10 Questions With...Edward Gilbreath

Edward Gilbreath is editor at large for Christianity Today and editor of Today's Christian. Ed’s mission, both professionally and personally, is to be used by God as a bridge-builder, bringing people together across racial, cultural, and generational lines. He lives in the Chicago area with his family. To see a review of his book, Reconciliation Blues, on this site, click here.

NSR - 1. What is your background & what led you to writing?
I grew up in the late 1970s in Rockford, Illinois, where I was bused across town to help integrate the white public schools. I felt like I was living in two worlds--I got to visit the wealthier side of town during the day, but I had to return home to the poor side of town in the evening. Reading comic books and Mad magazine was my vehicle for escape. I created superheroes of my own and dreamed of launching my own comic book company. I knew then that, whatever I did when I grew up, it would involve writing.

NSR - 2. Why, do you think, that justice—whether racial, social or economic—is so sparse in Church conversations today, especially white churches?
I think American Christians, particularly evangelicals, have unwittingly incorporated many values of the American Dream into their theology and view of the Christian life. America tells us we can be anything we want to be, if we just work hard and pull ourselves up by our bootstraps. That’s an inspiring message, and an important one for folks who actually have boots. But the realities of poverty and social inequities in America mean that many people begin life at a disadvantage just by being born into a particular family or neighborhood or school district. As American evangelicals, I think we’ve become too enticed by the charms of this “bootstrap theology,” and it hinders us from making issues of social and economic justice a natural part of our values, lest we be labeled as “liberal” or something worse.

NSR - 3. If you could get one thing across to the reader in your book, Reconciliation Blues, what would it be?
That the life we’re living today is not just a dress rehearsal for heaven; it has eternal significance. I think sometimes we get the strange idea that the pursuit of true unity in the church is not worth our energy because God’s going to make everything right in heaven anyway. We look at that breathtaking image in Revelation 7 of all cultures and nations worshiping together, and believe that will only happen when we’re magically transformed in heaven. But if God’s heart is for us to be reconciled, we need to be moving in that direction even now. In John 17, Jesus’ prayer is for His followers to be united as one so that the world will know that God sent Jesus. This means our unity is much more than some feel-good diversity; the gospel’s credibility is at stake.

NSR - 4. You quote Thomas Carlyle, “What we become depends on what we read after all of the professors have finished with us.” What have you become, or what authors influence you?
C. S. Lewis, Tom Skinner, and Philip Yancey are among my favorite Christian writers. In my book, I mention the poet Paul Laurence Dunbar as an early hero. I could never express how important African American writers like Dunbar and Ralph Ellison were to me as literary role models during my teen years. And among contemporary journalists, I devour almost anything by Malcolm Gladwell in The New Yorker and Tim Stafford in Christianity Today.

NSR - 5. What’s the greatest thing you’ve learned as editor at large for Christianity Today?
Over the course of my career in journalism, I’ve slowly made peace with the fact that no matter how hard you try to nuance or qualify your message, there’s always going to be some readers who totally miss the point. Readers always bring to their interpretation of a piece of writing their own agendas and prejudices, so it’s impossible to convincingly reach everyone.

NSR - 6. How could Reconciliation Blues be used within the Church?
I’m hoping church staffs and ministry leadership teams will read it together to grapple with issues of diversity in our Christian institutions. The book features discussion questions at the end, so my hope from the beginning was that small groups and book-discussion groups would use those as a way of engaging the reconciliation issue in an honest and personal way. There are plenty of good books out there with formulas and principles for pursuing racial diversity in the church, but there aren’t too many that can really help us get some of the hard issues on the table for discussion. I hope Reconciliation Blues can fulfill that need.

NSR - 7. You quote a friend who said, “The white Christians I encounter often display a shocking provincialism – a real naiveté about the world around them. Frankly, it’s as if they are stunned to find out that their cultural, political, and religious frame of reference is not the only one.” What are some resources & things white evangelicals can do to inform themselves?
First, I’d begin with prayer. Jesus modeled for us the fact that any meaningful pursuit of unity must begin on our knees. We need to be asking God to bring people and situations into our lives that can help us become more sensitive to these issues.

Second, we need to look for ways to get ourselves out of our comfort zones and into places where our ideas and cultural preferences are regularly challenged. This may mean occasionally visiting a church of a different race or denomination. It may mean signing up to volunteer at a soup kitchen downtown. It may mean reading a book that introduces us to a different perspective on issues like race and politics and social justice.

Third, our church leaders need to be providing their congregations with visible models of what reconciliation looks like. One pastor I interviewed said he had a conversion experience on this issue late in his ministry. It wasn’t a priority for him before, but now he says there’s not a Sunday that goes by that you won’t see diversity represented from the platform at his church, whether it be in the people leading worship or the illustrations he uses in his sermons.

I’ve spoken to other pastors who have formed deep relationships with pastors of other races, and now they speak at each other’s churches and go on joint mission trips together. Examples like these from our Christian leaders are inspiring and contagious. It may not change things all at once, but it will slowly transform the culture of a congregation or ministry.

NSR - 8. What do you see as a crucial topic facing the evangelical church at large today?
We need to beware of letting our political and cultural preferences influence our theology and ecclesiology. It’s becoming old hat to hear people outside the church tell us that when they hear the term “evangelical Christian”—and in some cases simply “Christian”— the first thing they think of is right-wing politics or judgmental Republicans.

We’ll never change the way all people think about us; some folks are going to dislike Christians no matter what. But wouldn’t it be something if “love” and “grace” were among the first things people associated with the church? We can do a better job at demonstrating God’s love, and I think part of it can start with how we get along with our brothers and sisters in the body of Christ.

NSR - 9. In your chapter on “Why Blacks Quit Evangelical Institutions” one person mentions her proof of racial reconciliation. What would you say your proof is?
I don’t think we will by wholly reconciled in this world, but I do think we should be moving in that direction, because that’s where God’s heart already is. What would be the proof of this? I think it comes in all shapes, sizes, and degrees of progress.

There are many wonderful examples of multiracial and multicultural churches today that are intentionally modeling what a reconciled body could be. Many of us have deep, personal relationships with a person of a different race and culture that model also it. When I attended InterVarsity Christian Fellowship’s Urbana missions convention late last year and saw the amazing diversity of races and cultures gathered there for the shared purpose of worshiping Christ and answering His call to ministry, to me that spoke of true reconciliation.

I’m not sure it’s always going to be something that we recognize as being “racial reconciliation” while we’re involved in it. But as the world looks on, they recognize it. They sense there’s something different about that diverse group of believers.

NSR - 10. What is something that each person can do to “become a people of reconciliation”?
I more or less answer this in No. 7 above, so you might want to draw from that one for this question.

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