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Preaching the love and welcome of God

Review of "Magnificat" by Debbie Blue.

By my early 20s, I had developed a spiritual disorder for which I don’t have a name. It consisted in the ability to wring from any biblical text the worst possible news, even when this meant adopting theological positions that I wasn’t wholly convinced of, or that contradicted each other. Be ye perfect, as I am perfect: this meant that every moment of inconsistency, every blemish on my record (and there were many), signified a fatal weakness of will, which would sooner or later shut me out from the kingdom. I came that they might have life: well, sure, but he was probably talking to his elect, which couldn’t possibly include me, I who had never even won a raffle. I could jump from being a hardcore predestinarian to a staunch Arminian in mere seconds, as long as the jump saved me from good news. The through-line in all my interpretations was that I did not believe I could trust God.

I had driven two parents, several professors, many friends, and more than one girlfriend crazy with this kind of talk, and I had heard many learned and sensitive answers to every possible Christian question. It would have taken a person of immense spiritual gifts to save me from this habit of theological self-harm. In fact it took two such people, both pastors. One of them doesn’t write books, so she’s outside the scope of this piece, which is, despite appearances, a book review. The other was Debbie Blue, who is – along with George MacDonald – the most creative and compassionate expositor of the Bible I have ever read or heard, and also a thoroughly delightful person. Week after week, from the pulpit of House of Mercy, the church in Minnesota that she founded with two friends (Russell Rathbun and Mark Stenberg – you should also buy their books), she would take passages of the Bible that had given me minor mental health emergencies and untwist them detail by detail until I could only hear in them the love and welcome of God. Even then, you could see – despite her intentionally understated, funny, non-intimidating style – that she was immensely learned and talented. She could, if she wanted, have become that awful thing, the Christian influencer; she could have made immense money from books about increasing territory or washing faces. Instead she has continued to work at House of Mercy – during the worst of the pandemic, I swapped in their podcast for church, and it was like finding a lost reel of photos – and to publish, every so often, a book of sermons.

Magnificat is the most recent of these. It comes from a period when she and Russell preached only on texts involving women for a solid year. It would be no surprise if Blue could wring good sermons out of such feminist-theologian loci classici as the story of Jael and the tent peg, or Ruth’s sexual boldness, or Mary and Martha becoming the first ministers of the Gospel in human history. But check out what she does with the somewhat less promising parable of the ten foolish virgins. First, she postulates that maybe their lack of lamp-oil suggests an ambivalence about what may well be an unwanted, forced marriage, that maybe Christ isn’t simply the bridegroom. Having thrown out this possibility, she sums up:

He’s not urging his disciples to be vigilant in the way of the NSA or Homeland Security. He’s not trying to get them to look over their shoulders or be suspicious. It’s more like, “Watch! This is going to be interesting and you’re going to want to pay attention!” Because what’s coming is not going to be the same stuff you’ve seen year after year after year. It’s not going to be the same old, same old male gods of power and might. … in the chapter after this one, Jesus is going to die. I think this is what he’s trying to prepare them for.

For those of us whose religion comes out of a book, the very importance of that text can make us lazy and unimaginative in our interpretive choices. There is a long tradition of interpretation, or several such traditions, for each passage, and the one you’ve grown up with steals into the place of the words of the page like a changeling into a cradle. When this happens, then sometimes, lo, the wisdom of God will come to us like unto a contractor who knocks away a wall here and a post there and suddenly the room is flooded with light. That’s Debbie Blue. Her presence in my life was a gift; so are her books.

Author

  • Phil Christman

    Phil Christman writes and teaches in Ann Arbor, Mich. He is the editor of the Michigan Review of Prisoner Creative Writing.

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