Outlaw Christian (Jacqueline Bussie) -- Review

OUTLAW CHRISTIAN: Finding Authentic Faith by Breaking the “Rules.” By Jacqueline A. Bussie. Nashville: Nelson Books, 2016. 268 pages.

                There seems to be a growing number of books that speak to the unsettled nature of the Christian faith. The allure of Enlightenment certainty is fading. One recent author wrote of the Sin of Certainty (Peter Enns). Now comes a book about Outlaw Christians. Much of this desire to escape the clutches of rules and regulations seems to emerge from within the evangelical community, both Bussie and Enns seem to reflect that current.  and certainty is the product of the Enlightenment.

                The idea of being an outlaw Christian does have an appeal. Too often the Christian faith is defined by rigid creeds and rules of behavior, rules that often detract from living in relationship with God. There is also much talk in recent years about authenticity, though as we’ve seen in the current political scene people seem to have a rather loose definition of authenticity. Bussie has something specific in mind when she invites to break the rules. She doesn’t have in mind biblical rules. Rather it’s the folk rules and customs that develop overtime. These are the rules that emerge out of fear rather than love of God and neighbor. At the same time, she speaks to rules that tell us that it’s not appropriate to argue with or get angry with God (obviously those who believe this way have never read the Psalms or Job).  The same goes for doubt. Even the greatest of saints have had doubts—witness Mother Teresa.  What does doubt offer? She suggests authenticity, for we as humans cannot claim to fully understand the infinite. If authenticity is a goal, then we must let go of the clich├ęs that deny the reality of suffering and evil. Bussie invites us to transgress the rules and discover our own stories. This leads in the end to an invitation to embrace a life of hope.

                Bussie writes as one who teaches religion at a Christian college, and thus many of her anecdotes emerge out of conversations with students who have been raised with these folk rules. She also writes out of her own life experiences dealing with suffering, especially having to care for her mother who suffered from early-onset Alzheimer's disease (one of the most insidious of diseases). This was accompanied, as we learn late in the book by her own bout of depression. Such experiences do pose a challenge to certainty. They give rise to questions and even anger, and if one is a believer then the questions and the anger will be posed to God.

                This is an intriguing book that reminds us that Christians continue to struggle with authentic faith. It is, in my estimation, a misnomer to suggest that it is only younger generations that seek authentic faith. But perhaps in recent years more freedom to ask questions has arisen, along with an increased questioning of authorities in general. It is true that even as each generation must face questions of suffering, evil, and the like, religious teachers have often told us that doubt is bad and that certainty should be the mark of the Christian. Many of us have discovered that this is a false idol. When we read the Bible with open eyes we discover that it is okay to get angry with God. After all, Job did. The Psalms provide us with plenty of prayers that express anger with God. As for doubt, the Psalms help us also. Part of the biblical story is the invitation to lament.

                I struggled with the book, and not because I buy into the "laws" she invites us to break. I recognized long ago that the Bible is filled with stories of people who struggle with doubt and anger with God. I know that there aren't easy answers out there. I haven’t bought the message that God has a wonderful plan for my life that can't be deviated from. Thus, I had the same kind of reaction to Bussie's book as I did to Enns's book. I think both books have an important audience. It’s just that I’m probably not that audience. I made the discovery that certainty and doubt are part of the life faith long ago. In large part due to life experiences. This discovery is part of the movement into spiritual maturity. So for those who are struggling with these questions Bussie offers a word of wisdom, rooted as much in experience as in study. Thus, this is a personal book, part theological reflection and part memoir. She tells her own story and that of others.

                I think the book has a good message, I just wish it was better edited. It seems as if Bussie wanted get every story she could into the book. Thus, chapters go on for fifty pages, when they could have been half that. This might just be me, but I felt like the book dragged at points.  What we shouldn’t miss is the message that it’s okay for Christians to break some of the rules that we place on each other.  While she wants us to break rules, she seems to possess a relatively moderate theology. She likes to quote Tillich, but her theology is really pretty orthodox. So maybe she’s not a radical outlaw! So, if you're struggling with things like doubt and anger and want to find a way into hope and joy, you might find this to be a good guidebook.


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