Rescuing Jesus – A Conversation with Deborah Jian Lee

jesusDeborah Jian Lee is an award-winning journalist and radio producer. She has written for Foreign Policy, Forbes, and Slate, among others, and has taught journalism at Columbia University. Her book, Rescuing Jesus: How People of Color, Women, & Queer Christians are Reclaiming Evangelicalism documents a generational shift in evangelicalism—from white, conservative, Republican demographic to something much more diverse and progressive. 

ECM: You trace the beginning of this book to your college days in the George W. Bush administration, when your progressive commitments clashed with your mostly conservative evangelical community. At one point, a friend asked whether you were “even a Christian anymore.” I relate to this very personally, and I think many young evangelicals can tell similar stories. Was writing this book cathartic for you?

DJL: It was cathartic to give language to this experience and to explore the history of how exactly evangelical culture became about boundaries and scarcity rather than diversity and abundance.

I grew up in a wonderful non-religious immigrant home in a white Chicago suburb. Because of my ethnicity, I encountered a range of racism, from subtle discrimination to violence against my body. When I came to faith at a Chinese immigrant church in my teens, I received the gospel as a healing salve to my wounds. It was through this community and Jesus’ words that I became restored.

I was so moved by how Jesus subverted the status quo by lifting the lowly to high places, by healing the broken and by calling his people to serve the least of these. And as I committed my life to Jesus, this is what my faith became about: radical inclusion and justice.

So when I became a leader of my college Christian fellowship group, Intervarsity, I was stunned by the entrenched conservatism of so many of my Christian peers. Sure, the group had some theological and political diversity, and I had some amazing young staff mentors (some of whom were people of color) who totally got me, but the overwhelming culture resisted my initiatives on racial justice and gender equality, equated voting Republican with authentic Christianity, called homosexuality a disease, celebrated female submission to male leadership and called conversations about social justice distractions from the “core gospel message” of converting others.

As a liberal, queer-affirming woman of color I was living in the crosshairs of the culture wars. I didn’t recognize their Jesus or their gospel. Sadly, I believed conservative leaders when they said that crossing their theological and political boundaries disqualified me from the faith.

When I finally left evangelicalism, I felt extreme liberation and extreme loss, and I was left with these burning questions. How did everything fall apart? Why did my Christian friends celebrate me when I conformed to their values but reject me once I started asserting my whole identity and my belief in a radically inclusive gospel? Was I the only one who experienced this? How did conservative white men come to define evangelical culture? Where did evangelicals from the margins – people of color, women, queers – fit in? Was there any hope for evangelicalism’s future? Could Jesus be rescued from the corruption of the religious right? And if so, who would do that and how?

Over the course of reporting and writing this book I dug into these questions. I was floored by what I uncovered and felt my own life changing with every new discovery.

ECM: The book intertwines the stories of several young evangelicals as they grow and develop from conformists to skeptics to radicals—a path you know something about. How did you find these folks, and how did you decide to tell their stories in this way?

DJL: I interviewed several hundred people for this book, so as you might imagine, I used a range of journalistic strategies to find the people I featured. I immersed myself in the progressive evangelical scene by attending meetings and conferences. I interviewed leaders, friends, strangers and everyone in between. I read thousands of articles. I cold called and Tweeted at a lot of people whose stories intrigued me. The people I chose to feature had stories that I found emblematic of and significant to the broader progressive evangelical movement.

One person I feature is Lisa Sharon Harper, whom I met when she was launching New York Faith and Justice, an organization working to end poverty in New York City. I watched as she built a movement of believers around tackling issues of police brutality, racial profiling, environmental injustice and the country’s broken immigration system.

I followed Lisa’s career from her New York Faith and Justice days to her work at Sojourners, where today she works as the Chief Church Engagement Officer, mobilizing leaders around the common good, with an emphasis on racial justice. When I interviewed Lisa, I was surprised to learn that she came to faith in a white fundamentalist church and once lent her voice to the conservative cause.

Toward the end of college she joined an urban mission trip where she spent time with fellow African Americans and was “reintroduced to myself as a black person.” She began to see herself through God’s eyes “as someone made in the image of God whom God loves.” Lisa learned to embrace her identity as a black woman, but when she brought her newly empowered self back to her conservative white community, she was rejected.

Eventually her vision of evangelicalism took a sharp departure from the Religious Right’s vision. She went on a decades-long journey of disentangling her faith from the Religious Right and centering it on living out the justice calling of the Bible. She spends much of her time bridging the conservative and progressive worlds, like the way she’s been traveling the country convincing conservative white evangelical pastors to lend their support to Black Lives Matter events and protests against police brutality.

Rescuing Jesus follows the conformist-skeptic-radical arc because over the course of all of my interviews, this was the most common trajectory most of progressive evangelicals had followed. I thought it was important to show this in intimate detail because it helps answer important questions. What are the greatest obstacles in disentangling from the Religious Right? How do people change? What are the consequences of change? What are the rewards? Why is inclusivity so difficult and how are people changing the infrastructure of their faith, life and communities to pursue radical inclusion and justice?

Read the whole thing at Religion Dispatches.

About Eric

Eric Miller teaches in the Department of Communication Studies at Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania.
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