Rescuing Jesus: How People of Color, Women, and Queer Christians are Reclaiming Christianity, by Deborah Jian Lee (Beacon Press, 2015), is a book that has been on my radar for a while that I was finally able to pick up from my local library and spend the time reading. It follows the stories of characters who are struggling to identify within their Conservative Evangelical worlds and also integrate their themselves on the basis of race, gender, and sexuality.
The writing is very inviting from Deborah Jian Lee, who shares a background in Evangelicalism. Parts of the book include her experience, though the focus remains on true characters Lisa, Jennifer, and Will and Tasha. These individuals become our guides for learning about how faith and identity interact in their environments: Intervarsity Christian Fellowship, purity culture and church leadership, and the Biola Queer Underground.
Each character, or set of characters, correspond to the subject of race, gender, or sexuality. The book is structured that each of these characters progress through three stages.
First, they are described as Conformists, which details their time in Evangelical communities where they sought to fit with the dominant culture. Second, is Skeptics, as they begin to doubt the validity of the dominant culture. And lastly, as Radicals, they challenge the systems which maintained their exclusion.
The chapters are driven by the narratives, segmented by sections that offer some historical and social analysis for how the Conservative Evangelical culture developed around an issue and what is changing. This balance helps to put the narratives in perspective and offers a broader landscape to inform the reader. The structure also establishes a progression of identity shift (Conformist, Skeptic, Radical) that is familiar to many (you would probably not be reading if you were not, at least, a Skeptic).
What this book is NOT:
This book is not an academic argument about the issues of race, gender, or sexuality. The author does make reference to other scholars who have written on these subjects, but the overall trajectory of this book is to invite readers to understand the subjects through the experiences of its protagonists. Stylistically, this is welcoming to readers who are familiar with evangelicalism and a tactful way to introduce these areas by developing a relationship in print rather than abstract apologia. (A few of the scholars mentioned, who I would also recommend, include Randy Woodley, Soong-Chan Rah, Richard Twiss, Sarah Bessey, and Justin Lee.)
This book is not a Bible study. It does not engage in exegesis that would promote any particular interpretation. At times, the author assumes that there are certain biblical precepts that are familiar to the reader, mostly in the sense of dominant cultural themes within conservative evangelicalism.
This book is not a roadmap for the future. There is a brief appendix about where evangelicalism might go from here, but it does not provide instructions for how any individual or church should move forward in evaluating or synthesizing these subjects.
Despite the things that this book is not, it is very helpful for Christians who are seeking to understand their faith tradition in light of what day believe to be incongruity between there faith and the inclusion of people on the basis of race, gender, and sexuality. It provides some template for how to reframe one’s religious principles to be more inclusive and recognize difference in our world.
In conclusion, there are three types of people who need to read this book: First are the curators of Conservative Evangelicalism- the pastors and youth workers, teachers and parents, who create the Conformity culture. These are the people with the power to shape the Evangelical world. Sadly, I doubt that many will be curious enough to get past the title of this book or read it with an open mind (but I remain hopeful!)
A second group who would benefit are non-Evangelical Christian leaders who are interacting with people who have left evangelicalism, the “Exvangelicals”, to have a better context for what they have experienced. It may also provide some insight to progressive churches who are firmly committed to inclusion but still struggle with one or two of the identity categories presented here.
The last (but probably most important) are people from within or recently left the Conservative Evangelical community are are wrestling with how one’s faith adapts to include people (and oneself) on the basis of race, gender, and sexual diversity. These people need to know that there are communities in which they can be fully Christian and fully themselves who are eager to share the journey of faith together. It is not a binary choice to remain Christian (and even remain Evangelical) or become open to, appreciative of, and celebratory of the diversity of our communities.