I’m going to focus on books this week — some that I’ve read, some that I am reading.
When Richard Mouw announced his retirement from the presidency of Fuller Theological Seminary, I was nervous. I’m both an alumnus and a part-time employee of Fuller, and I’m very much a product of that place. In face, I’d say that who I am as a theologian is much more a reflection of Fuller (M.Div.) than of Princeton (Ph.D.). That’s as much because of my time of life (mid-20s vs. mid-30s) when I matriculated at each school.
Mouw was an emissary of evangelicalism, establishing dialogues with Mormons, Muslims, and others. He engaged in the religion-and-science debates, and he regularly debated fellow PC(USA) leaders who were more liberal than he. Although Mouw is fiercely Reformed (in the Kuyperian sense), he was always relatively generous and civil with his evangelicalism (marriage equality being one notable exception).
So when he was leaving, and Fuller was looking for his successor, I wondered who could fill that chair with the same generous spirit. Because, honestly, a moderate evangelical leader is hard to find these days.
As I reported at the time, I was pleased to hear that Mark Labberton was chosen to lead Fuller. In my previous encounters with Mark, he was just the kind of generous, centrist evangelical who embodies what Fuller should be on the landscape of American Christianity. And now, with his first book since assuming that job, we know a bit more about Labberton’s vision.
Called: The Crisis and Promise of Following Jesus Today is a relatively brief book, focusing on the primary vocation of every Christian: Following Jesus. Labberton dips into the Bible here and there, but he forgoes long-form exegesis. He tells brief anecdotes drawn from two decades as a pastor, but only uses first names and the stories never go on for more than a couple paragraphs.
In other words, Labberton’s voice is primarily pastoral. And that, I think, says something very important about him and his leadership of the flagship seminary of American evangelicalism.
The temptation might be that Labberton’s first book at Fuller’s president would be to show his intellectual chops, or to establish a base line on social or political issues. He could either assuage or ruffle Fuller’s broad constituency by writing a book that tackled any number of controversial issues — Paul, gay marriage, inter-faith relations, salvation, etc.
But he’s done none of those things. He hasn’t taken the bait. Instead he’s shown publicly the same thing that I’ve seen privately, and that is his pastor’s heart. He writes of following Jesus in an era when that is passé or even offensive; he writes of getting Christian priorities straight (making the primary things primary, and not getting hung up on secondary matters); and he nods to how different contexts mean that Christians respond differently to different challenges. Every chapter ends with suggested practices, again showing his commitment to people’s lives actually being affected by their faith.
Called is a book that can and should be used in church groups and Bible studies. It’s plain-spoken and unpretentious, like Labberton himself. And for those of us reading between the lines and wondering about the future of Fuller, this book is a welcome sign of a thoughtful, generous Christianity.