May 13, 2015 / Perspective, The Sundance Issue
Kyle Patrick Alvarez’s recent film, The Stanford Prison Experiment, is itself a theological, cinematic experiment.
Doug Frank. A Gentler God: Breaking Free of the Almighty in the Company of the Human Jesus. Eugene, OR. Wipf & Stock, 2010. $22.40.
I must confess, at the outset, that I know Dr. Doug Frank. I was a student in the Oregon Extension program he cofounded in southern Oregon and I have worked with him in an attempt to naturalize the environment surrounding the campus. We would
wake in the early summer morning heat, climb toward the region he bought from a logging company to keep it from being clear-cut, and thin the woods until around noon. When we returned, I retired to my cabin to wash off the oil grease from mychainsaw while Dr. Frank ventured to his office, which overlooked ponderosa pines and a life’s work of bringing college kids back to faith and, simultaneously, themselves. Now that I’ve read and reread his new book, A Gentler God: Breaking Free of the Almighty in the Company of the Human Jesus, I know what he was working on during those summer afternoons.
Before spending time in Oregon, I was fairly close to abandoning any faith in God. I had attended an evangelical college that professed allegiance to a God it considered “almighty,” and after acknowledging the atrocities of the twentieth century, I struggled to see how the idea of a powerful God could hold water in light of these atrocities. In many ways, Frank and the professors in Oregon restored my faith by helping me refocus on the human Jesus. It is this same refocusing that lies at the heart of Frank’s new book.
A Gentler God begins by unmasking the “Almighty God” evangelicals worship and showing him in his true—and surprisingly unattractive—colors. This almighty God, according to Frank, is a distant god who seems angry and in need of some type of justice for the sins of an evil humanity. Frank finds that both the fundamentalist and evangelical concepts of God seem to agree that people come to this almighty God through the avenues of fear and shame. Astoundingly, both concepts of God are characterized by an alarming absence of a loving, human Jesus.
According to Frank, one of the key litmus tests for people who identify as either fundamentalist or evangelical is the experience of being born-again. Frank takes a close look at this experience, having undergone it in his youth, and again in his early adulthood, and then again and again and again. In one chapter, Frank analyzes the sermons of evangelical leaders—Billy Graham is the most prominent in A Gentler God—to show how heavily they lean on the fear of hell and eternal death to bring people into the fold. Frank notes that, well, fear works:
These mass evangelists seemed to know that, for some things, fear is a more powerful motivator than love—the portraits of a rejecting God are more effective than portraits of a loving God in getting sinners out of their seats and down the aisles. Almost without exception, evangelical preachers have specialized in evoking fear. It is impossible to imagine their sermons without this component. (41)
So what, exactly, does this fear consist of? In short, it involves the believer realizing that without surrendering to the “love” of God, she will be punished eternally in the fires of hell. In this view, the part of the believer that experiences shame is validated—indeed, she should be ashamed, and therefore, without the almighty God, she will perish.
Fear did work, catapulting the evangelical movement from a place on the outskirts of American culture to a place of prominence. One need only look at the pressure felt by politicians, especially at the end of the twentieth century, to admit they have been born-again to realize the place of power that the evangelical God occupies in the United States.
I can hear the critics of Frank’s approach reminding the reader that it is the love of God that sent Jesus to the cross to pay for our sins. The penal substitution theory of the crucifixion has become a staple of evangelical and fundamentalist theology, proclaiming that Jesus had to die at the hands of the almighty God, whose holiness required that our sins be punished before he could accept us into his family. Frank does not share this view of the atonement, yet he also does not shy away from the cross or the reality of hell in his refocusing. Simply put, the problem Frank finds in this fear- and shame-based theology is that both genuine love and the human Jesus seem utterly absent
At the heart of the first half of Frank’s work is a diagnosis of what he calls the evangelical family secret. He makes the claim that the evangelical family, living with this shame-based theology of a vindictive Almighty is, in fact, a dysfunctional family with a very harmful “Father” at its center. Frank draws on psychological insights to illustrate the damages done by living under this type of “Father.” The secret is that the father painted in the traditional evangelical model is not one who is easy to love. His love requires his children to work hard at being holy and almighty, like he is, or else. He wants his children to see themselves first and foremost as sinners.
Thomas Merton writes of a different type of love than the conditional love of a father who continually needs his own praise: “The beginning of this love is the will to let those we love be perfectly themselves, the resolution not to twist them to fit our own image. [. . .] then we do not love them: we love only the reflection of ourselves we find in them.” The family secret Frank describes is that the almighty God does not want us to be ourselves, but him. This courage to tell the family secret has led another reviewer of A Gentler God, Dr. Shelly Rambo of Boston University, to heap praise on his truth-finding pursuits:
Reading [this book] is like listening to someone telling truths in a house filled with family secrets. Frank leaves no corner of evangelical theology and practice un-probed and un-narrated. His dogged pursuit of a genuine salvation event sends him back to the Bible to discover the good news of an authentically human Jesus and a God who treasures, rather than condemns, the “beautiful mystery of the self.”
The second half of A Gentler God is a whole-hearted proclamation of the good news, the gospel, that the human Jesus offers to us all. Frank joins with theologians such as Martin Luther in making sure that this Jesus is the central focus of any Christian theology. Luther argued that any other method of viewing God would be akin to worshipping the devil, projecting our own version of God onto God instead of looking at the ragged man dying on a cross.
The portrait of Jesus that Frank paints is of a man who is skeptical of religious authorities, feels the whole gamut of human emotions, and continually likens God to a child. This portrait is not made up out of Frank’s wishes for what God could be like, but based solely on his readings of biblical texts.
However, this is not an angry book. Frank does not give the proverbial middle finger to the Almighty while embracing the human Jesus. Instead, the tone of the book is one of gentleness and love. Frank convincingly argues that Jesus was a real human, listening and loving all parts of himself, incorporating the multitude of parts into a balanced whole.
So what is the point of Frank’s move from an almighty perspective of God to a human perspective of God? How does one heal by learning to trust the human Jesus instead of fearing the almighty God? Frank’s point is that trusting this human Jesus brings us closer to learning how to trust ourselves instead of hating and fearing multiple parts of our own being, the parts that the almighty God wants nothing to do with. This reconnection with ourselves, facilitated by a belief in a more human Jesus, is not selfish, but an act that eventually helps us reconnect with all of humanity, beginning with our own humanity.
What allows this reconnection to happen, says Frank, is a fresh encounter with the meaning of the cross. He does not believe that Jesus dies to satisfy the justice or mitigate the wrath of an almighty god. He does not subscribe to the theory that Jesus died as a sacrifice for the sins of evil humanity. Instead, he views the moment on the cross as a universal moment for all of humanity, a humanity Jesus loves. Jesus’s suffering on the cross invites us to connect sympathetically with our own suffering—our feelings of fear, weakness, loneliness, and abandonment—and to embrace our own feeble humanity while also sensing God’s embrace. Jesus’s forgiveness of his enemies invites us to understand and forgive those parts of ourselves that want to silence—or kill—those parts of us that we see as weak and powerless. In this way, the cross is a metaphor for what we do to ourselves; it brings us salvation from the inner enmity we inflict on ourselves on a daily basis.
There is ultimately no rescue from the cross. An almighty god does not come down from on high and take the nails out of the human body, and there is no rescue from the pains and tribulations that come with living on this earth. However, there is rescue through the cross from the torture we do to our own humanity. Frank looks at the cross as the moment we learn to love all parts of our being, bringing them into the fold, listening to them, and learning how to live a life based on trusting our own being instead of fearing that our own being is not “right” in the eyes of “God.” The cross is the moment we meet the weakness of God and find company in the weakness of our own selves. Listening to this weak part of our own being, rather than silencing it, is the beginning of salvation and healing. In this way, the cross becomes the place where the almighty of the world kill the weak and the weak of the world learn that death is not the final answer. Instead, the realization that God is no-God at all becomes the moment when humanity and God meet each other and live again.
A natural critique of Frank’s presentation of a human Jesus in A Gentler God might occur precisely in the context of this discussion of the cross. After all, how does the cross have meaning for people who undergo great persecution? How does a human God help an abused mother living in Trenton, New Jersey, for example? Frank attempts to listen to this critique by highlighting some of the accounts of people who experienced the Holocaust, most notably, Etty Hillesum. Still, Frank’s work would benefit from a fuller exploration of how this approach would work in some of the realities of our political life. What would be Frank’s take on the human Jesus’s meaning for the gay community or the crises in the Middle East? My sense is that God cannot solve these problems and eliminate the pain of these circumstances, but that reconnected humans could create healing in these suffering communities, healing that may not grab powerful headlines, but that may save human hearts from personal hells.
This is an important book. Indeed, it is Dr. Frank’s magnum opus. Although A Gentler God focuses on healing the wounds of damaged evangelicals, it embodies a universal good news and hope for all people; this book is not just for evangelicals but for everyone. I join in the chorus of other reviewers who have claimed it as the best diagnosis of some of the secrets hidden in evangelical hearts. I find Mark Yaconelli’s comments most striking when he writes of Frank’s work: “This book has the capacity to release a kind of human freedom and vitality that each of us aches to embody.”
What, exactly, is this “freedom”? It is the freedom to be ourselves and to know that the human Jesus is the lens to focus our view of God, a lens in which we learn that God does not only love us, but likes us deeply. It is a lens in which we learn to both love ourselves and the rest of this beautiful earth.
Finally, this is a book for those of us who, like Frank, sat in the back of campus chapels and chafed under the Almighty. Many of my friends from my evangelical alma mater have become atheists in defiance of this powerful version of god. Interestingly, many of my friends at the professional level are also atheists, having no background in evangelical theology but hating a “god” that seems to maintain all of the Almighty’s characteristics. In so many ways, my friends have tossed the baby (a human Jesus) out with the bathwater (an almighty, angry, and punitive “Father”). Their frustration and disbelief in this type of god is honest and, according to Frank, exactly right. Decades of institutionalized religion, both Catholic and evangelical, made me almost do the same. My walks in the mountains of southern Oregon with Frank helped me refocus on a God who seems to know me more than I know myself, a God who seems to be no-God at all. He seems to be the opposite of the kind of God I grew to hate, disbelieve in, and ignore. He seems to be the type of God that loves me, and in fact likes me, despite my warts and hindrances. A Gentler God is a proclamation of that good news that has been lost and sullied by institutions desperate for the power of the Almighty. What we gain by both understanding the mechanisms of those who claim that God is powerful and by embracing the messages of the human Jesus is a reconnection with our own humanity and a love for the humanity of others.
 Merton, No Man Is an Island (Boston, MA: Shambhala Publications, 1955), 177–78.
 Rambo, endorsement of A Gentler God: Breaking Free of the Almighty in the Company of the Human Jesus, by Doug Frank, Wipf and Stock Publishers, http://wipfandstock.com/store/A_Gentler_God_Breaking_Free_of_the_Almighty_in_the_Company_of_the_Human_Jesus.
 Yaconelli, endorsement of A Gentler God: Breaking Free of the Almighty in the Company of the Human Jesus, by Doug Frank, Wipf and Stock Publishers, http://wipfandstock.com/store/A_Gentler_God_Breaking_Free_of_the_Almighty_in_the_Company_of_the_Human_Jesus.
 A reading of James Alison’s On Being Liked (London, UK: Darton, Longman & Todd, 2003) is helpful in realizing the importance of the word “like.”
Andrew Forrest teaches literature in Red Bank, New Jersey, and is a DLitt candidate at Drew University in Madison, New Jersey. He is a former student at the Oregon Extension program in Ashland, Oregon.