Today I want to review a book called “How Jesus Saves the World From Us: Twelve Antidotes to Toxic Christianity” by my friend Morgan Guyton. (Full disclosure: I was sent a copy of this book by the author, and asked to review the work on my blog.) Guyton works with young people in New Orleans as a campus minister, and maintains a modest web presence which serves as the springboard for many of his writings. I have heard him called “the Internet’s pastor” (a fate I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy) and his blog, Mercy Not Sacrifice, has been a staple of my weekly reading palate for several years.
In all his work, Guyton seeks to redemptively reinterpret established Christian doctrines in the way he believes they were intended to be applied: for cultivating mercy, not practicing moralistic sacrifice. Guyton’s writing is marked by a self-deprecating hyper-honest assessment of his own egotism and a bald dependence on God to bring salvation. Blogger Jayson Bradley is right when he calls Guyton “the real deal:” in an age of perpetual posturing on social media and egotistic “Christian celebrity,” Morgan’s open and authentic voice is a breath of fresh meat flesh spirit (that joke will make sense if you read the book).
Morgan claims to write for the “Dones,” those who have been severely disillusioned with the church in an era of its visible hypocrisy, and he does so with a generous pastoral and theological sensibility fully rooted in his experiences as a Methodist and an evangelical. In this quest, the modern mystics (Merton, Nouwen) earn a special place of reverence, as do the white mom, peace, and “radical” bloggers of the modern post-evangelical Internet: Held Evans, Zierman, Boyd, Zahnd, Martin, Rollins who are all regularly invoked.
The book is composed of various sections that seek to help readers reclaim key aspects of authentic Christian worship and living. This book is about a lot of things, but for me, “discipleship” or “sanctification” are at the heart of the author’s concerns. Each chapter presents a current “toxic” Christian practice and offer an alternative solution: for example, “Worship, not Performance,” “Empty, not Clean,” and “Solidarity, not Sanctimony.” My favorite section, “Breath, not Meat,” touches on questions of pleasure, human freedom, and the dehumanizing effects of modern capitalism and meritocracy.
This chapter, along with “Outsiders, not Insiders,” which tackles whiteness and colonialism in modern Christian identity, is in my view worth the cost of the entire book. These pages are tightly packed with nuggets of prophetic and finger-snapping wisdom. I was actually tempted to tape Post-It reminders of their most profound teachings on the walls of my bedroom.
As alluded to above, where Guyton’s work stands out is when it comes to integrating critical “social justice” conversations with practical and thoughtful theological material. In particular, his explicit engagement with the dynamics of whiteness’ ongoing influence in the church and the holy potential for radical queer identity to mitigate this legacy reflects an honest and profound wrestling with these crucial concepts, and is a unique contribution to the literature around Christian discipleship.
As an aside: the scandalous white power structure of the Patheos Progressive Christian blogosphere and elsewhere is the symptom of a much larger problem within American Liberal or Progressive Evangelical Christianity. The theology being produced in these spaces, as reflected in generative sources of knowledge including Christian books, adult formation curriculum, conference lineups, politicians and pastors, bloggers and bishops, is uniformly monochromatic, replicating systems of white supremacy and privilege while claiming to be impartial “biblical” (for conservatives) or “postmodern” (for progressives) theology.
Excising the ongoing legacy of what Guyton names the “original bacteria of racist colonialism” in the church and society is going to take all of our efforts as pastors, academics, tweeters, laypersons, media consumers, and theologians. It goes without saying that this albedo ex machina, whiteness from the machine of North American Christianity serves as a major stumbling block to people of color in terms of evangelism, discipleship, and in understanding ourselves to be made fully in the image of God, even as white supremacy becomes a source of idolatry and psychic slavery from which white Christians need to be delivered to experience salvation.
Guyton’s writing seems to understand and incorporate this well. The tenth chapter of the book features a thoughtful and incisive engagement with black liberation theology, colonialism, and the past and present lynchings of black Americans by vigilantes and police, presented with a strong understanding of God’s preferential option for the poor. However, it almost feels like these revolutionary teachings are domesticated by placing the bulk of this content in a single chapter rather than informing a wider arc. A reader who is uncomfortable supporting the goals of the #BlackLivesMatter movement (87% of evangelicals, according to a recent Barna study) might simply skip over this section, and lose most of the book’s engagement with people of color.
I believe it is in this work’s willingness to transgress strict boundary-markers around “who’s in” evangelical identity that its message shines most. Indeed, footnotes include wisdom from Greek and Russian Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Anglican, Presbyterian, nondenominational and evangelical scholars and theologians, both women and men. The ecumenical and international diversity of his sources naturally bleeds through in his writing, which remains generous and rooted in his own tradition yet celebratory of the rich ecclesial insights of others.
Yet I was disappointed to see that the only Asian or Asian American theologian (among perhaps two other theologians of color out of a hundred plus citations) referenced in this work is the industriously problematic Francis Chan (where Chan, regurgitating classic European theology, is employed as a foil for a better way to talk about God’s nature). If white supremacy in the church needs to be combatted by the witness of people of color, our theological sources as Christians must reflect that truth. Sometimes when it comes to theology, (being careful not to diminish the humanity of those who are not literate) we really are what we read, and who we cite.
“I believe that queer people have an important role in diminishing outsider Christianity,” the author writes towards the end of the book, speaking of the transformative influence that a community of outsider Christian lesbians had on his life. Guyton actually does a great job of explaining this theologically. However, queer of color theology does not appear referenced anywhere in his work, nor does mainline white LGBTQ theology. We are simply not present. If Guyton truly wants to stretch beyond whiteness’ plasticity and really break from the pack of his colleagues when it comes to addressing the forces that dehumanize and lie to us, his theological sources need to actually reflect the insights of queer people of color.
Practicing liberation theology means that we who are privileged must angle ourselves to the margins when addressing and creating theology. I would point your attention in particular to this interview with the author by Ryan Stollar which centers the protection of children from abuse as a theological commitment. I was not able to find other engagement with this book in terms of any reviews, interviews, or endorsements from any other people of color, including LGBTQ folks and women of color. This is a problem of the current white power structure of U.S. Christianity that we addressed earlier.
These issues never aside, this book is an important and redemptive contribution to the life of the church, and my hope is that it will be read by thoughtful believers and questioners who are hoping to have new life breathed into their faith and churches. The Holy Spirit has put a powerful word in this author, and it comes close to required reading for me. I was honored to see my name included in the author’s Acknowledgements section (definitely a first), as I believe this book’s message has salvific power. I will likely returning to this work for encouragement whenever I feel myself shutting out God or others with my own claims to self-righteousness.
Do yourself a favor, and purchase “How Jesus Saves the World From Us” here. Follow Morgan on Twitter @MAGuyton and keep an eye out for future works from him.