Is Neither Clarifying
Before I read this book, I’d never heard of David Gushee. I read it only because it was being used for a study group in a church I was familiar with. The church was progressive and the book was enticing.
The enticement was based on two facts. The number of people questioning and/or leaving evangelical churches particularly of the fundamentalist version and the title, “After Evangelicalism”, which seemed to imply an answer for why people were leaving and where they were going.
For the record, Pew Research reported that the number of US citizens claiming to be Christian dropped by 12% over the decade between 2011 and 2021. Most of the decline was among Protestants and fundamentalist Evangelicals had the largest share so the topic is certainly relevant.
People are leaving. The trend is visible. The book offers an answer to “Where should they go?”
Although I spent most of the last fifty plus years in fundamentalist circles, I too have concerns and have entertained them for quite some time. I still believe the Bible entirely and trust Jesus completely but I question the interpretations commonly taught in fundamentalist circles.
There was no single cataclysmic moment that dismantled everything I believed. It wasn’t an avalanche. My concerns developed slowly over time as situations arose.
The Jay E. Adams counseling books are an example. His teachings led us to believe any Christian is capable of unraveling the intricate and complex problems that plague the lives and disrupt the relationships of people. Influenced by Adams’ books, counseling became the craze for every person from the pulpit to the pew and since churches are often like echo chambers and public prayer is a great source of gossip, the result was pure chaos.
Since those days, I’ve come to believe that counseling is both a gift (some people have it, some don’t) and a qualification. It’s something you’re called to do and something you must learn to do but thanks to Mr. Adams, many won’t have it.
Another issue that created cracks in my fundamentalist advocacy was the hard fisted way churches handle divorce and remarriage. You expect that from Catholics but even protestant churches are taking up the Romish mindset.
That’s just two issues and they’ve been around for years but it only gets worse. In more recent times, it is the absolutist mindset about abortion and the heavy handed approach fundamentalists take to sexual orientation and identity issues.
For some of these issues, I’ve developed ideas I believe are helpful, clarifying. For others, I’m still thinking, but in every case I’m motivated by the hope that there is a better, more thoughtful response than the usual fundamentalist approach which is to sequester every uncomfortable topic behind closed doors.
Some might write me off as just another progressive but there is one very important way in which I differ. In every case, whatever the issue and whatever my conclusion, I take my cues from the Bible. The Word of God, which is what I believe the Bible to be, is still the source and foundation for every belief.
The sad part is progressives, the people we think could help, begin their arguments in most cases by attempting to dismantle the Bible. They don’t just excise a text here or there but the effort is more like evisceration. Once they’re finished, there’s not much Bible left to consider.
Unfortunately, that is true for David Gushee’s book. He starts with a sympathetic tone, like he really understands where evangelicals are coming from and then pulls out the scalpel once he has your attention.
Early on, he makes some positive remarks about fundamentalism:
It would be unfair not to acknowledge at the outset much that has also been good. This includes considerable Christian evangelism, personal discipleship and spiritual growth, church building, education and research, child care and family counseling, relief and development, public policy advocacy, and cultural production including books, music, and art. And the very achievement of modern evangelicalism—the creation of a religious identity that came to dominate the perceived landscape of not just American Christianity but also much of world Christianity—is truly staggering. (p. 16)
With these remarks, he draws in the more fundamental among us, but it isn’t too long before he begins surgery on the Bible.
Backgrounds are important and his does indicate that he isn’t an outsider. He has personal knowledge of fundamentalism. He was raised Catholic but left Catholicism at the age of 13 only to undergo, in his words:
A dramatic and most unlikely conversion to evangelical faith in a Southern Baptist congregation. I was all in from that point on, later attending Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and becoming an ordained Southern Baptist minister. (p. 4)
He has now gone full circle and is once again attending Catholic Mass most weeks (p. 41), a church which he clearly admits disregards much of the biblical text. And he gives full throated endorsement to that approach.
At one point he accuses fundamentalists of:
Tipping over into near idolatry of the Bible. (p. 30)
There’s truth in that statement but his answer to the problem is problematic.
One way to think about biblical inspiration might be that 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. Other texts, it is quietly understood, do not demonstrate that effect and are not asked to bear that weight. (p. 32)
“Quietly understood” by whom? If you’re thinking this sounds like cutting and pasting, you’d be right.
According to Gushee, the rule of thumb for ascribing inspiration to any passage is to assess how useful the text might be for drawing people to Jesus. My first thought was, who gets to make that determination?
Whatever his answer, he contradicts himself by bemoaning the fact that the Bible is not the easiest place to find it.
He suggests that finding consistency in the text is not easy, finding cohesion is impossible (in some cases) and making sense of the ancient languages is a struggle (p. 35).
Admittedly, this makes the job of interpretation more difficult but the Bible has never claimed to be an answer book. Whatever answers you extract are not listed in the index. Jesus taught in parables and told us not to treat truth like slop to be cast before swine (Matt. 7:6).
Are there difficulties in interpreting the Bible? Yes. Do those difficulties imply the Bible is untrustworthy? No!
However, the hard work necessary to properly interpret the Bible is one of Gushee’s core arguments for suggesting large portions of the Bible are not inspired and inerrancy is not to be accepted.
His exact words:
It is not easy to believe that any book written by humans could bear the weight of such claims. (p. 31)
The “claim” he’s referring to is the idea that the Bible is divinely inspired, therefore, miraculously produced and by necessity inerrant. He accepts inspiration for some parts of the Bible, not for all of it.
He goes on to say:
The Bible cannot be the primary source of knowledge and criterion of truth in all areas of importance. (p. 40)
And church tradition (practices historically observed in churches as extensions of denominational beliefs) are to be revered equally with Scripture, according to Gushee.
The Bible cannot be fully understood apart from the church’s history and tradition. (p. 37)
The distinction between Scripture and Tradition is itself debatable. (p. 48)
Unfortunately, for Gushee, his contradictions mount up. He complains that one reason fundamentalist numbers are diminishing is because of the male dominance in evangelical circles (p. 11) and yet he is now attending Catholic mass where male dominance is pedestalized at every turn.
Another contradiction involving the Catholic Church has to do with interpretation. Gushee says:
Whatever claims we make about the Bible’s truthfulness, in the end we must face the fact that the Bible is being interpreted by Joe Pastor or Josie Sunday School Teacher, deploying whatever (usually very limited) interpretive skills they might have developed along the way, and exercising profound communal power as they do so. (p. 35)
And that fact,
Combined with the influence of low-church traditions like the Baptists and so many baptistic nondenominational church start-ups means that millions of evangelicals are set loose on the Bible believing that they need no help to interpret it. (p. 35)
He doesn’t mention a remedy to this problem other than attend Catholic Church or some other lectionary/tradition based religion where the Bible readings are chosen for you. That, of course, means you won’t need to own a Bible, read a Bible or think through the difficult passages on your own, just turn you mind over to the priests. Surely they can be trusted.
As I read through Gushee’s complaints, I wondered if he’d been to any Bible book stores lately where any person can find a treasure trove of study helps. Not just commentaries, but dictionaries, grammars, encyclopedias and more. Actually, you don’t even need to find a store. These helps are available on line for free.
The Bible was never intended to be a mediated book. It is bottom shelf, meaning any person can access it. Reading and thinking skills are needed and developing those skills along with the ability to study requires work but this kind of work is a reason to believe the Bible is authentically the Word of God.
Gushee’s loyalty to Catholic tradition can never be questioned, though. He follows their line of thinking exactly. Rome has advocated against open access to knowledge, research and thinking for centuries and threatened death to anyone who thought differently.
Maybe if Gushee’s church of choice, Catholic, hadn’t disallowed individual access to the Bible and threatened death to anyone who thought for themselves, the skills to read and think would be more broadly developed and the Kaleidoscope of interpretations Gushee decries wouldn’t exist. Maybe we wouldn’t be held hostage to the teachings of John Calvin and Menno Simons types (both excommunicated Catholics) who’ve dominated individual thinking ever since.
Everything I’ve said so far applies to the first part of Gushee’s book. In the rest of the book, he calmed down a bit and offered some ideas about sexual interactions, orientations and identity that could be useful as a starting point but were undeveloped.
That’s understandable, though, since fundamentalist gaveled these discussions to a close a long time ago.