I tend to read different theological authors for various reasons. Some excel at putting into words my deepest, unarticulated beliefs better than I ever could. Others inspire me and provoke us to wonder. While still others are just generally informative—they tell me what I don’t know. Finally, there’s a special category that I’d put my friend Morgan Guyton in—he’s the kind who keeps me honest.
For those of you unfamiliar with him, he’s a Methodist college minister in New Orleans and a blogger at Patheos Progressive channel who gets featured at Huffington Post, Red Letter Christians, and other such periodicals. In other words, we don’t hang out at The Gospel Coalition conferences. All the same, we’ve been blogging, chatting, and arguing quite vociferously back and forth for the last few years in such a way that I’ve been challenged, provoked, and (I think) strengthened in the faith. And this is even with some very significant, theological disagreements.
All that to say, I was pretty excited when I got my copy of his new book How Jesus Saves the World From Us: 12 Antidotes to Toxic Christianity. As you might expect given the title, it can appropriately be put in the recent spate of “progressive Evangelical” manifestos. That said, I was anxious to read it because I know Morgan to be honest, typically trying to eschew some of the sensationalism and invective that infects some of these kinds of works. Indeed, I know for a fact that he got turned down from some publishers precisely because he didn’t want to write the slash-and-burn anti-Evangelical screeds they thought would sell.
Instead, in How Jesus Saves the World From Us, Morgan attempts to put forward a more positive vision of a Christianity stripped from what he sees to be toxic attitudes, behaviors, and corruptions of a beautiful gospel. Each chapter is organized around a fairly clear binary with titles like, “Worship, Not Performance: How We Love God” or “Servanthood not Leadership: How We Follow Our Shepherd”, with the goal of presenting us with two clear paths. The point, then, is a constructive criticism of some of the deficiencies and pathologies of American Christianity with an eye towards a transformed Church. His goal is to call back or give hope to the many who have been burned out or disgusted by the many failures and excesses they’ve experienced at the hands of religious leaders and communities.
As much as I disagreed with some key chapters or sub-points, Morgan had plenty to say that I needed to hear. One of the most gripping chapters was his approach to gaining a holy body, “Breath, not Meat”—his translation of “Spirit, not Flesh.” His imagery of life lived to the flesh as bodies being turned into mere “meat”—dead life—is powerful and pastorally attuned. While, I’m not an anti-capitalist, Morgan’s section on the way our market-economy can play into our subtle commodification of persons and bodies is worth serious consideration. Overall, it’s a helpful dimension to consider in our all-too-thin “spiritual” accounts of sanctification and sin.
Given my recent forays into the theology of Leviticus and the Temple, I was also drawn especially to his chapter on “Temple, Not Program.” I really resonated with his suggestion that churches begin to recover that sense of the sacredness of time and space. Over and over again we’ve heard that the Church is a “people not a place”, but in our hyper-mobile, post-religious culture, that simply plays into the vacuous sensibility that since we can worship God “anywhere” there’s no real use to gathering somewhere with some people to meet in a special way with the Lord. And because we’ve lost that sense of the sacred space of the local church, we’ve increasingly relied on the hyper-programization of a flawlessly-executed program to gin up a sense of the divine in our people.
And, I’ll also mention his chapter on “Servanthood, not Leadership.” While I’d probably nuance his end-point about pastors seeing themselves less as shepherds than as fellow-sheep (I mean, “under-shepherd” is a biblical idea), so much of this chapter was a breath of fresh air compared to more technical models of pastoral leadership built on business-school models of success and platform-building. The professionalization of the pastorate is one of the greater tragedies of the last half-century.
I could go on like this about a number of the other chapters. But though Morgan is my friend, I will register one critical comment that sums up the various sub-points I’d make as a whole. While the format is a useful heuristic tool (“eat this, not that”), unless taken critically, the binary format often leads us to miss a possible third way between the option that Morgan is (rightly) critiquing, and his proposed positive vision.
That’s typically how I felt about the sections I disagreed with. Morgan almost always has his finger on the problem and frequently he identifies issues I never would have thought up about coming from my location. And I really need to hear those different perspectives. But the question is about the way forward or the way we read the need to revise our understandings of certain doctrines like penal substitution or something, to fix what’s wrong.
But again, this is why I say he keeps me honest and why I gained a lot from reading this book. And I think that’s probably fine with him. I don’t see Morgan needing conservatives to agree with all of his solutions. But forcing us to grapple with real issues, hurts, corruptions, and struggles within the Church faithfully from within our own frameworks? Getting us to hear the pained voices of the wounded so that we might strive present a more beautiful gospel and a more glorious Jesus to them? I think he’d be just fine with that. And that’s what Morgan’s done for me in this book.
Soli Deo Gloria
Thanks so much for this generous, charitable review. For anyone reading this, here’s a blog post where I summarize my chapters: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/mercynotsacrifice/2016/01/11/can-american-christianity-be-detoxified-a-summary-of-my-first-book/.