The following review was originally published in Englewood Review of Books and is republished with permission. The author is Tell It Slant editor, Jeanne Torrence Finley.
Freeing Jesus: Rediscovering Jesus as Friend, Teacher, Savior, Lord, Way, and Presence
Diana Butler Bass
Hardback: HarperOne, 2021
By some strange coincidence, on the day before the launch of Diana Butler Bass’s new book Freeing Jesus, Gallup released a new report that began, “Americans’ membership in houses of worship continued to decline last year, dropping below 50% for the first time in Gallup’s eight-decade trend.” That’s a decline from 70% in 1999. For many within the institutional church, that news is disturbing. For Bass, who has been writing about this trend since her Christianity After Religion: The End of the Church and the Birth of a New Spiritual Awakening was published in 2012, this report is not surprising or necessarily alarming.
Since reading Christianity After Religion, I’ve been hoping that Bass would write a kind of sequel, updating her astute observations and her optimism that despite declining church affiliation, a spiritual awakening is still happening in America. Her next two books, Grounded (2015) and Grateful (2018) were of a different order, addressing spirituality in a more personal way. Now in Freeing Jesus, I find that sequel, but in a quite different genre than I expected– “memoir theology”–which she defines as the “making of theology–understanding the text of our own lives and taking seriously how we have encountered Jesus” (264). Although it is not a new genre, it has been highly underrated by the academy, especially before the coming of feminist theologians in significant numbers.
Bass recalls asking a seminary professor (in an evangelical seminary, circa 1980s) why class readings were all from male theologians. He answered that women didn’t write theology. She named some who lived way before the twentieth century: Perpetua, Julian of Norwich, Hildegard of Bingen, Teresa of Avila and Catherine of Siena. He replied, “That’s not theology. That’s memoir”(264). Later she concluded that when men write about Jesus from experience the tendency has been to call it “theology,” and when women write theology from experience, their work is more likely to be called “memoir.” What about Augustine? Luther? Wesley? Bonhoeffer? All great theologians; they too wrote out of their experiences.
“Memoir theology” is inviting to audiences that Bass understands so well: people who question the version of Christianity that they have been exposed to (whether directly through church or indirectly through culture and politics), people who have left the church but still want to follow Jesus, people who remain in church and want to be able to talk about Jesus at Sunday brunch with their friends, but who are painfully aware of the baggage often attached to Christianity in contemporary society. She is writing for all people who ask of Jesus, “‘Who are you? A question with myriad answers”(264).
In Freeing Jesus Bass bypasses the constraints of doctrine and correct belief by writing about the Jesus of her experience and beaconing readers to reflect on their own experience of him. She does that by sharing stories of six of the Jesuses who have been with her through the stages of her life: friend, teacher, savior, Lord, way, and presence. Through her story she tells “the story of the Jesus of experience, who shows up consistently and when we least expect him. Freeing Jesus means finding him along the way” (xxvi). I don’t want to give away the arresting story that begins this book because it is too funny, too poignant, and too profound to be paraphrased. But the title alone makes clear that Jesus wants a life outside of the church and indeed wants to be free from all the boxes we put him inside.
Bass seamlessly moves from her story into theology, church history, biblical studies, and culture. In chapter 4, “Lord,” she recounts her experience as a student at a west coast evangelical liberal arts college in the late 70s and early 80s. There she found the protection and security that she’d valued in her church youth group as well as the motivation and resources to stretch her understanding of Jesus beyond the savior of individuals. She read Your God Is Too Small by J.B. Phillips, who criticized Christians who “put God in a box” (118). There she learned a radical notion that to proclaim “Jesus is Lord” is to assert that Caesar is not and that to act on that notion requires privileging the poor and working for justice: “If you hung around with Jesus, it was easy to believe that some sort of political revolution was at hand” (136). This was not a message she’d heard in the church back home.
As good memoir should be, Freeing Jesus is gentle persuasion, never telling readers what we should do or think or be. In addition, Bass is gracious in telling about growing away from evangelicalism toward a more progressive Christianity. She presents a multifaceted view of evangelicalism, claiming the ways it fostered her growth as well as the ways it held her back. Her vulnerability invites us into her life but doesn’t hold us there. She wants readers to reflect on the kinds of questions her stories raised for them and to recognize that our lives are important in understanding the life of Jesus.
Having written this book during the pandemic, Bass, in her conclusion, comments on the irony of the project. Her mission was to set Jesus free, but in fact during this last year, church doors were locked and Jesus had left the building. Congregations were having to find creative ways to be church outside their buildings, and some have succeeded. She writes,
But as millions have discovered in these many months, Jesus was not confined to a building. Jesus was around our tables at home, with us on walks and hikes, present in music, art, and books, and visible in faces via Zoom. Jesus was with us when we felt we could do no more, overwhelmed with work and online school. Jesus was with us as we prayed with those sick in the hospital over cell phones. Jesus did not leave us to suffer alone. COVID-19 forced Jesus out of the cathedral into the world, reminding Christians that church is not a building. Rather, church is wherever two or three are gathered, even if the ‘two’ is only you and your cat . . . (266-267).
Some commentators are already speculating on the effect COVID-19 will have on church life when the doors are opened again. Will church attendance continue to decline? Or will congregations grow through the creativity learned this past year to reach beyond their walls and follow Jesus into the world? We don’t know. Bass says that many people will not return because “they are already discovering what it meant to follow Jesus beyond the church,” but many will. She continues, “Whatever happens, however, I hope none of us will forget the Jesus we have met in our own lives, who has been with us in fear and confusion and loss, in forced isolation and surprising moments of joy, and through the ministrations of our shared human priesthood. It all matters. All of it”(268).
 Jeffrey M. Jones, “U.S. Church Membership Falls Below Majority for the First Time,” Gallup, March 29, 2021. https://news.gallup.com/poll/341963/church-membership-falls-below-majority-first-time.aspx