STILL CHRISTIAN: Following Jesus out of American Evangelicalism. By David P. Gushee. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2017. Xvi + 151 pages.
I am four years older than David Gushee, which means I've traveled similar terrain, even if we grew up in opposite sides of the country and in different denominational traditions. He was raised Catholic. I was raised Episcopalian. He left the Catholics for the Southern Baptists. I left the Episcopalians for Pentecostalism. We both felt the call to ministry and academia. He went to a large Southern Baptist Seminary and then a very liberal seminary for doctoral work. I went to a very large multi-denominational evangelical seminary, earning both my masters and doctorate at the same institution. Unlike David, I have spent most of my life as a pastor, and likely because I took up an area of academic interest (historical theology) that was less controversial, I never found myself in the public eye in quite the same way as was true for him.
I met David in 2015, after he had gotten caught in a firestorm of controversy, after his coming out as an ally of LGBTQ Christians. I invited him to come to Troy and speak to the issue of inclusion to my congregation as it was considering becoming Open and Affirming. I write about that in my study guide to David's important book Changing Our Mind: Definitive 3rd Edition of the Landmark Call for Inclusion of LGBTQ Christians with Response to Critics. So, I was eager to read his memoir, which details his journey out of evangelicalism. Mine came a few years earlier, but his story resonates in so many ways.
This book is laid out chronologically. He takes his story in bite-sized portions, beginning with his birth into a Catholic family, and then finding a new version of faith among the Baptists. The story moves on to his teen years as a Baptist, in which he got wrapped up in Baptist identity and heard a call to ministry. That phase gives way to his time in college and seminary. He went to a public university and studied religion, not from a confessional perspective, but a scholarly one. He didn't lose faith, but he had his intellectual concerns honed. While his professors wanted him to go to graduate school at places like Harvard and Yale, he chose Southern Baptist Seminary instead. He did this even as the seminary was in the midst of transition from moderate to conservative control. He found himself unhappy with the situation, but he stayed on, largely due to the influence of a new mentor—Glen Stassen.
The next phase of life took him to the opposite side of the theological spectrum. Even as Southern was becoming more conservative, and the Southern Baptist Convention was in turmoil, he chose to pursue a Ph.D. at Union Theological Seminary—at the encouragement of his mentor Glen Stassen. This was a very different world, and he found himself very uncomfortable in this new situation, especially as a relatively conservative white male evangelical at a seminary that emphasized liberationist views. He tells the story of the first day of the first class, a class with James Cone, in which he asked a question and then was told that he had nothing to add and must sit quietly and listen. That’s not an easy situation to be in. He toughed this out, but didn’t stay in New York for long. Once classes were out of the way, he moved to North Carolina, and from there wrote his dissertation. While this was a difficult time for him, he does reflect that Union made more of an imprint on him than he recognized at the time. That is the way it often is. His time at Union, did give him an initial topic of study (the Holocaust).
As he was finishing his dissertation, he recognized the need to get a job. So, he took a position with Evangelicals for Social Action. The family moved to Philadelphia. He got another mentor in Ron Sider, and he his social justice instincts further. The itch to teach and the lack of a future at ESA, led to job searches. Jobs then as now in the academic world were few and far between. I know, I was looking at the same time. You had few choices (it took me four years to find a teaching job that lasted but two years, before I ran afoul of the constituency). His only offer came from the new dean at Southern Baptist Seminary, his alma mater. He took the position, because it was his only option. Unfortunately, he arrived at the same time that Al Mohler became president of the seminary. Mohler was empowered to bring the seminary into a new vision of Baptist orthodoxy, including banning support for women in ministry. He experienced a purge of faculty, including Molly Marshall, a professor of theology, who would go on to lead another Baptist seminary. He soon ran afoul of the president and the new order, due to his support of women in ministry.
He was fortunate, however, to find an out. David Dockery, the dean at Southern Seminary who had offered him his first job, became the president of a Baptist College in Tennessee. He invited David to join him as a professor of Christian Ethics. He jumped at the chance, even though it uprooted the family. He shares his gratitude, however, for being presented with an opportunity to get out of the fire. He would spend eleven years there, but again he found himself in a difficult place as his commitments to concerns like climate change and torture, put him at odds with the constituency. While he wasn't asked to leave, it became clear that he was becoming further estranged from his Baptist context.
His last and current stop was an invitation to teach at Mercer University, a Baptist affiliated school, but one that offered full and complete academic freedom—something he had never experienced before. Now, he could write whatever he pleased, and no one would question his views. This leads to an interesting reflection on the nature of Christian higher education, and the possibilities of combining a concern for faith formation and academic rigor. He doesn't reject the possibility, only raises questions about whether it is done well.
I found these chapters intriguing in part because I faced difficulties as a professor at a conservative Christian college (I lost my job). The other reason is because at the time I was teaching at that Christian College, I got involved in a Baptist Church, became friends with Baptist pastors and professors who got caught in the middle of all this turmoil. I watched as the congregation I worshiped at get pushed and pulled by differing factions within the Baptist community. I encountered long time moderate Baptists who grieved the changes. So, I came to know and understand the story that David tells here—through the eyes and lives of other Baptists. I would move on to a Disciples congregation, but that period, that experience, has formed me as well.
It was during this latter stage of David's career that I came to know him. It was after he found himself in the maelstrom of the church's struggle with whether and how to include LGBTQ Christians. He doesn't tell the complete story here, but he provides the background to what he shares in Changing Our Mind. He doesn't mention my congregation specifically, but were one of the many he visited in 2015, as he fully dove into the cause. This is probably why this book exists.
The final chapters are intriguing, because they offer reflections on his disillusionment with both right and left. For differing reasons, during his career, he had been invited into the inner circle of the political world. As a Christian ethicist, this is not surprising. But he saw the dark side of this involvement. He found himself used by liberals who loved having an evangelical on their side (including the Obama administration). He also found himself, after his choice to enter the fray on the LGBTQ front, anathema to the evangelical world. Old friends, colleagues, and students turned their backs on him. Fortunately, he was in an academic setting where he was protected. He could speak out without fear of losing his job, but whereas his theology had never changed, he was no longer part of the evangelical movement. He discovered that white evangelical equaled GOP. At the same time, he found the liberal side, the side he favored politically, could also be rigid and manipulative. This is a good reminder to mainline Christians about the danger of getting too close to power.
The closing chapter is thoughtful reflection on where he finds himself now—as professor, pastor, family member. He was 55 when he finished the book. He senses that his days as an activist might be drawing to a close. A new future awaits. I'm a bit older, but I resonated with his reflection. It's time to let younger persons take the lead. Perhaps it's because of where I find myself in life, but I am increasingly drawn to memoirs and biographies. I especially am drawn to ones like this, which tell a story similar to mine. It's not the same, but there is enough similarity to grab hold of. David is an excellent writer. He's thoughtful. He's a clear thinker. Even his book Changing Our Mind, which was simply a gathering up of blog posts, shows deep clarity. In his reflections he shares that he wished he had spent two years researching the topic before writing, and yet the book has proven to be a powerful witness to change. Even he admits he likely would not have said anything different. This is an important story, because it reminds us of the complexity of the Christian life.
Who is David Gushee? To some he is an unredeemed liberal who has given up his faith. To others he is a conservative who has gotten certain things right, but not everything. In an age of polarization, this is not an easy place to live. Yet, he does. I am grateful for his witness. I believe that those who read this book, will benefit from its wisdom. Oh, and David notes that he has been journaler since a young age, so he has record of everything that has transpired down through the years. This is not a long book. It's only 151 pages. You can read it quickly. Yet, despite its brevity, it is full of insight, and worthy of our attention. Especially those of us who are still Christian but struggle with our Christian context (and the church).