David Gushee is one of those authors that I know about but until I read his book Changing Our Mind, I do not think I had read more than a couple articles by him (mostly at Christianity Today.)
The transcript of a speech at the end of the 2nd edition of Changing Our Mind (the 3rd edition is now out) is what made me what to pick up this book. Gushee’s dissertation was about German Christian response to the Holocaust. Gushee in his speech drew parallels to how ethical thinking was impacted by the understanding of actual people harmed.
Last week I saw that this memoir was coming out. I picked up a review copy and moved it to the top of my reading list. I have been craving memoirs of my elders lately. After finishing the four volumes of Madeleine L’Engle’s memoirs I was intending to pick up Stanley Hauerwas’ memoir Hannah’s Child. Gushee’s memoir jumped in line.
Seeing how people work out their faith over time, in good and bad times, is very encouraging. And watching how people of deep faith come to different conclusions in their theological and ethical positions while retaining a robust devotional and theological life also is a good reminder of the greatness of God, and of our own limited perspectives.
David Gushee grew up a nominal Catholic. As a teen, Gushee came to faith through a Southern Baptist church in Northern Virginia. Quickly feeling the call to ministry, he went to undergrad at William and Mary and then seminary at Southern Seminary. Gushee had not been prepared for the internal politics of the SBC that was in the throes of a significant theological battle.
He moved from Southern to Union Seminary in New York City, from a school that was fighting about how conservative to be, to one that was the center of Liberation Theology. For three years on campus and then three years off campus, he started to gain an understanding what it means to be too conservative for the liberals and too liberal for the conservatives.
During the writing phase of his dissertation Gushee worked with Evangelicals for Social Action and Ron Sider and discovered Evangelicalism. Southern Baptist prior to the 1990s were not really mainstream Evangelicals. Gushee’s exposure to politically left leaning, but theologically conservative Evangelicals was refreshing and gave him a new view of an arena of where he could practice his ethical academic background.
When Gushee finished his PhD, Southern Seminary was the only job offer. So back to Louisville and the SBC he went. Mohler had just been appointed president (at 33!) and Gushee was one of the attempts at making all sides happy.
One of the strengths of this memoir is that Gushee has been a long term journaler. There are a number of quotes from those journals which give contemporaneous thoughts on different aspects of his life. The combination of the thoughts from the time with his longer view look when writing gives Still Christian balance.
The second balance of the Still Christian is that with almost no exceptions, Gushee shows difference of opinion, but not villains. Mohler and a number of other characters have a different of opinion with Gushee. But Gushee portrays them as real people.
It is not the only issue, but Gushee was supportive of women in ministry at a time when it was a flashpoint in SBC and at Southern. When he was offered an out, he took it. This time it is to Union University in Jackson, TN. It is during this time that Gushee starts becoming a rising star in the Evangelical world. He was writing a column for Christianity Today, active in ethical debates, and he became a regular speaker around the country.
It is the ethical debates around Torture and the Environment that raised his profile, both positively and negatively, and eventually lead him to move to Mercer University. Throughout his teaching and writing career up until this point Gushee was solidly Evangelical. He was somewhat left socially, but within clear bounds of standard Evangelicalism. After critiquing the use of torture under Bush, which was roundly condemned by Evangelical leaders, but largely supported by many Evangelical lay people, and supporting the Evangelical Environmental movement, Gushee was embraced by Evangelical Democrats. Gushee was largely supportive of Obama, but also became more wary of being used by politicians, on all sides.
The final straw for Gushee’s Evangelical identity was his change on LGBT issues. Gushee identifies his book Changing Our Mind as an important shift for him. It may not seem related, but his mother, father in law, and mentor all died in quick succession. And in the middle of this Gushee decides to write weekly column exploring LGBT issues. He describes it as publicly exploring the issue, while privately grieving. Which means he had lowered inhibitions and was less careful than he might have been had he not been grieving. He acknowledges that he should have known better, but he was unprepared for the backlash.
Part of his movement on the LGBT issue was his involvement in his church, First Baptist Church Decatur. Since Oct 2016 he has been the Interim Pastor. But his involvement over the past 10 years in a community that was working through their own issues with LGBT involvement was part of what gave rise to the columns, which gave rise to the book.
Gushee announced yesterday that he was going to stop writing opinion pieces for Religion News Service and other outlets and focus on his roles as academic and pastor. In the last chapter of Still Christian, he speaks about his desire to open up his teaching position to a new generation as quickly as possible.
This post is nearly as long as Still Christian. I very quickly read it over two evenings. His clear faith stands out. But also a lot of pain. In some ways Still Christian is what I wanted Peter Enns’ book the Sin of Certainty to be more like. I thought Enns needed more of his story to frame his point. Gushee uses his story well to frame the problems with internal policing of Evangelicalism.
Regardless to your position on LGBT issues, Still Christian is a good book to remind us that Christianity is about following Christ. Gushee has attempted to do that whether his answers and paths are your own or not.