[easyazon_image align=”left” height=”333″ identifier=”0664262236″ locale=”US” src=”https://englewoodreview.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/09/5148svXFR9L.jpg” tag=”douloschristo-20″ width=”216″]A Cruciform Movement Toward
Compassion, Communion, and Solidarity
A Feature Review of
How Jesus Saves the World from Us:
12 Antidotes to Toxic Christianity
Paperback: WJK Books, 2016
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Reviewed by Stephen Milliken
Morgan Guyton’s How Jesus Saves the World from Us charts a course offering a constructive critique that seeks to diagnose twelve infectious attitudes and detoxify Christianity with a corresponding antidote for each. Reflecting on Paul’s transformation experience as an illustration of Jesus saving the world from our severely misguided attempts at piety and righteousness, Guyton invites the reader into the often ignored practice of self-examination in which he poses the question: “How would Christians live differently if we believed that Jesus needs to save the world from us?”(p. 5). As he does throughout the book, Guyton provocatively takes this a step further, “If Jesus’ cross is the heart of Christianity, then maybe Jesus has never stopped being crucified by his own people, and the ones who really get Jesus are crucified along with him” (2).
By no means exhaustive, Guyton’s twelve antidotes offer language and a vision for Christian engagement and mission that are as vulnerable and transformative as the cross. These twelve antidotes help to fundamentally change the posture of Christianity from one of pietistic self-righteousness against the world – one that we have allowed to fester beneath our projects, programs, and sermons –to that of a humble solidarity advocating for the world. Guyton suggests that the work of transformation that Jesus is inviting us into involves “…saving the world from our disingenuous posturing, our exhibitionist martyrdom, our isolationism, our disembodiment, our moral cowardice, our ideological certitude, our diviseness, our anxious overprogramming, our moralistic meritocracy, our prejudice, our pursuit of celebrity, and our quest for uniformity” (4).
Throughout his twelve antidotes, Guyton paints a picture that moves the reader from an inward pursuit of disembodied spiritual purity to an outward pursuit of compassion in all its awkward and messy solidarity. Rather than describe and comment upon each antidote, it will be more worth our time to highlight just a few of Guyton’s best contributions as well as one antidote needing some outside help.
Reexamining the story of the Good Samaritan, Guyton emphasizes that the actions of the Levite and the priest were both “entirely faithful to an understanding of God’s expectations of sacrifice” since Numbers 19:11 forbids against touching dead bodies (22). He likens sacrifice to “obedience to a set of rules as a demonstration of loyalty” and contrasts this with mercy as “the cultivation of a heart that can be moved with compassion” (23). Guyton drives the final wedge between sacrifice and mercy, “It’s mercy only if your heart has been wounded enough by the other person’s suffering to fog up your sense of moral clarity and shatter your confidence that you have an easy solution to the other person’s problems” (25). Guyton weaves this thread of communion and solidarity with a reflection upon how Paul uses the term heretic in his letter to Titus, Guyton reflects that for Paul heresy is a condemnation of divisiveness rather than incorrectness. Weaving the theme deeper, in his ninth antidote, Guyton contrasts sanctimony, understood as the sin of disobeying the rules, and solidarity, which, with its unconditional commitment, understands sin as a failure to love. He suggests that “Christians whose posture is solidarity love their fellow sinners by hating their own sin” (109).
Guyton tackles our dualistic penchant for disembodiment with a commentary on and reinterpretation of the Greek words for spirit and flesh, pneuma and sarx respectively. Rather than extenuating the dualism between spiritual and physical, Guyton reinterprets this dichotomy in terms of breath and meat. And here is maybe the only place where I would offer a helping hand. In Ragan Sutterfield’s equally concise and wisdom-packed book, Cultivating Reality, his reflection on the Greek words sarx and soma provides a helpful addition here. Sutterfield suggests that although both sarx and soma are translated into flesh and body, Scripture consistently represents soma to mean our actual physical body without negative connotation and sarx to mean the sinful self, our misguided desires. With this in mind, Guyton’s interpretation of sarx as meat may not go far enough allegorically towards “sin” to get away from a condemnation of physicality. Guyton’s subsequent point, which is incredibly insightful, that when we commodify physical things we dishonor them, seems to come closer to the sinful use of things rather than the sinfulness of the things themselves. Therefore, as a sort of synthesis of Sutterfield’s and Guyton’s reflections, interpretations of sarx as “the sinful use of physicality (including the body and its desires)” or “the commodification of things, a process of desecration” might both be clearer analyses and still get even closer to the crux of Guyton’s movement away from disembodiment.
Next, Guyton encourages the reader to understand the Bible as poetic rather than mathematic. If the Bible is math, it is something we can fully understand and solve – it becomes a task to be accomplished. Yet, if the Bible is imagined as poetry, it becomes daily bread to be savored. Guyton sees an expression of faith that presses through the false dichotomy of contemporary debates, “The fundamentalist says that all truth makes absolute sense to me, while the modernist says that only what makes sense to me can be true. But I can say that I have faith only if I am willing to say the truth I accept remains a mystery to me” (79).
In the chapter “Temple, Not Program,” Guyton quips “We make space for temples; we fill space with programs” (96). Here, his urging is much more practical and educational than it might seem: We cannot simply talk of the sacredness of the whole world – that is too abstract. We must learn and habituate rhythms of life that help us to see that sacredness; we need holy places, spaces set apart that teach us to see the rest of life with such reverence and wonder. Guyton instructs, “Anywhere can be an altar to encounter the living God. But your eyes need to be opened in a temple somewhere, if you want to see heaven everywhere” (105).
In his eleventh antidote, Guyton charts the spread of egoism within our leadership rhetoric, something I discuss in similar terms here. Guyton makes the problem clear, “Influence without responsibility. That’s what leadership has come to look like in our age of celebrity and social media. To be a leader today has become interchangeable with ‘having an important voice.’ The only credential you need is a big platform” (132). Guyton offers up servanthood as the antidote to this sort of leadership, a kind of servanthood that really puts the servant below other people. He asks, “What does it mean to presume to teach people who are better than you are? If I really believe that my church members are better than I am, wouldn’t it make sense for me to do a lot more listening to them than talking at them?” (135).
As a compendium of contextual wisdom, Guyton’s work is a one-stop offering of constructive criticism that soothes as much as it bites. Where others may focus on delivering a one-two punch to toxic Christianity, Guyton delivers a barrage of blows that, integrated together, will serve as a bulwark against the temptation to fall back into that pietistic self-righteousness we are so prone to. Rightly so, the strongest antidote to toxic Christianity, according to Guyton, is a cruciform movement towards compassion, communion, and solidarity. His succinct and accessible writing makes How Jesus Saves the World from Us a resource fit for anyone who seeks to be discipled into a mature, self-examining faith that puts Christ-on-the-cross as the motivating vision not for a modern brand of pietism but for a committed life together.
C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com
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