–This review was originally posted on scarletchurch.com —
For weeks before reading Deborah Jian Lee’s first book, Rescuing Jesus: How People of Color, Women, and Queer Christians are Reclaiming Evangelicalism, I misquoted the title, replacing “are” with “can.” As someone who stopped identifying as an evangelical due to many of the issues that Jian Lee raises, I expected the book to read like a plea— one that I was used to making myself. But upon reading Rescuing Jesus, it’s clear that individuals across the country are already at work reclaiming evangelicalism from its patriarchal mindset.
Drawing from eight years of journalistic research, Jian Lee paints the evangelical tradition’s often painful history related to gender, race, and sexual orientation. On top of historical accounts, she weaves in PEW statistics and academic studies to support her claim that most evangelical communities and organizations have lagged behind in the country’s progress with human rights movements.
I appreciated that her depictions of notorious leaders and organizations were rarely one-sided, not simply the protagonists or the antagonists. For instance, in his favor, Jian Lee informs readers that “Billy Graham banned segregated seating at his crusades and invited fellow preacher Martin Luther King Jr. to deliver a crusade meeting’s opening prayer.” A page later we learn “Graham declined the 1963 invitation to King’s famous ‘I have a Dream’ speech, responding, ‘Only when Christ comes again will little white children of Alabama walk hand in hand with little black children.’”
While Jian Lee doesn’t attempt to be a neutral reporter, she endeavors to be fair. Whether this stems from the author’s journalistic background or her own history within the church, the book is written in such a way that reflects one of her findings, “Most of the activists I spoke to did not define evangelical faith by their bad experiences with bigotry or by the misbehavior of other evangelicals; they saw past the politics and cultural blind spots to what they believe the faith truly is: good news.”
Still, it’s good news that needs to be reclaimed. Jian Lee depicts how minority and underground movements, such as the Black evangelical tradition and women writing about a Christian take on feminism in the 60s, have occurred right alongside the dominant evangelical movement, and these minority voices are growing stronger. She writes, “Excluding this huge population of minority evangelicals, media outlets miss a major part of the evangelical story.”
Rescuing Jesus profiles an array of everyday people, from Lisa Sharon Harper, a black woman who is currently the Chief Church Engagement Officer at Sojourners, to a group of queer Biola students who form an underground student organization. Each has been shaped by their Christian communities’ responses to a marginalized aspect of their identity, and they show us how different one’s faith looks like on the other side of privilege. We follow their stories as they create new paths within evangelicalism that focus on social justice and the celebration and inclusion of a variety of voices and opinions.
Rescuing Jesus eloquently argues that no single majority opinion owns the evangelical tradition or the wider Christian faith. As Jian Lee ends her book, “the profound grace and beauty and strength among marginalized believers . . . have reminded me that God is so much bigger than the limitations set by the far Right or by anyone else. In God’s house, there is room for everybody. There is room even for me.”
Jera is the author of scarletchurch.com, affectionately known as Church of the Scarlet Letter. She is also the editor of this blog, Sacred and Subversive.