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Monday, November 6, 2017

"Still Christian" (David P. Gushee)

TITLE: Still Christian: Following Jesus Out of American Evangelicalism
AUTHOR: David P. Gushee
PUBLISHER: Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2017, (214 pages).

He has been on both sides of the divide. Raised as a Catholic, he became a member of Providence Baptist Church toward conservative Southern Christianity. Although he graduated from the liberal Union Theological Seminary, he was called to be a minister and an academic for the fundamentalist Southern Seminary. His years there became one of his most painful periods of ministry. Certain issues became hot potato issues that refuse to go away. Issues such as women ordination and pastoral leadership which became embroiled in power shifts amid strong convictions from all sides. Soon, he became disillusioned due to the infighting and how the events affected his marriage and family. Thankfully, he has mentors such as David Dockery who on several occasions offered him a way out of the struggles, and opens doors to various opportunities such as a different school to teach in and editing opportunities in Christianity Today. He sees firsthand the difficulties in trying to maintain a core fundamentalist stand while trying to stretch the limits of academic excellence. He has seen the worst behaviors from all sides. He became a "center-left evangelical ethicist." Soon people start to call him "every liberal's favourite evangelical." Then his own views on the LGBT debate shifted and he became "every evangelical's least-favorite liberal." His book "Changing Our Mind" about his changing stance would render him unpopular with evangelical circles. No matter how he tries to nuance his views, the evangelical camp isolated him. Speaking engagements were withdrawn. Publishers pulled his books. He learned first hand what it means to be taking an unpopular position.

This book is David Gushee's personal lament about his journey into and out of evangelical Christianity. Having experienced both the fundamentalist right and the liberal left, he still finds it hard to nuance a position that is acceptable to the majority without compromising his own convictions. Slowly, he is finding acceptance back into the Catholic Church, where it all began for him. Yet, there are certain convictions that remain the same for him. He believes in the ministry of preaching the whole Word of God. He believes in the need to keep learning. He believes that academic excellence is possible without compromising evangelical beliefs. He believes that victory is not about winning arguments but about climbing back from the depths of every fall. Above all, he is beginning to see from the margins. It takes one to be a voice. I remember Elisabeth Kubler-Ross's famous words:
"The most beautiful people we have known are those who have known defeat, known suffering, known struggle, known loss, and have found their way out of the depths. These people have an appreciation, a sensitivity, and an understanding of life that fills them with compassion, gentleness, and a deep loving concern. Beautiful people do not just happen."
For Gushee, the future is essentially back to the basics of family, friends, and faith. Could there have been a better outcome for the author? Maybe. Having experienced the pain of being marginalized for his own opinions, he has shown us that it is difficult to take a stand against a majority opinion. This is especially so for teachers and preachers who are expected to be judged more strictly based on what they teach. The experience of Gushee is quite similar to many others who had taken a stand against conventional views of the LGBT debate. The recent episode surrounding the highly respected Eugene Peterson about his willingness to bless gay marriages ended up with Peterson retracting his statements. Then and only then did the attacks on him subside. For Gushee, there was no such privilege, simply because he held on to his changing views. That is his prerogative, but at a heavy cost of being dismissed by the evangelical right. Perhaps, his story highlights a big gap between the left and right: How do we expand the space for dialogue? How do we control the powerful emotions from derailing any profitable discussion or theological discourse? Can we honestly communicate our authentic beliefs without becoming unduly punished for our points of view? As far as I could see, it would take a while before that could happen. The stakes are high, too high for some. Can we still treat each other as brothers and sisters even when our views on controversial issues differ? This remains a challenge. A very big challenge.

David Gushee is distinguished University Professor of Christian Ethics and Director of the Center for Faith and Public Life at Mercer University since 2007.

Rating: 4 stars of 5.


This book has been provided courtesy of Westminster John Knox Press and NetGalley without requiring a positive review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.

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