Skip to main content

Interview: August 2005

August 2005

A funny thing happened to Philip Gulley in 1990 when his church newsletter writings ended up in the hands of Paul Harvey, the popular radio host. Harvey saw the young pastor's potential even though Gulley had gotten a "D" in college English Composition. With Harvey's recommendation in hand, Gulley ended up publishing the first of many delightful books of nonfiction and fiction about small town life, culminating in his most recent, A CHANGE OF HEART. His distinctive writing style and dry sense of humor have led many reviewers to compare Gulley to Garrison Keillor. However, Gulley's theology books, IF GRACE IS TRUE and IF GOD IS LOVED, have made him a controversial figure in evangelical Christian circles.

In this interview contributing writer Cindy Crosby chats up Gulley about how he has responded to criticism from the Christian community, his own life in a small town, the "Dale Hinshaws" in his life, and his love affair with motorcycles that is about to come to an end. Your latest book in the Harmony series, A CHANGE OF HEART, seems gentler and less prone to controversy than some of the other installments in the series.

Philip Gulley: I've noticed my books tend to reflect my general mood. This past year was a good one. I didn't endure many attacks because of my grace books and was feeling more charitable.

FR: Maybe that's why your writing feels so authentic.

PG: I continue to be surprised at how my writing is a barometer of my general attitude. I wrestle with whether or not my writing should be so transparent. Then again, strong writing generally has as its basis strong feelings and passion. So we probably shouldn't write who we aren't. I'm a progressive Quaker minister in a conservative, traditional environment. The tension (and joy) of that life is bound to show up in my books.

FR: You're a minister now, but when you were a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up? Did faith play any major role in your childhood?

PG: I've always loved the outdoors and wanted to be a forest ranger. I most certainly didn't want to be a Quaker pastor and writer. Like most children, I was uninterested in matters of the Spirit. It wasn't until I was in my early 20s and began to face certain life issues (death, suffering, relationships) that I became interested in the Christian faith and what it had to say. I particularly found the Quaker emphasis helpful, with its focus on peace, simplicity and equality.

FR: You grew up in Danville, Indiana, a small community that you still call home today. What was it like growing up there?

PG: It was great growing up in a small town. I knew most everyone and roamed the town without fear. It was a very idyllic childhood, one I wish all children could have. The Harmony I write about today is the small town I grew up in years ago.

FR: You left the ministry for a while to write full-time, but went back to the church.

PG: When we returned to our town, we began attending the local Quaker meeting. It was full of wonderful folks, most of whom I'd known all my life. But I sensed a "staleness" there, a reluctance to ask hard questions, and a lack of spiritual curiosity. At the same time, I really missed preaching. So when Fairfield Friends, a progressive Quaker meeting, invited me to join their community, I jumped. They invited me to be with them fully aware of my time constraints and have been most supportive of my writing ministry. So far, it's been a great fit.

FR: You had some struggles finding your place in the evangelical publishing world. How did that affect your feelings toward the Christian community?

PG: For a time, after I was let go by an evangelical publisher, I was resentful of evangelical Christianity. That has lessened considerably, though the evangelical world-view is finally not a helpful one for me. I have many dear friends who are evangelical Christians and I hang out among them a great bit, but it's not a spiritual direction I wish to follow. I like the insights of progressive Christianity articulated by folks like Marcus Borg, Jack Spong and Joan Chittister.

FR: How do you handle your relationships with the evangelical community today?

PG: I get along well with evangelicals. I work on a daily basis with several of them. We respect our differences, emphasize our commonalities, and treat one another with grace. Grace is the key. If you're gracious, you can get along with anyone. So they're gracious to me and I try my best to return the favor.

FR: Has your own small town church community life ever been difficult for you as a pastor, as it is for Sam Gardner in the Harmony books?

PG: Sure. I've spoken openly about my support of same-gender marriage and that upset several folks in my congregation, some of whom went elsewhere to worship. That's always very painful. But I believe history will prove it out --- that discrimination against gay people will be every bit as historically abhorrent as our discrimination against women and people of color. But in the midst of it, it's a painful matter and again, requires us to treat one another with much grace and tenderness.

FR: In your Harmony novels, the church is a central part of small town life. In real life, what do you see as the role of the church in the life of a believer?

PG: I look to the Church to provide community for me. I don't expect them to determine whether or not I'm a true believer. I always fail those litmus tests anyway. I look to my community for love, and want to return that love in a way that enriches and expands the lives of us all. I also want my community to help me be mature. And brave. And kind.

FR: How do you handle the "Dales" in your life? (Dale Hinshaw is a difficult member of the church in the novels.)

PG: There are quite a few Dales in my life. I try not to let their opinion of me (which is always poor) over-affect me. I try to treat them graciously, with much humor. But I don't go on vacation with them. I try never to mislead them about my beliefs. I'm always straight up with them, come what may.

FR: Grace has been the topic of several of your nonfiction books. Explain why grace is such an important concept to you, personally.

PG: I pastor a lot of church burnouts. They come to our church after other churches have given them the bum's rush. If ever there was a need for grace in the Church, it's today. Its lack in our culture and world is what has caused me to emphasize it today. "Ungrace" is killing us.

FR: What words would you use to describe your life these days, as a pastor, writer, and family man?

PG: Exciting, challenging, difficult, joyful, sad. Same words most folks use to describe their lives.

FR: Do you ever struggle with self-confidence as a writer? 

PG: Sure. I was speaking at a conference not long ago and someone asked, "What's it like to wake up every morning and know you're famous?" (I question that I'm famous, but it was nice of that person to say so.) I answered, "I never wake up thinking I'm famous. I wake up thinking, "Well, today is the day I get fired from my publisher." Self-confidence is not my strong suit.

FR: How do you deal with that?

PG: Self-confidence is over-rated. Some of the most self-confident people I've ever met did their jobs poorly. I aim for competence, instead. If, by the end of the day, I've handled my affairs with grace and competence, I'm pleased.

FR: If you could do anything besides be a writer and a pastor, what would it be?

PG: I'd be an architect. I love well-designed places.

FR: What's happening in your small hometown of Danville these days?

PG: Not much, Cindy. We just had the county fair. Swap and Shop Days are around the corner, then school will start up and with it, football games on Friday nights.

FR: Are you still riding your motorcycle?

PG: Yep. I really enjoy my bike. Though my oldest son, who is now 13, has expressed a desire to drive it when he gets his license. So I'll be selling it.

FR: Still keeping a garden?

PG: Yes, mostly flowers. We've done a lot of planting this summer. We have an acre and my dream is to fill it with lovely plants.

FR: What other kinds of things do you do to relax and have fun?

PG: Writing relaxes me, which is why I keep at it. I go for long walks with my wife each day and visit my mother-in-law on her farm in Southern Indiana once a month where I consume large quantities of delicious food that is bad for me.

FR: I heard you just went camping with your family. What were some highlights?

PG: We camped in Amish country in southern Indiana, so visiting them in their homes and businesses was very interesting. I read three books while camping. The worst day was taking our kids to an amusement park. Hell on earth. Have you ever noticed that the places that are intentional about having fun seldom are?

FR: What are you working on, writing-wise, at the moment?

PG: I'm working on the next Harmony book. It's called THE END OF THE RAINBOW. Sam takes a sabbatical and they bring in a new pastor, a woman, for three months. I'm having a ball writing it. My parents just moved from our childhood home, so I'm thinking of writing a memoir about our life there together, where I'll reflect on space and home and its effect on us. It was on Broadway Street in Danville, so I'll call it "My Life on Broadway."

FR: Anything else?

PG: I'm also thinking of writing a third grace book called IF THE CHURCH WERE CHRISTIAN, in which I reflect on the "isms" that have gripped the church (nationalism, sexism, racism, exclusivism, etc.) in light of the words and life of Jesus. And the antidote to these isms, which is, of course, grace.