Recently, Morgan Guyton contacted me and asked if I would be willing to read his book How Jesus Saves the World from Us. I was excited for the opportunity, and absolutely loved the book. Morgan has provided an accessible and poignant vision for Christianity beyond the toxicity of contrived performance and law based piety.
Having read the book, I wanted to take the opportunity to ask Morgan some questions and allow him to share his heart in writing this book. I hope you find his answers and challenging and insightful as I did.
1. In How Jesus Saves the World from Us, you offer what you call “antidotes to toxic Christianity.” Can you briefly discuss what you mean by “toxic Christianity”? How did you decide on these 12 specific topics?
Toxic Christianity is any form of Christianity that actively undermines salvation. Jesus saves us from self-justification, the imprisoning need to be right in all circumstances. When we are able to call ourselves Christian without having surrendered our need to be right, we are locked into a toxic form of Christianity. The last three decades of culture war have been a particularly toxic time for American Christianity. We have lost the joy of our salvation as we’ve been hijacked by vitriolic demagogues.
My twelve topics came about after I reflected on Jesus’ statement to the Pharisees that God desires “mercy not sacrifice.” Over the course of several years, I identified eleven other contrasts that represented necessary corrections for popular Christian theology.
2. I loved how you framed the conversation around worship. How do you feel that the difference between attempting to justify ourselves before God and accepting that in Jesus we are already justified affects the ways in which we do worship?
Worship is about discovering the joy that God wants to share with us rather than proving to God how hard we’re trying to show him honor. The whole point of justification by faith is that it’s supposed to make us relax and stop trying so hard to prove that we’re saved. There’s nothing more tragic than when Christian worship becomes a masquerade ball of pious posturing. When we actually trust that God delights in us, then we can actually delight in God with authenticity.
3. On several occasions, you mention an encounter you had with a little girl on a trip to Mexico. How was this a defining moment in your life, and in what ways did that encounter begin to lay the groundwork for what would become this book?
In the summer of 1998, I went down to Mexico in search of a revolution to join. I didn’t realize there were hundreds of other young gringos exactly like me who had become a tourist niche in the state of Chiapas where the Zapatista uprising had taken place. A little girl was selling Zapatista dolls for a peso in the square of San Cristobal de las Casas. She begged me to buy one. And God ripped my heart out and told me I could never be a tourist again. It was my most significant salvation experience largely because of how helpless I felt in the face of her poverty. The wound that little girl left has never healed, but it’s been the catalyst for tremendous spiritual growth.
4. In your chapter on living an embodied ethic, you choose to translate the Greek words pneuma and sarx as “breath” and “meat” instead of the traditional “spirit” and “flesh.” Why did you make this interpretive choice, and why do you find the distinction important?
Spirit and flesh have become obscure Christianese terms that lack evocative meaning for people. They are also misleading. It’s easy to think that Paul’s exhortation to live according to the spirit instead of the flesh means to somehow despise physical existence. But Paul is telling us to live physically as God’s breath rather than a lump of meat. The breath is a symbol of mindfulness and intentionality, while meat is a symbol of mindless consumption.
5. I found your discussion of servanthood and leadership compelling. What do you see as the distinction between the two? Why do you think a focus primarily on “leadership” tends to prove so toxic?
Peter Block makes a very compelling argument in his book Community: The Structure of Belonging that our culture has become too dependent on heroic leaders to do all our work for us. He proposes that we instead promote a culture of empowered citizenship where everyone participates in the work of a community. Insofar as Christian leadership is a legitimate concept, it describes the vocation of empowering others for ministry. Every Christian is called to be a servant; some are called to be servants of servants. But Christian leadership should never be about control and power.
6. You also offer a helpful discussion on the popular Penal Substitution theory of Atonement. What are the weakness you see in this theory? Do you think there is a single “correct” theory of atonement?
Atonement theory is toxic when it’s divorced from God’s solidarity with humanity. Sin is not an abstract affront to God’s glory; it is that which harms and dehumanizes God’s most beloved creatures. Insofar as penal substitution is described as an abstract economic transaction, it is a product of modern capitalism rather than biblical teaching. Jesus’ cross is God’s solidarity with sinners and victims of sins. Every sinner is also a victim; that’s often how we justify our sin against others. On the cross, Jesus’ flesh absorbs the blame and violence in which we are all entangled, so that we can receive forgiveness and forgive others.
7. You speak about the importance of “sacred space” and the local congregation. How would you connect the concept of participating in a “temple” community with the regular struggle of persons abused by the Church who experience anxiety attacks even entering a church building? Does sacred space necessarily need to be within the institutional church?
I definitely don’t think that sacred space is confined to the institutional church. The spiritual abuse that happens in our buildings creates a palpably toxic and unsacred space that may not be redeemable. Some of my most important sacred spaces have been bodies of water where I remember my baptism by standing under waterfalls or floating on my back in swimming holes. We can find sacred spaces anywhere. The point is to engage in spiritual practices in our sacred spaces so that we can see God there.
8. Lastly, why do you feel that message of this book is important for the Church as it stands now? If your reader were to take to heart only one thing from this book, what do you hope it will be?
Christianity is a movement of repentance that involves asking Jesus every day to save the world from us. If we get defensive and project a false sense of infallibility, then we have ceased being Christian. Our society’s epidemic of self-justification is a primary source of its degradation. Christians should be known above all else for our ability to admit that we’re wrong.
**For those interested, Morgan’s book is available for purchase here**