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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.


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.)