John Pavlovitz is a guy with a blog, a frequent contributor to the Huffington Post, and a pastor with twenty-some years of ministry experience. His blog is called “Stuff That Needs To Be Said” and there he posts whatever he thinks needs saying. This includes posts which advocate justice and diversity, posts that wrestle with faith and what it means for progressives, like him, to follow Jesus, and posts critiquing the white evangelical support of Donald Trump and the GOP.
A Bigger Table: Building Messy, Authentic and Hopeful Spiritual Community is Pavalovitz’s first book. In it, he chronicles his journey towards progressive Christianity and becoming an LGBTQ ally, he casts a vision for a more hospitable ‘big table’ faith and describes some the challenges he’s encountered along the way.
The Book unfolds in three parts. Part 1, describes Pavlovitz’s spiritual journey, both to the Christian faith and to ‘a bigger table.’ Pavlovitz tells about how he learned to care about LGBTQ folk and racial justice. But he also describes his failure to speak prophetically (or even honestly) in his conservative church context where deviation from the tradition (or even voting Democrat) was viewed as a threat. Eventually, Pavlovitz learns to speak with his own authentic voice. This gets him fired. This furthered his faith de-construction and helped him to move toward a more activist, generous and inclusive faith.
Part 2 is about vision-casting. Here, Pavlovitz describes how Jesus set the table for diversity and inclusion of those on the margins, and the non-negotiable four legs of the table (radical hospitality, authenticity, diversity, and relational community). Part 3 is a hodgepodge of biblical and theological reflections, anecdotes from Pavlovitz’s work forming and encouraging diverse communities and struggles of friends, and his conversations with people who responded or reacted to certain blog posts of his.
I liked a lot of things about this book. Most of all, I enjoyed hearing about Pavlovitz faith journey, his struggles with church and his desire for authentic community. Anyone who has been at loggerheads with the church and has felt unheard or unaffirmed, regardless of whether you agree with Pavlovitz on every point, will find things in his story relatable. I’ve been a pastor at a church more conservative than I. I got fired. Our stories are different, but it is hard for me not also find myself in his journey.
Secondly, when Pavlovitz is describing the bigger, more welcoming table, he can be breathtakingly winsome. There are several passages I have underlined, that I think are really quite stunning. Here are a few favorite passages, each illuminating the struggle and gift of authentic, welcoming community:
Friend, the heart of the bigger table is the realization that we don’t have to share someone’s experience to respect their road. As we move beyond the lazy theology and easy caricatures that seek to remove any gray from people’s lives, we can meet them in that grayness, right where they are, without demanding they become something else in order to earn proximity to us or to a God who loves them dearly. Just as was true in the life and ministry of Jesus. real love is not contingent upon alteration; it simply is. There is no earning of fellowship or deserving of closeness; there is only the invitation itself and the joy that comes when you are fully seen and heard. (18-19)
On the hard parts of our journey, struggling with church, and counting the cost:
When the conflicts in our spiritual journey become too profound, something eventually has to give if we want to find a place of peace and rest the writer of the Twenty-third Psalm speaks of. There is often a steep price to pay to be the more authentic version of ourselves. The prophets and disciples and the early Christians understood this, but we’ve been conditioned to believe we can have our religious convictions with little or no alteration to our daily existence. But the truth is real spirituality is usually costly. Many followers of Jesus end up learning this not from the world outside the Church but from our faith tradition itself. We end up choosing Jesus and losing our religion; finding proximity to him creates distance from others. If you seek to expand the table you’re going to find yourself in a tough spot. The truth may not get you fired. (Although it might). (52).
Friend, this is what it means to be the people of the bigger table: to look for the threads that might tie us together and to believe that these are more powerful than we imagine. This is the only future the Church really has. Disparate people will not be brought together through a denomination or a pastor or by anything the institutional church can offer. We know that now. These were useful for a time, but they are exercise in diminishing returns. The Church will thrive only to the degree it is willing to be out making space for a greater swath of humanity and by recognizing the redemptive power of relationships. (62-63)
I appreciated his call for diversity and the emphasis he places on radical hospitality. I think hospitality—the welcome of God—is the gospel. Too often approaches to mission, and ministry are decidedly exclusive and unwelcoming. God is love. Our love is too often lost in translation. I think it is crucial we create contexts (tables) where people with different understandings and convictions can gather and talk. This is the kind of big table Christianity Pavlovitz is talking about. When it happens, it may be awkward and uncomfortable, but the Spirit hovers over the chaos and it can be really beautiful.
However, I am not always certain that Pavlovitz always lives up to the principles of the bigger table. I follow him on social media and resonate with him on a lot of critiques of Trumpism, the alt-right, GOP politics and White Evangelicals. He has strong words for them, because of ways their vision of the world marginalizes and excludes others and doesn’t allow them to have a place at the table. Yet, some of what Pavlovitz says online I find way more combative than it needs to be. He has tweeted that Foxnews employees aren’t even human, told white evangelicals they are no longer Christian (because of their Trump support) and has a blog post up about why he hates Trump and is okay with hating him. Rhetoric like that sounds more like fencing a table than building a bigger one (I think Pavlovitz would describe it more as keeping the oppressors at bay and excluding the excluders).
Trust me, I get the anger. But I worry that progressive evangelicals are simply refashioning legalism in their own image, becoming just as judgmental and unwilling to dialogue as they accuse the Right of being. Thankfully, I found this book more generous with conservatives than I sometimes find Pavlovitz’s online presence.
I give this book four stars. I don’t agree on everything Pavlovitz says and wish, in turns, that he was both more substantive in his theology, and more generous with those he disagrees with. But he is winsome, heartfelt, and a good story-teller, trying to welcome others the way Jesus did. -★★★★
Notice of material connection: I recieved a copy of this book from SpeakEasy in exchange for my honest review