Friday, March 5, 2010

If the Church Were Christian

Philip Gully
New York, Harper One, 2010

Week 9 Religious and Spiritual

If the Church Were Christian by Philip Gulley is hot off the press, too new to have been found by most reviewers, although readers can find many reviews of Philip Gulley’s other books, some of which are listed below. It is the Lenten all-church study at my church and is causing quite a stir, albeit not as big a stir as I imagined at the outset. About 65 people are reading and discussing this book over a 6-week period, and my group has found themselves much in agreement with what he has to say.

In ten short chapters, Gulley lays bare a thesis that if Jesus had designed a church, it wouldn’t have turned out the way the Christian church has turned out. He would have wanted his life to be a model for behavior rather than veneration, he would have made us less concerned about sin and sex and judgment and right belief. He would have made us ask questions and explore our spirituality. Jesus would have had us not be so concerned about the institution and about power, and finally, we would be more concerned about our present life than our afterlife. In other words, Jesus would be very discouraged about the religion that has risen up around his teachings. This is not orthodox theological thinking but a more practical, progressive Protestant liberal theology.

This is not a new concept, but in a world that is becoming increasingly divided over religion, it adds fuel to the fire of the progressive movement that is developing in modern Protestantism. Christian progressives already know and agree with many of the ideas presented in this book. Nobody in my class has been particularly offended by anything he has said since most people in this particular class have moved way beyond authoritarian theology and literalist biblical teachings.

The value of the Gulley book is that he expresses his theology in words that are easy to digest and intersperses it with examples that prove his point. One of the best chapters, in my opinion, is Chapter 3 in which he talks about judgment, forgiveness and reconciliation. He mentions: “I have known Christians whose vocabulary for judgment was rich and full, but their dialect for reconciliation and forgiveness, limited. They could easily summon the words for condemnation but fell mute when words of pardon were needed.” He suggests that people are more worried about appeasing an angry God than restoring broken human relationships and that “It is far easier to ask forgiveness of a god we can’t see than from a person we can see.”

One of my friends said of Gulley that he had a lot of steam to vent and he had to let it all out. That is probably true, but even in the venting, there is much truth that can heat up the discussion. Sometimes it is good to let loose and steam up the place. It is probably as cathartic to let it out as it is to read it and keep nodding your head in agreement. Now the question is, how do we go about changing a stagnating church, or heresy of heresies—is a church even necessary?

Gulley has written a series of short novels about a small-town Quaker meeting much like those he has pastored. They are called the Harmony series. He has also written several memoirs and two spiritual books, If Grace Were True and If God Is Love. He has a chatty program on Indiana Public Television called “Porch Talks with Phil Gulley” which has won an Emmy. Some episodes can be found on his book website.

He also has a more theological website where he discusses his theological viewpoints.

Here is a short bio of Philip Gulley and an interview. Please note that it was written before If the Church Were Christian.


Carolyn said...

trial run

Carolyn said...

My highlighter was busy as I read Gulley's book over the weekend. One of my take-aways was a sense of gratitude that I was raised in a liberal U. Methodist Church, that my minister grandfather told me early on not to be concerned about a virgin birth or a literal resurrection, and that I had a blessed membership at the Church of the Servant in OKC who celebrated every week "how great it is to be alive" as the benediction. I was never bruised by my church's teaching which Gulley talked about on page 45. I didn't feel that Gulley was venting; I felt that he was stating the case for the progressive church. I look forward to hearing him speak in Kalamazoo in 2 weeks.