Gregory Coles – no extra strangers [Review]
Let's be strangers
A look back at
No more strangers: finding a place in a world of alienation
Paperback: IVP Books, 2021
Buy now: (IndieBound) (Amazon) (Kindle) (Audible)
Reviewed by Tim Otto
My mission father once considered that the only culturally he felt at home was on the 747 between Entebbe, Uganda and the United States. Greg Coles, who grew up an evangelical, gay, missionary child, bends into his own vagueness to give us an encouraging meditation on belonging to his new book, No Longer Strangers.
The topic of belonging is topical as the already existing – but exacerbated by COVID – pandemic of separation and loneliness continues to devastate the world and especially the individualistic West. The antidote that Coles offers is theological and psychological wisdom that helps us know and feel that we belong. Unfortunately, Coles' medicine is diluted with the individualism that fuels the problem. I will address this criticism, but first the book offers ample insight into belonging to God and others.
In each chapter, Coles tells a story and reflects on the lessons offered. For those of us who grew up in evangelical Sunday schools, the format (without the flannel chart) will feel familiar. Coles' reflections, however, are not moral mandates, but hard-earned lessons about how to live in communion with God, ourselves, and others.
Coles is a master of storytelling. He nailed down the details, invented appealing analogies (for example, he describes the feeling of feeling as uncomfortable as “being in a hot dog uniform at a vegetarian conference”) and writes eloquent dialogues. His funny, vulnerable, writing rivals are those of Phillip Yancey, or maybe even Anne Lamott with fewer swear words.
In one chapter he tells the story of how he nearly died of dengue ("Like malaria – Dengue's more popular cousin who draws all the attention at parties …") and how his community loved him and for him he showed up when he was at his weakest and most useless. It is a beautiful vision of how we as Christians should love one another because we have sacred worth, not because others are useful.
During this period of polarization, Coles tells the story of his improbable friendship with Rachel, a theological opponent. Instead of letting their differences of opinion push them apart, Coles indulges in them and is grateful for the way they sharpen his own thinking. It is a healing vision of how we as a church can live in love and unity.
To do justice to the abundant goodness of this book, I should further describe the wisdom Coles teaches. However, doing so is painfully reducing. Far better to read Coles' stories than my simple summaries.
This book was particularly popular with me because I grew up as an evangelical, gay mission child. I remember returning to the US when I was eight and going to school as a culturally alien, literal, non-athletic nerd. Although I didn't realize it at the time, my lifelong search for belonging began. Like Coles, I have found great blessings in leaning into Christian history. With that in mind, however, I think Coles is missing an important part of the biblical testimony.
Scripture is mostly not a self-help book that gives advice on how to rearrange our internal theological and psychological furniture. Rather, it is a story of how God invited Israel, and now the Church, to live God's way of love and bless the world. We are invited to belong to this new, all-encompassing, economic, political, social, spiritual, reality of the Kingdom of God. Jesus' invitation is not so much to be better individuals who fit more comfortably into a worldly system, but rather to form a new system.
In one case, Coles befriends a man named Buck, who, as his name suggests, is a wild and difficult character. When the friendship finally ends, Coles wonders if he could have helped Buck feel better about belonging to Coles. It's adorable that Coles should ask this difficult question in and of himself.
It's a subtle mistake, but a crucial one. The Christian reputation is not to make Buck feel like Coles. The call to Coles is to invite him to belong to Jesus and his body (which Coles belongs to). Only a functioning body, with all of its gifts of pastoring and healing, as well as friendship and encouragement, could satisfy Buck's great need. Unfortunately, there are only a few such functioning churches. . . and that is the real problem. We're so busy getting our own lives up and running that we don't make the body of Jesus available to people like Buck.
Elsewhere, Coles misses social, economic, and political realities that are greater than the individual. For example, in a chapter titled “Washing,” Coles tells how, as a not-so-wealthy student, he began a tradition of loading his dirty clothes in a mesh bag and taking them across town to do laundry at Ben and Bethanne's . As he continues this hike, he gets into a conversation with Bethanne while they fold clothes, exchange jokes with Ben, and stay long for impromptu dinners.
Coles may have pondered how often we can best build belonging through our specific needs for one another. He might have noticed that the early Christians "had all things in common" (Acts 4:32) as an economic practice that helped make their fellowship a reality. He could have pondered Jesus' warnings about Mammon as the hunt for it makes us less connected to others as we strive to be self-sufficient. Coles, however, is content with the psychological insight that people's deepest longings are fulfilled “not in the spectacular, but in everyday life”.
Actually, that's not what Coles says, but his aliens. In the introduction, Coles quotes 1 Peter 2:11, which says, "Beloved, I urge you, aliens and strangers, to abstain from carnal desires that wage war on the soul" (NASB). Coles explains that he and a childhood friend would sit up and take notice of the idea of "slime-covered tentacled aliens". Coles continues to use the metaphor to talk about how many of us feel like outcasts. He then employs extraterrestrials to introduce each chapter with an outside glimpse.
The strange verse that 1 Peter 2:11 is tells us to be aliens and strangers. It's a strange way of introducing a book called "No Longer Strangers". That calls my concern. . . By focusing on inner feelings and thoughts, the book tends to adapt to our culture rather than helping to live in this world as strangers – people who live as an alternative community.
If I don't focus adequately on the social and political aspects of belonging to the Kingdom of God, I worry that a) our belonging may be misdirected (to White, Trump, the Democratic Party, America, our identity group, our baseball team) or b) We miss who it should be addressed to (like our fellow Christians who are undocumented or persecuted Christians in other countries).
To be fair, there are times in No Longer Strangers when Coles alludes to political and social realities. On his plane flight from Indonesia to the USA, he said: "There was only one nation to which I was absolutely committed and it was not on a map of the world." When Coles suggests "taking seriously the words of Jesus about the family of God," he begins to propose a transformative social order. After a surprising encounter with a sick Indonesian on a bus, Coles reflects: "Young or old, rich or begging, healthy or bleeding, holy or hideous, Brahman or untouchable – the boundaries have all dissolved in his (Jesus) company." Perhaps these seeds will grow among his evangelical readers.
Coles' book does social and political work as it builds bridges with both conservative evangelicals and progressives. Being gay, his lucrative stories can convince many conservatives that sexual minorities like Greg belong to the evangelical tribe. On the other hand, Greg's generous heart and integrity for progressive Christians who feel contempt for all gospel things will help many remember that, despite the differences, all those who call Jesus Lord belong together.
Despite my concerns, I really enjoyed No Longer Strangers. Its stories and wisdom deserve to be enjoyed. I disciplined myself to read only one story each Sunday morning as part of my devotional time. His stories show the life of a person who has completely abandoned himself to God. He reminds me of a friend who was given the phrase “property of Jesus Christ”. tattooed on his back, just below his neck. In an individualistic age where we believe we belong to ourselves, Coles shows that belonging to God is the way of joy and blessings. Such examples are badly needed and hence No Longer Strangers is a treasure.
*** Tim Otto also reviewed Greg Coles' book Single, Gay, Christian
for Red Letter Christians.