I am leading an adult Sunday school class this month—the topic is Morgan Guyton’s provocative 2016 book, How Jesus Saves the World from Us. My predecessor chose this item, which offers “12 antidotes to toxic Christianity”. He thought the material would elicit fruitful discussion and self-reflection among church members, which it most likely will, with a vengeance.
Worried about their aging and declining membership, many churches are going through a period of painful self-examination. Where are the young people? What can we do to attract them? Is there something in our worship style, our theology, or our approach to evangelism that needs tweaking or even an overhaul? The church is after all supposed to be “reformed, always reforming.”
There are a number of books like Guyton’s that have been recently published. The debate over how the church can best accommodate trends in contemporary society is a perennial one. Guyton presents a long list of problematic attitudes—“…our disingenuous posturing, our exhibitionist martyrdom, our isolationism…”—and so forth, along with mostly scripture-based cures. For example, the anxiety-driven obsession to “perform” works of piety and compassion, as the Pharisees do, can be countered with an abiding trust in God’s love and mercy for us.
The author tries to locate the origin of Christianity’s bad attitudes in its early history, in philosophical dead ends, misreadings of scripture, and in American culture. There is probably some truth here. But it’s reasonable to ascribe them to just one source ultimately—our essential sinfulness, which leads to an imperfect understanding of God’s teaching. As many suspect, devout Christians can be saved and forgiven by Christ—and still remain idiots.
Reading between the lines, one suspects Guyton’s critique is rooted in his personal response to the shortcomings of his childhood experience in a very conservative denomination. This doesn’t make the book any less valid, but does call into question the author’s purpose in writing it. Is the intent to stimulate discussion among Christians concerned with the decline of church life? Or does it primarily serve a therapeutic need—the cathartic expression of frustration and despair over “toxic Christianity”?
Perhaps both; this is a very emotional book, seasoned with the author’s personal epiphanies across a troubled young life. Here and there Guyton’s exuberant expression might have benefited from some filtering, to avoid clouding key ideas with excessive emotionality. (Disclosure: your humble blogger is a Presbyterian, one of the "frozen chosen".)
In the coming weeks our church will review Guyton’s thoughts on Christianity’s less edifying habits of mind. Given the content of his book, there will be spirited discussion, some defensiveness, and probably embarrassed acknowledgement of where we could do better. (The fourth chapter, “Breath, Not Meat: How We Gain Holy Bodies”, will likely offend more genteel members.)
Overall, the book serves an important need for self-reflection and adaptation in the contemporary church. I am eager to hear how our church members respond to the material, and may share some of their insights in future posts. Guyton is in a long line of thoughtful Christian writers who have battled complacency and negativity in order to cultivate ongoing reform in the church.
“Write therefore, what you have seen, what is now and what will take place later.” Revelation 1:19