Still Christian

Following Jesus Out of American Evangelicalism

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David P. Gushee
  • Louisville, KY: 
    Westminster John Knox Press
    , September
     2017.
     176 pages.
     $16.00.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9780664263379.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

READ INTERVIEW WITH AUTHOR HERE.

David Gushee, who teaches Christian ethics at Mercer University, has given us a concise, valuable, and beautifully crafted memoir. His book sheds a great deal of light on the history of white evangelical Protestantism in the years between 1978 and 2016.

On a warm afternoon in the summer of 1978, Gushee went to a shopping mall in Tyson’s Corner, Virginia to visit a gym. Then, for reasons that are not altogether clear, Gushee decided to walk up a nearby hill and enter the building in which the Providence Baptist Church held its worship services. Three days after he walked into the church—a church that was associated with the Southern Baptist Convention—Gushee made a decision to follow Jesus. The men and women who played a direct role in Gushee’s decision to become a follower of Jesus could all be labeled as “evangelicals.” 

Evangelicals played a decisive role in shaping the rest of Gushee’s life. After earning his bachelor’s degree at a secular college, Gushee continued his education at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. In the 1980s, when Gushee studied there, Southern’s faculty still included a number of moderate evangelicals. One of those moderates, Glen Stassen, encouraged Gushee to pursue doctoral work at the Union Theological Seminary in New York. While pursuing his doctorate, Gushee developed strong relationships with professors such as Larry Rasmussen and Beverly Harrison. But at Union Gushee very often felt like a stranger in a strange land. After his first year at that school, Gushee concluded that a vast “gulf” stood between him and “most people at Union” (43). 

In 1993, Gushee was offered a job teaching ethics back at Southern. He accepted the offer. He soon found himself embroiled in a series of ugly battles. (In the 1990s, Southern was rapidly being turned in to a bastion of the fundamentalist wing of the Southern Baptist Convention.) In 1996, Gushee fled Southern for a small Baptist college—Union University—located in Jackson, Tennessee. He taught there until 2007. Since then Mercer University has been his academic home.

Gushee now describes himself as an “ex-evangelical” (142). In 2014, he published a set of articles that formed the basis for a book called Changing Our Mind: A Call from America's Leading Evangelical Ethics Scholar for Full Acceptance of LGBT Christians in the Church. Writing those articles and that book dramatically transformed Gushee’s relationship with American evangelicalism. A great many evangelicals found the arguments that Gushee made in those texts to be highly objectionable. Some evangelicals thought Gushee’s arguments were clearly heretical. Gushee’s views on homosexuality placed him, by his own account, beyond the margins of evangelical Christianity. From Gushee’s perspective, Still Christian is a book about a man whose determination to follow Jesus forced him to leave evangelicalism behind. 

Gushee’s book can certainly be read that way. It is also true, however, that Still Christian reads (from my perspective) like a book that was written by a man who still thinks and writes in ways that are profoundly evangelical. When Gushee discusses topics such as conversion experiences, elite academic institutions, fundamentalism, Jesus, the life of the mind, prayer, and social justice, his language strikes me as evangelical as evangelical can be. That is not entirely surprising. From some points of view, identifying oneself as “an ex-evangelical” is an extremely evangelical thing to do. 

Much of the best scholarly work on evangelical history has been produced by people who think of themselves as ex-evangelicals. For at least thirty years, scholars who are ex-evangelicals (and many other scholars as well) have been arguing that modern evangelicalism is far more variegated that many outsiders realize. Gushee’s Still Christian includes a great deal of evidence that supports that argument.His book illustrates the remarkable range of ideas that evangelicals espoused in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. 

The book also suggests that evangelical Christians sometimes act in extraordinarily kind ways. In nearly every chapter of Still Christian some evangelical Christians go way beyond the call of duty to support Gushee and his work. Gushee himself seems to be an unusually kind human being. His account of some of his evangelical adversaries (R. Albert Mohler Jr., for example) are incredibly charitable. 

Gushee’s book does not, however, present an especially flattering portrait of the forms of Christianity practiced by white evangelicals. Far from it. In the pages of Still Christian, the world of white evangelicals overbrims with anti-intellectualism, arrogance, hypocrisy, racism, and vindictiveness. It is also a world in which there is shockingly little tolerance for differences of opinion. Voting for Democrats can lead people to view you with great suspicion. Maintaining that climate change is real or that torture is wrong can get you branded as a traitor to the cause of Christ. Questioning the notion that the Bible prohibits women from serving as pastors can cost you your job. 

American evangelicalism is, in Gushee’s view, a “deeply damaged” form of Christianity (146). It is also, he believes, a form of Christianity that nearly always finds itself on the wrong side of history. “It is hard to imagine,” Gushee says, “how any single religious community could so often be so consistently wrong” (146).

Of course, whether or not a particular religious community tends to get things “wrong” or “right” is not the only question in which scholars of religion are interested. But it is certainly a question upon which many scholars focus a great deal of attention. For scholars such as those, and for many others as well, Gushee’s book provides an invaluable introduction to the recent history of evangelicalism in the United States.

About the Reviewer(s): 

David Harrington Watt is the Douglas and Dorothy Steere Professor of Quaker Studies at Haverford College.

Date of Review: 
June 26, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

David P. Gushee is distinguished university professor of Christian ethics and director of the Center for Theology and Public Life at Mercer University. One of the leading voices in American Christianity today, he is the author or editor of more than twenty books, including A Letter to My Anxious Christian Friends: From Fear to Faith in Unsettled Times. An award-winning blogger for Religion News Service, he is the President-Elect of the American Academy of Religion and President of the Society of Christian Ethics.

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