HOW JESUS SAVES THE WORLD FROM US: 12 Antidotes to Toxic Christianity. By Morgan Guyton. Foreword by Jonathan Martin. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2016. Xiv + 166 pages.
Christianity would be a great religion, if only there weren't any Christians. Christians are supposed to be bearers of good news, and yet too often we’re perceived to be persons/communities that embody bad news. Many of us who are Christians wish this weren't true, but the reality is that Christians often fail to represent Jesus in a positive manner. Many books have been written decrying this reality and they often provide possible solutions. Some are more helpful than others. Morgan Guyton is the latest person to give his take on this unfortunate situation in How Jesus Saves the World from Us. It is a first book, and an effective one.
Guyton comes at this question of whether Christianity has become toxic from the perspective of a United Methodist pastor/campus minister who grew up Southern Baptist. His response to this question of Christian toxicity brings together an evangelical theology with a progressive social vision. Like many young post-evangelical mainliners, he has a strong commitment to social justice, including arguing for the full inclusion of LBGT persons in the church. While his doctrinal commitments are relatively conservative, he embraces a relational interpretation of these doctrines. In other words, relationships are prior to doctrine.
The book turns on the question that Guyton lays out in the opening sentence of his introduction: "Have Christians become what Jesus came to stop us from being?" Of course this question raises another question—what were we becoming that required Jesus’ presence? How have we turned his mission upside down? I raise the is question because Christians have a tendency to portray Judaism as narrow and exclusive, so that Jesus comes to rescue Judaism from itself. The result of this rescue is Christianity. Guyton doesn’t go there, but at times I wonder if that’s in the back of his mind? In any case, he suggests that we Christians continue to crucify Jesus by our words and actions.
Guyton identifies twelve forms of toxic faith and contrasts these forms with an antidote. The book takes on the form of a “this/not that” conversation. These twelve toxic attitudes/antidotes are identified in twelve individual chapters. He writes the book from a social location that includes being a "middle-class, straight, white male." It's a social location that I share with him (only I’m a bit older than he is). He notes that the book documents his own journey from a narrow vision to a much broader one. In other words, he seeks to embody the antidote not the toxic attitude that he’s witnessed.
The best way to introduce the book is to simply list the twelve chapter titles: 1) "Worship, Not Performance;" 2) "Mercy, Not Sacrifice;" 3) "Empty, Not Clean;" 4) "Breath, Not Meat;" 5) "Honor, Not Terror;" 6) "Poetry, Not Math" (this chapter deals with reading the Bible); 7) "Communion, Not Correctness" (doctrine); 8) "Temple, Not Program" (I found this a helpful reminder that the church building is first and foremost is a place of worship of God not simply programs); "Solidarity, Not Sanctimony" (dealing with sin); "Outsiders, Not Insiders;" 11) "Servanthood, Not Leadership;" 12) "Kingdom, Not Stadium" (he takes notice of the outsize influence of megachurches on the church). One element of this critique of toxic Christianity is the identification of a consumer-driven religion. You see this in the critique of performance over worship, and program over Temple. As for the question of doctrine, he’s pretty conservative. Nonetheless, he puts his emphasis on God’s grace. Regarding communion over correctness, he writes: “Every time we reveal our need to be justified by our own correctness, we demonstrate the degree we have not yet accepted God’s grace” (p. 92).
Over all, I found the book to be spot on. He has diagnosed problems that continually plague the church. These often are toxic, deadening the life of the church and those who make up the church. At the same time, despite a critique of Christianity he’s not ready to abandon the church. This isn’t an argument for joining the “spiritual but not religious ranks.” He understands why people are joining the ranks of the “nones” and the “dones,” but he’s not ready to join them. That he offers antidotes suggests that he believes that there is hope for the future of the church. That future, in his mind, is not to be found in the megachurch with its emphasis on performance and programs. As for the latter, he’s not opposed to programs, only that a reliance on programs allows for the secular to prevail over the sacred. You can have programs without God, but the sacred requires God.
There’s another reason why I found the book intriguing. That is the strong evangelical ethos present in the book. In fact, theologically he's pretty conservative. He's not averse to affirming, for instance, the virgin birth. He doesn't make it a test of fellowship, but he's not ready to jettison it either. You see this present in his reference to Pauline authorship of the Pastorals. I know some Progressives will find his use of the male pronoun for God to be distracting, but he also shows us that one can be theologically conservative and embrace LGBT equality. This may result from his commitment to a biblical norm, while affirming the importance of experience in interpreting that norm. He writes that “someone who can easily disentangle Scripture from their personal experience may harbor a deeper insubordination against the Bible’s authority than someone whose heart is haunted by intuitions and gut feelings that can’t be traced to a particular verse but come from a lifetime of wandering the scriptural landscape with Jesus and his people” (p. 80).
Being that my own journey took me from evangelical roots to a more progressive vision of the faith and its practice, I resonate with Guyton’s reflections. Unlike some evangelicals who find conservative theology and practice to be unworkable, he didn’t abandon his roots completely. He seeks to integrate them. Thus, we might call this critique an evangelical analysis that should appeal to more liberal Christians. It is written in a way that is accessible to a general audience. In fact, the publishers and author assume it will be used in study groups, as discussion questions are provided at the end of chapter.
If we’re to be ambassadors of reconciliation who can share the good news of God’s realm as inaugurated in the ministry of Jesus, then we need to take notice of books like this. My advice then is to take it up and read it closely.