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Monday, April 18, 2016

Review of Morgan Guyton, Part 2

Chapter 7 of How Jesus Saves the World from Us, "Communion, not Correctness," deals with the question of doctrinal orthodoxy. Morgan compares doctrine to a blues jam, in which there is a basic "orthodoxy"--a particular scale and set of chord progressions--but lots of freedom to improvise within this. Morgan illustrates his principle with examples of his own practice, following the usage of local churches even on points where he might not agree. So, for instance, he says "Our Mother and Our Father" in a progressive church, but "Our Father" in a more traditional one, and says "Hail Mary" along with the Catholics even though he holds to "a traditional Protestant perspective on the naming of the Trinity and the role of Mary in our spiritual life." I like Morgan's musical metaphor a lot--it reminds me of Clement of Alexandria's wonderful opening to Exhortation to the Heathen, in which he plays on the musical connotations of "nomos" (law) to suggest that Christ is the one who retunes the broken harp of humanity to play God's music. But as with some of the other chapters, I'm not sure Morgan thoroughly resolves the ambiguities in his contrast of "communion" and "correctness." He acknowledges that some doctrinal errors really are incompatible with the music, but at the same time he wants to excoriate those who "stop the song" every time they think somebody has made a mistake. (Dare I mention Norman Geisler's persecution of Mike Licona here?) But surely nearly everyone (even Norman Geisler) would agree with this in principle. The problem is that we don't agree on where to draw the line between the two things. I think that the views found in John Shelby Spong's "Twelve Theses" render the music of Christianity unrecognizable. But some people within the Episcopal Church, while not necessarily agreeing with Spong, would say that I'm "stopping the music" by saying this. On the other hand, I find Geisler's vehement objection to Licona's very careful and nuanced understanding of Biblical inerrancy to be completely indefensible--but someone for whom Biblical inerrancy is a central truth of the faith, the basic "scale" of the Christian music, would naturally disagree. This is one of the reasons why I am drawn to Catholicism. I view the "Magisterium" very much as a conductor (excuse me, "band leader"--perhaps the fact that my primary musical idiom is classical is not entirely unrelated to the fact that I'm more theologically conservative than Morgan, by the way!), with the responsibility of deciding when the music needs to be "stopped" to fix a major problem. To be sure, I think it's hard to deny that the Magisterium has frequently been guilty of "stopping the music" unnecessarily (not to mention the little problem of calling in the police to arrest the offending players for their musical crimes). Having a Magisterium doesn't solve all our problems, by any means. But I think it does play an important role within the broader "music" of orthodox Christianity.

Chapter 8, "Temple not Program," addresses worship. This is the chapter Morgan particularly invited me to comment on, but I have relatively little to say here, because I agree with it pretty much in its entirety! But I do wonder how Morgan's endorsement of the idea of "temple" as a paradigm for Christian worship fits with his hostile attitude to the idea of "sacrifice" and ritual purity in chap. 2. Temples, after all, are sacred spaces set apart by ritual purity regulations. They are traditionally places where sacrifices happen. Morgan describes at some length the experience of attending Mass at the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in D.C. This is his primary example of "temple" worship. But of course, at these same Masses people are expected not to receive communion unless they are Catholics who have been to confession; only men may serve as priests; and so on. I don't bring this up to endorse all Catholic "purity" practices, but to suggest that we might need to think carefully before throwing overboard the notion of "sacrifice" altogether, as Morgan seemed to suggest in chap. 2.

Chap. 9, "Solidarity not Sanctimony," argues that Christians should respond to sin by showing solidarity with sinners, rather than condemning them for not following the "rules." Morgan provides some very thoughtful and helpful reflections on what that solidarity looks like. He points out, for instance, that Jesus shows solidarity even with sinners whose sin oppresses others (such as tax collectors). But then he qualifies his position a bit by saying that the rest of us shouldn't necessarily "emulate Jesus' tactics here," but simply shouldn't "unfriend or judge" people who do "dine with rich scoundrels." A couple of pages earlier, he says that we should show solidarity with sinners and with the victims of their sin, but when there is a conflict we should side with the person who has the least power. Morgan's desire to qualify his statement about Jesus showing solidarity with rich, oppressive sinners is understandable. Obviously one could take Jesus' dining with tax collectors as an excuse for not challenging sin and oppression in powerful places, and clearly that would be a disastrously wrong interpretation. But I think Morgan's hesitancy and haziness about how to apply Jesus' dining with tax collectors illustrates the problems with his "X not Y" approach, and in general with the "progressive" tendency to approach morality in terms of picking an "oppressed party" to have "solidarity" with, rather than by following "rules." The freedom of having "rules"--moral principles that tell you that certain behavior is sinful--is that you don't have to tie yourself into knots holding together solidarity with sinners and solidarity with the oppressed. Accepting the traditional and now much-despised maxim "hate the sin and love the sinner" (which is not the same thing as repeating it glibly as if just saying it solved everything) allows us to show solidarity with sinners and their victims, because "solidarity" is not set over against "having moral rules and judging behavior by them." In other words, I don't think the principle of "solidarity with victims" gives an out to the problems posed by rejecting the view that there are moral principles, accessible either to reason or faith, which allow us to distinguish certain behavior as sinful. One of the most fundamental moral principles is that we shouldn't abuse or oppress one another, and that includes the abuse and oppression that hide under the mantle of "condemning sin." So as usual, I'm not sure Morgan and I are too far apart, and I find much of what he writes in this chapter extremely valuable.

Chapter 10, "Outsiders not Insiders," continues the themes raised in the previous chapter. Morgan writes eloquently about the Gospel call to identify with the outsiders. He follows John Howard Yoder's argument that "taking up your cross" means standing against the powers of the world on behalf of the marginalized rather than just enduring discomfort patiently. As Morgan puts it, we have "domesticated" the Cross. The most moving story in the chapter--perhaps in the whole book, is Morgan's "conversion story" telling how he found emotional stability and renewed faith through the ministry of a church made up mostly of gay people. This leads into Morgan's brief discussion (as he says, he's gone into it in more detail on his blog) of "queer" issues generally. Morgan argues that "queer" people are God's gift to the Church to save us from our "friendship with the world." This, of course, upends the way conservatives typically put the issue--and that's deliberate. For Morgan, the true "worldliness" and "compromise" is the way Christians have bought into a hierarchical picture of the world which has supported colonialism, slavery, the oppression of women, and so on. It's a powerful argument. He may well be right. It's one of the reasons all conservative Christians should read this book. But as in the previous chapter, I have questions about the intrinsic relativism of making "outsiders vs. insiders" the primary category. Identifying with certain outsiders may actually blind one to others. Las Casas, with whom Morgan begins the chapter, is a really good example. Unquestionably he was one of the most admirable figures--one of the few admirable figures--in the sorry mess of Christian colonialism. He was a man of wisdom and conscience. And yet he was guilty of suggesting the importation of African slaves in order to slow the genocide of Native Americans. Again, an absolute rule like "chattel slavery is always wrong" may actually be more liberating than a relative principle of "find the most marginalized people and side with them." Another example: I know a Methodist pastor, a good and compassionate man, who is a blind supporter of Israel because of his quite proper sense of how badly Christians have failed to defend Jews in the past. For him, to criticize Israel is to continue the Christian legacy of anti-Semitism. He doesn't seem capable of seeing it any other way. Thus, while I find Morgan's basic spiritual teaching in this chapter to be powerful and convicting, I'm once again unconvinced that this is a formula that will reliably "detoxify" Christianity.

Chap. 11, "Servanthood not Leadership," is largely a meditation on the temptation of Jesus. I have little to disagree with in this chapter except perhaps its rejection of the use of the "shepherd" metaphor for Christian clergy--"pastor" is a pretty venerable term and I wouldn't want to throw it overboard altogether.

Chap. 12, "Kingdom not Stadium," is one of the book's finest chapters. I particularly like the section called "stadium envy," which addresses the common problem of mainline congregations worrying about their numerical decline and wondering what the neighboring megachurches are doing right. In Morgan's words: "those dying mainline churches are where I found the gospel that saved me." This final chapter is an exhortation to be faithful and to view the Christian faith as a pilgrimage rather than a "stadium" that we try to fill with converts. It is an appropriate summing up of the message of the book as a whole.

I've focused on points where I disagree with Morgan throughout this summary of the twelve chapters, both because I'm that kind of guy and because I want to make it clear that my enthusiastic recommendation of the book doesn't depend on agreeing with everything in it. I think Morgan does fall into what I would see as some typical progressive cliches. I agree with Derek Rishmawy that the "X not Y" format of the book often forces Morgan into unnecessary dichotomies. (I also get why Morgan wrote the book that way, and I'm not necessarily saying he was wrong to make that choice. But every choice comes with some costs.)

But in the end, what matters is that this book "convicts" me, to use the language of my Holiness heritage. Or, in the language Morgan uses from Acts 2, it "cuts me to the heart." It fills me with a desire to be holy. I will never be quite the same person, I think, after reading this book. Perhaps the message of the book can be summarized best in a passage from the conclusion of the book. (The first sentence is, by the way, a paraphrase of one of the constantly repeated themes of Martin Luther's early work.)

To be a true Christian is to expect a lifetime of personal repentance. It means admitting over and over again how wrong we are and being liberated over time from the slavish defensiveness of needing to be always right. . . . it's not enough to go through the exhibitionist humility of talking about what horrible sinners we are and how unworthy we are of God's grace. . . . . The goal is to lose ourselves so thoroughly in the freely given love of an extravagantly generous God that we become vessels by which this love can be shared with others.

Morgan writes as someone who has known this repentance, and continues to practice it. And in this gracious and challenging little book he invites us all to do the same.


Anonymous said...


I realize this suggestion could come across as really strange. Namely, I would like to see you review some books in so-called "popular Christianity" as well. For example, Holley Gerth's "What Your Heart Needs for the Hard Days: 52 Encouraging Truths to Hold On To".
Because there are so many such Christian books out there and it is so difficult to make sense of what they (are trying to) convey.

Contarini said...

Life is short and there are so many books--I grudge reading books that look like fluff. But if you think it is worthwhile I will try to have a look at it.

It's not a strange suggestion. Somebody needs to do this sort of thing, although it would help to have a following among people who read such books first. But maybe that's just an excuse because the job strikes me as uncongenial :)

Anonymous said...

I appreciate your reply.
I agree -- some Christian books sure look like fluff. I've ordered the one I mentioned above (it takes a while though for books from the US to get here).

Something bothers me very much about such books, but I can't quite figure out what that is -- hence my interest in such books. Are they "too light," "too easy-going," "too optimistic," "too materialistic," and what exactly is sound theistic doctrine and who exactly can deliver it, in what way, for whom, ...?
I want to understand how come the Imitation of Christ doesn't seem enough to me, and I'm hoping to figure this out by contrasting it to books that seem more "light-weight".

مؤسسه الحرمين said...
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