Books

Book Review: Red State Christians

I’ll confess it. When I learned of Angela Denker’s book Red State Christians: Understanding the Voters Who Elected Donald Trump (Fortress Press, 2019), I felt the tension between interest in a colleague’s work, a commitment to amplifying the voices of other clergywomen, and exhaustion with profiles intended to provoke my compassion for people who, I assume, don’t have much sympathy for LGBTQ+ people like me. Denker is both a pastor ordained in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and a journalist who has written for Sports Illustrated, the Washington Post, and Sojourners, and as I hoped, she brings both her theological insights and her journalistic gifts to this wonderful book, which I highly recommend.

Denker traveled the country to interview Christians in communities that we might assume are full of Trump voters, and that was the case in almost all of them. Regional histories and economies play as much a part in their varied motivations as do theological and social commitments. She takes the reader to metroplexes, affluent suburbs, and declining small towns. Denker offers a fair representation of the people she meets, yet throughout, she offers the reader both her counter-arguments to and in some cases her areas of agreement with the points-of-view of conservative Republicans who represent that majority of self-identified evangelical Christians who voted for Trump. Their motivations include Christian Nationalism, attachment to guns, opposition to abortion, and a love for a particular ideal of America. The foundation of racism and White Supremacy is apparent in many of the ideas shared by the people Denker interviews.

Her visit to El Paso is particularly poignant in the wake of the recent Wal-Mart shooting. There the churches are living in the midst of what is sensationalized by the President in speeches and on social media; people cross the border to work and to shop and to visit with family and friends. When we are up close to other human beings, how can we dehumanize them and still call ourselves followers of Jesus Christ? Yet even some of the Hispanic families in El Paso support Trump, and Denker unpacks levels of privilege and internalized racism that illustrate how difficult it will be to reach common ground even on topics that seem obvious (to me) on Christian principles.

I live in a Red community in a Purple state, not too far from one of the communities profiled. The book reminded me that while I sometimes despair that conservative and progressive Christians will ever find common cause in a broad sense, I actually live among and worship with Trump voters, and we do manage to find ways to communicate with one another, because we are already in relationship. It’s not always comfortable, and there are some compromises I can’t make. Denker’s engaging journey around the country encourages me to keep being in relationship and hoping that others will see in me the humanity Denker so aptly portrays in Red State Christians.


I received a complimentary copy from the publisher as part of the launch team. I also recommend the discussion guide available from the publisher, which would be a great resource for congregational read-alongs.

Books

Book Review: A Gracious Heresy

I’ve heard the story from my Presbyterian colleagues about the Rev. David Bailey Sindt, who stood up at the 1974 General Assembly with a sign that read, “Is anybody else out there gay?” Other mainline denominations have their semi-famous gay icons, but what of the gay and lesbian people who took their own stands on less-remembered occasions? 

Connie L. Tuttle was one of them. The first out lesbian to graduate from Columbia Theological Seminary, Rev. Tuttle stood in protest during an Atlanta Presbytery meeting in the 1990s, compelling those in attendance to remember that they were discussing people, not merely policy, as they considered Amendment B. That event forms the spine of her memoir, A Gracious Heresy: The Queer Calling of an Unlikely Prophet(Resource Publications, 2018). She had no official standing to speak at the meeting, yet she stood, in a visible yet silent protest. 

Tuttle tells her at times tumultuous life story in frank prose. She does not spare herself and thereby gains the credibility that allows her to tell the truth, as any worthy prophet would, about the people whose preferences and prejudices affected her along the way. The narrative is grounded in the events of the world, giving the reader a sense of what it was like to be a young woman formed by the social and political climate of the late 1960s. Her childhood experiences as an Army brat exposed Tuttle to a non-denominational and accepting form of church, and that is what she hoped to find when, as a 20-something lesbian single mother, she began searching for a spiritual home and found it for a time in a Presbyterian congregation. In response to a strong sense of calling, she went to college in her 20s at Agnes Scott, with the goal of then going onto seminary. 

Call is not so much words as it is feeling. Not the imposition of feeling but the rise of relationship beyond words. (p. 23)

Tuttle’s writing voice communicates a sense of her energy and drive, whether she is remembering cooking for a community meal, taking a road trip, or learning how to be present to patients as a chaplain. Throughout she shares a vision of community in which people care for and nurture one another, despite the unkindness she faces from sexist and homophobic church and academic leaders. (For those who know anything about the Southern Presbyterian Church in the 1970s and 80s, many familiar names appear in the text.) She takes us into classrooms and meetings with faculty, including a story from her first day of classes, when the professor teaching “Formation of Ministry” informed the students they must guard against “zipper problems.”

Shocked, I looked around. Zipper problems? Two things bothered me about this statement. One: there were enough women in the room for him to have come up with a different euphemism. Or did this just refer to male clergy? And two: WHAT? You mean to tell me that the people who are supposed to model the highest standards of ethics are no more than clay-footed mongrels panting after any women in heat? (p. 143)

As I said above, her tone is frank, and that frankness was much-appreciated by this reader. Sexism and homophobia have not gone away in the decades since Tuttle graduated from Columbia, in the church or in the wider world. I take great encouragement from her determination to push back even then, and from the cause of that determination: she had a call to follow, and she was going to find a way to respond to what God put in her heart. 

When asked to describe her gifts for ministry during an assessment required for her seminary graduation, Tuttle explained that her wide experiences prepared her to speak for those who cannot speak for themselves, particularly those who had been hurt by the church.

I want my life to be prophetic and my actions to be pastoral. (p. 182)

What a worthy aspiration!

Connie Tuttle was never ordained in the Presbyterian Church (USA). She went on to found Circle of Grace, “a small, progressive, ecumenical, feminist, Christian house church” in Atlanta, Georgia. She is part of the RevGalBlogPals blogging community; you can find her writing at The Gracious Heretic. I recommend her book to all who love to read call stories, and especially to readers who wonder why LGBTQ+ people stick with the church. (Short version: God called us.) Rev. Tuttle may be a heretic; she is certainly a prophet; she is also a hero.

I received a copy of the book in exchange for my honest review. (Cross-posted at RevGalBlogPals.)

Books

Book Review: God, Improv, and the Art of Living

Let me start by saying that Improv terrifies me. Even as an audience member, I clench, more focused on what might go wrong than on what is actually unfolding. When compelled to improv in acting classes, both as a student and later as an adult, I felt like someone who just could not speak the language.

I do, however, approach every book I open with the belief it may have something important to say to me, whether an idea that sparks new understandings or a disagreement in perspective that challenges me. I’m open to possibility. My friend, author MaryAnn McKibben Dana, would have to tell you for sure, but after reading her excellent new book God, Improv, and the Art of Living (Eerdmans, 2018), I think I may just be taking a “Yes, And” approach to reading, if not to improv itself.

Many of the principles developed in the book resonated for this reader.

First, about God:

Rather than being remote and impersonal, God’s nature is to collaborate – to improvise – with God’s people. And when that improvisation occurs, it moves in the direction of inclusion and mercy and grace. (p. 49)

On the value of listening and how improv can deepen it:

Getting the gist is now our default practice, to the exclusion of deep understanding and shared wisdom…

True listening trusts there is enough time to consider, absorb, and be changed. Onstage, a good improviser trusts that a little bit of awkward silence isn’t nearly as bad as making a hasty move that doesn’t honor what their partner has offered. (p. 64)

On the role of the self-critical internal Voice that limits our risk-taking:

The Voice, also called the censor, is guided by two over-arching sentiments: “You’re not good enough” and “Who do you think you are?” These sentiments stop us mid-risk and keep us safe on the beaten path rather than in the improvisational mystery, which is scarier, but ultimately more interesting and satisfying. (p. 134)

And on getting to work:

Good ideas don’t have much shelf life. It’s much better to use them as quickly as possible, before they turn to ashes. (p. 142)

These and many other passages are underlined in my copy of the book, which is useful for looking at one’s life, but also a great tool for churches that might hesitate to take a risk in a changing world. To encourage exploring the principles of improv, the book includes a set of exercises for individuals and groups. Stories from scripture and contemporary life illustrate the principles. MaryAnn is a gifted aggregator, bringing together her experiences in class and on stage with the wisdom of teachers and scholars in a way that elevates her thesis. Being open to say “Yes, and” widens our sense of what is possible, makes our lives richer, and is faithful to the God who invites us to collaborate. Will we take the risk? I hope so.


I received an Advance Reader Copy of the book, in exchange for an honest review. I cannot guarantee that the page numbers indicated above are the same in the final version.