Rescuing Jesus

How People of Color, Women, and Queer Christians are Reclaiming Evangelicalism

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Deborah Jian Lee
  • Boston, MA: 
    Beacon Press
    , November
     2015.
     296 pages.
     $26.95.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780807033470.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Deborah Jian Lee, the author of Rescuing Jesus: How People of Color, Women, and Queer Christians are Reclaiming Evangelicalism, is a journalist, and journalistic accounts of American evangelicalism tend toward at least two pitfalls. On the one hand, those writing from a position outside evangelicalism often miss the real story or fail to genuinely grasp the emotional core of evangelicals’ faith. On the other hand, authors writing from inside evangelicalism often lack critical distance and necessary historical context. Lee, however, not only avoids both of these pitfalls, but provides a stunning integration of the private and public faces of particular sectors of American evangelicalism.

Lee addresses three groups or movements within American evangelicalism. Her chapters on evangelicals of color focus on the life of African American activist Lisa Sharon Harper. For her account of evangelical feminism (often called “egalitarianism” in order to avoid the “f-word”), she tells the story of feminist blogger Jennifer Crumpton. And her exploration of the lives of LGBTQ evangelicals details the experiences of Biola University alumni Will Haggerty and Tasha Magness. As a former evangelical, Lee includes her personal experiences at key points.

As Lee tells these stories, she splits them into three stages: conformity to evangelical culture; awakening to personal identity; and activism oriented toward changing evangelicalism. Her deep interactions with the people she profiles allow for compelling accounts of the emotions of her subjects at each stage in their development. But Lee supplements these stories with her own relevant experiences inside evangelicalism, interviews with dozens of other key figures, and a thorough knowledge of relevant academic work on the history and sociology of evangelicalism.

Lee vividly portrays the struggles of minority evangelical groups, especially in university and college environments. She recounts an awkward meeting that ended with the conclusion that a woman should not be involved in leading an evangelical campus ministry. She tells of her own experience seeing a minority culture ridiculed by evangelical college students. And she recounts her Kafkaesque detention by Biola University campus security during her reporting on LGBTQ student activists at the school. For me, the most memorable moment of the book was when a Biola campus security officer ran away with her driver’s license (232).

Like this moment, other stories in the book also highlight just how physical and visceral the oppression is that is felt by minority groups in evangelical circles. After her conversion to evangelical faith, Lisa Sharon Harper changed her hairstyle to fit in with her white campus ministry group and became estranged from her family. Evangelical feminists like Mimi Haddad hear constant pleas for help from evangelical women suffering from various forms of abuse. And many members of the activist group Biola Queer Underground (BQU) suffered from severe mental health issues but felt unable to trust the campus counseling center.

In light of all this, why would anyone remain evangelical? Lee’s ability to answer that question is hindered by a lack of focus on what, besides social ties to evangelicals and a desire to change the movement, makes her subjects want to remain evangelical. She points out the effects of boundary maintenance, such as the need that evangelical feminists feel to not question conservative views on reproductive rights and LGBTQ issues. But she doesn’t as clearly address whatever positive characteristics might bind her subjects together as not only progressive, but also evangelical.

This is important because of the possibility that there is something intrinsically conservative about American evangelicalism as it exists today. If that is the case, then progressive evangelicals will necessarily be a small group of outcasts and exiles, many of whom will leave the movement rather than bothering to change it. Demographic trends aside, it remains to be seen whether the groups that Lee profiles will have more success than the evangelical Left of the1970s at both remaining within and changing evangelicalism.

Lee offers a mixed assessment of the likelihood that the three groups she profiles will succeed in transforming evangelicalism (263-266). Although white Evangelicals typically denounce overt racism, Lee notes that this has rarely translated into concrete efforts to undo systemic injustice and create real inclusion. And, even though evangelical feminists are on the right side of largescale demographic trends, their movement is fragmented and faces an uncertain future in light of an explicitly pro-patriarchy movement within evangelicalism. LGBTQ evangelical activists, Lee suggests, have the winds of social change at their backs and continue to gain allies through personal relationships.

Since the book’s 2015 publication, however, it seems that this situation may have changed. The trickle of LGBTQ affirmation among evangelicals has not become a flood. Evangelical feminists confront the same mixed situation that Lee noted. But efforts toward racial justice may be taking hold after all. In the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement, conservative Southern Baptist leaders like Russell Moore and Albert Mohler have supported the movement’s key claims. At the level of evangelical leadership, then, opposition to racial justice is fading, however much the white laity may remain intransigent.

As for Evangelical feminists, Lee’s suggestion that they embrace advocacy for reproductive rights is probably not a recipe for success in either theological persuasion or policy change. She is right to point out that egalitarians have focused almost exclusively on biblical arguments for women’s ordination and equality within (heterosexual) marriages. I suspect that other issues may be more fruitful than the taboo topic of abortion. Recently, evangelical feminists have focused more on domestic violence, toxic masculinity (especially in relation to mass shootings), and the rights of women and girls as a global issue.

That being said, Lee’s book provides an excellent descriptive portrait of 21st century progressive American evangelicals. Her knowledge of the people she discusses is both broad and deep, encompassing the stories of movements as well as the emotional journeys of individuals.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Stephen Waldron has an MA in Systematic Theology from Marquette University.

Date of Review: 
August 23, 2016
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Deborah Jian Lee is an award-winning journalist and radio producer. She has worked as a staff reporter for the Associated Press, taught journalism at Columbia University, and written for Foreign PolicyForbesSlateGOOD, Reuters, WBEZ, WNYC, and others.