Books_2016

2016 Reading Recap & Recommendations

Recently, I saw that Missio Alliance has published an “Essential Reading List of 2016,” and was proud to see my friends Jessica Kelley, Drew Hart, and Lisa Sharon Harper’s books make the list. Represent!

So, Missio’s list got me thinking about the books I read this year. Here’s a brief reflection with recommendations.

In preparation for a sermon series, I started this year reading works on the New Testament book of Revelation. I re-read three of my favorites: 1. Reversed Thunder by Eugene Peterson; 2. Reading Revelation Responsibly by Michael Gorman; and 3. Revelation For Everyone by N. T. Wright. In my opinion, these are still (hands down) the best three resources on Revelation. But, I also read a few new ones. David DeSilva’s book Unholy Allegiances was excellent. It’s an accessible and brief introduction with insights backed by archeological research and empire criticism. I also read Brian Blount’s Can I Get a Witness? which is in a league of its own. It was eye-opening in many ways. Darrell Johnson’s Discipleship on the Edge was a very helpful text for preaching and full of interesting insights.

In addition to sermon prep reading, I also read several other books I think are worth recommending. My top eight are:

Day_Revolution_Began1. The Day the Revolution Began by N. T. Wright

When the church looks back on this period in history, we will undoubtably speak of Wright’s scholarship the way we do those theologians who define an era like Augustine or Aquinas. His work is that important. He’s probably best known for deeply impacting historical Jesus studies and Pauline studies, two of the most contentious fields in modern Christian theology. But, in recent years, Wright’s work has coalesced into two discernible modes. He has his field-defining, 600+ page tomes like Jesus and the Victory of God. In these, he does extensive exegesis, engages with the work of best and brightest minds in the world, and details ground-breaking approaches to well-worn subjects. Then, his second mode are popular-level, ~200 page works for lay-persons. In this mode, he’s also made waves like with this books Surprised by Hope and Justification.

The Day the Revolution Began is a book on Jesus’s Cross in the latter (popular-level) mode. It’s around 400 pages, but it is written in his layperson-accessible style. He doesn’t name-drop dozens of scholars or parse Greek words. But he manages, in a relatively brief book, to provide readers with a high-level survey of the history and landscape of teaching on the atonement. Wright challenges sacred cows and yet remains intensely traditional. What sets apart Wright’s work from so many others is that he brings into focus the New Testament’s deep indebtedness to the Hebrew Bible and how fully immersed Jesus’s story is in the story of Israel. With Wright’s signature punchiness, he takes aim at distortions of “penal substitutionary atonement” that forsake the biblical narrative for an unbiblical one. In the end, Wright recovers all the best aspects of “PSA,” while both discarding its perversions, and providing the structure for a far better frame. That frame is Exodus and Exile; two of the most important aspects of the biblical narrative which arrive at their climax in the Cross.

This book is a must-read for theology nerds.

Roadmap_Reconciliation2. Roadmap to Reconciliation by Brenda Salter-McNeil

In Roadmap to Reconciliation, Brenda Salter-McNeil distills decades of wisdom gleaned from painstaking and miracle-producing work among Christian organizations wrestling with cross-cultural and interracial ministry into a highly-accessible, highly-practical, and brief book. On a subject as fraught with landmines as racial reconciliation, Dr. Salter-McNeil manages to both provoke and build bridges. She simultaneously confronts and comforts. She does this by masterfully weaving together powerful stories from her extensive body of work with profound biblical insights. While brief, this book is packed with potential to transform ministries who are seeking to be transformed.

This book is a must-read for any pastor or Christian leader courageous enough to engage in the Gospel work of racial reconciliation.

Water_to_Wine3. Water to Wine by Brian Zahnd

For his “sabbatical,” Brian Zahnd (and his wife Peri) recently walked the 500-mile Camino de Santiago pilgrimage traveled by millions of Christians down through the centuries. But that six-week journey pales in comparison to the journey he has traversed in the last 15 years. He’s been transformed from a Charismatic (read: tongue-talkin’), prosperity-preaching, war-praying, bible-thumping, Americanized, “Evangelical,” Christian into a contemplative, liturgical, (probably still tongue-talkin’), nonviolent, sacramental, Jesus-follower. In Water to Wine, he details some of that journey and its one with which I deeply identify. I’m so grateful for how Zahnd articulates the Christian faith; it inspires and energizes me. (Read my full review)

This book is a must-read for any “Evangelical” who senses there is more to Christianity.

Lord_Willing4. Lord Willing? by Jessica Kelley

I’ve been waiting for and dreaming of a book like this one for years! Lord Willing? is a theodicy from the perspective of a thoughtful, intelligent woman who has personally experienced agonizing pain and loss. Far too many of the theodicies on tap today are written by men and are written to reinforce a picture of God that looks nothing like Jesus. Jessica Kelley allows us to see into the darkest moments of her life, as she profoundly struggled with God’s goodness and power in the midst of her son’s (Henry) battle with cancer. Matched only by her laser-focused, Jesus-centered theological insights are her engrossing accounts of how she experienced each excruciating moment. What sets this book apart from all others is that it doesn’t offer a “solution” to the problem of evil in the form of a doctrine—it offers a Jesus-centered framework that allows a mother watching her son slowing dying not to loser her faith. Kelley offers readers a way to see that the Jesus-looking God is at war against all evil—including cancer—and suffers alongside each of us, sustaining us in his unique love. She offers readers an alternative to the “blueprint” view of God, which makes God the cause of cancer and renders God’s character suspect. Kelley’s view is extremely well-researched and supported by Scripture. But make no mistake, Kelley’s story is also heartbreaking, so make sure you have tissues handy when you read it.

This book is must-read for everyone who wrestles with God’s goodness or power in the midst of pain and loss.

You_Are_What_You_Love5. You Are What You Love by James K. A. Smith

James K. A. Smith is my favorite “Reformed” thinker. I loved his book Desiring the Kingdom. And that’s why I also loved You Are What You Love. It felt to me like the lay-person’s version of Desiring the Kingdom, which I think is a brilliant move. While Desiring the Kingdom was aimed at transforming our conception of Christian education using an Augustinian anthropology and corresponding pedagogy, You Are What You Love widens the scope of his thesis to all Christian formation. Smith’s contention is that human beings aren’t primarily “thinking things,” shaped by our thoughts, but are desiring persons, formed by our deepest loves. In classic Augustinian fashion, Smith points to our “disordered loves” as the root cause of our distorted humanity. Therefore, the solution is properly ordered loves. This, Smith writes, is accomplished through the practices of Christian worship. This simple idea is power-packed. With it, Smith can diagnose all the ways our loves are being malformed by “secular liturgies,” the practices in which we thoughtlessly engage every day. Smith urges us to take back the power of habit to harness our formation and submit it to God’s will and way. Through the practices of Christian worship, we are being transformed by God’s Spirit and grace more and more into the image of Christ.

This book is a must-read for all Jesus-followers who want to be properly formed.

How_Jesus_Saves_World_From_Us6. How Jesus Saves the World From Us by Morgan Guyton

Morgan Guyton has been challenging toxic Christianity on his blog, “Mercy, Not Sacrifice” for quite a while now. So, while overdue, How Jesus Saves the World From Us was worth the wait. Each chapter highlights one way Morgan has conceptualized his journey out of toxic Christianity and into a deep relationship with Christ. (Read my full review)

This book is a must-read for anyone who has felt hurt by Christians or churches but still desires a relationship with Christ.

How_Survive_Shipwreck7. How to Survive a Shipwreck by Jonathan Martin

Jonathan Martin’s first book, Prototype, is a tough act to follow. But with his signature, vulnerable and poetic style, Martin offers a sequel that did not disappoint. Even though Prototype was deeply personal, somehow his second book manages to be even more personal. As Martin draws you into his story of personal loss and failure you can’t help but grow more and more introspective and contemplative. He’s a master at this. Before you know it, you are half-reading and half-praying. Martin’s pastoral ministry extends to every reader of this book and its a ministry of empowering grace.

This book is a must-read for everyone who has felt like a failure and needs to hear God’s voice speaking life over them.

Embrace8. Embrace by Leroy Barber

This was my first time reading a work by Leroy Barber and it was a great introduction. While I’ve followed some of his ministry through my involvement with the CCDA, this was the first time I’d read any of his extended story, and it’s amazing! I was very encouraged by this book, not only as a minister but also as a Jesus-follower. I also loved the emphasis on shalom. As some of you may know, my wife is writing a book that also focuses on shalom that is due out in 2017. This book opened my eyes to even more of God’s power among us.

This is a must-read for everyone trying to follow God’s call on their lives, even when it’s deeply challenging.

Here are some other good lists: Biologos, Kurt Willems’ Paul Books

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The Stage that Divides Us: A Sermon on Luke 18.9-14

The Gospel reading for this Sunday is a parable of Jesus—perhaps a familiar one for many of us, perhaps not. On the surface, this parable is fairly easy to understand. But, today, you may see some themes from this text that aren’t so self-evident. You might see how you and I can live lives alienated from God’s love. And this state of alienation from God’s love leads to alienation within ourselves and from others.

Before I knew this text was the Gospel reading for this week, I had already been thinking about this state of alienation because of how it feels in America right now. Powerful forces of division are at work in our world. So, I believe this text is very timely and has a lot of important things to say to us today.

parable-of-the-pharisee-and-the-publican-basilica-di-santapollinare-nuovo-ravenna-italy-6th-centuryIn this text, Jesus tells a parable about two men praying at the Temple. The two main characters are very specifically chosen to be polar opposites with inherent conflict in their identities. One is a member of a group called the Pharisees. The other is one of many in Jesus’s day who have become tax-collectors for Rome. The two characters also represent these two groups.

The Pharisees were devout Jewish leaders in Jesus’s day. They had a particular understanding of how the Reign of God was going finally going to arrive in the midst of the present occupation of Israel by Rome—a foreign, Pagan, military empire. Their belief was that the only righteous response to God’s people being under the control of unclean Gentile overlords, was resistance through purity. If Jews in Israel would just maintain the purity of their Jewish identity by keeping the Mosaic Law meticulously, and especially remaining pure by not associating with ‘sinners’ like Gentiles or tax-collectors, then God would return to Zion in power through his Messiah and liberate Israel once again (like a new Exodus from Egypt).

But there were other Jewish approaches to the dilemma of Roman occupation besides resistance through purity. Other devout Jewish people felt equally strongly that the only way the Reign of God was going to arrive was if they met this invading, violent force called Rome with equal and opposite force. Only difference between Rome’s violence and the violence of these “Zealots” (as they were called), was that the violence of the Zealots was religiously-justified because “God is on their side”! (Ever heard anyone talk like that? I have!) Jesus Barabbas, the man who was released instead of Jesus of Nazareth on that first Good Friday, was this type of Jewish revolutionary—someone the Gospel authors say participated in a violent rebellion for which he was imprisoned awaiting execution when his life was exchanged for Jesus of Nazareth’s.

Then there were Jewish people whose approach to the Roman occupation was to compromise with them—even to get rich from their violent reign over Israel. That’s what a tax-collector was doing. I’m currently reading a book with New City’s men’s group in which the author compares first-century tax-collectors to modern-day IRS agents. That is an terrible misunderstand that makes me want to demand whatever seminary he went to give him his money back! First-century tax-collectors weren’t pencil-pushing bean-counters like IRS agents—they were ruthless extortionists who profited from the oppression of their own people! If you think that the Pharisees disliked tax-collectors the way we dislike paying our taxes, you don’t understand just how much of a betrayal it was for a Jewish person to become rich by taking even more money than a person owed Rome, under the threat of violence against their own fellow Jewish people. Tax-collectors weren’t like IRS agents at all. Tax-collectors were like gangsters who you had to pay protection money to, and you hated them because they were supposed to be your brothers! In fact, tax-collectors were so hated that the Zealots would often assassinate them.

Jesus chose these two types of Jewish men for his parable because their identities as members of their respective groups were in direct opposition to each other. They had polar opposite ideas about the Reign of God, their ruling Gentile overlords, and what righteousness looks like in response.

(This is a rhetorical question, so please don’t shout out any names of groups) Who do you think Jesus would choose for his parable if he were telling it to Americans today?  Without calling out any group names, think to yourself about who Jesus would have starring in his parable today?

There are dozens of fault lines in our society and world today, between groups who have as much hostility against one another as the Pharisees did with tax-collectors. It’s nearly impossible to tune in to any form of news or media without the headlines centering around the conflict between two of these groups.

Jesus’s choice of these two group representatives is very deliberate. Luke writes, “He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt.” (v.9 NRSV) The Pharisees would fall into Jesus’s intended audience. They regarded tax-collectors as unclean “sinners,” formally excluded from the synagogue—the center of Jewish religious and social life. Pharisees regarded their way as the only righteous way.

So, what does Jesus do with this parable? He flips the script, of course! That’s what Jesus does!

It’s the despised tax-collector who throws himself upon the mercy of God who is counted righteous before God, not the self-righteous Pharisee!

This parable isn’t a challenge to those who you and I “regard with contempt;” it’s a challenge to us. You and I are in danger of considering ourselves part of the in-group, and those people we despise as part of the out-group. You and I have made up our minds who the “bad guys” are. You and I have already counted ourselves as part of the “good guys” group. And no one can tell us otherwise!

But Jesus’s parable challenges you and I directly, on how we view ourselves and our judgment of others.

Our view of ourselves and judgment of others is warped by something that may not be obvious in this parable. But a slight reframe might help us to see how this challenge applies to us, even now.

The setting of the parable appears obviously religious (the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem). But the setting beneath this setting is a Stage.

A place of worship like the Temple was a place where the focus is centered around God. But the Pharisee’s prayer betrays that he imagines himself as the main attraction, the star of the show. He’s putting on a performance.

Did you know that when Jesus called the Pharisees “hypocrites” in the Gospels, that term didn’t yet mean what it has come to mean for us today? “Hypocrite” was a term for an actor. It literally means “before the critics,” like someone on a stage performing for an audience. It describes someone who is putting on an act, or wearing a mask.

When Jesus calls out the Pharisees for being performers, he’s calling us all out! We’ve all grown up in a world where we’ve come to understand that people are watching us and judging us. So, in return, we watch them and judge them. We’re all critics and we’re all performers! We’re all hypocrites!

My friend Morgan Guyton is a campus minister in New Orleans. He recently wrote a book called How Jesus Saves the World From Us: 12 Antidotes to Toxic Christianity. In a chapter called “Worship Not Performance,” he reframes the familiar Genesis story of humanity’s fall into sin as not about disobedience and punishment, but about the loss of authentic delight in God alone and the fall into self-conscious performance for God and others. He writes,

“Adam and Eve don’t gain the wisdom that the serpent promised as a result of eating the fruit [of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil]; the only ‘knowledge’ that they gain is the fear and shame of their nakedness. They receive the curse of self-consciousness, the death of innocent wonder, which turns a life of worship into a life of performance.” (1)

These two ways of living are in conflict with each other. We can’t live in authentic delight in God alone and also live in shame and fear, performing for God and others. What happens when we live in this performance mode, is that we become alienated from God, alienated from ourselves, and alienated from others. God calls out to us, “Where did you go?” And our only honest answer is, “I was afraid because I was naked, so I hid.” To which God asks, “Who told you that you were naked?” or, to put the question another way, “Who are these critics you’re performing for?

The fear and shame that comes from self-consciousness shows up in a lot of different forms. It can show up in self-righteousness like in the Pharisee in Jesus’s parable. For some people, it shows up in cynicism or self-destructive behavior designed to say to our critics, “You can tell me what to do!” Some people’s performance is in their morality. Others’ is their correct beliefs. Others in their correct political opinions (I’m sure no one here knows anyone who thinks they have the correct political opinions in this highly contentious election season). Others justify their existence through their aptitude, their productivity, their wealth, their status, or their celebrity. This life of performance under the critics is a curse!

Essena-ONeillNot too long ago, I heard of a young woman in Australia who got headlines for quitting Instagram, which to most of us is nothing newsworthy at all. But, what made it interesting to many people is that when she announced her decision to leave social media, she had over 600,000 followers. She had so many followers, that she was getting paid to post pictures of herself with products or in certain clothes. Here’s what she’s quoted as saying in one article I read, “I’m the girl who had it all and I want to tell you that having it all on social media means nothing to your real life … Everything I did was for likes and for followers.” “I was surrounded by all this wealth and all this fame and all this power and yet they were all miserable, and I had never been more miserable.” (2)

She was alienated from her own true self. She was wearing a mask, performing for her Instagram critics and dying inside. You and I don’t have to be Instagram models to understand what that feels like. We have our own ways we perform for the critics.

Let me ask you this: What does it profit us if our performance for God or others gains us everything we think we want, but the fear and shame of putting on an act cost us our very souls?

This performance life that we can live due to shame and fear not only alienates us from God, and alienates us from ourselves, it also alienates us from one another.

Part of the Pharisee’s performance is to heap contempt on the tax-collector as a way of reassuring himself that at least he’s better than someone else.

Did you know that “Satan” is not a proper name, but is instead a description of a role in a law court? Ha-Satan means “the Accuser”. It speaks of the person in an ancient law court who brings charges against another. When we heap scorn upon another person or group of people in a self-righteous attempt to justify ourselves, we are taking on the role of the Accuser. We have the attitude, or “spirit,” of the Accuser.

In the Genesis story of humanity’s fall into sin, Adam and Eve eat the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, they become afraid, ashamed, and hide themselves. Then God asks them if they’ve eaten of the fruit and their immediate response is to start accusing others. It’s Eve’s fault; it’s the serpent’s fault; it’s your fault, God!

The Performance Game we play when we live in the fear and shame of self-consciousness, “before the critics,” leads us to the Blame Game that divides us from one another. That’s why Jesus has the Pharisee self-righteously say “God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector.” (v.11)

forbidden_fruitThe curse of self-consciousness that we live under not only alienates us from God because we feel afraid and ashamed so we hide from God—and it not only alienates us from ourselves because that fear and shame leads us to perform for God and others, wearing masks, and seeking to justify ourselves—it also alienates us from one another because we use the knowledge of good and evil to judge and accuse one another. Self-consciousness and the compulsion to perform leads to accusation and division.

(Again, this is a rhetorical question, so please don’t shout out any names) What are some of the divisions we can see in our society, and our world today, that come from us judging and accusing one another?  I’m sure we can all think of several.

Recently, I began reading a new book by a pastor named Jonathan Martin called How to Survive a Shipwreck. In it, he talks about his own experience of “shipwreck”, when he had to step down from leading the church he planted and pastored for several years because of a moral failing. In one section of the book, he talks about how for so long he thought of himself as above such a failing, like it could never happen to him. He judged others and thought himself pretty righteous. But he discovered through his own shipwreck that we’re all in need of God’s mercy—like the tax collector in Jesus’s parable. Here’s what Martin writes,

“One way or the other, through illness, divorce, calamity, or death, we will be stripped away from the things that made us feel other than/apart from our fellow humans. And life itself will plunge us into the sea of our own shared humanity.

Ideally, the primary function of religion will be to loose us from our illusions of individuality and self-reliance and deliver us from the toxic fruit of ego development. But instead of equipping us to avoid the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, we make entire religions out of worshipping around the tree instead. Rather than breaking down the illusory boundaries between ‘us’ and ‘them,’ insiders and outsiders, sacred and profane, religion often underwrites these boundaries, reinforces them, gives us a sense of being good guys over/against the bad guys. Instead of subverting the lie of ‘us’ and ‘them,’ religion is often a tool to make us feel special, set apart. No wonder Jesus tells the Pharisees of his time, practitioners of these kinds of judgments, that they make converts ‘twice as much a child of hell as yourselves.’ ‘Us and them’ religion is poison to the soul, and it often takes a lifetime of humiliation to detoxify us from it.” (3)

One of the ways this parable hits me right in the gut is in how I think about those with different political opinions from mine—especially my fellow Christian sisters and brothers. The temptation to judge and accuse them has been strong this election year. I know I’m probably the only one. I read an article the other day that didn’t necessarily present the arguments for why someone would support alternative policies or another candidate, but it presented how our nation has become so divided culturally between those who dwell in small towns, suburbs, and rural areas, and those who dwell in cities. And it gave me some much needed empathy for my sisters and brothers in Christ who have a different outlook on things because of where they’re from. I recognized that my outlook is also colored by where I’m from, and we all need God’s mercy.

This passage also challenges me to think about the ways I perform for the critics. It caused me to really recon with the reality that I have some critics I’m performing for from my past. Part of my drive in life is to show them I matter—to justify my existence.

How does this parable of Jesus challenge you? Take a moment to process these two questions between yourself and God. In what ways are you playing the Performance Game? And in what ways are you playing the Blame Game?

Humanity has a serious problem. We’re born into a self-conscious world. We’ve all eaten the fruit from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil and so we’re afraid, ashamed, we hide, and we accuse one another. As a result we’ve become alienated from God, from ourselves, and from one another.

The Good News in this parable is the solution Jesus gives to this experience of alienation. By God’s grace, we can exercise courageous vulnerability, by throwing ourselves upon God’s mercy, and humbly accepting God’s unconditional, transforming love. No more hiding! No more performing! No more masks! No more accusation!

When we do this, we are freed from self-consciousness to live in wonder and worship of God like a child freely dancing—without any concern for how they appear.  Morgan Guyton writes,

“When we’re performing for the critics, we are living the opposite of belovedness. Belovedness means living under the gaze of a God who watches us with such warmth that we stop worrying about what to do with our hands when we dance. That warmth, if we allow ourselves to embrace it, can fill our hearts with the true, genuine worship that we lost when we were children.” (4)

And Jonathan Martin writes,

“You were created in the image of God. Before you knew anyone or did anything, everything was in you necessary to live at home in divine love. However buried that image of God is within you, that part of you that knows what it is to be perfectly loved, held, and known—it is still very much there.” (5)

That’s how Jesus ends his parable: with the tax-collector, the “sinner,” formally excluded from Jewish religious and social life, “going home” right with God.

Today, we can all “go home” right with God. The Good News is that God is making all things new, recreating the world through Jesus and the Spirit. Jesus has made a way for you and I to be reconciled to God, reconciled to ourselves, and reconciled to one another. That experience of being rescued from the domination of self-consciousness and invited to participate in God’s Reign on earth is what we call salvation and what we celebrate in this meal we share together called the Lord’s Supper, or “Communion,” or the “Eucharist” (which means thanksgiving).

May this meal be our coming home today, freed from the watching critics to live under God’s loving gaze of grace. If you are willing and able, please pray with me.

Most Merciful God,
We confess that we have sinned against you and sinned against one another,
in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done and by what we have left undone.
We have not loved you with our whole hearts; we have not loved our neighbors or our brothers and sisters as ourselves.
We humbly repent.
Just as your Son Jesus did, have mercy on us and forgive us;
That we may delight in your will and walk in your ways,
To the glory of your Name.
Amen.

__________________

  1. Morgan Guyton, How Jesus Saves the World From Us: 12 Antidotes to Toxic Christianity (WJK, 2016), p.10.
  2. Rheana Murray, “Instagram star quits social media, reveals her ‘dream life’ was all a sham,” Today (Nov. 4, 2015) [ http://www.today.com/news/instagram-star-quits-social-media-reveals-her-dream-life-was-t53721 ] (accessed Oct. 19, 2016).
  3. Jonathan Martin, How to Survive a Shipwreck: Help is On the Way and Love is Already Here (Zondervan, 2016), p.48-49.
  4. Guyton, p.15.
  5. Martin, p.70.
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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.