In “Letters To A Birmingham Jail”, contributor John Bryson writes, “Ugly parts of American history need to be owned, acknowledged, and ought to lead us to ask for forgiveness and repent.” Following that line of thought, Evangelical history also needs to be owned, acknowledged and must lead us to seek forgiveness.
Rescuing Jesus, written by Deborah Jian Lee, is a book I will not soon forget. It is a book that not only covers the history of evangelicalism – ugly parts and all – but it also seeks to discover a new way for Evangelicalism, a way pioneered by those who have been historically left out of evangelical churches and organizations, those who have been pushed to the margins of evangelicalism. Written from a journalistic perspective, this book is filled with stories from people of color, women and LGBTQ Christians that are both depressing and inspiring.
I grew up in an evangelical Southern Baptist church and thought I knew what evangelicalism was all about – I thought I knew the history. I’ve spent the last year or so realizing that I only knew a partial history – the flattering parts that evangelical leaders are eager to share, but nothing of the oppression and segregation that evangelicalism not only participated in but also those things that we have been directly responsible for. This book laid out those things (slavery, segregation, oppression of women, shunning of LGBTQ people to name a few) in the context of personal stories. It is one thing to say that the church has not handled the LGBTQ community well. It is another thing entirely to share the stories of LGBTQ people who have been so horribly mistreated by the collective evangelical church or by evangelical organizations to such a degree that it affected every area of their lives. It is one thing to understand that the church perpetuated the systematic oppression of blacks during the civil rights era. It is quite another to tell stories of people who are still being oppressed today by these same evangelical organizations.
The book is not, however, about all that is wrong with evangelicalism. It is about how all of it is changing. It’s about the stories of people of color, women and LGBTQ Christians who are pushing past the prejudices against them and taking back evangelicalism. They are saying that God’s grace extends to them too. They are telling the world that Jesus is for everyone. They are following in the footsteps of Martin Luther King, Jr and Susan B. Anthony, and doing the hard work of the Gospel.
The stories told in this book take real, serious issues and put flesh and bone on them. They tug on you and push on you in a way that will leave you grieving our collective evangelical past and hoping for a better future. I will not soon forget these stories. I am so very grateful for the years of hard work by its author, Deborah Jian Lee, and I pray that her words reach far and wide.