Rescuing Jesus: How People of Color, Women & Queer Christians Are Reclaiming Evangelicalism, Deborah Jian Lee. Boston: Beacon Press, 2016.
Summary: An account of how three marginalized groups within American evangelicalism are finding increasing acceptance, and the struggles they have faced along the way.
Deborah Jian Lee writes as a journalist who has been on the inside of much of what she is covering. Raised in an Asian American family, she came to an evangelical Christian faith as a teenager, became involved as a participant and leader of a collegiate fellowship during her college years, experiencing painful encounters around issues of race, the role of women, and LGBTQ issues, which led to her distancing herself and becoming one of an increasing number of religious “nones”, still spiritual, but no longer identifying with a particular faith community.
In this book, she recounts the efforts of three marginalized groups to gain a place of their own at the evangelical table. She does this by focusing on the stories of several representative figures. Lisa Sharon Harper, an activist working with Sojourrners, represents the struggle of ethnic minorities to be accepted on their own terms rather than assimilating into white Christianity. Jennifer Crumpton represents the awakening of many evangelical women from being subordinated to men in church, marriage, and public life to discover her own identity and exercise her own gifts in ministry as a woman. Tasha, Will, and Jason were core leaders of the Biola Queer Underground and represent the many youth coming from evangelical homes who struggle to authentically acknowledge and live out their sexual orientations and gender identities and yet find acceptance within the evangelical community.
The book is divided into three parts, describing a journey from conformity to evangelical norms, to skepticism and questioning, and finally to what would seem a “radical” but honest expression of what it means to be an ethnic minority, a feminist, or an LGBTQ person yet an evangelical. The narrative of these central figures journeys is interspersed with a historical account of evangelicalism around issues of race, feminism, and engagement with LGBTQ or “queer” persons, the self-identifier most often used in the book. At various point, Deborah Jian Lee interjects her own narrative as well as her personal interactions with the central characters as well as other evangelical leaders including Soong-chan Rah, Letha Scanzoni and Nancy Hardesty, Justin Lee of the Gay Christian Network, as well as senior figures like Jim Wallis, Tony Campolo and Richard Cizik whose views on the place and inclusion of these marginalized groups changed over the course of their lives.
This was a hard, and yet illumining book for me to read. I am a white male, straight, boomer generation person working in the collegiate ministry world that is the scene of both Deborah Jian Lee’s personal narrative, and significant in the wider narrative. Reading surfaced memories of stereotypes, and incidents where I grieved individuals in each of the marginalized groups she describes, and my own continuing journey of repentance. Recent years and interactions have shown me how much I don’t know, and how much I need to listen and learn from people in each of these groups. The book also chronicles how hard and complicated this journey can be.
There are some other things I wrestled with as well. One is that this was one of about ten examples of recent books with the idea of “rescuing Jesus” in the title. I’m pretty sure that it is not Jesus who needs rescuing, but rather his followers who wander into various captivities. The second is with the word “reclaim” in the subtitle. I think it is more accurate to say that each of these marginalized groups and their allies are attempting to “reframe” evangelicalism in a way that includes and affirms them for who they are.
This leads to a third, and to my mind, far more significant question. Particularly around questions of gender roles and sexual identity and acceptable practice, there are significant differences around how the Bible is to be read, or if the Bible should even be relevant to the practice of the Christian community. Biblical authority, or, what I think a more negative term, biblicism, has been considered one of the defining marks of the evangelical movement. There are some who would be just as happy to see this go, but the question is whether what is left is still definably evangelical. Lee is conscious of these tensions within evangelicalism, but evidences a desire that it would move toward a type of progressive inclusiveness that may not be so far from her own status as a spiritual “none.” This is in no way to denigrate her own beliefs or journey. But I do think it will lead others, for example Wesley Hill, who she only mentions in passing, to conclude this too great a price to pay and choose the challenging road that seeks to hold together loving the marginalized and biblical faithfulness.
At the same time, Reclaiming Jesus is a good indicator of what is happening in the Christian movement of a Millenial generation in which people of color are becoming a majority, where women are finding their voice, and LGBTQ persons have won significant battles for civil equality. The majority of white evangelicals may have played a key role in electing the next president, but are hemorrhaging members among Millenials. This book can help them understand why, and what they must address while there is still time.
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher via LibraryThing. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.