I’m very pleased to have had the chance to interview the Rev. Morgan Guyton about his new book, How Jesus Saves the World From Us: 12 Antidotes To Toxic Christianity, which is coming out tomorrow from Westminster John Knox Press.
Morgan Guyton and his wife Cheryl are co-directors of the NOLA Wesley United Methodist Campus Center in New Orleans, Louisiana. He blogs at www.patheos.com/blogs/mercynotsacrifice and has contributed articles to Huffington Post, Red Letter Christians, Ministry Matters, Think Christian, and other publications.
First of all, I loved the book! It turns so many things inside-out and upside-down in a really good way. But it seems to me to embrace a fundamental paradox: that the world needs to be saved from us and that the world very much needs each of us to be who we really are, not who we believe we ought to be (or who other people believe we ought to be). Does that sound right to you? And if so, how do you live into that paradox?
Great observation about this paradox. What the world needs to be saved from is the toxic way that I behave when I’m trying to justify myself. That’s why I need to be justified by Jesus instead.
Jesus puts my sin on his cross so I can get over myself and become who I really am. I cannot become my true self until I escape my self-obsession. The real me is the me who isn’t putting on a performance for other people, who doesn’t feel surrounded by invisible mirrors and constant critiques. The real me is the me who simply exists without needing to know whether I’m doing it right.
One way of restating the paradox is that I can only find myself through self-forgetfulness. I forget myself by worshiping God. The problem is that worship is too easily hijacked as just another means of justifying myself. We cannot willpower ourselves into worship. It is a state of being that we can only make ourselves available to receive. I’ve had maybe four of five experiences of authentic worship in my life, and the peace of those moments was absolutely incredible.
I know you’re a former youth minister. Did working with youth inform any of what you write about in your book? What have you learned from them?
I was a youth pastor for mostly Latino working class youth. They came from such a different world than I did. It was a tremendously humbling experience. And it felt so wonderful to be accepted by them, despite being a nerdy bald white guy.
Because there was so much I didn’t understand about their world, I naturally assumed the posture of being their student. I became convinced from my experience with them that the best way to disciple students is to let them be your teachers. They taught me how to play soccer and make hip-hop music. We learned how to follow Jesus together.
One of the things that I think trains us into the behavior you decry in your book is that, from early childhood on, we are graded and evaluated. We are held up against an external (and often arbitrary) measure that is established by others. And this translates into our spiritual lives as well because we don’t know of any other way to be in the world. How do you think God can call us to be in the world without grades or performance evaluations?
I really believe that God desperately wants for us to feel completely loved more than anything else. It’s actually extraordinarily difficult to live as though you are loved unconditionally by God. I think it will probably take me a lifetime to learn how to be this way. When my whole being is actually grounded in God’s love for me, it changes everything about how I treat other people. As long as I’m living under the merciless gaze of my imaginary critics, I view people around me as rivals or pawns I can exploit for my own advancement. Only when I feel safe in my belovedness can I appreciate the otherness of other human beings for their own sake.
You talk about reading Scripture in terms that resist this grading impulse. You write, “Reading the Bible as poetry means you can’t be sure to get an A+.” Can you talk a little more about reading the Bible as poetry – even the parts that aren’t poetry?
I think the main thing I’m getting at with calling the Bible poetry is that it’s meant to be written on our hearts rather than analyzed and explained objectively on a purely cognitive level. It’s meant to be walked in and chewed on.
One of my favorite verses from the Psalms says, “You have ordered my steps in your word.” I literally walk around repeating lines from psalms as mantras in order to mold my experience into a source of divine contemplation. Though some Christians really want for the Bible to be an encyclopedia of rules, I honestly haven’t encountered a whole lot of Bible verses that are straightforward commandments that can be applied directly without extrapolation into my life. Mostly I find words and phrases that evoke an image of what the kingdom of God looks like, and I try to fill my mind with these images. Insofar as I obey God with my deeds, it is the indirect result of writing his poetry into my heart.
You explore the concept of heresy in a very thoughtful way throughout your book. You said something about heresy that I had never heard before, that when Paul was talking about heresy “Paul’s greatest concern was divisiveness, not incorrectness…Heretics, according to Paul’s usage, are people who wreck God’s song by getting bogged down in stupid controversies.” Can you talk about how you came to that understanding, and how you address that kind of heresy when you encounter it?
There is a certain kind of Christian whose greatest pleasure is telling other people that they’re wrong and giving all the biblical reasons why. It’s terrible to have this kind of person in a Bible study small group because it forces everyone to parrot what they think are the correct answers instead of speaking honestly about where they are in their journey. Thankfully, I have had very few direct encounters with these know-it-alls in the small groups I’ve been in. I mostly interact with them on Facebook.
The beauty of Christianity is that it can accommodate people at a variety of levels of spiritual maturity. The more you mature spiritually, the more you are able and willing to adapt how you speak in order to best edify the other people in the room. If I think someone is wrong about a particular doctrine, my main concern is discerning how their error is impacting their relationship with God and how fragile their faith is.
Though on the Internet, I’ll debate people all day, in my pastoral work I rarely tell people outright that they’re wrong. I prefer to affirm whatever they’ve got right and wonder aloud about other possibilities to the degree that they can handle it.
I really liked something you said in your chapter on how we read the Bible, but I think it applies to a lot of things: “Growth requires change, and you can’t change what you believe unless you’re OK with being uncertain about what you believe.” How do you define certainty and uncertainty when it comes to belief?
There are some aspects of the faith which I simply accept even though I don’t understand how in the world they could be true. The bodily resurrection of Jesus is this way. It’s completely ridiculous. So is the claim that all of us will be bodily resurrected in the same way. How are we all supposed to physically fit on a finite planet? In this case, it doesn’t matter how certain or uncertain I am that Jesus was raised from the dead. It’s a premise that I simply accept.
Certainty and uncertainty come into play with regard to things like how I understand the whole salvation story to fit together.
I have a paradigm for organizing theological concepts in my mind right now which is different than the paradigm that I had five years ago. If I cling too tightly to my current paradigm than I won’t grow any further. So while I’m very passionate about what I believe, I must always remain uncertain about it so that God can show me new truths.
You write, “The more that Christian leaders are able to honestly say, ‘I don’t know’ about aspects of God’s truth that remain opaque,…the more our fellow Christians will be able to own an authentic journey of discipleship…” What is an example of a time you experienced this?
The most prominent example that comes to mind is the question of providence. I don’t know to what degree God controls the events of our lives. I really like the idea of telling myself that God has a plan for me and every setback I experience is just part of the plan. But I don’t feel like I can say that to anyone else about their lives.
If someone asks me why God let their child get stage four cancer, I can’t do any better than say I don’t know. It’s obscene to try to make easy sense of senseless suffering. Similarly I don’t know why the God of the Old Testament does brutally horrible things that don’t seem at all compatible with the God revealed in Jesus. I can’t say with any authority that God really didn’t command Saul to slaughter the Amalekites’ women and children. All I can say is that I don’t understand why that’s in the Bible and it bothers me because I’m a Christian.
Finally, I really like what you had to say about theology, that it’s a lot like the blues, and that it’s more important for theology to be playable than it is for it to be perfect. Thank you for helping us play some theology together.
Thanks for the stimulating questions that really made me think.
You can order How Jesus Saves the World from Us on Amazon.