THERE IS STILL a political definition of “Christian” out there that is depressingly familiar: the right-wing voting, Fox News-sourced agitprop spewer who uses Jesus to shoehorn others into something the actual Lord of the universe could care less about. Lillian Daniel is not going to take this definition anymore, but she’s not mad as hell. She’s winsome as heaven. Her humor clears the way for her preaching to hit home, and her love for the church, both her congregation and universal, anchors this work. Give it out to your friends and to strangers on the street.
First, Daniel’s humor: It is hard to give examples of her humor without them falling flat. She’s at her droll best when the reader’s defenses aren’t up. This isn’t the humor of the warm-up act before the preacher gets on to something serious—she often drives her meatiest points home with her funniest stuff. For example, a running motif in the book is the airplane companion who thinks he’s being edgy when he says to the pastor beside him that he sees God in rainbows and sunsets. This “spiritual but not religious” mindset is now the bland norm in America, not some spectacular new revelation: “They are far too busy being original to discover that they are not.”
Some of Daniel’s most withering observations are reserved for the mainline church she loves: the sneering religious critic is told “all those questions actually make him a very good mainline Protestant.” The self-congratulatory short-term missionary who comes home convinced how “lucky” she is to live in America receives this barb: “When generosity begets stupidity it wasn’t really generosity to begin with.”
Another uncomfortably true stereotype is the churchy humor that doesn’t just bore, it makes hearers want to stab themselves in the eyeball. Humor without depth shows a gospel without depth. Think of the chain emails in your Sunday school class, jokes about church bulletin miscues, books on the gospel, and childish comic strips. Daniel’s humor plows the ground so her more substantive political claims can take root. She tells a moving story about teaching a seminar in Sing Sing prison—a place that taught her that every Christian is a minister, not just those who hope to be released and ordained. The glimpse inside the prison leaves us thinking about, maybe even praying for, our sisters and brothers behind bars, wondering about the justice of it all, maybe ready to do something about it. The book’s longest chapter is on immigration. It doesn’t just rehash the standard political boilerplate. It starts with a family trip back to Scotland where the Daniels learned they were the most cowardly of the clans even before they fled. By the time she’s telling us 5 million children are undocumented, subject to deportation at any moment, her humor has cracked our heart open. The fruit is not just a better book: It may even be lives of greater justice. One can hope, anyway.
The most refreshing part of the book is Daniel’s love for the church. Hers is not a starry-eyed or romantic view. She has served actual flesh-and-blood churches. Every pastor has the bruises. Yet she is constantly struck dumb by God’s beauty, even in the church, of all places. She tells of the grooms about to get married in her stately Chicago suburban church, who confess that as kids they used to tear through the secret passage between the church hall and sanctuary at warp speed. Now, all dressed up, they are about to tear through that hall again. They look through an eyeball-shaped peep-hole to catch a glimpse of their brides. And so they “see through a glass darkly.”
She tells of a conversational Spanish class she takes in which students bear witness to the remarkable things their congregations are doing all around the world to bring hope and grace—and we glimpse the church not just in its failure, but in its grandeur. She speaks with love to correct her own mainline liberal tradition:
You can be open-minded and still know what you think. You can be accepting of other people’s ideas but still willing to articulate your own. You can rejoice in the many diverse paths to God and still invite your neighbor to church.
We can indeed, and with this delightful and wise book from one who is now among the most crucial of our writers in the church, we can all the more.
Jason Byassee is pastor of Boone United Methodist Church in Boone, N.C., and a fellow in theology and leadership at Duke Divinity School.