Interview with Philip Gulley: from Harmony to Evolution

Philip Gulley’s latest Call to Action includes all of us—urging us to pitch in and build better approaches to religion. Read our first story about Philip Gulley, earlier this week, to find an excerpt of his newest book and learn how we see his new book as similar to appeals by Brian McLaren and Richard Rohr.

We are not alone in recommending Gulley’s book. Veteran religion newswriter Bill Tammeus writes, in part: “Gulley’s book, well worth a read, is more evidence of the fractured reality of Christianity. It is a house badly divided—which must break the sacred heart of Jesus—with theologies so far apart in some cases that the hope for reunification seems a pipe dream. And as Gulley correctly notes, each branch in some ways is profoundly convinced not only that it is right but also that all other branches are wrong.”

Today, pull up a rocking chair and meet Philip Gulley …


DAVID: Today, we’re talking about your latest nonfiction book, The Evolution of Faith: How God Is Creating a Better Christianity. But many readers will want to know: What’s happening with the Harmony series of novels?

PHILIP: We’re in discussion about launching a new series. The main character in the Harmony series is going to discover that he’s got to start over again in a new place. That’s going to be a little town called Hope and he’ll be leading a little meeting of a dozen people. He’ll have to start over again.

DAVID: From Harmony to Hope, hmmm?

PHILIP: Well, we’re not 100 percent sure of that, but we like Hope for the new name. There actually is a little town in Indiana called Hope. Readers can look for something in 2012.

DAVID: It’s clear that you’re both a provocative teacher—prime evidence is this new book that is sure to light up spirited discussions. And, you’re a beloved storyteller. That image from your website on the bright white front porch is like something out of Norman Rockwell.

PHILIP: Actually, Harper put that together for me. I’ve never been on a porch like that. That is me drinking the coffee. They just moved me onto that porch they found somewhere.

DAVID: It’s a gorgeous image—like something out of your novels.

PHILIP: There’s always been this tension in my work between the Harmony series and what I write theologically, like this new book. But, if you’re reading my books carefully, then you understand that everything I write includes themes of tolerance. Well, some of Sam’s antagonists aren’t all that tolerant in the novels, but many people are and Sam himself—of course he’s very gracious. This all is intentional in my writing. A lot of people would not think of buying a book that is overtly religious. But, they may start reading the novels. That dynamic of giving readers a good story to catch their attention has been true at least since Pilgrim’s Progress.

DAVID: Way before that, actually. Jesus taught in stories. And we are finding other scholarly religious teachers writing fiction, as well. Marcus Borg just tried a cross-over novel. Did you read it? What did you think?

PHILIP: Yes, I did. I enjoyed it. It was interesting to me to watch his main character struggle with everything she was facing.

DAVID: Your whole approach to writing—and you say this explicitly in the new book—is designed to invite as many people as possible into the process of working out our religious life together. You want people to roll up their sleeves and pitch in.

PHILIP: For too long, the church has controlled theological discourse. We encouraged that by inventing all of this theological language we use today. The church wanted to tightly control the context in which people met and talked about these things. But the Internet has undone all of that. You no longer have to go to church to talk about spiritual matters. You can have those discussions now in online communities and in small groups that meet wherever you care to meet. Today we’re hearing about spirituality from everybody—Oprah to the Dalai Lama to your friends on Facebook. The church is no longer the only game in town. There are lots of people and places now engaged in this daily conversation—and many of them may do it better than the church.

In the past, whenever we’ve had a theological conversation sanctioned by the church, we’ve had to give our ascent to some things. We’d start by saying: OK, we are all here because we believe this and that—so we’ll start from those assumptions. Today, people wrestling with theology and spirituality don’t do that. They don’t require people to accept a whole basic set of beliefs before they even begin to talk. In many ways, the church still is trying to control and limit the scope of the conversation and that’s simply not where the energy is moving today in these reflections on faith.

PHILIP GULLEY: Civil Conversation Is Possible on Hot Topics

DAVID: In your new book, I am fascianted by your affirmation from your own experience on Facebook that civil conversation on hot-button topics is possible. We publish a nationally known website dedicated to that very principle: OurValues. We know that’s possible, but most people assume that talking about religion is going to start a war.

PHILIP: I’ve thought a lot about his. I wonder whether people who are more moderate, polite and generally civil tend to gravitate toward my Facebook page because they know that’s my style of conversation. But I don’t think it’s just that. I tend to draw people from across the theological spectrum. I’ve got everybody from Fundamentalists to atheists among my Facebook friends. No, I think it’s something deeper. I think people are just getting very weary of the take-no-prisoners approach that religion has so often been taking. We don’t need to holler battle cries at each other. People are willing to have serious, cordial, civil discussions about these matters. People realize that all of that bellicose I’m-right-and-you’re-wrong yelling is falling on deaf ears these days.

DAVID: Is it possible to encourage this? Is it possible to teach this civil approach to conversation about faith?

PHILIP: That could be. I think people are beginning to seek out places where civil conversation is possible. People know that, if you call into some of those national radio shows that encourage confrontation, then you’re going to be contributing to people screaming at each other. In my own writing and my own work as a pastor, I try to show people that kind and thoughtful conversation is possible.

But, let me point out: Some people have this perception of Quakers as passive, docile people. Sometimes that may be true. But Quakers can get very rough and tumble. As a pastor now for 27 years, I’ve always tried to create places where people who are radically different from each other can come together and care for each other. In my meeting, I have Republicans and Democrats, atheists and Fundamentalists. I’ve got one Jewish man who attends. We don’t ask people to downplay who they are for some false sense of unity. We tell people: This is a grown-up place. You don’t have to hide who you are, but you also have to respect other people. This can be done. We’ve done it. I think a lot of people are hungry to find places like this.

Philip Gulley: Christianity Should
Talk Less and Act More

DAVID: In your book, you write something that’s actually pretty dangerous for a writer to put into print: Christianity should talk less and act more.

PHILIP: My point there was to remind people that what’s most powerful in our lives is not our words. It’s our witness. We enjoy the eloquence of those recordings of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., but what ultimately transformed America in the civil rights era? It was all those folks who got out and marched and were blasted by fire hoses and attacked by police dogs. That’s what galvanized not only black Americans but white Americans as well. In the end, what we do is more important than what we say.

Philip Gulley: Sinners, God-Bearers
and the Importance of Paying Atention

DAVID: In the middle of your new book, you really slam the idea that religion should convince people they are sinners. You write, “When our primary identity is that of sinner, we will invariably descend to that low calling.”

PHILIP: I’m really in debt to Matthew Fox and his writing for this insight. There are exceptions to what we’re talking about here, obviously, but it’s generally true that we become who we’re told we are. If we’re told over and over again that we are worthless, that we are born into sin and that sin is our main nature and characteristic, then that becomes the dominant self understanding that drives our lives. So consequently we look for someone to redeem us and take that sin away from us. In that context, we understand Jesus as having this very specific role to save us from ourselves and from a state and condition that we could not help. But I think that’s a very limited understanding of human nature and of Jesus. In the end, that approach is ultimately unhelpful for most people. I don’t think that inspires or ennobles us and I don’t think it motivates us to live a higher life. I think it perpetuates a self-image that is ultimately destructive and unhelpful.

Think about this as a parent. If you tell your children over and over again: You’re a failure! You’re a disappointment! Can you expect children to grow up and be healthy? No, and yet we expect that steady diet in many of our churches. Then, we wonder why a lifetime in this kind of church doesn’t lead us all to sainthood. I think that approach to preaching actually pushes us away from sainthood.

DAVID: You propose a different kind of spiritual search in your book. Rather than spending all of our time focusing on our sinful natures—you suggest encouraging people to look for “God-bearers.” Now, this is a challenging process and it requires careful discernment. But it’s a positive spiritual quest.

PHILIP: The term actually is an old one. The Eastern church calls Mary Theotokis, the one who bears God. I’ve taken that kind of term and I’m using it to tell people: Throughout history there have been prophets and teachers and other people who have borne the presence of God to their group and sometimes to an entire generation. I think there are people in each generation who point us toward life on a deeper level, transformed by experience with the Divine presence.

Discernment is the challenge. First, we should look for a certain humility. If someone claims to be a God-bearer, that’s a good indication they’re not. Look for attributes we see in the life of Jesus: Does this person bring healing and wholeness to situations? Does this person care radically and deeply for others? Is there an effort by this person to deeply understand other people? To restore and mend? Is there a commitment to justice and a hope for peace in what this person is doing? Does this person appreciate the beauty that is possible in this world? These are things I would look for in trying to discern whether someone is a God-bearer. I definitely wouldn’t be setting up litmus tests based on past canons. I would be looking at how their life is borne out among us.

DAVID: This brings us naturally to one of the points late in your book: Prayer is a matter of paying attention. This echoes a major point in Eugene Peterson’s book, “The Pastor,” which I know caught the attention of a lot of readers. How do you understand this principle?

PHILIP: My awareness of this was borne out of an experience listening to Brother David Steindl-Rast, a wonderful man who studied Zen Buddhism for decades. The Buddhist approach to attentiveness comes into his teaching. This struck me one day listening to him talk: Boy! He’s talking about something I’ve discovered in my own prayer life! Prayer can become this verbal recitation, telling God what I thought I wanted and needed. Then, I began to realize that this form of prayer wasn’t giving me anything. People were still dying. I was still having problems. I thought: There’s got to be something more to prayer. For a while, I actually stopped setting aside time each day for prayer. I didn’t see the point of just sitting there and running through this list of things that I thought God should do for me.

In this new approach, I began to sit and reflect. I began to feel atonement—at-one-ment—with this Creative Source and Power. I began to feel at-one-ment with my community as well. I began to discover that this was coming to me when I stopped reciting my own long list and, instead, I was especially attentive.

I found that this was true, too, in deep listening with others. I finally concluded that attentiveness must be the heart of prayer, at least for me. Now, for me, prayer is this deep paying attention and really seeking to learn and to know. So that was a transition for me and it continues to be immensely helpful. When I am frustrated and overwhelmed, it’s because I haven’t been paying attention not only to those who love me, but also those would teach me. Somehow attentiveness becomes key to communion with God.

Care to read more about Quaker author Philip Gulley?

READ OUR 2010 INTERVIEW: Philip Gulley talks about his earlier book If the Church Were Christian and we also share a brief excerpt of that book.

VISIT PHILIP GULLEY’S OWN WEBSITE: In partnership with his publisher, Philip Gulley provides lots of information on his own website.

GET THE BOOK: Order Evolution of Faith: How God Is Creating a Better Christianity—from Amazon now.

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Originally published at, an online journal covering religion and cultural diversity.

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