Kissing Fish: Christianity for People Who Don’t Like Christianity
By Roger Wolsey
It’s important to remember while reading Kissing Fish: Christianity for People Who Don’t Like Christianity, that the stated purpose of this book is to reach out to those who “don’t currently identify as being Christian, or who do privately, but are hesitant to let others know because the word “Christian” has come to be associated with behaviors, stances, and attitudes that they don’t want to be associated with.” The author brings an evangelistic passion for offering a broader, more progressive point of view to those who for one reason or another stand apart from Christianity. I understand his fervor, having experienced the same frustrations and hurts from within conservative Christianity that much of Wolsey’s target audience has seen and felt. However, at times the tone of the book seems to reflect the very type of thinking that the author criticizes in the parts of conservative Christianity that say, “This is why they are off base, and why we are right.” I admit, at one time this stance would have felt affirming to me. However, at this point in my faith journey, I wonder if that posture only creates more confusion about it all.
The book is best understood through the author’s profoundly personal faith journey that has shaped his beliefs and devotion. Roger Wolsey is an ordained United Methodist pastor who serves on the campus of the University of Colorado. “I shouldn’t be a Christian,” he tells us, “The odds were against it.” His deep disappointment with the church as a youth and young adult confused him about God and repelled him from the church. His faith was later re-ignited through time spent with an intimate community that was “unobtrusive, authentic, down to earth and intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually satisfying.” He came to love Christianity through their communal lens, in contrast to the more individualistic “flying solo” lens of the more conservative traditions that he had seen.
Through his own story, Wolsey seeks to advocate an understanding of Christianity that speaks to today’s postmodern young adults who “embrace a more nuanced, experiential, paradoxical, mystical and relational approach to faith and spirituality” than what has been presented to them through the more outspoken and fundamentalist forms. In this light Wolsey presents his treatise on Progressive Christianity, which he claims, actually “represents a reformation of the church to its earlier, pre-modernist and pre-Constantine roots.” He adds, “Ironically, this implies that in reality, it is progressive Christianity that is conservative and “conservative Christianity” isn’t.”
He offers a series of contrasts and challenges to consider that juxtapose conservative and progressive Christian thought. For example, there are many statements such as, “Conservative Christianity focuses on the religion about Jesus and getting people to agree with certain intellectual truth claims and that its important for people to believe all these things here and now so that they can go to heaven when they die. Progressive Christianity focuses on a more radical way of life, namely, the counter-cultural, subversive and life-giving teachings of Jesus.” And, “Conservative Christianity emphasizes people’s personal relationships with God, Progressive Christianity remembers the Jewish (and Jesus’) understanding of salvation by additionally focusing upon the broader pursuits of inter-human hesed (loving kindness) and the societal Kingdom of God and striving for personal wholeness and social peace, justice and liberation from oppression and bondage.” There are many who will resonate with the first halves of the statements, weary of the narrowness of focus in the conservative church. The progressive alternative is certainly compelling. And the author’s intent is to offer a different lens upon what it means to follow Jesus, and in that he succeeds. However, I do have to wonder if the portrayals of conservative Christianity– and in all fairness I must add that conservatism has made me want to scream all too often– are perhaps too reductionistic and therefore, unfair. Then again, maybe not. Even so, the propensity within us to vilify the other, whomever they may be, stands in sharp contrast to Jesus’ imperative to love one another (even those with whom we disagree) and that is something that I wish the author had addressed with more force.
All that aside, there is much in what Wolsey presents as progressive Christianity that is beautiful and hopeful. He takes on a hefty task by exploring a wide range of topics such as liberation theology, process theology and openness theology. In addition, he explores current hot spots such as the nature of the atonement, the realities of heaven and hell, eschatology, and the problem of theodicy. He also addresses differences and problems of interpretation of scripture and the hermeneutical lenses that both enhance and distort our reading. Obviously, in a work of this length these topics cannot be fully explored. In order to be thorough and fair (to both sides), this work could or should have been multiple books. But his ideas serve as conversation starters, designed to challenge and captivate the minds of those who are frustrated by their perception of the Christian gospel, and to answer some of their struggles.
Problems to be aware of include the fact that Wolsey appears to speak as if Progressive Christianity is a singular group with a clear statement of faith. He also does not clearly differentiate between what is progressive and what is liberal Christianity. (Many of my Progressive friends tell me pointedly that there is a difference!) Finally, the author often approaches issues as if there are just two possible points of view, conservative or progressive. The diversity of thinking within the Catholic Church as well as well as a multitude of Protestant traditions (and Eastern Orthodox) do bring much more varied and diverse perspectives to all of the issues discussed. Again, the point of the book is to address those who have been repelled by certain strains of conservative Christianity and to offer them what the author has found to be a life-giving alternative. But its hard not to feel as though the vast diversity of the Body of Christ has been diminished a bit by lumping all of us into one of these two categories.
The most compelling arguments for the author’s point of view lie in the last few chapters of the book which emphasize both personal practices such as prayer, forgiveness and reconciliation, and the outward practices of serving and loving others. Wolsey’s passion and compassion for our hurting world is palpable. The “love chapters” push past all of the theological arguments of who or what best represents Christianity, and bring to mind Jesus’ words, “You will know [my followers] by their fruits.” Progressive Christians value orthopraxis, the “right” and radical way of love taught by Jesus. It is here that we are presented with a Christianity that is truly worth giving our all.
Even with all of the problems of the book, it’s hard to dismiss the zeal of a man who desires to entice college students (and yeah, probably the rest of us too) to follow Jesus and help to create the Kingdom of God in the here and now. Wolsey says, “Christians are called to be peacemakers and evangelists of the Christian gospel of forgiveness of sins. Christian are also called to be justice makers – people who do what they can do to create a world where there will be as few sins and transgressions committed as possible. For we know that there will be less to forgive if there are fewer sins and offenses committed. And we know there’ll be less of a need for bandages in a world where ‘justice rolls on like a river, and righteousness like a never-failing stream.’” (Amos 5:24)
It’s a worthy read.