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Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Review of Morgan Guyton, How Jesus Saves the World from Us (part 1)

Christianity does not have a good reputation among non-Christians in contemporary America and Western Europe. For that reason, a large number of Christians find it hard to describe themselves as Christians without disclaimers: "I'm not one of those Christians"--those people for whom a "Christian worldview" is identical with right-wing Republican politics, for whom Christian morality primarily means disapproving of other people's sex lives, and for whom "salvation" means a private legal transaction with Jesus which enables one to escape hell. These disclaimers sometimes take the form of books explaining how to rescue "true" Christianity from its corruptions. This project, of course, goes back far beyond the problems of contemporary Western Christianity. Indeed, ever since the Reformation the genre of "finally getting it right" has become central to Protestantism. Books claiming to straighten Christianity out, when written by people of a "progressive" way of thinking, tend to cover certain predictable bases, attacking penal substitution, Biblical inerrancy, and the conservative Christian condemnation of homosexuality, among others.

 Morgan Guyton's How Jesus Saves the World from Us obviously falls into the progressive sub-genre of the "fixing Christianity" genre, as the subtitle indicates: Twelve Antidotes for Toxic Christianity. But at the same time, this book manages to transcend its genre. If you read one "progressive Christianity" book, read this one. If you hate "progressive Christianity" books, read this one. If you've read a bunch of them and are tired of them, read this one. And if you have read them and are happy that they have delivered you for toxic Christianity already and you aren't like those nasty conservatives any more--then by all means read this one. 

Morgan's choice of title, and his choice to relegate the "toxic Christianity" theme to the subtitle, are significant. When he says "how Jesus saves the world from us," he really means it. When he says "us" he really means it. This book does indeed cover the typical "progressive" bases. But it is far more than yet another attack on the distortions of conservative Protestantism, and the Christianity it offers should challenge anyone who thinks that "progressive Christianity" is just a watered-down, culturally accommodated version of the real thing. This is a winsome, beautifully written, passionate presentation of the central truths of Christianity. This book preaches the Gospel.

 This quickly becomes evident in the first of the twelve chapters, which presents the doctrine of justification by faith in a way that is both psychologically cogent and theologically orthodox. (I particularly appreciate the prominent role Henry Nouwen plays in this chapter--Morgan draws on a Catholic author to elucidate a key Protestant concept.) Morgan diagnoses the human condition as one in which we are trapped by the need to "perform" for other people or even for God. Acceptance of God's unconditional grace--"becoming the Beloved" in Nouwen's terms--frees us to live lives of joyful abandon. This is perhaps my favorite of the chapters and the one that spoke to me most personally. The conventional accounts of justification by faith don't do much for me, because I never thought of God as an arbitrary judge who would expect me to earn merit in some legally defined way. My Holiness upbringing did incline me, however, to think of God as a demanding perfectionist who was always checking up on me to see if I was doing the right thing for the right motive. My problem has always been a problem of identity--defining myself by my sins rather than by God's grace. Morgan's account of God's grace was freeing and empowering for me, and I think it's a great gateway to the book as a whole.

 The title of the second chapter, "Mercy Not Sacrifice," is the same as the title of Morgan's blog, and was I think one of the titles originally considered for the whole book. My friends who are OT scholars would, I think, take issue a bit with Morgan's characterization of "sacrifice." There is a long debate within Christianity about just how the OT sacrifices should be regarded. Morgan's position, like that of many other progressive Christians, seems to be that sacrifice as a concept has little value. He deals with Rene Girard's theories about sacrifice briefly in a later chapter ("Communion not Correctness"). Morgan's own primary understanding of Jesus' sacrifice is that Jesus dies for us to free us from our need for sacrifice. I'm not sure I find this convincing. However, a great deal of this chapter is still clearly true and powerful. Morgan discusses Peter's sermon in Acts which resulted in the hearers being "cut to the heart," and argues that this is what it is like to be moved by God's love so that we accept mercy. He also argues that when Jesus cites the Hosea passage about "mercy not sacrifice," he is changing the context--originally God was asking people to show him covenant love, whereas Jesus makes the passage be about showing mercy to others. (I'm not entirely convinced that Hosea wasn't also talking about our treatment of others, but it's an interesting point.) We show God covenant love, in other words, by showing mercy to other people. Thus, even when I'm not sure I agree with everything Morgan's saying, he still has plenty to say that challenges me. There's a lot to chew on in every chapter of this book.

 The third chapter, "Empty not clean," contrasts two different models of Christian holiness--one in which we try to get rid of things that violate some sense of ritual purity, and another in which we clear out the "clutter" that keeps us from being filled with God's love. I basically agree with what Morgan's trying to say here, but I question whether the metaphorical dichotomy works. Contemporary Americans are, it seems to me, often very concerned with "clutter," and a house freed from clutter is often a sterile space in which no real living actually happens. But that's a concern more with the style than the basic message.

 "Breath, not Meat" is a fresh and powerful discussion of holiness, building on the previous chapter and addressing sex, food, and money. The title is Morgan's re-translation of "spirit not flesh," arguing that when Paul uses that language he's not contrasting physical and spiritual but two different ways of living an embodied life. This is another chapter that transcends conservative/progressive disagreements altogether to provide a simply stated but theologically rich meditation on a central Christian truth.

 "Honor not terror" addresses the concept of "fear of God." Here I think there's a certain tension between two different things Morgan wants to say: one is that the "fear of God" is about acknowledging God's "wildness." (He quotes Jonathan Martin to say that monsters, according to the Bible, are God's "pets.") The other is that the fear of God is about moral behavior--being faithful to standards of truth and goodness even when it's radically inconvenient to do so. I agree that both of these are part of the fear of God, but I'm not sure Morgan really brings them together successfully. I also wince a bit at his closing peroration about what the fear of God means for him, because it starts to sound like the concept of holiness I grew up with, in contrast to the first chapter's insistence that God is not like a demanding coach who requires perfection. I have always been more worried about "disappointing" God than about being punished by Him. Perhaps I don't respond to this chapter as much as some people might because I was fortunate enough not to grow up with a religion that primarily emphasized "fire and brimstone." That being said, Morgan is spot on in most of what he says here, and I particularly like his acknowledgment that secular people can show "fear of God"--that scientists, for instance (secular or religious), fear God when they pursue honest inquiry into natural causes, and that Huck Finn feared God when he chose to "go to hell" rather than betray his friend Jim. 

"Poetry not Math" hits one of those standard "progressive" talking points--the need to read the Bible in a more "poetic" way rather than treating it as a cut-and-dried set of rules. Horace Bushnell, in the preface to his book "God in Christ," provided the classic statement of this idea, and I largely agree both with Bushnell and with Morgan. I think Derek Rishmawy has a good point that both here and elsewhere in the book Morgan tends to create overly sharp dichotomies. I believe in doctrinal boundaries, and I believe that they need to be based on Scripture. But again, I basically agree with Morgan's overall point. I particularly like the point that math is something we conquer, while poetry conquers us (maybe that's a bit unfair to math lovers, to be sure).

 (Summaries of the last six chapters, plus my closing thoughts, will follow in another post.)

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