Agape Conference encourages unity
LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — When Phallen Reed looked around the…
In his latest book, “The Grace of Troublesome Questions: Vocation, Restoration, and Race,” historian Richard Hughes invites readers in Churches of Christ to honestly consider how the church began, where their allegiance as Christians lies and how they treat their neighbors.
Hughes, now in his late 70s, weaves essays, blog posts and a lecture from a lifetime of scholarship into the story of what it means for him to live as a disciple of Jesus. He calls his book an “intellectual memoir.”
At age 16, Hughes decided to host his West Texas high school buddies — good Baptists, Methodists and Presbyterians — to watch evangelistic filmstrips. His mom was supportive but sensed a teachable moment.
“If you want to convert your friends to our church, that is entirely up to you,” she told him. “But if you discover that they are right but you are wrong, then you must be the one who is willing to make the change.”
At Abilene, a book recommended by renowned early church historian Everett Ferguson brought questions surrounding a pillar of Church of Christ belief: restoring the New Testament church.
“The Anabaptist View of the Church” introduced Hughes to a Christian tradition that sought to restore not the worship and organization of the early church but the first Christians’ nonviolent ethics and sense of discipleship.
“What, after all, should be restored?” Hughes asked himself. That question would take him deeper. How do we view history itself? Did Churches of Christ “spring full-blown from the biblical text”? Or do they have a human history we must acknowledge and understand?
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Turning to the origins of Churches of Christ, Hughes stresses the countercultural dimensions of Barton W. Stone’s “apocalyptic” worldview emphasizing “a radical sense of estrangement and separation from the world … and a keen allegiance to ‘the kingdom of God.’” The ethical values of that transcendent kingdom, Stone believed, could unite believers.
Stone’s countercultural vision supports Hughes’ view that Churches of Christ are fundamentally at odds with the individualistic theology and political aspirations of American evangelicals.
Reading the Bible through the lens of culture rather than culture through the lens of the Bible, we “allow the American nation, its values, and its dominant culture to take the place of … the biblical vision of the kingdom of God.”
Hughes’ critique is pointed. By reading the Bible through the lens of culture rather than culture through the lens of the Bible, Hughes says, evangelicals “allow the American nation, its values, and its dominant culture to take the place of the only reality to which, as Christians, they should pledge their allegiance: the biblical vision of the kingdom of God.”
This misplaced focus enables a malaise that becomes a key theme in the book: America’s struggle with racism.
Hughes recalls a pivotal moment that changed the direction of his life and scholarship at a 2012 conference where he had spoken about “Myths America Lives By,” his 2004 book about five fundamental ideas that shape American identity.
Afterward, a fellow panelist and scholar of African American Christianity leaned over and whispered, “You left out the most important of all the American myths — White supremacy.”
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Hughes was taken aback. But, like his mother had told him, he paid attention. The result was a second edition of his book, the 2018 “Myths America Lives By: White Supremacy and the Stories That Give Us Meaning.”
Hughes concludes with some of the most tender autobiographical reflections of the volume: How he met his wife, Jan, in the Harding cafeteria line. Visiting renowned historian and friend Sidney Mead just four months before Mead died. And his Black friend and mentor, Charles Wayne Baxter, who taught him “it’s all about relationships.”
“The King of the Universe gathers together the people of earth and divides the sheep from the goats. … The King is concerned about one thing — how we treat our neighbors.”
The personal stories cap readers’ journey with Hughes during a lifetime devoted to difficult but authentic questions about who God calls Churches of Christ to be.
“There is only one passage in the entire biblical text that paints a panoramic view of both the final judgment and the meaning of the kingdom of God,” Hughes writes. “There, the King of the Universe gathers together the people of earth and divides the sheep from the goats. … The King is concerned about one thing — how we treat our neighbors.”
TED PARKS is a Christian Chronicle correspondent. A native of Chattanooga, Tenn., he is a graduate of Lipscomb University, Harding School of Theology and the University of Texas at Austin. Before moving to Nashville, Tenn., in 2004, Parks taught at Pepperdine University in Malibu, Calif., for 12 years.
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