Lately disillusioned parishioners are leaving the church in numbers never before seen in search of a more authentic spiritual connection. Some may dismiss them as lacking in faith, but what if, in reality, they are the exact opposite? Their rejection of institutional idolatry in favor of something much more real may be exactly what's needed in these troubled times. In If the Church Were Christian, Quaker pastor Philip Gulley examines the teachings of Jesus to demonstrate how the church has lost its way and encourages Christians to return to these basic tenets in order to reclaim the heart and soul of the church. The exploration of simple statements such as affirming potential over brokenness, valuing reconciliation over judgment, and valuing questions over answers provide a road map for refocusing on the priorities that Jesus emphasized in his earthly ministry and will help readers to see a picture of what the church could grow to become in the future.
I've had If the Church Were Christian on my TBR list for a while now, so when it was coincidentally chosen as our church book club pick this month, I eagerly dove into reading it. Some of the things Rev. Gulley had to say mirrored things that I've read in other progressive Christian books, and some were more unique to his personal perspective. I have to give him credit for being a great storyteller who sucked me right into the book. He also has a talent for boiling issues down to a very understandable narrative, which made for an easy read. He makes several valuable points, with which I agreed and which I think the church as a whole should take to heart and work on in a concerted effort to change the direction we've been going for years now. However, there were a few points with which I disagreed or at the very least, wasn't entirely persuaded to the author's way of thinking. I believe those things could be taken in a couple of different ways. Either it was a weakness of the book or these aspects simply weren't the focus of the book, so he didn't want to get into the weeds trying to explain more fully. In any case, it kept If the Church Were Christian from earning keeper status from me, but at the same time, I did enjoy Rev. Gullley's writing style and overall appreciated the book.
I'll start first with the downsides I found. The first chapter, "If the Church Were Christian... Jesus Would Be a Model for Living Rather Than an Object of Worship" got the book off to a slightly shaky beginning for me. While I do believe that more emphasis should be placed on following Jesus's teachings - more practicing of the principles he taught and less orthodoxy - I don't necessarily believe that precludes us from worshiping him. This is where the author and I differ fairly significantly. Rev. Gulley does not believe in the deity of Christ - and I respect his opinion - but I do. For me, it's pretty much one of the basic building blocks of my faith. Without that, everything kind of falls apart for me, but I understand that Rev. Gulley, through his research and study of the Bible, has come to a different conclusion. However, for me this feels a little too much like throwing the baby out with the bathwater, or a false dichotomy, if you will. There were a few other places in the book where I felt this same false dichotomy came into play, but the first chapter is where it was most glaring to me. The author mentions that there were political reasons for the deification of Jesus, but he doesn't really elaborate much on what those reasons were. This is one of those weak spots I mentioned. I would have been interested in reading more about this, but perhaps it's a subject that's covered in more depth in one of his other books. For right now, though, I'm not prepared to toss out my belief in Jesus's deity without a great deal further examination, even if it does defy logic (as the author states), because in my mind, believing in something greater than yourself or in things that may not entirely make sense to our human minds is all part of what faith means.
Now that I've said my piece about that topic, I can honestly say that I didn't have any further major disagreement with Rev. Gulley. Most of the remainder of the book - which of course, was the bulk of it - made a great deal of sense to me. I agree wholeheartedly that the church should focus more on healing rather than condemning brokenness and value reconciliation over judgment. After all, this is what Jesus did regularly in his ministry. Gracious behavior over right beliefs is another area that the church is not particularly good at, and I don't really know why. Maybe it's just human nature to want to be right about things, but if we were being more gracious, perhaps there wouldn't be a need for nearly 40,000 Christian church denominations, many of which I'm sure formed as a result of hardheaded conviction that there was only one right way to believe, a notion that I reject. I also wish the church was significantly better at allowing its members to question, but alas that hasn't really been the case in my own experience. In fact, that's a large part of what attracted me to the church I currently attend. I've had many question throughout my spiritual journey and until I started going to the church I'm at, I never felt comfortable voicing those doubts and queries for fear of being criticized for not having enough faith or allowing Satan to poison my mind. Also, until attending my current church, I didn't feel like there was enough focus on helping those in need. It was more of an occasional thing that was done rather than a way of church living.
While I appreciated all of the chapters that covered these topics, the two that stood out to me the most and ended up being my favorites were eight and nine. Chapter 8 is "Peace Would Be More Important Than Power." The active seeking after political power is what nearly drove me away from the church altogether. Jesus never sought political power, so I simply couldn't get on board with this type of mindset. Then Chapter 9 is "It Would Care More About Love and Less About Sex." In recent years, I've grown completely weary of the drumbeat of purity culture. I've read far too many stories and seen too many lives ruined by the church's inability to accept human sexuality for what it is. IMHO, God made us sexual beings for a reason and to deny that is to deny an inherent part of us and to say that God made a mistake. I do believe in a certain sexual ethic but absolute purity and the wholesale rejection of the LGBTQ+ community for simply being who God made them to be has gone too far in my estimation.
So that's my take on many of the topics covered in If the Church Were Christian, all of which are just one humble reviewer's opinion. I did enjoy the book overall, even if some of the things discussed were a bit repetitive when compared against other similar books, and in spite of disagreeing with the author on one major point. As I mentioned before, though, where it stands out is in Rev. Gulley's ability to tell stories. He successfully demonstrated most of his points quite well through the medium of storytelling, relating both good and bad sides to each issue with real-life examples from his own experiences, making the book very accessible. For that reason alone, I can heartily recommend it to anyone who is seeking a different path in these religiously contentious times, even if it wasn't a perfect read for me. It was my first book by Philip Gulley, but it has also made me look forward to trying some of his other works, particularly his fictional stories, which I have a strong feeling will be well-written and enjoyable.
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