Christian Themes

(Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

Thurman’s autobiography gives the reader a powerful look into a life lived in the crucible of race in the United States and at the roles of churches and academia in both advancing and blocking the progress of racial justice in the United States. It is sobering to remember that Thurman was but one generation removed from the slavery of his ancestors, and yet with a fierce energy and an almost matter-of-fact tone, Thurman uses the book to describe his herculean efforts to succeed: as a pastor and preacher, an author, and a leader on campus and in society as a whole. Though Thurman is largely forgotten by mainstream historians, it is important to note that during his lifetime, he was named one of the fifty most influential figures in African American history by Ebony magazine and one of the twelve best preachers in the United States by Life magazine.

Thurman’s autobiography reveals above all a religious curiosity and a willingness, almost from the start of his spiritual journey, to question the religious norms and push the boundaries of what passed for religious orthodoxy. Thurman visited the social radical Gandhi in India, long before he became a safe icon for the world. That encounter caused Thurman to consider truth in light of the religious diversity of India. His founding of the Fellowship Church during World War II and its intentional embrace of diversity, including a besieged and persecuted Japanese American community, was brave and far ahead of its time.

Thurman pushed the bounds of traditional worship and introduced extended silent prayer and liturgical dance when such practices were considered outside of the bounds of “normal” religious practice in Christian churches. Thurman was a mystic before religious America really understood that term. He looked for God not just outside in ritual but also within his mind and heart, in a deep and personal relationship with the universe’s Creator.