At the end of October, I got an email. Would I review a book in exchange for a free copy? Well, sure I would. (First time this has happened to me.)
It’s Quaker Shaped Christianity: How the Jesus Story and the Quaker Way Fit Together by Mark Russ, whom I had a chance to meet briefly in Britain last summer. It took me three weeks to read the book systematically, taking notes a little bit at a time, but there’s no reason the casual reader couldn’t zip through it in an evening. I recommend snuggling under a blanket with cocoa.
This book is a personal story. It’s theology, but it’s neither objective nor pretending to be. Mark takes us through his childhood and young adulthood, during which he tried a number of approaches to the Jesus story, all of which many have tried before. Outright rejection, literalism, universalism, Jesus-of-Nazareth-wise-teacher-but-not-Messiah…
“I’d hear Christians talk about the Bible as if it was an easy-to-read instruction manual,” Mark says, “but there was nothing clear about it.”
What I like most is Mark’s refusal to chip away at Christianity so that he’ll find it more palatable. He approaches it with humility, trying to engage with it on its own terms, as something that started in a very particular time and place and among a very particular people. He rejects so-called obvious Christian doctrines that are actually relatively recent interpretations in order to focus on the actual text. But he grapples with it all, not just the parts that are convenient.
Mark’s book won’t be easy for all Quakers to read. Some on the more theologically liberal end may struggle with his gentle but frank insistence that Quakers do have specific theology, which is important to our path and identity. And those on the more theologically conservative end may struggle with Mark’s unapologetic queerness, which he names as a God-cherished and inextricable part of who he is. But Mark calls us to share our stories, as he has shared his, and not to hide from potential disagreements under the illusion of united silence. That resonates with me. To me, this is at the heart of our peace testimony: we live it best by committing to difficult relationships, and not by simply avoiding disagreements.
Ultimately, I experienced this book as encouragement to engage with Christianity—again—as a powerful call to truth-telling, recognition of societal sin, hope for redemption, and a demand that we not settle for less than the fulness of the Kingdom of God.