If the Church Were Christian

A Book Review of If the Church Were Christian: Rediscovering the Values of Jesus by Philip Gulley.

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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Blogger Liz Opp said...

Hey, Robin!

I enjoyed this book for the same reasons you mention--and I even considered some of the same personal anecdotes and meeting-wide actions that Friends are doing.

Sadly, I'll be missing the FGC Gathering this year, so I'll miss hearing Philip Gulley. Are you able to attend...?

Liz Opp, The Good Raised Up

3/25/2010 9:27 AM  
Blogger Robin M. said...

Liz, HI! I will not be at the FGC Gathering either. With my new job, I barely have enough vacation time to go to my yearly meeting sessions. But I will miss seeing you as much as anything there.

3/25/2010 10:14 AM  
Anonymous Eileen Flanagan said...

I resonated with your observations, Robin. And I won't be at Gathering either, so we'll just have to keep meeting in cyberspace.

3/25/2010 10:24 AM  
Blogger Hystery said...

I too feel connected to what you say here, Robin. This book sounds like something I'd really like to read.

3/25/2010 10:51 AM  
Blogger John said...

Thank you for posting this, Robin. It is a very thoughtful and insightful review. We recently had an evening lecture and Q&A session with Phil at Englewood Friends Meeting and it was fruitful and enlightening.

From a posting in the January/February 2010 (and I think also the latest) issue of Quaker Life it’s my understanding that they would like some book reviews for upcoming issues of the magazine. Have you considered submitting your thoughts on this book for publication in Quaker Life? You can e-mail the Communications Editor, Katie, at katiet at fum dot org

I believe the only information that you need is the title, author/editor, publisher, publication date, and price and I’m sure that all of that information can be obtained on-line or on the book itself. I think that reviews can be up to 250words.

In Peace,

John Lawson-Myers

3/25/2010 12:21 PM  
Blogger Gregg Koskela said...

Yes, a very thoughtful review! I always appreciate your thoughts, and you seem to do an exceptionally good job synthesizing information and adding your own questions/thoughts that drive it deeper.


3/25/2010 12:26 PM  
Blogger trish said...

I think your writing is excellent and well edited. :)

"What if saving the earth were more important than saving our souls?" I have a friend who is very passionate about the environment, and this rubs her Christian family the wrong way. I think people, Christians, or really anyone of any religion, can get so caught up in where they're going, that they don't think about this beautiful Earth that was gifted to us.

Anyway, I loved your review! You're very clear and moving!

3/25/2010 10:31 PM  
Blogger Robin M. said...

Eileen, Hystery, Gregg and Trish, thanks for your comments!

John, unfortunately, this blogpost is about 1000 words on the subject. And probably Quaker Life already has someone to review this book. I'm not sure I'd be the best candidate. But I'll think about it.

I would LOVE to have Phil Gulley come to San Francisco to speak. I've been talking about that for a few years now, but I haven't gotten very far in pursuing it. Phil, if you're reading this, please put us on the list for your book tour!

3/27/2010 11:24 PM  
Blogger Barbara B said...

This is a great review. I look forward to reading the book and to seeing you at yearly meeting. (I'm not an FGC attender because of a standing conflict.) Best to you and your family, Barbara

3/29/2010 5:10 PM  
Blogger Robin M. said...

Thanks, Barbara. I hope I'll see you at Quarterly too. Maybe we could have a book group there...

Also, I have realized in the last couple of days that I should have been clearer in the post that I was sent this book by Gulley's publisher in their expectation that I would write a review. I had read some of Gulley's earlier work, and was excited to get this one for free. I don't think that affected my opinion of the book, but I just want to be clear about the facts.

3/29/2010 5:41 PM  
Blogger Chuck Fager said...

I Like Phil & his book. But having him at FGC (which I expect to attend) is a double-edged sword as far as "cross-branch" contacts among Friends goes.

Yes, he's a pastor from a programmed meeting, so there's that.

But his writings since "If Grace Is True" have been VERY controversial and divisive among many pastoral groups, especially some of the leadership. There was an effort lasting years to basically de-frock and banish him from his Yearly Meeting (Western, in Indiana), and while it was shelved last year, the sentiments behind it have not gone away. Indeed, there might still be some schism around it.

So featuring Phil at FGC (which BTW I'm all in favor of) is a controversial move, perhaps a divisive one, even if many attenders, being parochial liberal Quakes who don't get out much (religiously), will have little clue about that.

There's more about the controversy Phil has faced in this discussion of "If Grace Is True" here:


Check it out.

4/15/2010 11:30 AM  
Blogger Robin M. said...

Hi Chuck,
Another thing is I think it's too bad that some people will be so antagonized by the title of this book that they won't be able to hear the truth and useful insights that are in it.

4/16/2010 1:01 AM  
Blogger Robin M. said...

Chuck Fager has done me a favor with his links to the Quaker Theology journal articles about Gulley's (and Spencer's in the next post) books.

For one thing, they made clearer to me that Gulley and Mulholland's heresy is very similar to Joel Bean's and Hannah Whitall Smith's heresies, for which they were stripped of their recording (Bean) and denied membership in Western Yearly Meeting (Smith). Hmm. Sounds familiar, doesn't it?

In some of the contemporary reviews of Gulley's earlier books, his work was dismissed as speculative theology. Really? More speculative than the various descriptions of hell by people who haven't been there either? Theories of an afterlife are all speculative in my book. My idea that the death of Jesus was a human act, not a divine one, can be found here - the comments are much richer than my offhand remarks.

Honestly, I think that once we're born, we live and we have to face the reality of our own decisions and the implications of thousands of years of other human decisions. I do think that God is the force infusing us with love and understanding and courage and kindness, through all the horrors and the joys of this world. I don't believe God planned for the world to be the way it is, and I think we all have to take mutual responsibility for the way it is. (As in, every minute that you're not part of the solution, you're part of the problem.) For another explanation of my theology, read this post.

Anyway, this post wasn't a review of If Grace Is True, it's about If the Church Were Christian. Which wouldn't be nearly as controversial if Gulley hadn't written the first book. Nor would as many people have paid as much attention to the most recent one.

Brent Bill once said one of the most helpful things I've heard about Gulley. I paraphrase, but Brent said he didn't actually agree with Gulley's theology (being a more orthodox Christian himself), but he did believe that Gulley was actively listening to the Holy Spirit and honestly reporting what he(Gulley) was hearing. Which was a sign of integrity, which was more important in a Quaker minister than fine points of doctrinal agreement. Brent may correct me on this, but that's what I took away from the conversation. I offer it to you for your consideration.

4/20/2010 1:24 AM  
Blogger KathySummers said...

Thanks for your comments Robin. I have read two other Gulley books that I really appreciated. I think he is right that God or Jesus loves everyone and helps everyone. I do not believe the bible stories that are so cruel. I am grateful we can ask questions and have opinions. The world seems better when you think everyone is precious to God. Best wishes to you. Thanks for all your comments and blog. Kathy

6/21/2010 10:30 PM  
Blogger liberata said...

Hi Robin,

I've read Gulley's other books(which he wrote with James Mulholland), If Grace is True and If God is Love. I found myself thinking "Yes!" after almost every statement. To me, what they describe is the true Christian life, so I'm excited to read this new book.

I've been reflecting on Gulley's & Mulholland's books ever since reading them, and I can't help but think of the tragic (if inevitable) intersection of religion and politics. The Christianity that these authors describe in their books is a very grassroots religion that operatores on a very personal level, with the pastor not having much more political power than other members of the congregation. It is also not a religion for those who want some ecclesiastical authority to make all the decisions for them so that they can be sure they're obeying all the right rules and so save their own puny souls. It's a religion that requires each individual to take serious responsibility for walking the walk by truly loving and caring for his/her neighbor

However, when Jesus is exalted as Christus Victor and Rex Coelestis, then there is an institutional church set up in his name, whose purpose it is to advance his will on earth, interpreted --of course-- by a cadre of ordained ministers. And voila, you have a political organization.

Gulley's books are actually very subversive when you stop to think about it, because they undermine the very foundation of church as political organization. Who decides doctrinal truth in Gulley's little Christian world? Heck, who even cares? But look what happens there: people take care of people. People are truly Christ to one another, loving and even sacrificing for one another. No wonder his books get so little notice -- members of so-called Christian churches might read them and wonder what all that hierarchy is for anyway and who benefits from it.

On another note, I've also read a few of Gulley's Harmony novels. Pleasant reading but after the 2nd or 3rd, I found them a bit claustrophobic. Maybe it was just the ones I chose, but no one in that little town seems to turn on the radio or read the newspaper to see what's going on the wider world out there. While I love the stories about how members of the little Quaker congregation bicker but eventually come to love and help one another (with the aid of their truly humble and self-effacing pastor), I guess I just have a problem with small-town America being the be-all and end-all.

6/06/2011 9:31 AM  
Blogger Diane said...

If the whole of creation is one living organism with everything entangled, isn't saving any of its various parts of equal value? I see no need for choosing sides.
Diane Benton

6/19/2011 9:02 AM  
Blogger Chuck_Jenkins said...

While reading this book, our book study group had some questions, so we arranged a telephone interview with Philip who graciously took the time to answer our concerns. How many authors are so kind as to take personal time to talk with people he doesn't even know? His book provided many interesting hours of discussion for us.

8/12/2011 9:27 AM  

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