Today 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.
Perhaps the best way to give you an overall feel for what How Jesus Saves the World from Us is about is to quote Morgan’s own words from the book’s conclusion:
Christianity has always been about getting saved. But today what we need saving from most is the toxic understanding of salvation we’ve received through bad theology, corrupted by our worldly ideologies of empire.
I think I would summarise the overall thrust of the book like this: instead of cultural and doctrinal thought police obsessed with picking through minutiae and passing judgement on everyone else’s beliefs and behaviour, God is looking for people who are willing to have their own hearts and minds laid open on his operating table so that their lives can be healed and transformed by the gospel, through the Holy Spirit. In this sense, the need is not so much for God to save us from the world (which is how Christians have often, consciously or subconsciously, seen things) as it is for God to save the world from us. As Morgan points out in the book’s introduction, when a newspaper once asked its readers what they thought was wrong with the world, the great Roman Catholic thinker and writer G.K. Chesterton replied with characteristic economy: “I am”.
How Jesus Saves the World from Us is structured into twelve chapters, the title of each of which is a pair of opposites followed by a “how” statement. For example, the opening chapter is titled “Worship, Not Performance: How We Love God”, while the ninth is “Solidarity, Not Sanctimony: How We Respond to Sin”. The themes covered encompass a broad range of theology and praxis, both corporate and individual. While they include expected topics like the nature of worship and how to understand the Bible, Morgan is not afraid to tackle controversial questions like the place of LGBTQ Christians in the church.
Time and space don’t allow me to make a deep dive into all the subjects addressed; suffice to say there are many treats for the reader along the way. I especially appreciated the way Morgan approaches the thorny question of sin, which he understands as being born of self-consciousness, leading to persistent self-justification and “ego maintenance”. I also found his reading of Galatians 5, in which he replaces the unfortunate translations “flesh” and “spirit” with “meat” and “breath”, superbly refreshing. Other nuggets that stood out for me were his take on the fear of God (more about honour than terror) and theodicy, his surprising insight into what Jesus may have meant when he said “Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s” and a quite brilliant analogy in which he portrays fundamentalists and modernists as two opinionated moviegoers, each of whom has a wholly unbalanced view of what they are watching and who end up in an “obnoxious argument” that only succeeds in spoiling the movie for everyone else.
How Jesus Saves the World from Us is a difficult book to categorise. It is not a work of theology, a devotional or a personal reflection, though it contains elements of all three. It certainly isn’t a seven-easy-steps “how to” book or a compendium of pat answers to common faith challenges. Rather, it is a book in which the author weaves together a number of what might appear to be unconnected threads to produce a startlingly striking and original picture.
How Jesus Saves the World from Us is available now from Amazon and other booksellers. I’ll let Morgan have the last word, once again taken from the book’s conclusion:
There are many reasons to be cynical and hopeless about the state of our world, but the more we let Jesus save the world from us, the more our eyes will be opened to the glory of a kingdom far more beautiful than any stadium or program we could manufacture.
[How Jesus Saves the World from Us is published by Westminster John Knox Press and was released in April 2016. I was provided with a review copy by the author. I was not required to write a positive review.]