After Evangelicalism (David P. Gushee) -- A Review

AFTER EVANGELICALISM: The Path to a New Christianity. By David P. Gushee. Foreword by Brian D. McLaren. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2020. Xvi + 225 pages.

                Once upon a time, I was a white evangelical. I'm still white, but the evangelical part of me has faded from view. Therefore, I find myself numbered among a growing community of post-evangelicals. There are parts of me that still reflect the legacy of my years spent among the larger evangelical community. For example, I have a high Christology, I’m Trinitarian, and I love the Bible. At the same time, even during my later evangelical years, I had let go of the anti-science part of the evangelical world, and the same is true of the political and socio-cultural dimensions of that inheritance. At times I've identified as post-liberal, but I was never so fully committed to the liberal cause that I could truly be classified as post-liberal. Therefore, the label “post-evangelical” seems to fit.

                I am not alone in my migration out of white evangelicalism. Many have taken a similar journey. As for me, my journey began long ago, while I was a student at a leading evangelical seminary (Fuller). It was there that I imbibed Barth and Liberation Theology. It was there that I came to support egalitarianism when it came to male-female roles as well as the full inclusion of women in ministry. I worked for evangelical institutions until being fired as a theology professor at a small Christian college for being too liberal. It was then that my move into post-evangelicalism began to take shape. The final straw that broke my connection with white evangelicalism came with the revelation on my brother's part that he is gay. That led to a soul-searching moment and a realization that I had crossed a Rubicon into the post-evangelical world. I could still value elements of that previous formation, but I couldn't go back.

                I decided to write this lengthy preface to my review of David Gushee's latest book After Evangelicalism because what he writes here describes much of my own journey. The fact that Gushee, who now serves as Distinguished University Professor of Christian Ethics at Mercer University, has spent his entire career as one of the leading evangelical ethicists who taught at Baptist institutions including Southern Baptist Seminary, the flagship school of the Southern Baptists, his break from evangelicalism has proven ground-breaking for so many. It is in this book that Gushee fully expresses his reasoning behind this break from the past. In many ways, the cause of his break is similar to mine. Like me, it was the realization that for him to follow Jesus meant embracing the full inclusion of LGBTQ persons in the life of the church. That vision was expressed in his book in some detail in his book Changing Our Mind, which laid out his defense of the full inclusion of LGBTQ Christians in church and society. It was this book, plus Gushee’s presentations to the congregation, that helped my congregation move to being Open and Affirming. As a side note, I should add that I wrote the study guide that is found in the third edition of the book.  

                After Evangelicalism is in many ways a polemical work. When I say that, I don't mean it in a pejorative sense. I mean it in the sense that this book is a refutation of the direction that white evangelicalism has taken over the last several decades. In this book, Gushee answers his critics, reveals the negative elements of white evangelicalism, and offers a way forward out of evangelicalism. He wrote this in large part because he was encountering so many ex-evangelicals who didn't know what to do next. They no longer embraced evangelicalism, but they weren't sure whether there were other options besides simply walking away from Christianity. Therefore, this is not only a polemical work; it is also a pastoral one.

                Gushee divides the book into three parts. First, he focuses on the question of authorities, which is very important to evangelicals. He begins with Scripture and then explores other authorities, including Tradition, Reason, and Experience. What he offers is often known as the Wesleyan Quadrilateral, though these four elements are embraced by many outside the Wesleyan movement (many in my own Disciples movement have begun to embrace these four). Considering that evangelicals are rooted in the Reformation principle of Sola Scriptura, this is an important starting point. What do we do with the Bible? The answer is, we must interpret it. To interpret it, we need resources that will guide us. Thus, Tradition, Reason, and Experience are essential.

                Part 2 is an exploration of theology. He offers chapters dealing with doctrines of God, Christology, and the church. He explores these doctrinal concepts in conversation with the biblical narrative. It is the third chapter of this section that is designed to help evangelicals gain a larger understanding of the nature of the church. He notes that evangelicals tend to have a weak ecclesiology. This is due in large part to the fact that for many evangelicals Christian life is highly parachurch rather than rooted in congregations—think of Campus Crusade, Young Life, Youth for Christ, along with seminaries such as Fuller, Talbot, Dallas, and Gordon-Conwell. The same is true for mission organizations. Gushee writes this chapter to help post-evangelicals develop a more robust ecclesiology.

                The final part of the book has to do with ethics. That shouldn’t surprise anyone who knows David Gushee. After all, this has been his academic focus for his entire academic career. The chapters in this section deal with matters of behavior and character concerning sex, politics, and race. It is the first of these concerns that was the true sticking point for Gushee when it came to his evangelical life. This is due to his full embrace of the cause of welcoming LGBTQ persons into the life of the church. The section on sex reveals his own changes in viewpoint, recognizing that the cultural changes require adaptation. It should be noted that Gushee still holds out the premise of covenant marriage as the long-term place of sexual expression (for both straight and gay folks). Regarding politics, he addresses the unfortunate alliance of white evangelicalism with conservative Republican politics. He addresses the current challenges posed to white evangelicalism due to its unsavory alliance with Donald Trump so that it has become more of a political movement than a religious one. Finally, there is the matter of race. In this chapter, he confesses his own lateness to the recognition of the devastating nature of racism in the nation and the church. He confesses that his recognition of his complicity in the heresy that is white racism came right after Donald Trump’s election with the support of 81 percent of white evangelicals.  which is truly sad. He addresses each of these areas with great care and seriousness. How true that is for many, even white progressives. In each of these chapters on ethics, Gushee reveals his own conversions and his call for us to do the same.

                When it comes to the three sections of the book, it is the first two sections that exhibit the newest ground for him, since he has been teaching ethics for years. But it's the wrestling with authorities and theology that pushes him into new areas of exploration with regard to ethics. What he offers us here is what he is calling Christian humanism. There has been a Christian humanist tradition that goes back to before Reformation, but he offers it here as a path that post-evangelicals can take as they seek to find their way as Christians in a vastly different world from the one they’ve left behind.

                In his epilogue, he writes that his purpose in writing the book isn't simply to "dissect what I believe to be the failures of white evangelicalism," though he does that with great precision. Rather, he offers the book as a path toward clarity of understanding so that he and others like him might find solid ground upon which to build "a Christ-honoring life as a post-evangelical" (p. 170). That is the key, he writes this as a means of reaching out to those who aren't sure there is a Christian life after evangelicalism. Some of us found that life in other places (for me that has been Mainline Protestantism, which has its own issues!). Hopefully, this book will serve as a welcome guide to those seeking a way out of the maze that they've been caught in so they can find new life in Christ.

            For those of us who have made this transit from evangelicalism to post-evangelicalism will resonate with what Gushee writes. It may prove cathartic to discover that we’re not the only ones. We may find here words to describe our experiences. While my departure from evangelicalism happened long before David Gushee made the move, I found it helpful in my own attempts to process my past. Perhaps with voices like his, as he outlines his vision in After Evangelicalism, we might find a path toward a new way of being Christian that isn’t defined by partisan politics, racism, sexism, and other isms. Instead, we will find a way forward that truly reflects the way of Jesus.


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