If Grace is True: Why God Will Save Every Person (2003)
If God is Love: Rediscovering Grace in an Ungracious World (2004)
by Philip Gulley and James Mulholland
New York: HarperCollins, HarperSanFrancisco
Reviewed by Becky Bender
Philip Gulley, coauthor of these two books, will be one of the keynote speakers at the 2008 EEWC Conference. The titles of the books fit well with the conference theme, “A Place at the Table.” Gulley and Mulholland, who first met during their seminary days, are Quaker pastors in the Indianapolis area and write as one person even though one was raised as Protestant and the other Catholic. Rather than using “we,” they have used the first person singular throughout the book as a device for literally speaking in one voice. Drawing on their experiences as pastors to address questions of universal salvation, they include some true-life incidents from Gulley’s life, some from Mulholland’s, and some composites. They also felt that by writing as “I,” without specifying which stories came from which author’s experiences, they could further protect the anonymity of the persons whose stories were told (under changed names).
I read the books shortly after they were published because, as someone who grew up in holiness churches, I am always hungry for material that will sustain me as I wrestle with the issues of salvation, damnation, and grace that were so much a part of my upbringing.
The books are written in a clear and understandable manner that makes answering some of the most difficult theological questions accessible to any reader with an open heart and mind. The questions of Scripture and experience are addressed early in If Grace is True, as the authors point out that many of us are suspicious of our experiences with God, and that while it is true that God spoke to the men and women of the Bible, “The Bible was never intended to end the conversation but to encourage it. God didn’t fall silent with the last chapter of Revelation” (pp. 37- 38). Gulley and Mulholland explain further: “This doesn’t mean I reject or ignore the Bible. It means I remember that the God I am reading about is looking over my shoulder, whispering in my ear. I’ve had many moments when while reading Scripture I was overwhelmed by God’s presence. However, even in those moments my language was revealing. I said, ‘God spoke to me through this Scripture.’ It wasn’t the Scripture speaking. It was God. Scripture will always be one powerful means by which I experience God” (p. 41).
The discussion of the character of God and the importance of weighing Scripture is instructive because, as students of the Bible, we find conflicting images of God. The authors point us to Jesus’ answer when he was asked to name the greatest commandment. Jesus said, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’. . All the law and the prophets hang on these two commandments”
Gulley and Mulholland go on to explain that these pivotal words of Jesus are “exalting love as heavy as the rest of the Bible. Jesus tipped the scales irrevocably in favor of love. . . .Weighing Scripture has allowed me to avoid the all-or nothing approach to the Bible. . . . . to reject the Bible completely is to miss its proclamation of God’s love, but to accept it uncritically is to support some ugly notions about God.” (pp. 52-53). The book goes on to describe the experience of God as the loving, perfect parent.
The discussion of the will of God, human free will, questions of salvation, atonement, and redemption are presented in light of the experiences of the writers and their personal spiritual journeys.
The grace and persistence of God in the lives of the people they encountered along the way and referenced by the example of Jesus counter the arguments we meet when dealing with the exclusive claims of many churches and doctrines. The appendices, “Universalist Themes and Verses in Scripture” and “A Short History of Universalism” in If Grace is True are very helpful in emphasizing neglected scriptures and quotes from noted philosophers and theologians.
The second book by these authors, If God is Love: Rediscovering Grace in an Ungracious World, was written a year later in response to questions and discussions coming from the first book. Gulley and Mulholland say that it is their attempt to answer the question “What would our world look like if we took seriously God’s love for all people?” There is so much to consider in living graciously—with ourselves, our families, in our communities, and in the world. The book gives us direction in how grace can shape our lives in our churches, lifestyles, economics, politics, and issues of justice. The writers’ experiences with the public and their congregations as a result of the first book’s publication have led them to further exploration and growth. If God is Love has more depth and is applicable to the questions and challenges we face daily. Readers will find sustenance for overcoming much of the negativity and exclusiveness we confront in the popular media and religious establishments.
It is the hope of the conference planning committee that many of you will be able to take your “Place at the Table” and hear more of what Philip Gulley has to say about God’s love and grace.
Reviewer Becky Bender is a teacher in the Indianapolis Public Schools and has been a member of EEWC for more than two decades, including a time of serving on the EEWC Council. She is a member of the planning committee for the upcoming EEWC biennial conference and earlier served on the planning committee for the 2002 conference, which was also held in Indianapolis.
© 2008 Evangelical & Ecumenical Women’s Caucus volume 31 number 4 Winter (January-March) 2008