Wait! Aren’t Quakers and Christians the same thing!?! All of our comfortable religious labels seem to be shifting in this era of cultural transformation. Just joining us? Well, this in-depth interview with novelist and Quaker teacher Philip Gulley is Part 3 of our series of “News from Two Philips.”
- Part 1: Excerpt of Gulley’s “If the Church …”
- Part 2: Excerpt of Jenkins’ “Jesus Wars”
- Part 3: Interview with Philip Gulley
- Part 4: Interview with Philip Jenkins
Philip Gulley is a sharp-eyed, straight-talking Midwestern author whose storytelling talents have drawn thousands of fans to his Harmony novels that feel a bit like a slice of “Prairie Home Companion,” set a few states to the South of Lake Wobegon. We pictured him on Monday in a lawn chair. Today, he’s greeting us from the sidewalk. Those are iconic Gulley images. He hopes to inspire lots of Americans to engage in spirited front-porch conversations about the sorry state of what passes for organized religion these days.
Think that last line sounds too acid for a reference to the beloved Philip Gulley? Well, think about the razor-sharp edge in the title of his new book: “If the Church Were Christian.” He’s simply fed up with people who don’t care enough about faith to sit down and hammer out a new way for us to proceed.
Here’s one reason that, as editor of ReadTheSpirit, I strongly recommend his new book: As a Quaker, Gulley has a very valuable perspective. He’s not bound by the kinds of denominational creeds or church laws that hem in millions of American Christians. Quakers always have been restless. At their best, they’ve been men and women of great courage. Maybe, once again, it’s time for a few Quakers to lead us?
Highlights of Our Interview with
Philip Gulley on “If the Church Were Christian”
DAVID: So, what does it mean to be a Quaker these days? We’ve welcomed a bunch of Quakers into the pages of ReadTheSpirit: J. Brent Bill, and Eileen Flanagan, plus the singer-songwriter Carrie Newcomer.
PHILIP: Right now it’s kind of exciting because Quakerism is experiencing a resurgence. At least that’s how I see it, based on what I’ve experienced and what I’m seeing at my own meeting. I’m not talking about evangelical Quakerism. I’m talking about the more progressive Quakerism that those people you’ve just mentioned are connected with. I think that’s because our world and our country is increasing in its religious diversity and people just seem to appreciate our Quaker history of tolerance and respect for other faiths. Right now, it feels good to be a Quaker! I get lots of questions like: Can you tell me what Quakers believe? And can you help me find a Quaker meeting?
There mostly are three big movements in Quakerism in the United States—largely because of geographic influences and the religious climates in those regions. It’s generally accurate to say that the further West you move in the United States, the more conservative and evangelical your Quaker faith becomes. So the Quakers in the East, most of them, practice a more traditional style of Quakerism, which is the unprogrammed style of meeting where they don’t employ pastors. Many of the Midwest meetings have employed pastors, largely to educate new people coming into Quakerism. That role of educating new people evolved into a pastoral role. That trend magnified as Quakerism moved West with the rest of the country. So we have been somewhat divided because of geography and, more recently, because of theology.
But, in the past decade or so, there has been a real effort to encourage intervisitation among one another to get to know one another. As we’re talking here, I’m about to travel to North Carolina where I’ll visit six Quaker meetings and get to know them. I think this kind of intervisitation holds lots of promise for us. This is why at least initially Eileen Flanagan wouldn’t have known someone like Brent Bill. He hails from a group that’s been more evangelical and she hails from a more traditional Quaker area based on silent worship. But they’re getting to know each other, even though they’re from different parts of the country.
DAVID: You’re celebrating Quakers’ long tradition for being, let’s say, theologically rebellious. Is that fair to say?
PHILIP: I don’t have to overcome a history of creedalism—because Quakers aren’t. I don’t have to overcome 100s of years of resistance from within my own tradition, although sometimes the evangelical Quakers don’t care for what I have to say.
DAVID: What we’re talking about here is relevant to your new book. Overall, this is the approach you’re describing in our interview is also what you’re laying out in these 200 pages.
PHILIP: What it means to be Quaker, for me, boils down to how we treat people and how we live, not so much what we believe. I’m arguing that the church has been too focused on that belief part of Christianity for far too long.
DAVID: Well, I don’t mean to disappoint you, but I’m hearing this message from more than just Quakers. I’m seeing a lot of important religious voices emphasizing this kind of message. Are you feeling alone out there? Are you hearing a convergence of voices?
PHILIP: Yes, I think that’s happening! That’s the nature of religious movements. Things happen in tandem. A group of people start talking and thinking about the same things. I think it’s a reaction to the excesses of the evangelical movement of the last 20 or 30 years. Their efforts to claim the religious ground and claim that they’re the appointed spokespersons for Christianity has been troubling for many people. That’s true for many folks like me who write, and it’s also true for folks who sit in the pews. There’s kind of a critical mass of us now. A number of people are starting to say: There are other people who have other understandings. You don’t have the only correct understanding; and we don’t have the only correct understanding.
DAVID: OK, we’ve given readers of this interview a pretty good sense of your overall viewpoint. Let’s get down to some the nitty gritty in this book—stuff that I find exciting and fresh. Here’s an example. This is early in your book. You write: “If Jesus intended to create the church, he did a questionable job. He left no clear directions about its structure or purpose. The Apostle Paul and other would later do that, but Jesus didn’t. Jesus did no fundraising. In fact, he seemed unconcerned about financial development, telling his disciples to take no money for their ministry. If the disciples were his first board of directors, he chose poorly.” Let’s be honest. That kind of preaching drives pastors nuts! Go preach that to a bunch of pastors trying to keep the roof from leaking and the utility bills paid—and I suspect they won’t appreciate that particular tip, right?
PHILIP: (Laughs!) This is all born out of my suspicion that Jesus did not come to start a new religion. Jesus saw himself as a faithful Jew, one in a line of faithful prophets who wanted to restore the original values of Judaism: things like hospitality, graciousness and all the other ways of living that he taught about. But, even as I say that Jesus didn’t come to start a new religion—well, I’m the last to say the church should die. I don’t think that’s true! The church does wonderful and transformative things. The church does those things every day. I’ve seen it! It’s great! All I can say is: Let’s not be arrogant. Let’s not assume that we’re what Jesus had in mind. Let’s remember that these claims of exclusivity we like to make—that we, and we alone, are God’s people—is not something that comes from Jesus. Let’s take this idea of divine exclusivity off the table, because it’s killing us.
DAVID: Where do we start anew? Your book is 200 pages of “Rediscovering the Value sof Jesus,” but give us an example here. Give us a starting point. For instance, what do you say when a pastor hears that passage I just read and throws his hands in the air and says: Great! Now, how do I keep this place open?
PHILIP: I’ll answer with a story I just read about this teenage girl who challenged her parents about the house they lived in once she’d witnessed great human need in the world. She urged her parents to buy a house half the size of their current house and then to give their extra money to the poor. This had a transformative effect on their family life. The same thing may be true for the church. For those churches who built buildings anticipating that 1950s American Christianity would exist forever—well, you might have to sell the house.
This emphasis of the church as a building where we spend all our money keeping up the property is probably a misguided emphasis that keeps us from the joy of other Christian experiences. I would say: If I were in one of those big old churches struggling to keep open, I would be worried too if I had to raise $20,000 just to heat the place! And the church hasn’t done a good job of calling talented young people into ministry. I meet a lot of sharp pastors, ministers who are doing a great job. But I also meet a lot of dull and unimaginative leaders in churches who, if they were employed in secular business, they’d be out of work tomorrow. I think we should be challenging one another to be a little more creative, challenge the laity to be a little more open, and challenge leadership to think in new ways.
DAVID: As we get deeper into your book, we find that what you’re talking about here is not really theological bomb throwing. Mainly, you’re urging people to get past the old arguments and old barricades in religious life and pay attention to things like the essential relationships between people. Here’s a line from page 54: “When I became a pastor, I never imagined one of he more difficult aspects of the job would be the work of reconciliation.” Talk about that for a moment.
PHILIP: After you’ve been pastoring a group of people for seven or eight years, you begin to notice that you’ve been invited into their lives on a deeper level. When that happens, they permit you to see their brokenness and you realize how much of it is centered in past history of strong disagreements: fighting, separation, divorce. I’m now in my 25th year as a pastor and, so often, the issues I deal with in personal counseling of people are issues about broken relationships. I’m helping them to become reconciled—husbands and wives, parents and children, people who’ve been hurt by the church. When I first became a pastor, I thought my main work would be theological and biblical interpretation. What I’ve learned is that the most desperate needs people seem to carry with them are issues of broken relationships.
DAVID: On the first day of our series about your book, we’re going to share with readers a short passage from the conclusion of your book, so they can get a feel for where you’re taking readers. You write, in part, “If there is a future for the church in America, perhaps it is to raise America’s collective consciousness … Its task would not be to confer God’s blessing upon the American way of life, but to help us transcend the parochialism that grips so many of us.” Why is this such an essential part of your prescription for the church?
PHILIP: One of my emphases and areas of study as an undergraduate was the sociology of religion—not just religious life in America, but how religious life tends to deify or sanctify the prevailing cultural attitudes around the world. That certainly has happened in America. Being patriotic is seen almost as a spiritual and religious duty. Devotion to God goes hand in hand with devotion to the country. I just think that’s very dangerous and leads inevitably, inescapably toward war. It enables us to say that other countries with whom we have issues just aren’t treating us with disrespect, but area also treating God with disrespect. We must defend God.
Too often the church has been very complicit in that kind of thinking. You walk into most churches and you still see American flags behind pulpits. Millions of Christians now believe it is their religious duty to participate in war and I just think that’s antithetical to the way of Jesus. We have to seek out what the life in the spirit requires of us and what citizenship requires of us and draw a much finer, keener line between the two or we’re sunk.
DAVID: Despite some of the acid in the title, you’re ultimately a welcoming, gracious, hopeful voice in this new book. What makes you hopeful?
PHILIP: Many things! My wife, mostly! (Laughs.) I’m married to a school librarian who works with little children and every day she comes home with wonderful stories about children. She’s an incurable optimist! So that gives me hope. And I have a Quaker meeting of about 100 of us and I can do things like stand up on the Sunday after the disaster in Haiti and I can say: “Let’s help!” And immediately we get commitments from people who graciously give thousands of dollars. That kind of generosity gives me hope. And I know it’s not confined to these 100 people. There are so many people in the world who give generously to people who they don’t even know.
The only thing I’m discouraged about now are politics in America. We seem to have lost the ability to talk to one another right now. I know from history that this comes and goes in American life—these times when we can’t seem to talk to each other. So even my awareness of history adds to my hope. I know it’s still possible to come to a new era in American life. And, I believe deeply in the principles of resurrection and redemption. I have seen it and I continue to believe.
COME BACK THURSDAY for our interview with the “other” Philip this week: historian Philip Jenkins. Skeptical of what Philip Gulley is saying here about the dangers of excessive focus on belief? Well, get a load of “Jesus Wars.” Tomorrow.
(Originally published at readthespirit.com)