When Charles Heavilin was clerk of Western Yearly Meeting in the 1990s, he suggested that the name that was appropriate when the yearly meeting was established in 1858 in the western half of Indiana was no longer accurate. Perhaps a new name was needed. His suggestion was not well-received by members who were quite fond of their identity, but it prompted some tongue-in-cheek alternatives. My favorite was Best Western Yearly Meeting. The yearly meeting in the Midwestern heartland is still called Western Yearly Meeting.
Heavilin did not see a new identity come about then, but in The Forgotten Gospel of Jesus, he argues that Christianity is in need of re-definition, especially in the United States. Citing French philosopher Étienne Gilson, he says:
defining what it means to be a Christian in our time is a problematic and perplexing task. As Gilson says, “We have lost our way.” As a consequence . . . the label “Christian” is applied haphazardly.
He goes on to examine the various ways the term “Christian” has been defined: as “thou shalt nots,” as forgiveness of sin, as accepting Christ as Lord and Savior, even as an unquestioning adoption of past cultural norms. Heavilin deconstructs these and others, including an interesting examination of “speaking in tongues,” and offers his own understanding: the essential nature of Christianity must be based on the person, mind, and teachings of Christ.
Having laid out the problem in chapter 1, Heavilin proceeds in the succeeding chapters to build his case through careful biblical exegesis; an examination of mistranslations of the original Greek; analysis of Paul’s epistles; and a focus on the “platform” of Jesus’s ministry and message, the Sermon on the Mount. A healthy dose of Quaker citations from George Fox, Robert Barclay, Henry Cadbury, and D. Elton Trueblood are sprinkled throughout. Chapter 2 argues for a fuller understanding of Christ as the foundation of Christian life and critiques what he calls the Bible Belt’s simplistic “believe in Christ and be saved” theology. Our very lives must be patterned after Christ’s, Heavilin maintains.
Chapter 3 delves into what it means “to put on the mind of Christ.” Here, Heavilin challenges those whose theology is of a Jesus who was not born divine but became Christ through holy obedience. The author accepts that Jesus Christ was God incarnate, born equal to God but “humbled himself and became obedient unto death.” To be a true Christian, it is argued, is to become a living embodiment of this disposition.
Chapter 4 presents the case for “a higher way” than simply avoiding certain behaviors: living out Jesus’s teachings and seeing the world through Christ’s perspective. Chapter 5 will also challenge those with a committed multi-faith perspective. Its basic theme is that God is known only through Jesus Christ, and Heavilin uses “the Quaker Gospel” of John to make his point! Here he states the main thesis of his book: “This deeper knowledge of God is the heart of the forgotten Gospel of Jesus. Jesus came to bring us the good news that it is possible to know God better and deeper.”
Chapter 6 lays out an understanding of Christianity as “walking with God,” something Heavilin states is far more than being “born again.” This walk requires a complete re-orientation in thinking and direction. Chapter 7 presents a critique of postmodernists’ “substitution of their own meanings for words without regard to their original context and times” and makes the case again that Christianity can be founded only on the life and teachings of Christ.
While it may be a challenge for some to work through the author’s ready acceptance of biblical authority and unquestioning presentation of Paul and Jesus as found in scripture, some understanding of Heavilin’s own background might make the task more interesting. A longtime pastoral minister among Friends in Friends United Meeting, Heavilin grew up in the deeply “holiness”-tinged Quakerism of the Bible Belt he describes in the book. His undergraduate education—as his Quakerism—was influenced by Wesleyan Methodists. His graduate studies introduced him to biblical languages and higher criticism. His Quaker studies led him to distinguish Quaker “holiness” from the Wesleyan form. In this book, Heavilin displays a keen understanding of Quakerism as well as rebukes many aspects of the Christianity in which he was raised.
It is clear that Heavilin wrote this book with one eye fixed on how Christianity has lost its way and the other on how Christianity in the United States has been corrupted by political and social forces. Many readers will see in the author’s critique a stinging rebuke of American civil religion, especially of the current type.
Charles Heavilin did not get to see Western Yearly Meeting change its name. He is more interested, however, in seeing Christianity adopt a more authentic identity, one that would, indeed, bring out the best in the followers of Christ.