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Prophetic Detox: A Review of Morgan Guyton’s book How Jesus Saves the World From Us

Morgan Guyton is a husband, father, writer, Methodist campus minister serving the students of Tulane and Loyola in New Orleans, and he also might be the inventor of the “rave sermon” [1]. I’ve been reading his blog, Mercy Not Sacrifice, for many years and a few years ago we took a run at starting an online collective of writers called “The Despised Ones”. Over all the years I’ve known Morgan, he has challenged and encouraged my thinking with both pastoral and prophetic wisdom. And he continues to do so with his first book, How Jesus Saves the World From Us.

In this book, Morgan takes on 12 of the most toxic aspects of Christianity in the U.S., which include, but aren’t limited to: performance, biblicism, separatism, judgment, and hierarchical power. While Morgan clearly approaches these subjects from firmly within the “progressive” wing of Christianity in the U.S., I was pleasantly surprised at just what an equal opportunity offender he was. There’s no doubt in my mind some of Morgan’s criticisms will not be well-received by his own progressive comrades.

For example, I remember when we were co-leading “The Despised Ones,” it was understood that anyone and everyone was welcome. That’s progressive Christianity 101, after all! Well, that didn’t last long. Even progressives have their own “unclean” communities: “abusers” and “unsafe” persons, are just a couple examples. So, quickly the discussion in our group shifted from how inclusive we were of anyone and everyone, to how there was no hope of redemption for “oppressors.” And few recognized the irony. That’s why I thought it was wonderful to read this passage in Morgan’s book:

“Jesus’ meal with Zacchaeus committed the cardinal sin of today’s progressive activist culture: centering the oppressor. Did Jesus betray everyone who had been oppressed by Zacchaeus by eating dinner with him? What would Twitter say? […]

The goal of Jesus’ solidarity with all sinners and victims of their sin is to dismantle our divisions so that all humanity can be reconciled together.” (p.116-117)

This will definitely offend Morgan’s progressive friends who will no doubt accuse him of revictimizing them. But Morgan demonstrates that he’s not interested in toeing any theological camp’s “party line.” He’s perfectly willing to call attention to the hypocrisy of both the Right and the Left! For this courage, I applaud him.

But that certainly doesn’t mean Morgan is unwilling to boldly confront the ubiquitous abuses of the conservative, Fundamentalist Right in the U.S.. He most assuredly does that. However, unlike other progressive Christian authors who have practically made this style of writing into its own genre, I think Morgan critiques this favored target with more pastoral sensitivity and personal reflection than usual. Morgan is nothing if not first self-critical. He locates himself directly within the demographic most often responsible for abuses of power, racial insensitivity, denigration of women, etc. Part of Morgan’s genius is using his own highly reflective journey as a guide for others who share his social location. He doesn’t stand outside and hurl stones at white, cis-gendered, straight males—he stands within that space and calls attention to his own failings and how he’s seen God’s grace transform him. This might actually be the only Christ-like way to challenge people who are like you in so many ways, but nevertheless hold a significantly divergent worldview. Two of my favorite chapters were “Worship Not Performance” and “Poetry Not Math.”

Redeeming Justification

In “Worship Not Performance,” Morgan reframes the essential human problem from guilt to self-consciousness. I think this is brilliant. Today, in the U.S., when I hear sermons or read writing that calls attention to God’s power to forgive the guilty, I hear chirping crickets. I’m not sure I ever felt “guilty” for my sins, and that certainly wasn’t what turned my heart toward God. Instead, I was chiefly aware of my alienation from God, from others, and even from myself. I felt like I was wearing a mask all the time, trying to live up to a mysterious and often shifting set of expectations. And I always felt like there was a gap between who I knew I was and who I was for other people. Self-consciousness is a better description of that experience than “guilt.”

White Westerners like “guilt” as a descriptor of sin because they like to conceptualize God as a judge who wants law and order above all. When you’re on top of the world in terms of political power and wealth, it’s to your benefit to conceptualize God as a “law and order” God. It keeps the riff-raff in check. But, if, as Morgan puts it, we have been “transformed from curious delightful worshippers into anxious, self-obsessed performers,” (p.8) then everyone on any spectrum of political power or wealth is implicated. In fact, the most “anxious” and “self-obsessed” people might be those who “break commandments” the least. Those who are most “anxious” and “self-obsessed” might even be those who are very religious and very wealthy. Such a reframe is not advantageous to the rich and powerful. It necessarily levels the sin playing field. And that’s precisely why I think it’s such a brilliant and biblical reconceptualization. Here’s a little taste to whet your appetite:

“We are not saved from God’s disapproval. We are saved from the self-isolation of believing the serpent’s lie and hiding in the bushes from God. Faith isn’t the performance that passes God’s test to earn us a ticket to heaven; it’s the abolition of performance that liberates us from the hell of self-justification and restores us to a life of authentic worship.” (p.17)

Another reason I love this chapter so much, is that it rescues the doctrine of “justification by grace through faith” from those who peddle it as a replacement for sanctification. There is a wealthy and politically powerful contingent of American Christians who love, love, love them some “justification by grace through faith” because it promises to free them from the “legalism” of “works.” What then happens is, “the Gospel” is equated with a message that we “don’t have to do anything to earn our salvation,” and everyone who already didn’t want to “do anything” erupts in joy. But Morgan’s reframe on this cherished Protestant doctrine actually ups the ante. There is nothing more challenging than to daily resist the pressure to self-justify and to perform for the expectations of others, or even ourselves. This take on justification by grace through faith actually requires me to daily relinquish my own nagging need for status, recognition, and value to God as a “work” that is far more strenuous than following some list of “dos and don’ts”. This reframe of justification makes sanctification essential rather than dismissing it as an optional addition to the Christian life. And that’s a message Christians in the U.S. desperately need to hear.

Deepening Hermeneutics

In “Poetry Not Math,” Morgan takes aim at toxic hermeneutics in a beautifully-brief yet powerfully-poignant chapter. So much of my own journey of faith has included grappling with biblical interpretation. I was incredibly impressed by how succinctly Morgan captured concepts it has taken me over a decade to work through thoughtfully. (Where was this book when I was 17?!)

By describing our relationship to biblical interpretation as more akin to one with poetry than one with math, Morgan takes the legs out from underneath those who would accuse him of undervaluing the Bible. Poetry is not “less valuable” than math. In fact, viewed one way, poetry may be more valuable than math, since math has very defined limits, while poetry is potentially limitless. Also, by comparing our interpretation of Scripture to interpretation of poetry, Morgan sneakily teaches a post-colonial and post-modern hermeneutic. Who we are has as much to do with our interpretations of the Bible as the text itself. Again, this is a message the church in the U.S. desperately needs to hear.

For far too long, Fundamentalists in particular, but also many, if not most, conservative evangelicals, have put forth a conception of Scripture that is little more than a facade behind which they hide their own bids for wealth and political power. The certainty with which they’ve spoken about what is an “abomination” to God and the certainty with which they’ve spoken about the divine purpose of geo-political events could only be supported by a “mathematical” conception of Scripture. To admit that hermeneutics is more of an art than a science would be to admit that they could be wrong, and that just wouldn’t be good for fundraising nor fear-mongering. And that’s why this chapter is so necessary. Here’s another sample:

“Poetry has a unique truth about it. Arguments that you might lose in logic can be won through poetry. It does justice to realities that cannot be captured by scientific explanation. It gets under your skin in a way that strictly rational communication cannot. Most importantly, good poetry is never finished being interpreted. No one can say the final word on a good poem, because its meaning defies any conclusive explanation.” (p.70)

As a pastor in a highly diverse congregation, I am routinely faced with questions about biblical interpretation from every possible starting point. Morgan’s take on biblical interpretation is one that will aid me immensely as I lead both Fundamentalists and progressives toward a more faithful immersion in the biblical narrative.

Conclusion

How Jesus Saves the World from Us is a gift to the church. In particular, it is a gift to those who, like Morgan, are open to God’s leading of them on a journey of exploration, adventure, and delight. This book is not for those who are so confident in their own views that they do not want to have them challenged. Reviews from those folks have already been predictably defensive. Rather, this book is for those who are humble or want to be humble. This book is for those who want to peer into the life of a Christian writer in the U.S. as he processes with depth and wisdom several of the most challenging subjects of the Christian life. As for me, I’ll be revisiting and recommending this book often. And I’m tremendously grateful to Morgan for writing it.

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1. Jonathan Martin, who wrote the forward to How Jesus Saves the World from Us was the preacher behind whose sermon Morgan performed his modified “progressive trance” music.