2017-07-12
Serious readers of literary fiction should be warned that Philip Gulley's novels are strictly a guilty pleasure. Set in the midwestern town of Harmony, where the Sausage Queen still rides in the annual parade, Philip Gulley's four novels chronicle the familial squabbles at a small but active church. The congregation, like Gulley, is Quaker, but the people and problems he gently lampoons are familiar to anyone who has worshiped in a small church anywhere.

If the comfort of Gulley's fiction is its predictability, however, its delights are nonetheless unique. Gulley, an ordained minister, holds to a serious, radically inclusive idea of grace that informs his humor, and distinguishes him from both Garrison Keillor and Jan Karon, to whom he is often compared. We talked to Gulley recently about his books, his life and his faith.


Which came first, preaching or writing novels?
They let me have a church when I was still an undergraduate, so I'm in my 20th year of pastoral ministry. I've been writing since 1996. I started in a small country church. I lasted two weeks. My first Sunday a lady asked me if I believed in hell, and I told her I didn't. The next week they told me I had to believe in hell. I said, "No, I don't believe in a hell," and that was pretty well it. After that I went to another church-the joke goes that I was there for four years and by the time I left I believed in hell.

My third church, Irvington Friends Meeting in Indianapolis, had about 12 people in it. They asked me to write an essay for the newsletter, and I just loved it. I started taking writing classes at Earlham School of Religion's ministry and writing program. One Sunday [radio host] Paul Harvey's son came to our church. He passed on a copy of the newsletter on to his father, who read it over the air. A publisher heard it and contacted me. That's when I started writing.

Your books are about life in a town called Harmony, centered on a Quaker church pastored by Sam Gardner. You're a Quaker minister and today you live in a place a lot like Harmony.
Right, in Danville, the town where I grew up. It's a town of about 6,000 people.

Do your parishioners ever worry they'll end up in one of your books?
We were having new toilets put in our restrooms recently and there was a discussion over whether they should be round or oval. After about a half hour, I just started laughing and they realized how preposterous it was. They started laughing and said, "You'd better not write about that in your book."

In "Home to Harmony," the face of Jesus appears in a quilt the ladies circle has made.
Oh, yeah, the Shroud of Harmony.

But Jesus turns out to be a coffee stain.
...Maxwell House. [Laughs]

That summarizes your books for me, because God does turn out to be in the coffee. As much redemption and salvation happens in the coffee shop as much as any place else.
Yeah. How wrong we are to think that that only happens inside the church.

What do you say your novels about?
Mostly they're about human struggle and also a bit about God's grace, about how despite our efforts to really screw things up, things tend to work out OK for the most part. And never because of our own genius or initiative but because there seems to be this benevolent force at work in the world, which saves us from ourselves.

And that benevolent force is God?
Yeah. For me, the essence of what God is about-this grace which permeates and upholds the world in spite of those, like [my character] Dale Hinshaw, who think that religion is all about rules. In fact, it isn't about that. It's about being open to God's presence wherever we find it, which is everywhere, of course.

Do you mind being compared Jan Karon?
Well, it never hurts the sales. {Laughs.] I think I'm more cynical than Jan Karon. It's clear to me that Jan Karon has never pastored a church. Father Timothy is just too perfect. I mean, pausing every five minutes to pray--come on!

Do you think of yourself as a Christian writer? Christian writers always seem have the agenda of making people become Christians. That's not what my agenda is. I just like writing, and so I write about what I know, which is life in a small Christian community that happens to be a Quaker Church.

My previous publisher always wanted me to include a story about some scoundrel being saved. That probably wouldn't happen at Sam Gardner's church and if it did, everyone would be so shocked, they wouldn't know how to handle it. It's a Quaker meeting in the Midwest. People don't get saved, they just start acting a little nicer maybe. Maybe throw an extra $20 in the offering plate. They don't fall off their horse.

But isn't the Christian story kind of a universal story?
Sure--the story of fall and redemption, these beautiful moments in all our lives where we are allowed to see beyond ourselves and catch a glimpse of a larger world. That's in all religions, and I think that's what religion is--a way of expressing something beautiful that happened to us.

I've just never been persuaded that the Christian story is the only story. I've been reluctant to write anything that would suggest that only people who hear and believe that story will enjoy unique closeness with God. It's made me want to develop a story where the more Christian character isn't Christian, but is everything we Christians ever hope to be-gracious, wise, loving and good-humored. It would just drive Dale Hinshaw nuts. Dale Hinshaw would talk against him every Sunday.

Dale, like many of your characters, is obviously a type you've encountered in your ministry.
Sure. Dale is a caricature. I've had people like Dale in every congregation I've pastored.

Name some other types.
Well, you have Miriam Hodge, who half the Christian church says isn't fit to be a leader because of her gender, but who is always the wise voice, the kind voice, the moderating voice in the congregation. Quakers have always accepted women in leadership since we started. So one of the archetypes is the strong, wise woman, who has a lot of power in the church but tends to use it wisely and really for the good of the community. Miriam is certainly that.

Fern Hampton?
Oh, Fern is the other side of the coin: the matriarch gone wrong. She's in it for the power, and to prop up the Friendly Women's Circle. I have a lot of fun with Fern. And I like Fern.

Then there's Harvey Moldock, who thinks the church is like a business--it's all about keeping the doors open and money in the plate. To hell with the poor; we met our budget last year! [Laughs] They're good people, but because their experience is limited, so is their vision.

And Sam, the pastor?
Oh, Sam is a lot like me. Every now and then he finds the courage to say or do the right thing, but mostly he goes through ministry muttering under his breath, deeply frustrated in some moments and quite content in others.

For people like me, ministry is a love-hate thing. There are days when you wish you were doing anything but this. But then when you sit and think about it, you can't imagine doing anything else. It's just a call, and that's all in the world it is. That's the only reason you stick with it, because you feel this is why I was put here. And so you persevere.

It seems like part of the job is trying to allow contributions from these different, really annoying people.
Oh sure. The miracle of the church is that we do any good at all. Being in the church hasn't caused me to question God-it's deepened my faith. Because the only thing that explains the church's endurance and effectiveness is a benevolent, gracious deity--this energy force that keeps things going despite our efforts--most of them misguided--to carry forth the mission.

It always cracks me up when people talk about how the world will only be saved through the church. Those people obviously don't know much about how the church really works. We've been trying for five years to get a building program started at my church; we can't even do that. And you expect us to save the world? Right! [Laughs.]

Then what is the role of the church?
For me, it's to help us discover what it means to be human. Then we come as close to touching the face of God as we ever do. It isn't how to be like God-which is what we think it is, this holy perfection. It's what it means to be created by God, and loved by God and valued by God. And not just for ourselves, of course, which would be narcissistic, but to really understand everyone in that light.

And I think that's the work of a lifetime. When the church does that I think the church is at its best. I also think the church isn't the only place where that can be done. All kinds of institutions wrestle with that issue.

How do we balance that personal journey, that discovery of what it means to be human, with action in the world?
I think they're pieces of the whole. Any religion which neglects one at the expense of the other is only seeing half the truth. We need to start with the orientation of the soul or the heart toward the eternal. That lays the proper foundation for the goal, and that is the transformation of the world to a more just and peaceable and loving place.

But that's hard, hard work. I think that's why the church in America has been so easily tempted to stop at the foundation, to preach only about saving the soul, because the rest of it is so difficult. It's just so profoundly difficult and really calls for sacrifice.

You have begun to write theology as well. How did "If Grace Is True," come about?
From a belief in the salvation of all people. In college I had been exposed to Karl Barth. Barth believed it happened because of the triumphant Christ on the cross and the resurrected Jesus. That was my emphasis, until it struck me that it was probably arrogant to say to the Muslims, "Well, you're saved and it's because of Jesus and one day you'll realize that." I had been thinking about this and preaching about it and talking about it with other people, because it seemed to be the only logical conclusion of a gracious God who created all people. That ultimately the goal of this God would be the restoration of all people.

Have you written any other theology books?
I'll have a book out in December called "If God is Love: Rediscovering Grace in an Ungracious World." It's about how we would live if we took seriously the worth and value of all people. How we would live in families, what the church would look like, how the mission of the church would change, how we would live economically. And how we would govern ourselves-the political landscape, what that might look like.



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