If the Church Were Christian
This title reminds me a little of the ironic saying I like to use when I hear about people in charge of something making a bad choice: “When they make me Queen of the Universe, things will be different...”
It certainly raises questions for me – What if? What if my Meeting was Christian? What if I were really a Christian? What would be different?
This book and its theories have lots of similarities to Brian McLaren’s A New Kind of Christianity. But really, it’s an old kind of Christianity. It’s been there in every age, just not in everyone who calls himself a Christian. Like Jesus, who didn’t so much bring a new revelation, but called people to live up to the Light they had been given by the prophets. Like George Fox who called people to live up to the Light that Christ spoke in their hearts. Like Marcus Borg, the emerging church, and any number of gracious Friends. Like Shane Claiborne who said this book is about people taking their Christ seriously. But Gulley is a better storyteller than most, with vivid details and getting right to the point. (I want to write like this. In person when I tell stories, I tend to ramble and forget why I was telling them. In writing, I could edit myself better.) Gulley may be the first to admit that he himself is not a perfect Christian. But by articulating a sensible and loving theology, he helps us lay out the possibilities we can more realistically aspire to.
My three favorite chapters are #1, #7 and #10.
Chapter 1 is …Jesus Would Be a Model for Living, Not an Object for Worship.
This is one of the issues that has gotten Gulley in trouble in Western Yearly Meeting. (To be fair, he doesn’t name his yearly meeting in the book, but I don’t think it’s a secret where he lives and pastors today.) Anyway, it was Gulley’s admission in an interview in 2005 that he didn’t care so much about the divinity of Jesus. Thank you, Phil. This is the place where I am, so I’m glad to read an articulate and consistent expression of this. My personal position is that “I don’t know” about most of the miracles ascribed to Jesus and his mother, but really they don’t matter to me.
He illustrates the rarity and importance of Jesus being an example to us. I resonate with Gulley’s point that being an example is really hard. And it wouldn’t detract from my relationship with Jesus to find out that he was occasionally lazy or rude to his parents (Don’t we see examples of that in the Bible already? But because it’s Jesus, now it’s not rudeness, it’s doctrine.) My respect for Jesus isn’t based on his perfection in all ways. It’s enough for me that he had such a transformative effect on people and still does, including me and apparently Phil Gulley. Gulley’s use of the phrase “that of God in every person” reminded me of Liz Opp’s idea of the Christ in everyone, perhaps more fully realized in Jesus.
Chapter 7 is …Meeting Needs Would Be More Important Than Maintaining Institutions. Since my meeting just went though a long process of discernment around starting a weekly food pantry in our meetinghouse, Gulley’s story of the stingy food pantry spoke to my condition in two ways.
One is that we have to share what we have been given. We have resources so that we can do more good in the world now, not just to save for some potential good in the future. If we give it away, more will be given to us. (In part because if people see that we’re doing good things with their money, they will give us more of it. But only if we keep increasing the good we do and not our balance sheet.)
The second point is that we have to be brave enough to speak up when something is going wrong in the meeting. Martin Kelley has written before about what happens when people let bad behavior persist. Johan Maurer also wrote about this in the latest issue of Quaker Life.
Chapter 10 is …This Life Would Be More Important Than the Afterlife.
Part of me thinks this is so self-evident that I shouldn’t have to explain it. But if that were true, Gulley wouldn’t have had to write this book. This chapter has a beautiful story about Ben and Dorotha, two Friends very like some you probably know, who live lives of great simplicity and charity, but who are uninterested in discussions of theology. It also has a brief story about Roland Kreager and Right Sharing of World Resources. This chapter asks “What if saving the earth were more important than saving our souls?” Imagine.
I liked how Gulley wove the Quaker stuff into the book. You don’t have to know about Quakers to appreciate his examples, but you could get to like them. And he’s honest about our failings, unlike the woman he quotes who claimed never to have seen Friends do the wrong thing. Gulley likens this to parents who claim that their child would never say a bad word.
Did you know that Philip Gulley will be speaking at the FGC Summer Gathering in July? If you have been thinking about going to the Gathering, this may be a good year to try it out. I think this is a good sign for cooperation between branches of Friends.
So get this book. Get a copy for your meeting library. Request it at the public library and your local bookstore. Read it. Think about it. Organize a small group to read it together – there’s prewritten discussion questions in the back. As Barbara Brown Taylor says on the back, the chapter titles alone are worth the price of the book.
What would it be like if Quakers were (really) Christians?
If you and I were really Christians?
Things would be different.
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