This is a book for folks whose commitment to Jesus has put them at odds with American evangelicalism. —Shane Claiborne
So many Americans today love their faith but have found their church doesn't love them back. They then leave, seeking community elsewhere. Of all those personal stories, few have ever been told by someone so far inside the powerful places of white evangelical Christianity. In this provocative tell-all, David Gushee opens the door to the frictions and schisms of evangelicalism, tells his own story of leaving, and shows that you, too, can find a Christianity that is worth following.
Gushee’s experiences begin with becoming a born-again Southern Baptist in 1978 and end with being kicked out of evangelicalism in 2014 for his principled stance on full LGBTQ inclusion. But his religious pilgrimage proves even broader than that, as he leads his doctoral studies at Union Seminary in New York, his dismay when the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary expelled female professors and fellow colleagues, to his days as every evangelical’s least-favorite liberal, and more.
In telling his story, Gushee speaks to those who have been disillusioned by American Christianity. As he describes his own struggles to find the right path at different stages of his journey, he highlights the turning points and decisions that we all face. When do we compromise, and when do we stand our ground? Is holding to moral conviction worth sacrificing friendship, jobs, and security? As he takes us through his sometimes-amusing, sometimes-heartbreaking, and always-stirring journey, Gushee shows us that we can retain our faith in Christ even when Christians disappoint us.
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About the Author
Dr. David P. Gushee is Distinguished University Professor of Christian Ethics at Mercer University and Chair of Christian Social Ethics Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam/IBTS. One of the world's leading Christian ethicists, he is the author or editor of more than 25 books, including Changing Our Mind, After Evangelicalism, Kingdom Ethics, Still Christian, Righteous Gentiles of the Holocaust, and The Sacredness of Human Life. Gushee is a frequent speaker, "Kingdom Ethics" podcaster, and activist. He and his wife, Jeanie, live in Atlanta, Georgia. Visit davidpgushee.com or @dpgushee on social media.
Read an Excerpt
GROWING UP, FINDING JESUS
I was born in 1962 in Germany. Dad says he was working for the American Chemical Society as an overseas journalist. I have always wondered whether he was a spy during the Cold War. (His story is undoubtedly true, but I prefer mine.)
After I was born, Mom and Dad came back to the States and settled in Vienna, Virginia. My sisters Alice and Janette followed quickly in 1964 and 1965. Our baby sister, Katey, came along as a surprise in 1970.
Mom and Dad loved each other deeply. Their marriage, especially when we were young, was sometimes volatile. Both could get riled up. They fought. We saw it. They made up. We saw it. It was always so good to see them make up. Their passion for each other was palpable, even if sometimes embarrassing. They married in 1961, raised us together, retired together, did life together. Many of their friends divorced or were unhappily married. Mom and Dad were neither.
I wish every child could have two parents who love each other, and love them, as much as my parents did. I wish every child could have a mom or dad who comforts them when they are sad, brings them little snacks in their room at night just to check in and say hi, and never misses a ballgame. I wish every child could have a dad or mom who, despite being tired at the end of a long day, can be persuaded to get out the catcher's mitt for some fastballs and curveballs in the front yard.
My mother's efforts to raise us as Catholics were desperately unsuccessful. I resigned the faith on the day I was supposed to be committing my life to it. That was the deal I had made with my mother. I would attend the Catholic Church until Confirmation and would only go back on Christmas and Easter after that. This was how it went not only for me but also for my younger sisters.
Mom had no luck getting Dad interested in attending church with us during the 1960s and 1970s, at least not until the very end of their childrearing years. But she soldiered on, dragging us to church each week, sending us to what passed for Christian education classes at that parish, until each of us abandoned ship.
Christian formation in Catholic parishes has historically been handled under a program called Catechumenate in Catholic Doctrine, or CCD. When I was coming through, classes were held in the evenings once a week. Mom made us go to these classes each year, a process culminating in Confirmation.
Unfortunately, in the aftermath of the reforms of Vatican II (1962–1965), local Catholic formation efforts fell into disarray. I have studied the key documents of Vatican II as an adult, and I believe most of what was accomplished there was profoundly positive. Vatican II reversed the Catholic Church's reflexive resistance to the modern world, opened the church to new ideas, dramatically improved its posture toward the Jewish people, and softened its theological arrogance. The Vatican II documents in social ethics are truly superb, with profound statements on economic justice, colonialism, and peacemaking, among other matters of contemporary concern. I have long considered Vatican II a high point in Catholic history.
But perhaps the progressive openness of Vatican II brought in its wake the theological disorientation of American Catholicism, in that pattern of vice entangled with virtue that is just how the world works. What seemed to trickle down to the Virginia parish of my youth was mainly a loss of confidence in Catholic tradition. The turn toward openness to the onrushing modern world apparently was taken to mean a turn away from ancient Catholic thought and practice. My CCD classes offered little actual instruction in Catholic doctrine. Mom often summarized the content of that program scornfully as "God loves you. Draw a tree." We received no instruction in Augustine or Aquinas, heard nothing about Nicaea or natural law, studied no great saints or martyrs. We got self-actualization and self-esteem and an awful lot of wasted time.
By the time Confirmation came around when I was in eighth grade, there was nothing there when it came to a thing called Catholic identity insofar as it related to a kid named David Paul Gushee. The church did attempt to teach a more serious version of Catholic doctrine and tradition at this final Confirmation stage. Priests got involved in our religious education, and they made efforts to walk us through the Nicene Creed. I remember a retreat and an initiation into the tradition of confession. (It was face to face with a priest and nowhere to hide — seriously awkward.)
But it was too little, too late. The gap between the great truths of the Catholic tradition and the impious fourteen-year-old kids preparing for Confirmation was insurmountable. I remember looking around at church one day during Confirmation class and thinking, "Not a soul in this group seems to be taking this seriously at all. What a joke!" I left Catholicism at fourteen not because I didn't believe in God or the supernatural, but because I actually thought there might be something supernatural worth believing in — and it apparently wasn't to be found in the Catholic Church.
My post-Confirmation self might be described today as "spiritual but not religious." I was spiritually hungry, though what I mainly remember being hungry for was female attention. This was partly about sex, but my adolescent carnality was softened by my incurable romanticism. I had wanted a special person to call my own since at least second grade, when I fell in love with the little red-haired girl. No joke. From adolescence on, I was frequently inconsolable due to awkward girl-related foul-ups, all dutifully recorded in my notebooks. I let my youngest child read my ninth-grade journal once. She laughed her head off.
Eventually, however, I figured some things out, and by fall of sophomore year was blessed and afflicted by first love. Let's call her Amanda. She was a lovely brunette, of Southern stock, one year behind me in school. She attended a Southern Baptist congregation with her parents and siblings, though she herself stood in a rebellious posture in relation to the religious expectations there. You see, at the ripe age of fourteen, Amanda had still not walked the aisle to join the church and get baptized. She was late, and people were concerned.
Amanda was the first Southern Baptist to cross my path, and so in a very real sense the rest of my story is impossible without her.
Our relationship was a stormy, on-again, off-again affair. We were young. We were clueless about what we were doing, what we were discovering. My journals show me learning a lot, but also flailing around wildly, making many mistakes. I still regret the pain that I brought to Amanda.
In the summer of 1978, I turned sixteen. Back in the day, this meant an immediate trek to get a driver's license and the beginning of breathtaking new freedoms. I was ready for a fresh start of some type; my big baseball career at Oakton High School had already collapsed, my friendships weren't satisfying to me, I didn't like my appearance, and my first love and I were consistently shaky.
One Friday afternoon in mid-July, I was over at Tyson's Corner Mall, checking out the possibility of a gym membership so that I could get fitter and look better at the pool — at that age, one of life's most important goals. I remember being discouraged by how much it would cost. I walked out of the mall and desultorily looked up the hill. Oddly enough, smack in the middle of this massive mall complex was a little Baptist church. I suddenly remembered that it was the church that Amanda attended, and I had promised her that I would visit it sometime. For some reason, on this particular day, July 14, 1978, I walked up the hill and into the church building. What happened next set the course of my life.
It was a warm, sunny Friday afternoon, so the contrast between the heat of the day and the cool of the church building is the first thing I remember — then the smell of that distinctive cleaning solution scent and the sight of the linoleum floor being waxed to a spit shine. The man at the mop, Bobby Carter, was the first person I met that afternoon. He was a friendly southern type I had not often met by this point in my life, but one I would often meet in the days that followed.
It is not a routine thing in a Baptist church for a strange teenager to wander in on a Friday afternoon looking for something he does not quite know how to name. But Bobby Carter seemed to know just what to do. He took me past the sanctuary and around a little corner to the youth minister, whose name was Kenny Carter and who was laboring in his office on that late Friday afternoon. (The president of the United States at the time was a Southern Baptist named Jimmy Carter. It seemed that most Southern Baptists were named Carter. I made a mental note.) And Kenny Carter, a born evangelist, knew just what to do. He told me that I had wandered in at a good time. They had a special youth weekend all set up — mini golf that night, on Sunday a great drama group all the way from California, and a Bible study on Monday night. He asked if I might be interested in any of that. I surprised myself by saying yes.
The program that Sunday evening was exotic. A drama group had been invited to take over the evening service and do their thing. They were from California, and they were called the Catalysts. It's amazing that I can still remember that, even before digging out my journal entries from July 1978. I couldn't tell you what their program was about, only what kind of impression it left on me. It communicated the evangelistic Protestant message in a way that I found clear and compelling. Probably all around me were jaded youth who thought it was hokey. But I wasn't one of those jaded youth, and I thought it was profound — profound enough that I decided to return for the Monday night youth Bible study.
The leader this particular night is a memorable figure in my journey. Her name was Chiko Templeman. I honor her in my heart as I remember her. She was a Japanese immigrant. She was a deacon. This is no small detail. Long after 1978, Southern Baptists were still arguing about whether women were biblically qualified to serve as deacons, and this congregation (as I later found out) was hardly cutting-edge liberal. But Chiko Templeman was a deacon, appointed to leadership by the democratic will of a congregation that saw something in her that simply demanded such an appointment. She was also the most mystical, supernaturally wired Baptist person I have ever known. She seemed to have a direct line to God. She would later say that God inspired her to pray for me at specific moments, like 10 a.m. on Tuesday. Every time she told me that, it turns out that there had always been a very good reason for her to have received such an inspiration. That's spine-tingly.
I asked a lot of questions that night. This was a new paradigm for me. Catholics didn't talk about religion the way Chiko did. Your parents get you baptized, take you to church every week, get you to first Communion as a young child. You go to Mass some more, get older, then get confirmed. Then you choose to keep going to church, marry another Catholic, raise your own children in the faith, and then you die. Or something like that.
But Chiko's version of Christianity proposed a definite before and after. You didn't know Jesus, and then you did. Once you did, everything was different. My questions clearly demonstrated that I was one of those who didn't know Jesus. I was discovering this along with others as I listened and asked my questions. I had thought I was a Christian because, after all, I was both baptized and confirmed Catholic. But now ...
Looking back, I can see a lot of things coming together that night. Kenny Carter was there. That guy was an evangelist. Supernatural-mystical Chiko was there. I am sure that "in her spirit" she knew exactly what was going on with me. And the groovy Catalysts from California were still there. They weren't supposed to be, but the groovy Catalyst van, which bore a striking resemblance to the van in Scooby-Doo, wouldn't start that day. So they hung out with us at the Bible study.
I don't know if they drew lots to decide who would follow up with me that night, but the winner was Randy, one of the Catalyst guys. He asked if we could drive around and talk a bit. (That was when people drove around in their cars and talked.) It was late, after 9:30 on a weekday. The Vienna streets were quiet as we drove around in my 1972 Buick Skylark.
I asked questions. He answered. I asked more. He answered more. It got even later. The streets got even quieter. This is how I described it at the time in my journal: We talked, about God, about Jesus, [Randy] answering my doubting questions and satisfying my intellectual needs. This guy gave me the answers, and he gave me a Jesus and a God who I could finally relate to, talk to. He said, "All your questions are answered now, Dave, and now all you have to do is pray to God and let yourself open up your heart to Jesus and to happiness and to surrender your doubts."
We ended up back in the parking lot at Providence Baptist. Finally, Randy popped the question: Randy said, Let God talk to you. Say, "Here God, I'm yours, I give up, please come into my life." And in my own special, different way, I did. Randy and I prayed together, and the words came flowing out of me like never before.
I opened my eyes and looked at Randy. Something had changed. I go back to my journal for the description: I felt a welling up inside of me of a tremendous joy, joy like I had never felt, from deep inside. I started trembling and laughing uncontrollably, finally free from doubt and worry, finally accepting God into my life!
I never saw Randy again. Decades later, I Googled the Catalysts, and they were (of course) nowhere to be found. One thing I did find out shortly after my conversion was that the mysterious van stall apparently occurred because the van had a full gas tank and was parked on a steep hill. As soon as the van was moved to level ground, it started again. I always understood that to be something of a miracle.
No one can offer an indisputable account of the factors that go into a life-changing moment like the one I had with Randy on the evening of July 17, 1978.
For a long time, the only account I had was a straightforwardly supernatural one: God reached out to me when I was low and in need, drawing me up that hill and into that church and over the threshold of salvation four days later. Everything had been supernaturally arranged, just so, from the design of the weekend to the Catalyst van stall to the topic and teacher of the Monday night Bible study. God had a plan for me — unworthy, confused me — and God put that plan into action that weekend, saving my soul and beginning my new life.
Forty years later I have other accounts available. I could attend to the fragile psychology of a young man of melodramatic emotions, stormy relationships, and unmet spiritual and relational needs, wandering into a church on a Friday afternoon and encountering welcome, vivid faith, and the promise of answers and of peace.
I could ponder the sociology of that congregation at that particular moment in American and Christian history. It includes such factors as the evangelistic emphasis of Southern Baptist churches, the impact of the towering ministry of Billy Graham, the development of a successful formula for converting people to Christianity, the presidency of born-again Baptist Jimmy Carter, and even the residual impact of the Jesus-people movement of the late 1960s and 1970s that produced contemporary forms of gospel presentation like the Catalysts.
I could reduce it to a series of odd coincidences. There was the striking one that my stormy relationship with Amanda had included a promise to visit her church sometime, as she once visited mine. There was the fact that she was out of town on an agonizing month-long family vacation, and so our relationship did not distract me that weekend. There was the unplanned presence for one extra day of the Catalysts, whose dramatic sketches on that Sunday night broke through to me. There was the miracle that the most spiritually aware person in the entire church happened to be teaching the Bible study that Monday night. I now know that there is an awful lot of uninspired teaching going on in most churches most days. But this was not one of those days.
Excerpted from "Still Christian"
Copyright © 2017 David P. Gushee.
Excerpted by permission of Westminster John Knox Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
1. Growing Up, Finding Jesus (1962–1978), 00,
2. A Young Convert Finds His Way: Providence Baptist Church (1978–1980), 00,
3. Loving the Questions but Not Always the People: College and Seminary (1980–1987), 00,
4. Looking for a Place among the Liberals: Union Theological Seminary in New York (1987–1989), 00,
5. Finding a Place among the Evangelical Left: Evangelicals for Social Action (1990–1993), 00,
6. Finding a Voice While Not Losing a Soul: Young Professor at Southern (1993–1996), 00,
7. Finding a Home and Leaving It: Union University (1996–2007), 00,
8. Getting Used to a New Home: Mercer University (2007–), 00,
9. Every Liberal's Favorite Evangelical (2004–2013), 00,
10. Every Evangelical's Least Favorite Liberal (2014–2015), 00,
11. Where Do I Go from Here?, 00,