Outlaw Christian, Jacqueline A. Bussie. Nashville: Nelson Books, 2016.
Summary: Challenges the “unwritten rules” of Christianity that respond with denial or cliches when faced with the hardest challenges of evil, pain, suffering, doubt, and death and invites both honest responses and offers reality-based hope.
Jacqueline Bussie is tired of the hackneyed clichés Christians throw out when faced with hard situations for which there really are no glib answers. She knows, having grown up in a family that either didn’t talk about their pain or used some of the same answers. Eventually she started breaking the “unwritten laws” of how Christians are supposed to speak and act, and discovered that in fact, there were good models for doing the same in the pages of scripture. People got angry with God, mourned, doubted, and sat with others as they poured out all these things, allowing them to be utterly honest, and giving the one gift they had, being with the. She writes,
“The name outlaw Christian describes the kind of Christian I am and the kind I’m setting myself to become: namely, a follower of Jesus who no longer accepts cocky clichés, hackneyed hope, or snappy theodicies–defenses of God’s goodness and power–that explain away evil and suffering with a theo-magical sleight of hand. An outlaw Christian doesn’t condemn questions or discourage doubt. Instead, an outlaw Christian seeks to live an authentic life of faith and integrity, and chooses to defy the unwritten laws governing suffering, grief, and hope that our culture and our religious traditions have asked us to ingest” (p. 5-6).
The first law she deals with is that we should never get mad at God, which is blasphemy. She observes that Job, the Psalms, and Ecclesiastes are bluntly honest and angry with God, and in the end, it is Job who is vindicated and not his friends. We only get really angry with those we really love and take seriously. Far more deadly is indifference.
The second law is that which forbids doubt because it is thought to be the opposite of faith and thus sin. Bussie shows that doubt is actually a part of the life of faith and good–it opens us up to ambiguity rather than holds onto “certainty,” is honest, creative, and open, builds community as we support each other, and drives us to action.
The third law is to never question. I so appreciated this because I’ve seen many thoughtful young people turn away from the faith simply because they were using the brains God gave them and asking good questions and told to “stuff it.” She observes that the journals of Mother Teresa are full of her questions and struggles to believe. She notes how much of scripture is filled with laments that ask, “how long?”
The fourth law she discusses is “to always speak in clichés about suffering and evil.” She then proceeds to name them:
- Evil is nothing except the absence of good.
- Evil is obvious. You will know evil when you see it.
- We need evil to grow closer to God and know what good is.
- Evil only describes really big, bad sins.
She argues that God doesn’t need us to defend God and doesn’t require us to spout these things.
The fifth and last law she covers is to never tell your real story because vulnerability is weakness. She argues that the greatest gift of love that brings meaning and sense in the midst of pain and senselessness is when we let people tell their stories without shame. It’s the way, she graphically writes, that we turn the garbage and crap in our lives into compost that gives life.
She doesn’t end here, however, but concludes by discussing how this radical authenticity with God and each other leads and can be turned to foster real hope. She begins by exposing the lies of hopelessness and talks about practical steps through which we cultivate hope and joy while “keeping it real.” Much of it, to me at least, boiled down to just paying attention to one’s life and to others, being as it were, a “hope sleuth.”
I have to admit, I was prepared for a book of Millennial clichés that in the end, I would say “meh” about. Instead, I found myself delighting in writing that was passionate about truth, unflinching in facing life’s hardest realities, and that pressed through pain to wonder. She’s both eloquent and gritty and I can see why her students say of her, “You are the only person who ever tells us the truth about anything.” She is vulnerable herself, as she describes the painful journey of losing her mother to early onset Alzheimer’s. Her own willingness to flout the clichés invites us into a deeper encounter with God that can be both angry and deeply love, can doubt and yet believe, can face unspeakable evil without giving up on goodness, can question and cling to God, and can reveal our garbage and yet know we are deeply loved.
This is a book I wish I had read much younger. I spent too many years keeping the unwritten laws and spouting the cliches, to the hurt of others and the deadening of my own soul. I’m glad for this voice that helps a new generation break free, hopefully sooner, of such soul-deadening things into real life.
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.