Why Progressive Christianity Will Fail

For the past few months, I’ve been reviewing books that propose a “New Christianity,” revised to conform to progressive culture. Progressive Christianity recommends a new sexual code, LGBTQ+ acceptance and affirmation, a new understanding of the authority of Scripture, a social-justice Jesus, a non-omnipotent God, and an inclusive church. Progressives seem to think that the time is right for their message: young people are leaving traditional and evangelical churches in droves, tired of their moralistic, judgmental, dogmatic, and politically conservative agenda. Progressives offer their new Christianity to these “exiles” as an alternative to evangelicalism on the one hand and secularism on the other.

Progressives correctly observe that young people are dropping out of churches. And some of these dropouts give the reasons cited above. However, as readers of this blog series know, I am convinced that the “New Christianity” being proposed by progressives is not Christianity at all; it is a counterfeit. And I am worried that many believers will be fooled by its likeness to the real thing. I’ve been told that recognizing a counterfeit one hundred dollar bill does not require knowledge of every possible mistake counterfeiters can make. It requires only detailed knowledge of authentic currency.

Sadly, few of these discouraged evangelicals possess detailed knowledge of authentic, original Christianity. They do not know the details or the central themes of the Bible, not to mention the story of church history…or history in general! Hence, they are vulnerable to clever (re)interpretations of Bible texts and themes that do not fit the progressive narrative. Many will be deceived.

In the short term, I am pessimistic that I and other writers can stem the tide of the progressive movement. I feel like a person watching a slow-motion train wreck from a distance. No matter how much I yell no one listens and nothing changes. In the long term, however, I am certain that progressive Christianity will fail. The main reason for my optimism is this: the continued existence of the Bible. Progressives cannot discard the Bible completely without renouncing their claims to be Christian. However, as long as the Bible can be found in bookstores, church pew racks, in libraries, and in private residences, progressive Christianity faces the danger that some people will actually read it. When ordinary people read the Bible they see that progressive Christianity is not the original, authentic Christianity but a fake.

And this thought gives me hope.

 Are (White) Evangelicals Heretics? (A New Christianity, Part 4)

This post concludes my four-part review of David P. Gushee, After Evangelicalism: The Path to a New Christianity. Gushee’s last two chapters cover politics and race.

8. Politics: Starting Over After White Evangelicalism’s Embrace of Trumpism

The title of this chapter pretty much sums up its contents. In Gushee’s estimation, evangelicals’ overwhelming support for Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential election demonstrates beyond dispute their estrangement from the gospel of the kingdom that Jesus preached. It surfaced evangelicalism’s long-present undercurrent of “racism, sexism, nationalism, xenophobia, and indifference to ecology and the poor” (p. 144). According to Gushee, after Trump we must rethink Christian political involvement from the ground up. Gushee proposes seven “marks of healthy Christian politics” to guide this project (p. 149). They are as follows:

[1] A distinctive Christian identity, [2] action based on hope not fear, [3] critical distance from earthly powers, [4] grounding in the broad Christian social teaching, [5] global perspectives, [6] orientation toward serving God’s kingdom and the common good, and [7] efforts to practice what we preach (p. 149).

As is true of many lists of general principles, there is not much to quarrel with at the abstract level. (However for reasons that most readers will find obvious, marks 4, 5, and 6 worry me a bit.) But in his exposition of these marks he accuses white evangelicals of violating all seven egregiously. Moreover he implies that a truly Christian politics would lean leftward on the American political spectrum. The devil is always in the details.

9. Unveiling and Ending White-Supremacist Christianity

At the very beginning of this chapter Gushee lets us know that he accepts the thesis that in its founding and at its core the United States of America is systemically racist. The first words in this chapter are taken from Yale University theologian Eboni Marshall Turman; “White Christianity in America was born in heresy” (p. 151). Though Gushee does not say this in so many words, he writes as if white people have no right to a perspective on race. They are blind to their white privilege and the harm they have inflicted on people of color. Hence we must “rethink everything by listening to people of color” (p. 162). White people should listen and not argue.

Post-evangelicals must adopt “a fully antiracist way of life” (p. 167). The footnote that follows this sentence refers to Ibram X. Kendi, How to Be an Antiracist, which I reviewed on this blog in December 2020. I think I am safe in assuming that Gushee accepts Kendi’s definitions of racism and antiracism (See my review of Kendi). I will end my summary of this chapter with some of Gushee’s concluding remarks and a brief reflection:

I am so very late in saying all this.

I am appalled at my lateness…

And when exactly did I see that white American Christianity was born in heresy, and that my polite center-left self has been complicit in it? About five minutes ago. More precisely, about the day after Donald Trump’s election and the great reveal of the evangelical 81 percent.

It must be that dealing with the white European American Christian racism is the most threatening challenge of all. It must be that the horror is too great, the shame too awful, for many of us white guys to want to look over in that direction if we can avoid it.

I am sorry. So very sorry. I believe I have begun to repent. Whether I have succeeded in doing so will be judged by others, and by Christ himself (pp. 167-68).

Two Comments

1. Gushee applies a principle to the subject of race that he applies also to the issue of LGBTQ affirmation, feminism, and other contemporary issues of importance to progressive Christians:

Those defined as poor, powerless, and oppressed know and speak the truth whereas those defined as rich, powerful, and oppressors are blind to the truth and can speak only lies.

This principle in one form or another drives the logic of contemporary progressive Christianity. It is seductive and insidious in its appeal to emotion and (white, straight, male) guilt. But it will not pass the test of examination by reason or Christian doctrine. As to the first, no one is competent to judge themselves, rich or poor, powerful or powerless, oppressed or oppressor. No one can see their own sins as others see them, and no one can see the sins of others as God sees them. No solution on race will be achieved by canonizing only one group’s judgments. As to the second test, we must never forget that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). Rich or poor, powerful or powerless, oppressed or oppressor, each group is tempted in its own way, and each group sins in its own way. All need forgiveness.

2. I find Gushee’s self-loathing apology quoted above very off-putting. Not that I doubt its sincerity. To the contrary, it is its sincerity that bothers me most. He apologizes tearfully to no one in particular and for no particular racist act. He implies, rather, that he is not guilty of that kind of act. He seems, instead, to be apologizing for being white and for his past thoughtless enjoyment of the privileges his whiteness gave him.* His words express an inner shame that can never be forgiven or removed, only atoned for by a periodic sacrifice of confession. For he cannot but continue to enjoy his privilege—it comes with being white!—only now he does so in a mood of guilt and shame. Such is the nature of what is called “white guilt.” I do not believe it is a good foundation for racial reconciliation in society or in the church. There is much more to be said on this topic. Perhaps on another occasion.

*By apologizing for his whiteness instead of his personal sins, he drags all white people into his apology, thus arrogating to himself a representative status. His audacity in apologizing for the sins of others taints his apology with a mood of arrogance and makes him vulnerable to the charge of self-righteousness, or to use a common pejorative term, virtue signalling. I see now why at first reading I found his apology so off-putting. My view has not changed.

Sex and the Single Christian (A New Christianity? Part 3)

In this essay I continue my review of David P. Gushee, After Evangelicalism: The Path to a New Christianity, this time focusing on a single chapter: “Sex: From Sexual Purity to Covenant Realism.” It would take a small book to deal thoroughly with the substance and rhetoric of this chapter. Almost every sentence calls for comment. In some cases the choice of one word instead of another places Gushee and me worlds apart. I will try to distill Gushee’s essential argument as efficiently and fairly as possible before I offer my critique.

Introduction

Gushee opens with a rather contemptuous summation of evangelicals’ view of sex: “no sex for no body outside straight marriage” (p. 119; emphasis original). The double negative in the expression “no sex for no body” seems intended to give the impression that evangelicals are a bunch of backwoods hicks hailing from somewhere in hills of flyover country. And the reference to “straight” marriage, which a few years ago would have been considered redundant, needles those who adhere stubbornly to marriage as it has been understood for a thousand generations. The evangelical view of sex, according to Gushee, has caused great suffering for LGBTQ people and shame for young people, gay and straight, who cannot live up to it. In this chapter, Gushee argues for a sexual ethic “that sets enthusiastic mutual consent as a floor and covenant marriage as its main norm” (p. 119).

The Bible on Sexual Purity

Gushee admits that Paul teaches that for Christians there should be “no sex for no body outside straight marriage.” Jesus’s strict teaching against lust and divorce in the Sermon on the Mount tends in the same direction. In the hands of evangelicals, however, the New Testament texts are made to imply not only that sex “outside straight marriage” is forbidden but that it is dangerous, dirty, and shameful. But the Old Testament book of Song of Solomon celebrates the body and sex in graphic language. “We have tended,” complains Gushee, “toward too much Paul and not enough Song of Solomon, too much “spirit” and not enough “body” (p. 122).

Purity, Gender, and Sex

Drawing on Linda Kay Klein’s book, Pure: Inside the Evangelical Movement That Shamed a Generation of Young Women and How I Broke Free, Gushee argues that the evangelical “purity culture and abstinence-only sex education” movement of the late twentieth and early twenty-first century was a spectacular failure. It made no difference in the sexual activity of evangelical young people as compared to non-evangelical young people. But it did “increase the experience of sexual guilt and anxiety and decrease sexual efficacy and satisfaction, especially among women” (p. 123). Additionally, the patriarchy associated with the purity culture facilitated “male sexual misconduct” and “clergy sexual abuse” (p. 123).

One observation before I leave this section: Gushee leads us to the edge of an inference that he does not explicitly draw: the odd characteristics, failures, and negative effects of the evangelical sexual purity movement in advocating the biblical morality of sex, casts doubt on the workability of the biblical view itself. As we shall see in the next two sections, Gushee actually makes this leap.

At the Intersection of Nature and Culture

Nature urges post-puberty young people to engage in sex as often as possible. But cultures recognize the need for rules to govern sexual activity for the sake of social peace and the welfare of children. Most cultures encourage some form of marriage as the best social arrangement to channel natural sexual desire toward socially productive ends. Marriage works best, however, if the gap between the onset of puberty and marriage is not too long. In contemporary America puberty happens between 10 and 12 years old on average but marriage is not contracted until around 30 years old. This means that there is an 18- to 20-year gap between puberty and marriage. According to Gushee,

Religious and cultural constraints cannot be expected to prevail over nature for twenty years, not even for devout Christians…We need a sexual ethic that makes sense amid today’s cultural circumstances but that still pays attention to the real problems that the Christian sex-in-marriage alone ethic was trying to solve (pp. 126-27).

Evangelicals and LGBTQ People: What Went Wrong

In their resistance to the gay rights movement of the 1960s, 70s, and 80’s, evangelicals used “hateful” and “disgust-producing rhetoric” to paint gay people in the worst possible light. Evangelical leaders seemed oblivious to the trauma and terror their rhetoric caused to the closeted LGBTQ evangelicals in their churches, families, and schools. What went wrong? Gushee answers that evangelicals displayed “an inability to deal with reality because the Bible did not appear to permit it” (p. 128; emphasis original). Evangelicals could not accept the “unassimilable reality” that a certain percentage of the population is attracted sexually to persons of the same sex. Scientists now understand that homosexuality is a “routine variation reported in all times and cultures” (p. 129). The problems that plague LGBTQ people do not derive from their sexual orientation as such but from the “stigma (and persecution) inflicted on this population” (p. 129). What needs to change is “not gay and lesbian people, but the cultural worldviews that stigmatize and harm them” (p. 129). Evangelicals need to change.

For this to happen, however, post-evangelicals must find “new ways of interpreting the Bible, ways that reinterpret the handful of condemnatory passages and elevate the many passages that potentially lead to better treatment and full inclusion” (p. 129). Tradition must be abandoned and replaced by “experience and other sources” as contexts within which to interpret the Bible’s statements concern same-sex activity. We must “adjust faith to the legitimate discoveries of science” (p. 129). The choice of dogma over people is driving believers out of the evangelical fold.

The exiles know that a religion that systematically harms vulnerable groups of people is not a good thing in the world. It is the opposite of Christian humanism; it is inhumanity in the name of Christ (p. 130).

Toward a Post-Evangelical Sexual Ethics

Gushee proposes a two-tiered sexual ethic. Covenant marriage should be the aspirational norm by which every other use of sex is measured. In covenant marriage, people pledge to take care of each other through thick and thin. For all the reasons cultures down through the ages have encouraged it, marriage is still the best place to direct sexual energy toward personal and social wellbeing. Although Gushee does not mention gay marriage in this immediate context, it is clear that he includes these marriages within his category of covenant marriage. He says,

I personally affirm that full acceptance of LGBTQ people is a nonnegotiable dimension of post-evangelical Christianity, and most others in this terrain seem to feel the same way (p. 130).

Covenant marriage may be the ideal, but any workable sexual ethic must articulate a minimum as well as an ideal norm. Young unmarried people will have sex, so we must provide guidance for those not ready for marriage. Gushee offers as a minimum standard this rule: sexual encounters should be conducted with “mutual enthusiastic consent,” because “irresponsible, exploitative, and sadistic sexuality is extremely dangerous. It can deeply harm others and self” (p. 130). Marriage is Gushee’s ideal, but he is willing to make “a concession to reality”: if “legal marriage is unreachable or unwise,” it would nevertheless be “best” for partners “to structure long-term romantic-sexual relationships in a covenantal fashion” (p. 133).

Interestingly, Gushee finds himself defending a more conservative position than fellow post-evangelicals Nadia Bolz-Weber, who recommends “sexual flourishing” as a new norm for sexual behavior, and Brandan Robertson, who considers polyamory (many sexual partners) as an acceptable Christian option. Gushee’s defense of his position, by the way, amounts to a plea not to go to extremes in reacting to the perfectionism of the purity culture. A plea, not an argument.

Three Critical Observations

1. Humanist, Utilitarian, Pragmatic, and Libertarian but Not Christian Ethics

Gushee is a professor of Christian ethics. He has written elsewhere on sex and marriage and other ethical topics. I’ve not read those works, but I am very clear that this chapter is not an exercise in Christian ethics. I am not speaking here merely of the fact that I disagree with his conclusions. Every argument, every observation, and every conclusion is based on avoiding harm and pursuing psychological/sociological wellbeing in this life. None of his conclusions helps us understand what we “ought” to do, none speaks of divine commands, and none roots our obligations in a Christian vision of creation, salvation, or redemption. Instead he uses “science,” psychological and sociological expertise, utilitarian thinking, and personal testimony to determine what are constructive and destructive—not right and wrong!—ways to use sex. The Christian language Gushee uses is ornamental and, without loss to the argument, could be jettisoned. The basic principle of his ethics (in this chapter) is consent. Even his ideal of marriage is derived from human experience of what works for this-worldly ends. Marriage is not “holy.” It’s not a sacrament. It’s not a mystery (Eph. 5:32). It is, rather, a beneficial social construct.

2. Misplaced Appeal to Science

Gushee appeals to facts, reality, and science in a way I find questionable. He takes the statistic about the number of LGBTQ people in the population as possessing moral significance. But it cannot carry such weight, because statistical studies describe what is whereas morality prescribes what ought to be. You cannot move from what is to what ought to be without introducting moral principles derived from sufficient moral grounds. His appeal to science is especially troubling. He implies that the discovery of the universal presence of LGBTQ people in human society parallels the discovery that the Sun, not earth, is the center of observed planetary movement. After Galileo, we had to reinterpret the biblical texts that seem to imply erroneously that the earth does not move and is the center of planetary motion. In the same way we must now reinterpret biblical texts that condemn same-sex activity…because we now know these texts are wrong.

But Gushee’s analogy between biblical references to empirical facts and its moral teaching is misplaced. For the parallel to hold, one would need to discover from some other source the moral knowledge that same-sex activity is good and right. And this source cannot be empirical science, for empirical science produces only empirical knowledge. Gushee does not explicitly admit that he relies on a source of moral knowledge of greater authority than the Bible, but he does so nonetheless. And that moral source is progressive culture as it comes to expression in the self-testimony of LGBTQ people.

3. Psychologically Implausible

Does anyone really believe that telling hormone-intoxicated teenagers that “enthusiastic mutual consent” is the minimum ethical floor for having sex and that “covenant marriage is its main norm” (p. 119), will do anything but clear the way for having sex early and often? What teenager would choose the hard way when their teachers tell them that it is morally acceptable to take the easy path? Can you imagine a responsible Christian parent telling their sixteen year old son or daughter, “Don’t have sex unless you are “enthusiastic and your partner consents”? Our sex-drenched culture has been telling them this for decades!

Shouldn’t Christian ethicists have something better to say?

Next Time: We will examine Gushee’s chapters on politics and race.

A New Christianity? (Part 2) A New God, A New Jesus, and A New Church?

Today I will continue my review of David P. Gushee, After Evangelicalism: The Path to a New Christianity. In the previous essay I examined Gushee’s understanding of the sources of authority for Christian faith and morality. We discovered that he has abandoned the idea that Scripture is the sole source and norm for faith and has added reason and experience as sources of continuing revelation. In this essay I will address the second part of the book, “Theology: Believing and Belonging,” which contains chapters on God, Jesus, and the church.

Part Two: Theology: Believing and Belonging

4. God: In Dialogue with the Story of Israel

In the introduction to this chapter Gushee admits that systematic theology is not his strong suit. (His area of specialization is ethics.) He lists six theological “strands” that played a part in forming his theology, which those familiar with modern theology will recognize: Kingdom of God theology, social gospel theology, Holocaust theology, liberation theologies, Catholic social teaching, and progressive evangelical social ethics.

Gushee’s doctrine of God as reflected in this chapter has been decisively influenced by post-Holocaust Jewish thinkers. One such thinker is Irving Greenberg who recounts a story told by a Holocaust survivor who watched NAZI guards throw Jewish children alive into a fire. Greenberg articulated what has come to be called “the burning-children test:” “No statement, theological or otherwise, should be made that would not be credible in the presence of burning children” (p. 70; emphasis original). Gushee accepts Greenberg’s “burning-children test” and allows it to constrain “all claims about God, Jesus, and the church” in his book (p. 70). The “burning-children test” brings to the foreground in a dramatic way the problem of evil. Gushee broadens the principle to include other instances of evil:

It is not a stretch to speak of other tests: murdered and raped women; tortured and murdered indigenous peoples; enslaved, tortured, murdered, and lynched black people; tortured and murdered LGBTQ people.

What kinds of statements about God will pass the “burning-children test” and the other tortured-and murdered-people tests? According to Gushee, in view of the horrendous evils people perpetrate we can no longer believe that God is in control of the world, that God allows evil for good reasons, that all suffering can be redeemed, or that “all things work together for good” (Rom 8:28). We can no longer ask people to trust God in all things. The only response we can make to the burning of children and other horrible evils is to “cry out against evil…[and] redress as many human evils as possible” (p. 79; emphasis original). Gushee can accept only a suffering God, a God who “weeps at the evil humans do” (p. 80), a “God who risks trusting us with freedom, and suffers from the choices we make” (p. 80).

Is That It?

As I approached the end of this chapter I kept looking for some sign of hope. The only note of hope I heard sounded not from God but from humanity: that some of us might “cry out against evil…redress as many human evils as possible.” The God of Gushee’s new Christianity has given over the fate of the world into the hands of human beings. He can watch, suffer, and weep but cannot deliver and redeem.

5. Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet. Lynched God-Man, Risen Lord

In this chapter, Gushee draws on the work of James D. G. Dunn in his book Jesus According to the New Testament. Dunn discerns in the New Testament eight different perspectives on Jesus: the Synoptic Gospels, Acts, John, Paul, Hebrews, and others. But Dunn also attempts to reconstruct from these perspectives a “Jesus-according-to-Jesus” or what is often called the “historical Jesus” (p. 86). According to Dunn (accepted by Gushee), the historical Jesus emphasized the love of neighbor command as the heart of our moral duties, prioritized the poor, demonstrated openness to non-Jews, included women within his inner circle, welcomed children, instituted the Lord’s Supper, and cherished a sense of his divine calling. Using this list as the standard, Gushee contrasts “Jesus-according-to-Jesus” with Jesus according to “American white evangelicalism.” In Gushee’s view, for white evangelicals Jesus is all about the assurance of personal salvation now and after death and success and happiness in this life. That is to say, Jesus supports the interests of white, middle class suburbanites in their comfortable lifestyle.

As an alternative to the white evangelical Jesus, Gushee presents a “Jesus according to Gushee via Matthew.” Jesus came announcing the imminent arrival of the kingdom of God and demanding that the people of God prepare themselves with repentance. Jesus entered Jerusalem and challenged the powers in charge. They responded not with repentance and belief but with murderous violence. Gushee, then, makes this rather anticlimactic statement about the resurrection:

I believe in the bodily resurrection and ascension of Jesus, although I do not pretend to understand it. I live in hope that if God raised Jesus from the dead, then, in the end, life triumphs over death, not just for me and mine, but for the world. The rest is mystery (p. 97).

What does Jesus have to say to us today? Drawing on Dunn again, Gushee distinguishes between the “religion of Jesus” and the “religion about Jesus.” The “religion of Jesus” is a social justice program centering on the kingdom of God. The “religion about Jesus” dominates the New Testament, John, Paul, Acts, Hebrews, 1 Peter, and Revelation. It focuses on the atonement, resurrection, and the Spirit’s transforming power. Gushee prefers the religion of Jesus to the religion about Jesus:

I find the New Testament’s religion about Jesus to be a creative theological adaptation, useful for a time horizon of indefinite duration, deeply meaningful for the individual journey through life and toward death. But it is rather substantially cut adrift from the ministry of the historical Jesus, distanced from both his own Jewishness and the earliest Palestinian Jewish church…It is a beautiful and compelling message…But I cannot accept the common evangelical claim that this message is “the gospel.” It is one version (p. 100).

Where Do I Start? Where Would I End?

It would take more space than I have to reply fully to this chapter. Allow me, then, to let Paul make my reply:

Now, brothers and sisters, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand. By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain. For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures (1 Corinthians 15:1-4).

Gushee demotes what Paul designates as “of first importance” to the status of being “a creative theological adaptation” and places a twenty-first century scholarly reconstruction of the “religion of Jesus” at the center of his “new Christianity.” I suppose it makes sense that a “new Christianity” requires a new Jesus.

6. Church: Finding Christ’s People

This chapter centers on the problem of wounded and disheartened people leaving evangelical churches in droves and culminates in a section advising post-evangelicals about how to find a church. Gushee articulates a biblical theology of the church that sounds rather traditional. He defines the church as “the community of people who stand in covenant relationship with God through Jesus Christ and seek to fulfill his kingdom mission” (p. 104). Though incomplete, this definition is not inaccurate in what it asserts. He also speaks of the church in traditional and biblical language: the church is one, holy, catholic, and apostolic, it is the body of Christ, the temple of the Holy Spirit, a new creation, people devoted to the kingdom of God, and a covenant people.

However, as is characteristic of progressive Christianity in general, Gushee sometimes uses biblical language in unbiblical ways. That the church possesses a “covenant relationship with God through Jesus Christ” does not mean that other people (Jews, Muslims, and others) do not possess a covenant with God through other means (p. 105). The church is “apostolic” but as the previous section on Jesus demonstrated, for Gushee this does not mean that the apostles’ teaching possesses as much authority as the teaching of Jesus. That the church is catholic demands that the church reject “racism, homophobia, and xenophobia.”

Gushee proposes a variety of covenant communities as alternatives to white evangelicalism. He recommends that post-evangelicals “give the mainline a look” (p. 114). The Episcopal Church might be an “especially attractive option” (p. 115) for those looking for “high liturgy together with LGBTQ inclusion” (p. 114). Some post-evangelicals may seek out home groups or plant new churches with an evangelical style worship but with post-evangelical theology. As will become even more obvious when we examine chapter 7 (“Sex: From Sexual Purity to Covenant Realism”), Gushee thinks that LGBTQ inclusion is the decisive issue of our time. For Gushee, full and equal LGBTQ inclusion seems to be an essential mark of the post-evangelical church and of his “new Christianity.” A new morality for a new Christianity.

Next Time: Chapter 7, “Sex: From Sexual Purity to Covenant Realism.”

A New Christianity? A Post-Evangelical Progressive Vision (Part 1)

In the previous two posts I reviewed a book by a far-left representative of progressive Christianity, namely David A. Kaden, Christianity in Blue. Today I will begin a review of David P. Gushee, After Evangelicalism: The Path to a New Christianity (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2020; pp. 225). A Baptist, a “self-identified progressive evangelical” (p. 5) and a professor of Christian ethics at Mercer University (Macon, Georgia), Gushee advocates a position much closer to traditional and biblical Christianity than does Kaden. As the book’s title proclaims, Gushee rejects evangelicalism and proposes a “New Christianity,” which he calls “post-evangelicalism.” This “new Christianity” is animated by a spirit of “Christian humanism.”

The book divides into three parts and nine chapters. Part one deals with the question of the sources of authority for theology and ethics. Part two deals with three central theological topics, God, Jesus, and the church. Part three explores the topic of ethics. I will briefly summarize each chapter and for the most part save my critical assessment until we have the entire argument before us.

Part One: Authorities: Listening and Learning

1. Evangelicalism: Cutting Loose from an Invented Community

According to Gushee, modern evangelicalism “was invented through a historical retrieval and rebranding move undertaken by an ambitious group of reformers within the US Protestant fundamentalist community of the 1940s” (p. 15). Evangelicalism, according to Gushee, “was never more than fundamentalism with lipstick on” (p. 27). From the beginning, the evangelical movement set its sights on recapturing American culture from political and theological progressives. By the 1970s, an “identity fusion” (p. 24) between white evangelicals and the Republican Party had been accomplished. However for a minority of moderate to left-leaning evangelicals, the overwhelming support of evangelicals (81%) for Donald Trump in the 2016 election “became a bridge too far” (p. 25). The evangelicalism of today is white, Republican, fundamentalist, sexist, homophobic, and racist. Evangelicalism revealed its true colors in 2016 and thus provoked a “massive exodus” (p. 28) that continues today.

2. Scripture: From Inerrancy to the Church’s Book

According to Gushee, evangelicalism’s union with right-wing politics is not the only thing driving the mass exodus. Its fundamentalist view of the Bible as “inerrant” creates huge intellectual, theological, and ethical problems for many people. Leaving aside the history and detailed description of the doctrine of inerrancy, the bottom line is that evangelicals accept the Bible as the Word of God, true in everything it asserts in matters of faith and morality. Gushee raises six objections to the evangelical/fundamentalist view of the Bible. (1) The Bible is obviously a human product, and “any human product is subject to human limits and various kinds of error” (p. 31). But Gushee does not for this reason reject the Bible as of no use to the church. In place of the doctrine of inerrancy, he proposes a theory of “limited inspiration” wherein “some scriptural texts consistently demonstrate that they are inspired by God because they prove so useful in Christian experience for drawing people to Jesus and his way” (p. 32; emphasis original). These “inspired” texts serve as a “canon within a canon” (p. 33). Jesus’s teaching that we are to love God and our neighbor serves as the criterion for what is canonical. (2) The Bible is a collection of ancient documents, written in three different languages and set in cultures vastly different from ours. Our attempts to interpret the Bible are beset by many exegetical obscurities and translation problems. Understanding the Bible is not as simple as “God said it, I believe it, that settles it” (p. 35). (3) The “Bible does not interpret itself” (p. 35). Human beings do the interpreting. Because human interpreters are “flawed, limited, and self-interested,” a post-evangelical approach “will emphasize a communal process of interpreting Scripture, which occurs in an ongoing conversation between individual Christians, clergy, scholars, and the historic church, with the help of God’s Spirit” (pp. 36-37).

(4) The Bible is the church’s book. These texts became “sacred” to the church “because they were believed to bear witness to Jesus and to help people find salvation through him” (p. 37; emphasis original). Gushee proposes an alternative way to understand the Bible as sacred Scripture to replace inerrancy: “That way is to recognize that the Bible is and always has been the church’s book” (p. 38). What does it mean to read the Bible as “the church’s book”? The next point sheds some light on this question. (5) According to Gushee, Christians can learn much from the Jewish way of reading the Bible. At least some Jews read the Hebrew Bible as “a dialogue between God and God’s people” (p. 39) rather than a one-way communication. Christians have a responsibility, claims Gushee, “to read texts in ways that bless rather than harm human beings” (p. 40). Gushee quotes Elie Wiesel with approval: “If even the most authoritative teaching, the most sacred text, leads to dehumanization, to humiliation, to harm, then we must reject it” (p. 40).

(6) Finally, the doctrines of the inerrancy and all-sufficiency of Scripture distracts us from seeking God’s voice in other places: “These include tradition, science, reason, experience, intuition, community, and relationships” (p. 41). Gushee continues: “The power of a narrow evangelical biblicism must be broken, but you can’t replace something with nothing. We need to open ourselves to other ways of discerning truth” (p. 41).

3. Resources: Hearing God’s Voice Beyond Scripture

It seems to be a defining characteristic of “progressive” Christianity of whatever stripe that it seeks insight into God’s character and will from sources in addition to Scripture. Moreover, progressives are willing to judge and correct Scripture’s teachings about God and morality in view of these other sources. In this chapter Gushee outlines “a new approach to listening for God’s voice and discerning God’s will” in sources other than the Bible (p. 45). He proposes three sources in addition to Scripture to which we should listen for guidance. (1) The first is internal to the church, its tradition, and communal life. Gushee does not advocate treating tradition as an authority to which we must submit our own judgment. He recommends that post-evangelicals “not bow before tradition, or dismiss it with a sneer, but to understand its shaping role in creating Christianity as we know it” (p. 50). That is to say, post-evangelicals need to develop a historical awareness of the forces determining their doctrinal and moral biases and the biases of others. Only then will they be able to listen seriously to the second and third sources. (2) The second set of supplementary sources for discerning God’s will are “reason, experience, intuition, relationships, and community” (p. 51), all of which are located and grounded in natural human capacities. Reason detects and rejects logical and factual contradictions even if those contradictions are found in the Bible. Gushee gives as an example the contradiction between the biblical assertions that God is love and the biblical command to the invading Israelites to wipe out the inhabitants of Canaan. Experience also teaches what is good and bad, healthy and harmful, humanizing and dehumanizing, and what God’s will is and what is not. According to Gushee, the experience of LGBTQ+ people is a source of knowledge of God’s will and must not be denied on the basis of Bible texts and their traditional interpretation. (3) The arts and sciences can also serve as sources for hearing God’s voice. Post-evangelicals must take the conclusions of the sciences with respect to climate change, homosexuality, and other areas of scientific discovery seriously.

The Progressive View of Authority: A Preliminary Assessment

As will become even more obvious in the next chapters, the views that set progressive Christianity apart from traditional/biblical Christianity cannot be derived from the Bible. From where, then, do they come? In part one, Gushee makes it clear that progressive Christianity looks to reason and experience to justify its proposed changes to biblical/traditional Christianity. Hence the church’s traditional teaching that the Bible alone is the ultimate norm of Christian faith and morals must be rejected. To defend their progressive views, progressives reinterpret,* correct, reject, or even condemn the teaching of Scripture. God’s “voice” in personal experience, political movements, culture, and psychology in certain cases trumps Scripture. Apparently the “progress” of progressive Christianity depends on a constant flow of new divine revelations. It should not escape notice that these new revelations track almost perfectly, albeit a few months behind, with advances in secular culture and politics.

*To interpret means to explain an obscure text in other words and concepts clearer to the listener. The goal of interpretation is to unite the mind of the listener with the original meaning of the text along with its full implications and applications. To reinterpret usually means not merely to challenge older, established interpretations but to read an alien meaning into the text with as much plausibility as one can create. It is to hijack the accrued authority of a text and place it in service of a meaning more acceptable to the interpreter. Many reinterpretations involve distortion, deception, and downright lies.

Next Time: We will examine part two, “Theology: Believing and Belonging” wherein Gushee proposes progressive views of Jesus, God, and the Church.

Progressive Christianity (Part Three): The Far-Left (conclusion)

Today’s essay brings to a conclusion my review of David A. Kaden, Christianity in Blue: How the Bible, History, Philosophy, and Theology Shape Progressive Identity (Fortress Press, 2021, pp. 168).

Chapter Four, “Saint Paul the Progressive”

The writings of Paul like other parts of the Bible contain good and bad ideas. Progressive Christians will interpret the letters of Paul in the same way they interpret the gospels. “Any interpretation that degrades human personality (i.e., human well-being) should be rejected in favor of interpretations that uplift human personality” (p. 103; emphasis original). Hence no one should interpret Paul’s letters as “affirming the institution of slavery, the oppression of women, the condemnation of LGBTQ+ people, or hatred of immigrants” (p. 105).

Central to Paul’s preaching was the assertion “Jesus is Lord.” In his day this claim challenged the Roman emperor’s claim to be “Lord.” It was a political claim in both cases. What does the confession “Jesus is Lord” mean for today? “Today’s Caesars,” urges Kaden, “appear in the form of ideologies and actions that degrade the human personality” (p. 120; emphasis original). Hence Paul’s message should “be interpreted in a compassionate way, a way that uplifts human personality” (p. 121).

Sensitive to the charge that Christianity is anti-Semitic, Kaden applies the criteria mentioned above—not degrading but uplifting to human personality—to Paul’s relationship to Judaism. Kaden argues that Romans 9-11 should be interpreted to mean that “Jews do not need to convert to Christianity in order to be saved because Christ is not their way into Abraham’s family” (p. 128; emphasis original). Paul would agree also, speculates Kaden, that Muslims do not need to convert to Christianity, for they too are members of Abraham’s family. With respect to Paul’s “restrictive” texts wherein the apostle seems to exclude certain types of people from inheriting the kingdom of God (1 Cor 6:9-10), Kaden muses that perhaps Paul did not know about Jesus’s eating with sinners or perhaps he still harbored prejudices from his previous “fundamentalist Pharisee” life (p. 132). In any case, a progressive interpretation of Paul will read his assertion about “every knee” bowing to declare “Jesus is Lord” (Phil 2:5-11) as proclaiming the universal love of God that will result in universal salvation.

Paul has been transformed into a modern progressive. Why, then, bother with interpreting Paul?

Chapter 5, “Designing a Loving and Progressive Church Where No One is Out”

Progressive Christianity wishes to redesign church in a way that does not set boundaries…

that demarcate insiders and outsiders, true believers and heretics, orthodoxies and heterodoxies. This version of Christianity instead reinterprets Scripture and tradition in order to demolish such false binaries and invites us to privilege those features of our past that can help us live more compassionately in the present and future (p. 142).

Progressive Christianity erases the boundary between the sacred and the profane. The whole world and everyone in it is sacred. Everyone is invited into the church. “No one is out” (p. 158). Everyone can undertake the journey into the mystery of being and life: poor, rich, black, white, brown, gay, trans, queer, and straight, doubters, theists and atheists. Community is not about sharing common beliefs but sharing a common life. Love is the only virtue and exclusion the only vice.

Evaluation

It would take more space that I want to allot to analyze and evaluate this book thoroughly. Besides, I don’t think the message of this book will be very persuasive to my target audience. It’s too radical. But I think a few observations are in order.

1. Nowhere in the book does Kaden attempt to ground the progressive vision of human well-being in objective reality. He takes it as axiomatic. More accurately, he draws on the cultural consensus of the progressive left and appeals to those to whom those ideals resonate with their experience and feelings. As I have shown above, Kaden does not ground the progressive vision in the action of God in Jesus Christ. Though he does not say so, I believe that he, like his mentor Harvard feminist New Testament professor Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza on whom he draws heavily in this book, derives the progressive way from the experiences of liberation and oppression of those marginalized by traditional religion and culture.

2. Kaden does not spend any time denying Bible miracles or the incarnation, atoning death, or resurrection of Jesus, even though it is clear that he no longer believes these doctrines in any but a metaphorical/mythical sense. Nor does he engage in examining the events and words of Jesus to distinguish between those that are historically reliable and those that are not. Careful exegesis and theological discernment of the New Testament are of little concern. Why? The answer is clear. Dr. Kaden has moved way past this phase of faith deconstruction. For Kaden, the “truth” of progressive Christianity does not depend on the outcome of these debates. Progressive Christianity is true not because Christianity itself is true but because the progressive vision of human flourishing is true. Christianity plays a supporting role. And that brings me to a third observation.

3. Throughout this review I kept bringing up different forms of a question: “Why Christianity?” Why Jesus? Why Paul? Why Church? I discussed above one reason why he insists on discovering or constructing a progressive core to Christianity. For people who live in the Western world, ethical values and a distinctive sense of the mystery of life and being have been transmitted in the language of the Bible and the Christian tradition. It is so deeply embedded in Western language and culture that there are no substitutes. Hence even though Progressive Christianity revises and critiques traditional Christianity and treats it as metaphor and parable, it cannot simply abandon it altogether. For then it would have no language in which to express its vision of life.

There is a second reason why Progressive Christianity does not abandon Christian language, and it’s a bit more cynical. In Chapter One, Kaden discusses the changing attitudes toward religion in the United States. More and more people have become disenchanted with evangelicalism and conservative churches. Many Christians do not want to drop out of church completely, but they want a more accepting, open-minded, compassionate community. Using the language of market analysis and religious entrepreneurship, Kaden observes, “The time is ripe for such a perspective. Americans now more than ever are open to progressive religion. While we still cling to religious traditions, we are becoming more socially liberal” (p. 13). Progressive Christianity gives those religious exiles what they want: traditional Christian language and ceremony—God, Christ, the Spirit, incarnation, community, resurrection, baptism, Eucharist, the preached word, Scripture readings, Lent, Easter, and all the rest—but no orthodoxy, no excommunication, no moral rules about sex and abortion, and no cognitive content. There is always a market for such a bloodless and adaptable religion. Unfortunately, unlike the automobile or real estate industries, there is no penalty for false advertising.

The Essential Progressive Attitude

Having examined a far left form of Progressive Christianity I want to pose a question that I intend to pursue in future essays. Are less radical forms of Progressive Christianity animated by the same progressive principle that drives the more radical form? Where is the dividing line that marks the boundary between genuine Christianity and fake forms such as the one described in Christianity in Blue?

Progressive Christianity (Part Two): The Far Left

This essay is the first in a projected series of reviews of books that claim to present a progressive view of Christianity. Some of them may be familiar to my readers but others will not. Today I will examine a book on the far-left end of the theological spectrum: David A. Kaden, Christianity in Blue: How the Bible, History, Philosophy, and Theology Shape Progressive Identity (Fortress Press, 2021, pp. 168). Kaden is the “senior minister of the First Congregational Church of Ithaca, New York.” (from the back cover). His congregation is affiliated with the United Church of Christ. Kaden is highly educated (M.Div. and Ph.D.) and has taught religion in colleges and universities. He is well positioned to represent the left most extreme of progressive Christianity.

Kaden first describes progressive Christianity in general and then in succeeding chapters deals with the progressive view of Scripture, God, Jesus, Paul, and the church. I will summarize each of these chapters as concisely and faithfully as I can. Afterward I will make some observations.

Chapter One, “What is Progressive in Progressive Christianity?”

This chapter weaves autobiography into his explanation of progressive Christianity. Like many progressives, Kaden began his journey in evangelicalism. He holds degrees from Messiah College and Gordon-Conwell Seminary. As he continued his theological education at Harvard and Toronto, he abandoned evangelicalism and adopted progressive views. The first mark of progressive Christianity, then, is rejection of evangelical/traditional Christianity. Unlike evangelicalism, Progressive Christianity focuses on “this life and on changing this world for the benefit of people now” (p. 10). Progressives do not accept the Bible and the Christian tradition as authorities by which to determine Christian truth but “as compelling conversation starters” (p. 13). Everyone is welcome to join the conversation and continue the journey of life together. Emphasis falls on acceptance, diversity, and compassion rather than repentance, conversion and discipline. This first chapter raised a question that kept coming up as I read the book: Why bother with the Bible and the Christian tradition at all?

Chapter Two: “Of God and Bubbles”

Kaden begins chapter two by disabusing us of the idea that the Bible, the Christian tradition, theologians, or anyone else can speak about God directly. Kaden quotes approvingly a statement by Peter Rollins: “Speaking about God is never speaking of God but only ever speaking about our understanding of God” (p. 25). Language about God is language about language about God. In Kaden’s own words, “The Bible and Christian tradition recount what ancient people said about God, morals, and religious practice, not what any of these things actually are” (p. 47, emphasis original). The Bible is full of contradictory statements about God and God’s actions. God is the God of war who orders the genocide of his enemies and the God of love seen in the self-giving of Jesus. Our task, argues Kaden, is to “struggle” with Scripture:

Progressive Bible interpreters and preachers who speak to and for communities of faith have an ethical responsibility to privilege those elements of biblical God-talk that highlight the best in God and God’s relationship to people, especially society’s most vulnerable: the poor, the immigrant, the oppressed, the gender nonconforming, and the hated (p. 46).

The word “God” means different things to different people, and there is no normative statement of truth about God one must confess to embrace Progressive Christianity. The word “God” is evoked by our sense of connection to the mystery at the heart of being and life (p. 61).

In reading this chapter I kept thinking, “Why bother with the Bible and the Christian tradition at all?” Drawing on his theory of language as symbolic expression of our sense of mystery, Kaden explains how he can embrace traditional Christian language even though he does not believe it imparts propositional truth:

But it is also why we can fully embrace our rich heritage as Christians, including its most orthodox manifestations. God incarnated in human flesh in the person of Christ is quintessentially relational—a God who dwells among us and is discovered in the faces of the people we meet…is fully present with us, breathing life into and through our communities and our personal interactions. And God as triune implies that God is an eternal, interacting relationship (p. 55).

That is to say, Progressive Christianity claims to be authentically “Christian” because it uses the language of the Bible and the Christian tradition as its central symbols to expresses its sense of the mystery of life and being. Bear in mind that Progressive Christianity does not claim that these symbols (God, Christ, Trinity, Incarnation, etc.) are true in the way a proposition can be true or false; nor are they superior to other religions’ symbols in expressing the mystery of life and being for those religious communities. To use a common postmodern expression, Christianity is “true for me” or “true for us” Christians but not true for everyone.

Chapter Three: “Pictures of Jesus”

As the title of the chapter foreshadows, Kaden views the four Gospels as different portraits of Jesus comprised of impressions, memories, and traditions about Jesus interpreted in light of the experience of the early Christian communities. “The gospels,” Kaden, opines, “are presentations of Jesus written decades after he died and thus reflect the values and interests of the writers and others who compiled them” (p. 75; emphasis original). They differ in narrative detail and in emphasis and often conflict with each other. But this historical problem does not matter to Kaden:

To state the matter plainly, the Jesus who matters is not the Jesus we think we can reconstruct from the sources of the ancient past but rather the Jesus we proclaim today using the pages of Scripture as our starting point (p. 78).

We are not bound by the gospel writers’ pictures of Jesus. Progressive Christians “creatively borrow, edit, update, and rework those same gospels that are grounded in tradition to make Jesus speak to us today” (p. 82). And what is the criterion by which we reconstruct a Jesus that can speak to us today? In addressing this question, Kaden borrows a phrase from the 2016 film Their Finest. It tells the story the screen writers of a WW II propaganda film promoting the war effort. They discovered to their dismay that the central event of the film was apocryphal. One of the writers Tom Buckley justified producing the film anyway because “we pick our truths” (p. 64). What matters is not the historical truth but the emotional impact of the story. Kaden applies this theory to the stories of Jesus:

When we pick our truths as we interpret the New Testament gospels, our responsibility as progressive Christians is to privilege those portions of the gospels that depict (or paint) Jesus in ways that are consistent with the boundary-crossing message we find in Mark’s story of the touching of the leper and Luke’s parable of the Good Samaritan” (p. 88).

It does not matter to Kaden whether it is historically true that Jesus touched a leper or told the story of the Good Samaritan. What matters is the way these stories dramatize a view of human relationships—compassionate, tolerant, and affirming—that progressivism takes as normative. That is to say, we have a progressive message and we “pick our truths” from the traditions about Jesus that can best serve that message.

That recurring question surfaces again: if you do not come to know or ground your “truth” in the historical words and deeds of Jesus, Why talk about Jesus at all? Why Christianity?

To be continued…

Varieties of Progressive Christianity: Introduction to the Series

A few months back (July 15 and 19, 2022), I reviewed Roger Olson’s new book Against Liberal Theology: Putting the Brakes on Progressive Christianity (Zondervan, 2022). In my assessment of the book I complained that Olson focused almost exclusively on liberal theology and left the category of “Progressive Christianity” vague. On August 12, 2022, I posted an essay asking “Are Progressives the New Evangelicals?” in which I attempted to clarify the category of Progressive Christianity. Next I reviewed Kristin Kobes Du Mez, Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation (Liveright, 2021). Although as far as I know Du Mez does not designate herself as a progressive, her stinging critique of Evangelicalism seemed designed, as I said in that review, to please “those who already hate Donald Trump, those burned by evangelical churches, those already leaning leftward in their politics, and theological liberals and progressives.”

Many people within my circle of friends, colleagues, and students are reading books by Christian authors from within the progressive camp. Indeed they hardly read any others. These progressive authors specialize in pointing out the faults of fundamentalism, evangelicalism, and traditional denominations. They propose a kinder and gentler, less dogmatic and intolerant, more spiritual form of Christianity. They offer a new way of reading the Bible and of doing church. They claim to point the way to authentic and healthy Christianity. But do they really? In this series I plan to assess this claim.

To further this aim, I’ve begun reading books that champion and books critique this this phenomenon. One does not need to read very extensively to discover that “Progressive Christianity” is a very broad category encompassing people on the extreme left, mainline liberals, and disillusioned and wounded evangelicals. In this series I hope to clarify the main commonalities and distinctions grouped under this term. I will begin with some reviews of books I am reading on the subject.

The first book to be examined is David A. Kaden, Christianity in Blue: How the Bible, History, Philosophy, and Theology Shape Progressive Identity (Fortress Press, 2021). This book represents the far-left end of Progressive Christianity. Look for it soon.

In Praise of Ignorance

What does it mean to be an educated person? I posted an introductory essay on this topic in June, 2022. I promised to continue this theme, but more pressing issues distracted me. I concluded that…

Acquiring an education is a self-conscious process of learning the inner workings and interrelationships of the major sectors of the society within which we live—economy, politics, art, literature, law, science, technology, ethics, and religion.

I want to continue exploring the idea of education, focusing today on one mark of an educated person, intellectual responsibility.

Learning and Ignorance

I have been an educator for half of my life and most of the other half I was studying to become one. I have read more books than I can count; and I have written a few. I still feel ignorant! Hence, in this essay I want to address the place of ignorance in intellectual life.

I have found it a rule that the more we learn the more we become aware of our ignorance. The deeper we probe a topic the more we realize its connections with other areas of knowledge. And those areas are connected to still others. At some point it dawns on us that the web of mutually conditioning connections spreads out infinitely in all directions. Not only must we admit that we do not know how far our ignorance extends, we must also acknowledge that things we do not know could affect the meaning of the things we believe. That is to say, becoming aware of the extent of our ignorance casts doubt on what seemed certain.

The Skeptic

Let me differentiate what I am saying from thoroughgoing skepticism—the thesis that we know nothing at all. Suppose I gain by close inspection some empirical knowledge of a certain mountain peak. I learn about its resident animals, plants, and many of its physical features. These facts will not change no matter how much I learn later about the rest of the mountain and its setting in its mountain range. These facts would remain the same even if we mapped its entire setting on earth, in the history of geology and biology, in the solar system, in the galaxy, etc. But coming to know this extended web of connections would expand our understanding of the origin, history, function, and significance of this mountain peak. Gaining such information would not convince us that our previous knowledge was erroneous, but it would show its incompleteness.

I believe we could apply this same procedure to almost any assertion of fact or truth whether philosophical, theological, historical, or scientific: that God exists, murder is immoral, the American Civil War ended in 1865, or that knowledge can best be defined as true, justified belief. If a belief is true, no new information can make it false. But new information can deepen our understanding or expand the meaning of a belief.

What does this exercise have to do with being an educated person? An intellectually responsible person knows enough about an area of study to be able to give good reasons why gaining further knowledge about that area and its connections with other areas will not falsify the knowledge they have gained so far. At the same time, however, educated people are aware of their ignorance of other related facts and truths that could deepen and expand their current understanding. Unlike the skeptic, the educated person’s awareness of their ignorance is hard won and productive of further knowledge.

The Dogmatist

On the opposite end of the spectrum from the skeptic is the dogmatist. Dogmatists identify their isolated beliefs with absolute truths, that is, truths whose meaning is fully and unambiguously present in the very words of the assertions. Dogmatists are not open to modification, deepening, and expansion of their beliefs by pursuing additional information. Like the skeptical attitude, the dogmatic mentality is not productive of further knowledge.

Neither the skeptic nor the dogmatist measures up to the ideal of intellectual responsibility. Educated people should know enough about the wider context of their beliefs to defend them against total denials but also be aware enough of their ignorance to learn from their opponents. The attitude of which I am speaking combines intellectual confidence with intellectual humility in a way productive of continued learning.

Hope

Dogmatists fear that admitting the least smidgen of incompleteness in their beliefs will plunge them into complete relativism and skepticism. Skeptics dread making commitments for fear that they will be disappointed. Both lack the Christian virtue of hope. Hope embraces unwaveringly the truth it knows, believing that it is only a taste of what is to come. Hope unites confidence and openness in a way productive of joy. Both dogmatists and skeptics are miserable.

Jesus, John Wayne, and Evangelicals: A Brief Reaction

Many of my colleagues and acquaintances have praised Kristin Kobes Du Mez, Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation (Liveright, 2021). As of today, the book has received 3,808 reviews on Amazon with a rating of 4.5 stars out of 5. Hence I thought I ought to read it for myself. My “brief reaction” won’t contain a full review, much less a chapter-by-chapter summary, detailed analysis of the argument, or thorough critique. I hope it will nevertheless be helpful for those who have read it or will read it or are thinking of reading it.

The Title

I have to admit that even before I read the book—indeed the first time I heard of it—I had a negative reaction to the title. It seemed designed to be provocative, insulting, and indicting—the kind of book intended to appeal to an extreme faction to reinforce their already emotionally-driven stance. And sure to sell! The subtitle states a thesis that seemed too radical to sustain. How could anyone hope to demonstrate that evangelicals as a group are guilty of corrupting a faith, i.e., the gospel? And are white evangelicals alone responsible for the social and political divisions that plague the country (USA)? Moreover, why add the word “white” to modify evangelicals? Will the book accuse white evangelicals of racism? There is one word missing from the title that I think is implied, that is, “male.” Although there are some women in the book whom Du Mez paints in a bad light (Merabel Morgan and Phillis Schalfly), villains are overwhelmingly male. The cast of scoundrels includes Billy Graham, James Dobson, Chuck Colson, Oliver North, Tim LaHay, Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, Josh McDowell, Michel Farris, Tony Perkins, and many more. So, being white, male, and a fairly traditional Christian rather than progressive or liberal you can see why I did not resonate with the title.

The Book’s Mood

It’s been a long time since I’ve read such a depressing book. The book begins and ends with what Du Mez considers irrefutable proof of white evangelicals’ hypocrisy and corruption, that is, their overwhelming support for the twice-divorced, serial adulterer, misogynist, racist, xenophobic, islamophobic, arrogant, foul-mouthed Donald Trump in the 2016 election (Preface, xvii). Enthusiasm for Trump is the definitive refutation of evangelicals’ sincerity in all their talk about morality, faith, and family; it is proof that “evangelicalism must be seen as a cultural and political movement rather than as a community defined by theology” (p. 298). Between these bookends she tells story after story of white, male evangelical leaders’ political intrigue, ambition, duplicity, hypocrisy, and sexual misconduct. According to Du Mez the animating heart of evangelicalism is patriarchy, “heroic white manhood” (p. xvi), “militant masculinity” (p. 3), and white nationalism. Perhaps I missed it, but I don’t recall Du Mez mentioning a single positive quality or redeeming feature of her evangelical villains. It’s a story of meanness, betrayal, and hypocrisy. That’s all there is. I could not detect in Du Mez’s portrayal a smidgen of empathy. No nuance. No grace.

After reading 300 pages describing dirty laundry and exploring skeleton laden closets, you begin to doubt that there is any goodness left in the world. It took me a whole day to recover my sense of perspective. As a professor of religion, I shudder to think what reading this book would do to the mind and heart of a young college student who knows nothing else about the history of American Christianity.

The Argument

Given the subtitle of the book I expected hear an argument for her thesis. But the adverb “how” in the subtitle should have given me a clue that I would be disappointed. The “how” announces that the fact of white evangelicals corrupting the faith and fracturing the nation is taken for granted. Evangelicals’ support of Donald Trump proves it. Her task is to show how this happened and why we should not be surprised that it did:

History makes clear that this should come as no surprise. Evangelical support for Trump was no aberration. For many white evangelicals, the values Trump embodied aligned with the militancy at the heart of their faith (p. xvii).

With the fact of evangelicals’ betrayal of the gospel established beyond doubt by their association with Trump, all Du Mez needs to do is construct a narrative illustrating how the post WW II evangelical movement was animated from its beginning and throughout its history by ideals of militant (white) masculinity and submissive femininity. The narrative portrays evangelicals’ defense of the Bible and orthodox doctrine and its rhetoric of morality, marriage, and family as serving the basic instinct of (white) male superiority, a will to power masked as theological faithfulness. Evangelicalism, Du Mez contends, is “a cultural and political movement” not “a community defined by theology” (p. 298). This conclusion, I think, is the central point of the book. It is to disempower the male dominated evangelical movement by unmasking the ulterior political motives hidden by its theological rhetoric. It is to imbue her readers with suspicion of sanctimonious rhetoric and free them—especially women—from the linguistic cage constructed by male evangelical architects.

Will it work? Yes. For some people it will. Those who already hate Donald Trump, those burned by evangelical churches, those already leaning leftward in their politics, and theological liberals and progressives will enjoy reading about the sins of their political enemies. As I said at the beginning of this essay, the title of book tells you who the book is meant to entertain.

Critical Assessment

Do I have anything good to say about Jesus and John Wayne? Yes. Having read extensively in American church history and theology, I know most of the stories and characters discussed in the book, but not all. I learned some new things. The book is well-researched and meticulously documented. Her book testifies to her impressive ability to create a narrative out of thousands of facts. Concerning the facts it recounts, I do not doubt its historical accuracy. And it’s pretty well written. But….

On the other hand, I believe the book is deeply flawed. Though the facts are accurate, the narrative is misleading. Her obsession with debunking evangelicalism root and branch is too obvious to overlook. She explains everything evangelicals say and do as manifestations of their lust for power. This thesis makes historical explanation too simple and mechanical. All the characters are rendered as one dimensional ciphers. They don’t even have the virtue of being flawed. They are just bad. As far as readers can tell from Du Mez’s narrative, evangelicals did nothing good; their causes were unjust, their fears unfounded, and their actions divisive.

I began this essay with my apprehensions about the title of Du Mez’s book. Reading the book did nothing to remove them. Despite all the facts marshalled in its support, I don’t accept her narrative. If you read the book, ask yourself two questions: (1) can the evangelical movement really be as unambiguously evil as Du Mez portrays it? (2) If it is legitimate to deconstruct evangelicalism and reduce it to the will to power, is it not legitimate to ask what “metanarrative” or hidden motive controls De Mez’s narrative reconstruction?