Book review: How Jesus Saves the World from Us by Morgan Guyton

Guyton bookToday I have the privilege of reviewing the first book by Morgan Guyton, titled How Jesus Saves the World from Us: 12 Antidotes to Toxic Christianity.

I’ve been following Morgan’s writings for a few years now, first on his personal blog and more recently at his Patheos blog, Mercy Not Sacrifice. I’ve always found him a stimulating and thought-provoking writer, so as soon as I heard he had a book coming out, I got in touch and asked for a review copy, and he was kind enough to oblige.

In terms of context, Morgan and his wife Cheryl are directors of the NOLA Wesley Foundation, the United Methodist campus ministry at Tulane and Loyola University in New Orleans, Louisiana. Perhaps as a result of his background and vocation, I find that Morgan’s worldview and theology are informed by a broad range of church traditions, in addition to which he is an astute cultural commentator.

There are a few reasons I’ve always been drawn to Morgan’s writing, and I find these characteristics just as present in his book as they are in his blog posts. First, he writes with clarity, freshness and incisiveness; many of his sentences and paragraphs pack a powerful punch; they “zing” off the page with a real edge that makes his work compelling to read. You may agree with the things he says, or you may not; either way, you are unlikely to be indifferent. Second, he somehow pulls off the difficult task of combining this high-octane style with an attitude of great humility and authenticity. The result is that he can say piercingly critical things about beliefs and/or behaviours without leaving you, the reader, feeling offended or defensive – because you know the person at whom he directs his fiercest criticism is himself. He is disarmingly honest about his own struggles, shortcomings and failures, and this lends great credibility to the insights he proffers. And third, his writing is peppered with colourful imagery, cultural references and playful allusions, making it genuinely fun to read, even when he is addressing matters of great import. Continue reading

On the necessity of being broken

broken-arm-1221297_1920A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about living in hiding. In that post, I talked about how a great many of us become expert at deploying a variety of strategies to keep our authentic, unvarnished selves safely concealed from the world. The problem is that, in keeping ourselves a safe distance from others, we end up being isolated and separated from ourselves.

I concluded in that post that we are not made to live in the shadows: there is a greater freedom that awaits us if we dare to lay down our armour and shed our various masks. The sixty-four thousand dollar question, of course, is how to find the freedom of living in the world as our true selves after a life spent in hiding. Many of us have been playing a largely fictional part in the play of our lives for so long that we don’t know how to stop playing to the audience, take off our costumes and just be ourselves.

Some will glibly say that, if you want to be set free from the endless cycle of performance and stage management, you just need to have a personal encounter with God’s unconditional love. While I appreciate the sentiment, such advice on its own, abstract as it is, is not always much help. Yes, we need to encounter God’s love in a personal way; but such an encounter is not something we can in any way engineer. The best we can do is try not to run away when it comes to us – which is also much easier said than done: when push comes to shove, our desire for self-preservation often keeps us firmly and squarely in the very place that’s killing us.

How, then, does a freeing, transformative encounter with God’s love and grace come to us? It seems to me that it very often comes in the form of an experience of brokenness. Continue reading

Living in hiding

AfraidImagine two young children, aged around two or three years old. Each lives in a different home; each is physically and mentally healthy.

Let’s observe each of these children for a moment.

The first child seems happy and carefree. She is intensely curious and interested in her environment. When she sees something new or hears an unfamiliar sound, her eyes light up with excitement. She is vivacious and seems to have a natural enthusiasm for life. She appears confident in her relationship to the world around her. She responds openly and affectionately to human touch.

By contrast, the second child seems somewhat sad and troubled. Rather than display curiosity, he keeps himself to himself. He is generally listless and disinterested; he responds nervously to new sights and sounds. He is wary of human contact. Overall, he appears withdrawn and guarded.

Which of these two children do you think is displaying normal, desirable behaviour for a young child? Most people would agree that the first child appears to be emotionally and developmentally healthier than the second. One might say she seems well-adjusted, while he seems… what? Continue reading

Repost: A new day

This post was first published in April 2014. It is the concluding part in a three-part series. You can find the first two parts here and here.

New dayIt is another morning, this time far from the hustle and bustle of the city. Uncertain of what the future held, we had gravitated back to the comfortable familiarity of Galilee. Once here, not knowing what else to do, it had not been long before we were back in our boats.

We spent the whole of last night trawling the lake, and came up with nothing to show for it. And then, just as we were drawing in the nets and preparing to come in, he called out from the shore and told us to try the other side of the boat. Now, the bulging net lies on the ground beside the boat, and we have just finished a hearty breakfast of fish and bread. A breakfast cooked and served to us by him.

Having got up to begin cleaning away the remains of breakfast, I find myself alone with him, a few yards away from the others. This is the third time I’ve seen him since he rose, but the first time we’ve been face to face. Although I am close enough that I could reach out my hand and touch him, something holds me back – there is a distance between us that cannot be bridged by mere touch. There is no doubt in my mind that this Jesus who stands before me now is the very same man I saw die a criminal’s death; God has raised him to new life, just as he said would happen. Which means I cannot escape the conclusion that everything he said about himself is true, that he really is the Messiah, the chosen one, the Son of Man who is Son of God. This – though it defies all logic and human experience – this I can accept, for there are no alternatives that remotely explain the facts. Continue reading

Full and free

FreedomWhen I was a young Christian, I often used to have a nagging sense that when bad things happened to me, it was because I deserved them. If my car broke down, or some other unforeseen crisis occurred, somewhere in the almost-unconscious regions of my heart, I would wonder which of my particular catalogue of sins had brought this calamity upon me. As a result, I lived under a constant burden of feeling that I needed to up my game and be a better person if I wanted to avoid disaster.

The flip side of this was that when things were going well or when I experienced what is often called “good fortune”, such as a financial windfall or a promotion at work, I would be plagued by a barely perceptible but nevertheless very real sense that I didn’t deserve it. In fact, the more good things came my way, the less I felt I deserved them – and the more I felt I was somehow living on borrowed time. Sooner or later, fate would catch up with me, my luck would run out and I’d get what I deserved.

Living with these kinds of feelings, and the resulting constant sense of unworthiness and foreboding they engendered, did not make me an especially happy bunny.

A few days ago, as I was reflecting on some recent events in my life, I had a startling realisation: after thirty plus years as a Christian, and having come to what I thought was a much broader and deeper understanding of God’s love and grace, I am still carrying around some of this baggage even now. Those destructive feelings may not be as strong as they once were; they may be lying low much of the time; but they are still there at some level and able to exert a surprisingly powerful influence as soon as something happens to stir them into life. Continue reading

Book review: The Sin of Certainty by Peter Enns

Sin of CertaintyToday I’m delighted to review the latest offering from Peter Enns, titled The Sin of Certainty: Why God Desires Our Trust More Than Our “Correct” Beliefs.

With previous books including Inspiration and Incarnation, The Evolution of Adam and, more recently, The Bible Tells Me So, Enns is an increasingly familiar voice among those seeking to remain committed to a biblically rooted faith without having to deny either scientific facts or the complexities of lived reality. As a biblical scholar, Enns is, of course, well versed in scripture and its historical and cultural context; his particular gift is bringing his knowledge to bear on the modern world in a way that is accessible and relevant to a broad and mostly non-academic audience – something he does here both with his trademark self-deprecating wit and with disarming candour.

Perhaps the easiest way to give you a glimpse of what this book is all about is to quote a few words from an early chapter titled “What’s so sinful about certainty?”:

Preoccupation with correct thinking […] reduces the life of faith to sentry duty, a 24/7 task of pacing the ramparts and scanning the horizon to fend off incorrect thinking, i ourselves and others, to engrossed to come inside the halls and enjoy the banquet. A faith like that is stressful and tedious to maintain. Moving toward different ways of thinking, even just trying it on for a while to see how it fits, is perceived as a compromise to faith, or as giving up on faith altogether. But nothing could be further from the truth. Continue reading

Book review: Stars Beneath Us by Paul Wallace

StarsToday I have the privilege of reviewing Stars Beneath Us: Finding God in the Evolving Cosmos by Paul Wallace.

Stars Beneath Us is a book about science and faith. Its author, Paul Wallace, is uniquely positioned to write such a book: as well as being a lecturer in physics and astronomy and the holder of a PhD in experimental nuclear physics, he has an MDiv and is an ordained Baptist minister. (For me, the opportunity to read a book about faith by an astrophysicist was just too good to pass up!)

Depending on what else you’ve read about science and faith, you might jump to the conclusion that Stars Beneath Us will, at the very least, seek to squeeze faith into a science-shaped mould or vice versa. Such a conclusion could not be more mistaken. At a time when battle lines are still being drawn by those at either end of the debate, the need for wise, balanced voices is greater than ever. Wallace is one such voice.

Drawing on his own experience of falling away from a form a form of religion that held too rigidly to essentially mediaeval theological categories, only to later return to a more mature and nuanced faith, Wallace does not attempt to explain either science or faith or to reconcile their apparent differences. Rather, he endeavours to create a space in which science and faith can coexist and be held in tension without either one having to be compromised or sacrificed for the sake of the other. Continue reading