both struggling writers, about how the art of writing is such a labor of love that you press on even when it’s devastating to your soul. And now with your memoir This Is My Body published, you are seeing the fruits of your labor. Congratulations! How does it feel like to have your innermost weaknesses and obsessions exposed like that? Has it been cathartic or stressful?
Cameron Dezen Hammon: I think everything about writing is a struggle, except for the actual writing, which (thank God) I still love. But yes, it’s great to connect with you in light of our recent publications. As far as “how does it feel…” I don’t think of my mistakes as weaknesses. I think making mistakes is human, but you’d be correct in thinking that the process of turning those mistakes into a book is both exhilarating and scary. I’ve recently learned that it’s not uncommon for the body to confuse fear and excitement. They feel the same. I’ve definitely experienced both since my book came out.
Faruqi: In your memoir, you talk about having to take a back seat to a lot of men in a lot of situations even though you knew you had something to offer. What does Christian feminism mean to you, and how do you see it being applied today in a way in the church that would make you happy?
Hammon: I’m reading a fantastic book about Dorothy L. Sayers, [The Mutual Admiration Society: How Dorothy L. Sayers and her Oxford Circle Remade the World for Women] the early 20th century writer, feminist, and theologian. The author, Mo Moulton, explains Sayers’ feminism, and that of her women colleagues, as doggedly egalitarian — which resonates with me. I believe women are equal to men inside and outside the church. Women are not made for “special roles,” but can fill any role. Christian feminism exists, of course, but even in liberal churches it’s a battle. I think of the church as the first patriarchy, the patriarchy upon which all others are built. It’s not easy to change two thousand years of practice, or even 500 years for the Protestant church. It’s possible but not easy. It always makes me happy to see a church hire a woman pastor or priest for the role of rector, or lead pastor. That gives me tremendous hope.
Faruqi: Losing confidence in religious institutions is something that many of us are familiar with, unfortunately. From my own perspective, Muslims have seen many religious leaders fall from grace for things they’ve done, and it’s been incredibly hard for a lot of us to accept that and move on from that. In your memoir, you use terminology that points to a similar loss of confidence and innocence. You talk about how some of your passions and obsessions were diluted as you went forward in your own complicated life and got deeper into church work. Can you explain what that loss of confidence is, how it relates to a lot of things that are in the news today such as #metoo and #churchtoo and everything that’s happening in the church today?
Hammon: I went into the church with no religious history, no experience. I believed it was a safe place, that it was holy. I thought people who wanted to be better and do better were drawn to church work. That is true for many people, but there’s also a darker side to it. It’s a place where abusers can hide quite successfully — they’re protected by the assumption that a priest or a pastor is held to a higher moral standard. Unfortunately, many people who are in positions of religious power and authority abuse that power, as we’ve seen with accounts of sexual assault and harassment in the evangelical church with the #churchtoo hashtag. Realizing that the church is not necessarily a de facto “safe space,” was shattering for me to come to terms with.
Faruqi: I was struck with how the two threads of your love obsession and your religious obsession seemed to run side by side. Obviously, this is the entire premise of your memoir. I’ve found in my own life that being religiously obsessed can give you a very fulfilling and passionate cause to focus all your energies on. It empowers you when things aren’t going well in other areas of your life. But you had two of these very powerfully motivating things happen, and one of them – the romantic obsession – you easily termed as addiction. You weren’t that forthright with the religious feelings, although they dimmed and became less obsessive by the end of the memoir. Are you still grappling with the religious feelings ? Do you internally also term them as an addiction? If so, what does that mean for all those religious people – Christians, Muslims, Jews, or any other faith – who do feel empowered by that intensity?
Hammon: There’s a difference between having a strong faith and being religiously obsessed, and religion can definitely be an addiction — in my view it becomes an addiction when it interferes with the rest of a person’s life, when following it means hurting oneself, or hurting other people. For me, I reinvented myself entirely in the wake of my conversion. I had to go deeper and deeper into it – trading my career and ambitions to become a music minister, living (however briefly) as a missionary, etc., in order to get that same feeling of intensity I had in the beginning. It’s not for me to speak to other people’s lived experiences, I can only talk about my own, and for me, it’s taken many years and a lot of reflection to live with a more reasonable faith — faith that’s part of me, but not all of me. Faith that doesn’t ask me to suppress who I am to fit into it.
Faruqi: You grew up Jewish and converted to Christianity in your 20's. In your memoir you talk a little bit about anti-Semitism in the church, but I think many Christians don’t really see it that way. Can you explain why this is harmful not only on a personal level but also, as you mention in your memoir, becomes a political thing? Do you think now that you’re less obsessed in your life, you can allow some of the Jewish traditions to re-enter in your heart or your daughter’s?
Hammon: Cultural appropriation of Judaism and Jewish tradition is common among evangelicals in my experience — from churches putting on Seder dinners to the trend of Christians getting Hebrew tattoos (which in and of itself is sort of bizarre, because religious Jews are forbidden from getting tattoos.) I think those who participate in these activities (and I am guilty of this) think of it a way of honoring what they see as the “Jewish roots” of Christianity. But Christianity also has a long tradition of anti-Semitism, from the brutal pogroms of the late 19th and early 20th century in Europe, to the shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh earlier this year (which was perpetrated by a man who used New Testament biblical references to justify murdering 11 innocent Jewish people.) I think to truly honor Judaism, Christians need to reckon with the darker side of Christian history. I think this should also extend to the way evangelicals have been manipulated by conservative politicians into supporting foreign policy that fails to condemn Israel’s violent repression of Palestinians. That’s a little bit more challenging than hosting a Seder or getting a tattoo, but a million times more important.
As far as honoring my own Jewish heritage, it’s something I continue to try to make space for in my life. I’ve been welcomed into a wonderful Reform Jewish congregation in Houston on occasion, and even met with their rabbi when I was seeking guidance after my Jewish father died, but I’m also aware that I made the choice to become a Christian, and that’s something I have to live with, that I choose to live with. To be honest, there’s still a lot of grief attached to that choice for me. It’s complicated.
Faruqi: You also host a podcast called The Ish, where I’ve been honored to be interviewed. You have such a wide variety of guests on the show, who discuss everything from politics to literature to music, all under the lens of religion. What motivated you to create this podcast, and where does it fit into your life? What do you hope can happen in terms of conversations at our dinner tables as a result of conversations you have with your guests on the podcast?
Hammon: The podcast actually isn’t all done through the lens of religion, but rather through the lens of liminality, or transitional space. I think there are “grey areas” in all of our lives — places where our identities are complicated, where we live in two worlds (maybe being a Jewish Christian has made me sensitive to this idea.) My hope is that The Ish sparks conversation around those issues of identity for people. We live in such a polarized time. I hope the podcast can help people see and accept parts of themselves and each other that they may not have before.
Faruqi: What’s next for you? Where do you see yourself writing-wise and also personally in the next few years? What’s your place in the church, post-memoir?
Hammon: I’ve just come home from a month of book tour, so I’m really trying to enjoy time at home with my little family. I’m still a happy Episcopalian, and I don’t see that changing any time soon. My church has been incredibly supportive of me and the memoir. I have a few writing projects in the notes section of my phone and computer, but I’m not sure what will be next! I wrote a book I’m proud of, and though I’m not great at living in the present moment, I’m working really hard at enjoying this one.