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Claiming the Courageous Middle

Daring to Live and Work Together for a More Hopeful Future

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Today's political and cultural polarization has led to suspicion and animosity in our churches, our workplaces, and even our families. It has also led to a false sense that our options are limited to choosing a side. But there is a better way.

Shirley Mullen invites readers to claim the powerful, redemptive potential of the courageous middle. Far from being a place of bland averaging, moral cowardice, wobbling indecisiveness, or lazy indifference, the courageous middle is a place where thoughtful individuals work with urgency to foster attentive rather than dismissive listening in order to garner what is true and praiseworthy even from those with whom they disagree. Their Christian faith, which makes it impossible for them to align themselves fully with one side or the other, uniquely equips them to call their communities to imagine a more hopeful, grace-filled future.

This book offers a Christian theological framework for the work of "middle space" drawn from the Old and New Testaments. It also includes practical advice on how to prepare for this work, examples of those who have called their communities to alternatives beyond binary options, and discussion questions.

1. Catching a Vision for a Third Way of Being in the World: My Own Story 
2. A Gift We Would Not Ask For: Understanding the Origin and the Unwelcome Adventure of Middle Space
3. The Middle Spaces of the Scriptures: The Invitation to a Biblical and Theological Tradition
4. Counting the Cost: A Risk Analysis of Working in Middle Space
5. So You Want to Prepare to Work in Middle Space?
Concluding Thoughts: The Persistent Call to Courageous Middle Space


"This book is a must-read for pastors, professors, students, and individuals who believe there is an alternative to polarization. I was captivated by this book. Mullen is a great storyteller, historian, and philosopher who brings her profound analysis to bear on the everyday realities of misunderstanding and separation that are plaguing communities today. She persuasively makes the case that despite the risks, strong convictions and graciousness toward others are possible and the preferred vision for the future. A commitment to explore a middle space comes with the potential for a more complete vision of truth. This book is hope in the midst of despair."

Shirley V. Hoogstra, president, Council for Christian Colleges and Universities

"Shirley Mullen brings a lifetime of wisdom and experience to this meditation on the courageous middle. Mullen's journey into Christian higher education as a student, a teacher, and ultimately, a college president, anchors this important book full of resources, ideas, and practical steps for Christians seeking to faithfully navigate the deep differences in our society."

John D. Inazu, Sally D. Danforth Distinguished Professor of Law and Religion, Washington University in St. Louis; author of Confident Pluralism: Surviving and Thriving through Deep Difference

"Claiming the Courageous Middle is a call for Christians to find more common ground in response to prolonged, pervasive polarization over race, sexuality, politics, economics, and other current issues. From her vantage point as a scholar and educational leader, Dr. Shirley Mullen correctly identifies courage as the primary virtue that the present cultural moment requires. Keeping our biblical balance is not a form of compromise, Mullen demonstrates, but an act of spiritual courage that advances Christian unity as an urgent priority for the church."

Philip Ryken, president, Wheaton College

"In a vexing time of mean-spirited, self-assured, and rapid-fire pontification, Mullen does something astonishing. She invites us to slow down and savor textured stories of earnest faith and to carefully consider the historical forces that are shoving individuals and institutions, churches and communities into ideological corners. Then she guides us toward a different way. Mullen calls us to live and lead from the courageous middle--not a place of muddled thought and squishy compromise but of curiosity, humility, love for Jesus and others, and a confidence that God is not daunted by our moment."

Walter Kim, president, National Association of Evangelicals

"Shirley Mullen invites all who are intellectually, politically, and spiritually lonely to join her and other fellow travelers in the courageous middle. This is a space of nuance, complexity, and humility filled with 'radical redemptive possibilities.' I have been waiting for a book like this for a long time. Mullen's call will resonate with anyone troubled by the era of polarization in which we now live."

John Fea, distinguished professor of history, Messiah University; executive editor of Current

"This book is a much-needed field guide for overcoming polarization. Combining deep historical analysis, biblical insights, and lived experiences, Shirley Mullen's Claiming the Courageous Middle helps to define the current divisive landscape, identify its theological and political root causes, and provide creative and practical solutions that have been field-tested. Mullen's personal history, her scholarship as a historian, her track record as a college president, and her sincere faith in Christ all come together to equip those in the middle to own their space and to lead redemptively."

Toni Kim, director of spiritual care, National Association of Evangelicals

"Shirley Mullen, a distinguished historian and college president emerita, has written a prophetic book. It calls for Christians to resist the seductive undertow of the culture wars and claim a courageous middle--a place that listens attentively, admits complexity, and does not fit into binary categories of left and right. The church today desperately needs such courageous voices."

Nathan O. Hatch, president emeritus, Wake Forest University

The Author

  1. Shirley A. Mullen

    Shirley A. Mullen

    Shirley A. Mullen (PhD, University of Minnesota; PhD, University of Wales) served as president of Houghton College for fifteen years before retiring in 2021. She spent four decades in the work of faith-based liberal arts education as a professor, residence...

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