Feeding the Hunger He Couldn’t Name

What a poignant, moving story of pursuing something he doesn’t know how to name David Gushee offers us in “One Account of a Baptist Way of Following Jesus.” Yet one thing becomes clear to his younger self once raised Catholic as he tries out a Sunday morning service, a Sunday evening service, a Monday night Bible study at a Southern Baptist church: In this paradigm young David is not a Christian. So he does what needs to be done, all the way through full-immersion baptism, and it “takes.” His life is changed.

This is a simple, compelling, almost archetypal report on a classic evangelical conversion experience. This is much the same paradigm even I, raised Mennonite, encountered growing up. It’s what I longed for. Except as reported earlier, in my case it didn’t take. If it had, I might well be writing now more as an evangelical than an Anabaptist-Mennonite. But it didn’t.

So I was curious indeed to see how Gushee, whose writings and communications suggest ample overlap with Anabaptism and other more-social-justice-than-evangelical influences, journeyed from then to now. Before leaving “then,” Gushee offers this compelling summary:

Thus the way of Jesus in this first primitive introduction involved both gift and task — the gift of a staggering sacrifice to atone and forgive me for my sins (I was aware that they were abundant), and the task of learning how to become a faithful servant of a new Lord — no longer my wretched self-curved-in-on-itself, but Jesus Christ. This latter project, it was soon clear, was demanding, open-ended, and lifelong — one never arrived, one was always on the way, there was always more to learn, more growing to do, more sin to repent, more Bible to read and (better and better) understand, more people to (better and better) love, more millions to evangelize… and of course more Sunday School classes, church services, youth choirs, Bible studies, and mission seminars to attend.

I would not hesitate to put forward this basic paradigm of what it means to follow Jesus as foundational for me and far preferable to many available alternatives even today. Christianity as receiving the ultimate gift (of God’s saving love in Christ) and undertaking the ultimate task (of reorienting one’s life to serve Christ with everything). If one wants as close to a near-consensus Baptist vision of discipleship as might exist, I think that is it. I think it tracks with centuries of Baptist history, would be recognizable in most parts of the global Baptist world, and still deeply inspires the vision of many Baptist churches and Christians today.

But of course Gushee is not done. He names complexities, such as that

The conversionist paradigm fits badly with a developmental-staged faith that often better reflects people’s life experiences. Personal discipleship training needs to watch out for perfectionism and guilt-mongering. A social, ethical, political vision is needed and not just a personal one. Theology matters and not just a few scripture nuggets and lots of personal-experiential religion.

And he names changes in the Southern Baptist tradition since his joining days that leave him more drawn to the global Baptist expressions. The Southern variant, he reports, “became part of the Religious Right from the 1980s forward and a huge part of what became #MAGATrumpvangelicalChristianity, which has little if any family resemblance to the serious Jesus-as-Savior-and-Lord Baptist Christianity that I cut my teeth on in 1978.”

So here he and we now are, yearning for what no longer is, imagining Baptists returning “to that long-ago message. God’s love to human beings has been expressed in Jesus Christ. The best possible human life is to serve him as Lord.”

As I said, Gushee’s story is a moving one. His trajectory is a meaningful and powerful one. And I suspect he may be deliberately using the often-minimalist rhetoric of someone like Jesus, who offered cryptic parables and sayings combined with the stark “Follow me” invitations that changed lives.

I’m actually not sure if I wish for Gushee to have offered more. Every effort these days to “answer” the riddles Christianity is mired in seems to create more riddles and rage, not resolution.

Still I keep wondering how David the Christian leader who emerged from the lost boy envisions both honoring the historical emphases he values and dreaming onward, including, as he observes, toward a ” social, ethical, political vision.”

I’m thinking here of the likelihood that countless Baptists could name salvation experiences similar to Gushee’s and affirm with him God’s love expressed in Jesus whom they serve as Lord. But, as he notes, it’s complicated. I don’t know their Christian brand, but I happened to notice while biking, as I ruminated on this response, a lawn sign that named a local politician while citing John 8:36 and celebrating freedom. Another sign along my bike route promised no hate in that home. It wouldn’t surprise me if both sign posters would affirm God’s love as expressed through Jesus Christ their Lord.

Based on signals coded into many public expressions these days, such that championing freedom tends to take one in this political direction and repudiating hate in that direction, it also wouldn’t surprise me if the signs involve commitments to different visions of living for Jesus.

I’d imagine Gushee, whom I first became aware of as he called Christians not to support torture as a tool in the “war on terror,” has passionate views on how God’s love is operationalized. He hints at this in proposing that much of the Religious Right has lost family resemblance to the Baptist Christianity he joined in 1978.

I’d love for him to say more, including about how the upheaval within and across Christian denominations and traditions both in the U.S. and globally is confounding assumptions and values once seemingly more settled. How often these days I myself wonder, and how often I hear others articulate it, if I’m still a Christian when what multitudes now see that entailing seems for so many so disconnected from historic understandings of serving Jesus as Lord.

In my own Mennonite context, I’m struck that until recent years the Anabaptist conviction that the body of Christ and its visionaries offers alternatives to the earthly principalities and powers made eminent sense to me. I believed that God’s people might be trusted to prophetically challenge the often unjust structures, institutions, ideologies, elemental spirits, or socioeconomic patterns of our day, to echo the Apostle Paul or more recently such a scholar as Hendrikus Berkhof (writing on Christ and the Powers, 1953).

Now I wonder more than I once did. Sometimes these earthly powers seem to enact enough goodness to make sense of Berkhof’s proposal that though fallen they can be dikes against chaos. Sometimes they challenge evil perpetrated explicitly in the name of Christ.

Other times the powers remain as evil as ever, in need of ongoing confrontation in, precisely, the name of Christ. Yet growing numbers of us who cry Lord, Lord (Matt. 7:21-23) seem more interested in being allied with the powers or even constructing ourselves into powers. Meanwhile others who cry Lord Lord advocate for alternative communities of love and justice that can seem evanescent indeed when we too are riven by competing visions of what the Lord is calling us toward.

Within such dynamics, including the worry of some that civil war lies ahead, I still believe much of what I and some (not all) in my Anabaptist-Mennonite community have long believed. Yet I wonder more than I once did how we Christians, whatever our tradition, are getting it wrong as well as getting it right. I wonder what that may mean in this tumultuous era and the turbulence likely yet to come.

I hope you’ll continue speaking to us about such matters, David even as I’m thankful indeed for all the speaking you’ve already been doing.


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