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Figuring Out God in the 21st Century: Deep Roots or New Path?
October 8, 2020
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More than a few people find that they are disappointed by God. They were hoping for an amazing rescue but it didn’t happen. They were hoping for justice but what they received was more injustice. They were hoping that God would show up like he did at the Exodus, instead it was more like the return from Babylon.
How do we deal with our disappointment with God? How do we find hope?
As most of us know the path to answering those questions can go in significantly different directions. They certainly do for David Gushee (After Evangelicalism: The Path to a New Christianity) and Esau McCaulley (Reading While Black: African American Biblical Interpretation as an Exercise in Hope).
David Gushee believes we need to leave much of evangelical biblical interpretation behind and certain doctrines in order to be ushered into a new relationship with Christ and the Father. This new relationship speaks of a Christian humanism that longs for a covenant relationship with God. God, however, because of his track record (holocaust, not coming to our rescue as we need etc.), can’t demand this covenant relationship as he did in the Old Testament—we now have to enter into it from the human side.
Gushee in particular in this holds out the “Burning Children Test” which refers to children who were burned alive at Auschwitz. Gushee quotes Rabbi Greenburg, “No statement theological or otherwise could be made that would not be credible in the presence of burning children.” Since holding that a loving God who is in control can’t meet this test (in Gushee’s eyes) we have to rethink God, who he is, his work in the world and our being in covenant with him.
In the end Gushee looks to reform our understanding of God, the Bible, and key theological points in order to have a God who we can be in deep and honest relationship with.
While some may find Gushee’s After Evangelicalism a bit hard to read and perhaps difficult to take John Fea’s review of this book is spot on, “As a self-identified evangelical Christian who is not yet willing to abandon this religious identity, I cannot endorse the central premise of David Gushee s thoughtful new book. But I can fully endorse his diagnosis of the many problems facing American evangelicalism today. My fellow believers ignore this book at their peril.”
Esau McCaulley published his book about a week after Gushee’s. The difference between them is stunning. Gushee’s book, to me, feels like a white American middle class perspective, namely as we struggle with God we need to give up on seeing God at work in difficult circumstances and look for a new way forward that is in tune with our white middle class sensibilities. God in some ways needs to become less and we need to become more. McCaulley on the other hand digs deeply into the roots of Black biblical interpretation. Indeed one of the most striking things about the book is McCaulley’s insistence that there is nothing new in what he is saying, rather he is taking the sermons, Bible studies, and conversations of his particular African American community and putting them in one place.
McCaulley’s deep roots approach also has to deal with the struggles of a painful history. There is the history of slavery, lynchings, mass incarceration and more. However, rather than leaving behind what he has learned he digs in ever deeper, finding in Black interpretation of the scriptures both hope and the ability to deal with grave injustice. One of the central motifs of dealing with this pain and injustice is centered on the God who comes among us to die on the cross.
While he digs deeply into the roots of Black interpretation readers need to know this is Black interpretation, not white middle class evangelical interpretation. This may leave those who have not had exposure to this interpretive strand uncomfortable. For instance, his thoughtful and thorough interpretation of Romans 13 will surprise and challenge many who have assume that Romans 13 is all about obedience. His dealing with the imprecatory Psalms is deeply interesting and healing no matter what interpretive tradition you come from.
Overall, rather than abandoning his roots McCaulley cultivates those roots to deal with the issues of today. For many this will leave them feeling hopeful as well as grounded. However, it may also leave some uncomfortable because these deep roots are in the soil of slavery, white supremacy, and pushing back against the racism of our day.
McCaulley’s and Gushee’s books coming out so close to each other provides a wonderful opportunity to see how two different streams in the Christians tradition are working to think about God in a time of deep pain. They both deserve our attention as we listen to the voices of our culture and seek to be on God’s mission in it.
Have you read either of these books? What’s your insight into them? How might they form taking fresh steps in ministry and mission in your congregation?
What to learn more about taking fresh steps in ministry and mission? Would you like to join a cohort studying one of these books? Looking for other resources? Visit us at VibrantCongregations. We’d love to connect with you.
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