Evangelicalism is slowly changing. But you have to look very closely.
That ‘close looking’ is exactly what Deborah Jian Lee has done in her book, Rescuing Jesus: How People of Color, Women & Queer Christians are Reclaiming Evnagelicalism.
Jian Lee is well-suited for this task because, as a journalist she has a knack for accurate description as well as talent for storytelling. She’s woven together a fascinating tale of the diversity within American Evangelicalism, by telling stories of three figures located firmly within the movement (at least at one period in their lives), who each struggle with navigating the terrain of theology, politics, culture, and difficult family dynamics. The book details the existential angst that comes with finding oneself increasingly an outsider in a movement that has thrived on harsh boundaries–and one that rewards insiders who play by the rules.
The book weaves the story of the present and future of evangelicalism around three people, all fascinating figures in their own right:
(1) Lisa Sharon Harper, an African-American author and activist with deep Evangelical roots and experiences (Campus Crusade, Sojourners, etc.), who courageously navigated her developing understanding of racial identity and the problem of racialization and white privilege operating–however implicitly and subconsciously–within largely white evangelical institutions. She has become an important voice for progressive evangelicals seeking a better way to do justice and love mercy.
(2) Jennifer Crumpton, a former Southern Baptist evangelical and first-runner-up Miss Alabama, whose increasing understanding of the demeaning patriarchy and the double standards of “purity culture” inherent within fundamentalist Evangelical systems led her to directly confront those systems, in order to find life and wholeness of self. She now leads a ministry, Femmevangelicals, writing and speaking on behalf of feminist principles, which themselves (unbeknownst to so many, unfortunately) are legitimately grounded in both evangelical theology and evangelical history. It was fascinating, though not surprising, to read of Crumpton expressing her intentions to her then-pastor Tim Keller, to attend Union Theological Seminary in New York, only to be told that Union is way too liberal: she should take seminary-like classes from him, instead.
(3) Will Haggerty, a graduate of Biola and co-founder (with Tasha Magness) of “Biola Queer Underground,” an unofficial support group for LGBTQ persons at conservative Biola University. Those of us familiar with the inner workings of so many conservative evangelical Christian colleges know the courage that it must demand, not only to reconcile with one’s own sexual identity, but to assist others in finding safe spaces within such schools for support and community.
The author also inserts her own story into the midst of her three-strand tale. Her own reflections as an Asian-American immigrant, though growing up within U.S. culture, are fascinating, too. She found self-esteem and community within an evangelical church youth group, and yet struggled over the years with the racial biases and cultural ignorance she experienced within the evangelical institutions she participated in. Her own story ends with her leaving Evangelicalism, but not without expressing appreciation for its best impulses and not without articulating some reasons for hope in its future.
Generally speaking, the younger you are these days, the more progressive socially, politically, and morally, you will tend to be. This sets up an difficult conflict within the evangelical churches and institutions which intend to “conserve” the fundamentalist values of its more recent twentieth-century identity–as a fundamentalist, conservative church which finds its identity in antithesis to the prevailing progressive winds of culture.
But insofar as that goal wins out within evangelical churches and institutions, those institutions will find themselves empty, full of conviction and replete with victimization language, perhaps, but devoid of spirit and lacking in people to support those institutions.
The progressive evangelical impulse of Lisa Sharon Harper, Jennifer Crumpton, Will Haggerty, and so many others named in the book besides, actually represents not so much an entirely new, different, or heretical direction for evangelicalism, but a return to at least a portion of its roots–when the gospel, was understood as a message of the good news that in Jesus Christ there is abundant life for everyone –not just in the hereafter but in the present life, too. And when the good news was a witness to the reconciliation of God with humanity and with creation, more than an “insider vs. outsider” framework of doctrinal purity, social or political power, and individual morality.
What will ultimately come of the changes is impossible to tell. A different kind of evangelicalism–gentler, more inclusive and more socially progressive? A split within the movement, leading to the adoption of different labels altogether? Or a continued marginalization of the more progressive voices within the movement, until they are finally squashed and leave evangelical institutions altogether for another expression of faith or no faith at all.
If there is a future for progressive evangelicalism (and I still tend to think there is, on my more hopeful days), it’s represented in this pages of this book.
See also a related article by Brandon Withrow, “They Have Faith Their Church Will Change.”