Life After Evangelicalism:
The Path to a New Christianity
By David P. Gushee
A Review by Dwight A. Moody
This is the kind of book that church people need to read together: in Sunday School classes, Zoom book clubs, and discipleship groups. It is personal, powerful, and pointed in all the right directions. And best of all, it begins well and ends well.
The first part describes the journeys of millions of Christians into, and out of, that most dominant form of American Christianity—white evangelicalism. This is the network of conservative believers gathered in congregations large and small with names like Assembly, Baptist, Bible, Christian, Community, Methodist, and Pentecostal (along with those oh-so-trendy words like Bridge, Cross, Door, Elevate, Journey, Mosaic, Pointe, and Renovate). This is the version of our faith that has emphasized Bible-reading and Bible-quoting, elders, contemporary worship, charismatic gifts, megachurch and multi-site church, Left Behind, and Republican politics. This may be your tribe just as it was once the tribe of Dr. Gushee.
Actually, his religious narrative reads like this: Roman Catholic, Southern Baptist, Evangelical, Progressive Baptist, and now what he calls Christian Humanism. He talks about his journey in this book and does with a deep sense of shame, repentance, and personal reconstruction.
At the end, he writes (in reference to the issues of race but in a way that could be applied to so much more): “I am sorry. So very sorry. I believe that I have begun to repent. I have written this book not mainly so that I can dissect what I believe to be the failures of white evangelicalism, but so that I can clarify for myself, and maybe for others, where some solid ground might be found… for building a Christ-honoring life as a post-evangelical. And that is so very much my goal. I want to live for Jesus till I die. And I want to help other people find a way to do that too, if they are willing” (168, 170).
He follows his testimony with a fresh look at the sources available to Christians for understanding God, the world, and our purpose in the world. He rejects inerrancy and the biblicism upon which it is built and opts for a tweaked version of the standard Wesleyan Quadrilateral: scripture, reason, experience, and tradition (with a fresh dose of art, literature, and science thrown in for good measure).
Next, Gushee turns to the narrative of Holy Scripture, granting renewed emphasis to that one great event of Hebrew history—the Exodus from Egypt. He finds a version of Jesus that is consistent with that episode; it is the synoptic Jesus, the miracle-working, Torah-teaching, people-receiving, temple-torching, death-defying prophet of the end times. Scholars will call this a low-Christology, but millions of people will see it as high enough to hang their religious hat.
The later part of the book treats straight up the three great crises of the modern American church: sex, politics, and race. His chapters on these are strong, sturdy, and sure to provoke a steady stream of both “amen” and “I don’t think so”.
He calls for a thorough revision of the Christian sexual ethic, pushing modern day “purity codes” such as True Love Waits to the side and embracing the full range of human sexual experience, always within the confines of consent, sobriety, and self-agency. He strongly endorses covenant marriage and gives his approval to non-marriage covenants of love and sexual expression, all of this to include straight, gay, and transgendered persons. His vision of human sexual expression is expansive, winsome, and courageous; and it corresponds to the way in which Christian people are already living today! It is as if the people in the pew have, over the last half century, experimented with new ways to connect with each other, and in so doing, have given the people in the pulpit something of substance to describe as Christian.
His chapter of politics is a rehearsal of the now-familiar marriage of Evangelicals and Republicans. He offers seven marks of “healthy Christian politics” which, as principles, would draw protests from very few people: such as, Christian instead of national, hope instead of fear, theology instead of ideology, and global instead of parochial. Mostly he calls upon us to orient our public activity toward the Common Good and a vision of God’s Kingdom.
The final chapter is, in my judgment, the best, because it both engages the arena of his own passion and the events of our own day—the global movement for racial solidarity and social justice. He judges harshly and rightly the American church in general, and the Evangelical community in particular, for our complicity in so much race-related corruption. He quotes another, “White Christianity in America was born in heresy.” Then, he demonstrates why it is a true statement and a prophetic word to all of us today. He enumerates the various opportunities American Christians have had to repent and reform our Christian ways as it relates to race; but we failed every time. His book and his own determination fuel my own resolve to embrace our opportunity today, here and now, in Georgia and throughout the country, to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly and rightly with both God and our black brothers and sisters.
His final confession echoes my own: “I am so very late in saying all this. I am appalled at my lateness” (167). But it is never too late to do what is right; and this book is a powerful prod in that direction. It has pushed me, and it will push you. Read it; and do your own repenting; and seek anew your own place of purpose, service, and witness.