After seeing a number of my friends toting around Queering Lent, I decided to pick up the slim volume of devotional poems penned by a nonbinary pansexual Presbyterian pastor. Written as a spiritual practice over the course of last year’s Lent, the highly personal poems touch on interwoven themes of suffering, identity, and empathy burnout, all while employing classical mystical language of God as Lover.
Independent publishing can be a toss-up, so when I find something that shines in the lackluster mire of self-published titles, I’m quick to promote it. Queering Lent gleams despite its unpretentious packaging, and while some of the poems are unremarkable, many have a sort of understated profundity to them that’s hard to forget. In particular, I found the poetic sermon on binaries, the expansiveness of God, and the upside-down kingdom of Heaven in the back of the book to be particularly stirring, and I’ll be returning to it again and again in this Lenten season and beyond.
I’ve had the pleasure of meeting Slats a number of times, and they’re a truly unique artist and ardent lover of God who has a way of infecting atmospheres with joy. If you’re interested in learning more about the creative process behind Queering Lent, you can check out this feature on Slats over at Sanctified Art. You can buy a copy of Queering Lent on Amazon, and 100% of the proceeds go to organizations committed to supporting queer and trans people in the church.
Title: A Bigger Table by John Pavlovitz
Genre: Christian Nonfiction/Memroir
Rating: ★★★ (3/5)
John Pavlovitz is a widely-read Christian blogger known for the generous hospitality of his theology and his commitment to championing honesty within the church. However, this wasn’t always the case. Pavolovitz was raised in a culturally homogeneous, shame-based Christian culture, and it wasn’t until he moved to Philadelphia in college that he began to experience humanity in all its colorful, dynamic diversity. As Pavolovitz came to love his black and latinx and queer and poor and atheist neighbors, all while discerning a call to ministry, he also began to form a vision of the table of God to which everyone was truly welcome and truly accepted.
Like many works of Christian nonfiction, A Bigger Table juxtaposes anecdotes from the author’s life and ministry with more theoretical theology. This, for the most part, works, and I enjoyed the stories about Pavolovitz’s Catholic Italian family and the troubled pastors and gay youth he has counseled throughout his career. Overall, the message of “radical hospitality, true diversity, real authenticity, and agenda-free community” comes across loud and clear, and is well supported by examples from the life of Christ. The chapter on the lies pastors are forced to tell in order to be accepted by their boards and congregations was particularly strong, and I appreciated the way Pavlovitz – though openly left of center – critiques and encourages both sides of the isle in an effort to build true Christian community.
However, the book ultimately suffers from a meandering structure and lack of concrete ways readers can help build the “bigger table”. Very little practical advice was given amidst all the excitement about doing church in a more authentic, healing way. The full inclusion of LBGTQ Christians into the church is a central theme of the book, but the chapters regarding it were separated in a way that felt random, and it seemed as though the author couldn’t decide how much time he wanted to spend on the issue. In addition, despite drawing from the life of Christ to support his model of radical hospitality, Pavlovitz effectively ignores most of the Bible, and I think he could have enriched his position by bringing in Second Testament writings and stories from the First Testament.
Despite its weaknesses, The Bigger Table will be soul-soothing to anyone beaten down by the partisanship and fake warmth of so many Christian congregations. I would recommend it to anyone looking for straight-talk from a pastor who wants to see the lavish love of Jesus spread more liberally through the world.
Note: I received a copy of A Bigger Table in exchange for an honest review.
Title: Still Christian: Following Jesus Out of American Evangelicalism by David P. Gushee
Genre: Spiritual Memoir
Rating: ★★★ ★ (4/5)
David P. Gushee has been at the forefront of nearly every schism, controversy, and watermark moment in American evangelicalism over the last 50 years. From his teenage mountaintop conversion, to his time as a professor at a fundamentalist Baptist seminary, to his successful career speaking out against torture as a Christian ethicsist, to the publication of his hit book Changing Our Mind, which shook up the evangelical world by championing the full inclusion of LBGTQ people in the church, Gushee has been red, blue, popular, derided, conservative, liberal, and everything in between. Still Christian accounts ongoing Gushee’s love affair with Christ and resulting divorce from evangelicalism with candor, temperance, and humor.
I expected a little more theological unpacking of the choice to “leave” American evangelicalism from Gushee, as this book as been lauded as an anchor in a swirling sea of moral bankruptcy and theological confusion in the evangelical church. Instead, the book was quite simply a mid-career memoir, but a very good one, and one that cast a lot of light on the schisms and inner tensions that have been whittling away at American evangelicalism since the seventies.
Still Christian is delightfully dishy and covers enough scandal to keep even those well acquainted with the rise of the Moral Majority and push-back from writers and theologians on the Evangelical left interested, but Gushee deals with all people and events mentioned with humility, grace, and love. The heart of Christ is kept at the center of Still Christian, even if Gushee is all too aware how rarely the institutions in charge of seeking it out keep their promises.
Note: I received a copy of Still Christian: Following Jesus Out of American Evangelicalism in exchange for a fair review of its contents.
A few days ago, an anoymous reader asked me over at Millennial Gospel if I knew of any books in a similar vein of progressive, experimental, grassroots theology. While I’m not as well-versed in Christian nonfiction as I would like to be, I do read an awful lot of it, and thought I would point you all towards the best of what I’ve read in the genre.
I read heaps of spiritual memoir, which is where I find the most authentic, gritty accounts of faith in a postmodern world.
- Rachel Held Evan’s Searching for Sunday accounts her journey out of evangelicalism and her wrestling with faith in the Episcopal church
- Nadia Bolz Weber’s Pastrix is the story of a rough, addicted, tattooed woman finding God and becoming one of the most unorthodox and celebrated pastors on the Lutheran scene right now
- Donald Miller’s Blue Like Jazz is a classic work of “emergent” Christianity, and shares the story of his chaotic, beautiful re-discovery of a God who had disappointed him in childhood
- Christian Wiman’s My Bright Abyss is a prose-poetry story of struggling towards the ineffable Divine in a life of academia, love, and illness.
For those interested in progressive, Biblical perspectives on gender and sexuality
- Mark Labberton’s Understanding Gender Dysphoria: Navigating Transgender Issues in a Changing Culture covers the science of gender dysphoria, different theologies of difference and inclusion, and treatment options for trans youth all from a moderate, Christ-centered perspective.
- Sarah Bessey’s Jesus Feminist is an affirmation of the God-given dignity and power of women told in a bounteously grace-filled, warm tone that invites both men and women into God’s vision for equality
- Mark Gushee’s Changing Our Minds and Matthew Vines’ God and the Gay Christian for those seeking a Biblical, ethical, and sociological defense of the inclusion of partnered LGBTQ folks in the kingdom of God
Budding theologians will enjoy
- Richard Rohr and Mike Morrel’s invitational exploration of the mystical, relational Trinity in The Divine Dance
- The more ambitious should pick up Elizabeth Johnson’s She Who Is: The Mystery of God in Feminist Theological Discourse, after which you may never need another defense of the feminine face of God.
I read a lot of political theology and liberation theology for graduate school, but I would not wish 45 page academic articles on you guys! That said, I do really like
- Lammin Saneh’s Whose Religion is Christianity: The Gospel Beyond the West, which explores the theological and cultural shift of Christianity to the global East and South, and unpack colonialism, western guilt, and new trends in Christianity in a conversational, question and answer format.
But I’ll keep my eyes peeled for any accessible introductions and point them your way.
What other titles in progressive Christianity do you consider essential? Comment with your favorites and I’ll add them to my TBR!