by Tom Sims
Things were as they had been for a long time. Nothing much changed. Relationships were well defined. Alliances were set. Positions were clear. Lines were drawn in indelible ink. It was comfortable.
Everyone knew who their friends were and who their enemies were. The church could be counted on for a predictable position on a catalogue of issues. Questions were confined to strategy on how to advance the accepted dogma of the day and to ensure that other questions were not raised. No one and no thing compelled Pastor Saul to challenge his cherished assumptions. He had allies to bolster them. That was true until something interrupted things.
Joseph came to town.
Then, everything changed.
That is the scenario, Pastor Paul Swearengin paints in his novel, Joseph Comes to Town. Subtitled, When the Religious Right becomes religiously wrong, Swearengin does not attempt to sidestep controversy. Nor does he avoid the darkest, most sensitive topics on Christianity’s contemporary menu. He confides that some of those topics were more difficult to write than others. But, his character Saul wrestled with them.
This wrestling match grows out of the author’s own process of rethinking, reinventing himself, and reviving his commitment to the core values and truths of his faith. The very process of writing the book took over a year, during which, he struggled, prayed, and searched deep within himself for the right questions and responses that he places on the lips of his characters.
It may be an uncomfortable read. Some of what the reader encounters will seem very familiar. That is intentional. We are all in the book, usually in some composite form…but there are no caricatures. Paul clearly loves his characters and understands them. In many ways, all reflect his own journey.
Swearengin will be known to many in the Fresno area as former Pastor of The River and husband of the former Mayor, Ashley Swearengin. Others will recognize him as an ESPN broadcaster. These days, Paul hosts the podcast Two Guys Talking with local entrepreneur, community leader, former downtown redevelopment director, activist, and former City Council member, Craig Scharton. Two Guys Talking deals with local issues, and their tag is, “Civil Discourse is our goal!”
Since writing Joseph Comes to Town, Paul has launched and championed the website The Non-Partisan Evangelical, The Non-Partisan Evangelical Newsletter, and The Non-Partisan Evangelical Podcast. There, he poses the question again: “Is God Really a Conservative Republican?”
Recent topics he has tackled include:
• Race and War: An NPE Discussion with Phil Skei
• The Leaven of the Pharisees: How the CT Editorial is Exposing Evangelical Hypocrisy
• A Time for Lament? An NPE Conversation with Jene Gilreath
• Evangelical Allegiance to Party & Politician
• My Struggle with Leaders Like Franklin Graham
• Be wise in the way you act toward outsiders; make the most of every opportunity.
Pastor Paul has taken Pastor Saul’s journey, inspired by Joseph in his novel, and it has not been entirely comfortable for him. Like Pastor Saul, he has been criticized and misunderstood. Yet, he continues with renewed vigor and faith. In a very recent blog, he wrote:
A door has been opened to an important discussion in the American Evangelical Church. It’s a conversation that’s been somewhat muted, as many tried to avoid the appearance of speaking against their more outspoken fellow church members. Now, however, the discussion has necessarily begun in earnest, and I believe the outcome of that discussion will have long-lasting impact on the world’s view of the Evangelical Church and the Church’s ability to influence culture for generations to come.
This discussion was spurred by the recent editorial in Christianity Today (known as CT) penned by magazine Editor-in-Chief Mark Galli. While focused on the removal of President Trump from office, the editorial raises an even bigger question for discussion: Is there room in the Evangelical Church to question President Trump’s policies and behavior? Or does our faith require boisterous and unwavering support of President Trump, the Republican Party, and political conservatism?
A few months ago, I met with Paul to discuss the genesis of his book, the evolution of his thinking, the struggle to be authentic about the questions he was facing, his discomfort with the status quo, and his outlook for the future. He has great hope for a new generation of Christian leaders who are not afraid of the hard issues. He expresses joy over the young leaders who are willing to embrace the radical call of Jesus to a discipleship of love, grace, and compassion.
We also talked about conversations we have both had with traditional “enemies” of Evangelical Christianity who, by hearing them, have shattered our assumptions about their own motives and character. Many are people of deep faith themselves, sometimes teetering faith, sometimes ostracized for who they are.
What does Jesus expect of us as we encounter this world of people who do not fit our mold of what it means to be an Evangelical Christian?
How do we find common ground in interfaith conversations?
How do we come beside those who have been burned, rejected, dismayed, and wounded by the church?
How do we love the people who are on the outside looking in?
How about those who are trying to find their way back?
What of those who have stayed, but felt squeezed and judged because of their own consciences?
What does in mean to be a follower of Jesus in the world today that labels people for their differences as being outside the faith?
These are extremely difficult conversations. These are conversations that Joseph provokes in the fictional town of Bekering. These are conversations that Swearengin is having and encouraging in the Central Valley. These are questions that require moral courage.
The church is not dying. It is finding new roots in old roots. It is finding fresh and authentic expression. It is meeting in different places and at different times with new leadership. Evangelical faith is, like Pastor Saul in the book, Pastor Paul in real life, and many others, being rethought and reinvented to look more like the faith of Jesus.
If you are willing to deal with these questions yourself, order and read the book, subscribe to the podcasts, enter into dialogue with people who think differently, and think for yourself prayerfully, openly, and expectantly.
Joseph Comes to Town can be ordered HERE on Amazon.