Friday, August 12, 2016

How Jesus Saves the World From Us, by Morgan Guyton

Morgan Guyton, a United Methodist campus pastor in New Orleans, writes engagingly, with a talent for looking at theology and church life with a unique and challenging perspective.  In How Jesus Saves the World from Us: 12 Antidotes for Toxic Christianity, he "provides antidotes for the toxicity that has infiltrated Christian culture."

I hate to start with a criticism, but I hope an editor slapped this title on Guyton's book.  I think it's more provocative than the actual content, and the subtitle seems more glib and commercial than Guyton's style would call for.  OK, I just had to get that out of my system.

Guyton's strength is perspective.  He takes scriptures or ideas that we think we have figured out, and puts a new spin on them, broadening our preconceived or long-ago-conceived notions.  Granted, even though Guyton and I share Southern Baptist roots, he has taken a more liberal turn than I have, so I found some points of disagreement.  But before I grumbled too much about his liberalism, I came across the most memorable image in the book, when he compares Christians to jazz musicians.

Because of the improvisational nature of jazz, one song may sound different every time it's played.  Whether it's played by different musicians, with different instruments, in different settings and time periods, one song might have a different sound while being recognizably the same song.  He writes that for jazz musicians, "it's more important to find the right groove with the other musicians on the stage than to play the exact notes of the original recording.  You need communion, not correctness."

The jam session can be ruined by one musician insisting on too much solo time, taking away from the contribution of the other musicians.  Even more so, if one musician stops the song, insisting that the other musicians conform to his perception of the correct way to play.  This is how Guyton views the church.  "The goal of theology is to make it possible for a wide range of human personalities to find God's groove and experience communion together.  It's more important for the song to be playable for millions of people than to be perfect so only a few can play it right." 

I may be devoting too much review space to this idea.  I don't know that Guyton would say this is the central theme of his book.  But to me, it tied everything together.  When I disagree with him (and, now, by extension, other Christians) about something, I would ask, Are we playing the same song, in a different style or on a different instrument?  Or is he playing a different piece of music altogether?  Most of the time, I would have to agree with this: "Even if I have strong theological differences with another Christian, it's not because one of us has been completely abandoned by God and possessed by a demon.  Both of us are partly wrong and partly right, in different ways, but God is revealing truth to both of us."  Part of the problem with insisting on theological purity is when you do so, you must "say that all those other churches out there are doing it wrong." 

All of this said, How Jesus Saves the World From Us contains much more that I agree with than disagree.  On a personal note, Guyton recognizes his grandfather as an important personal and spiritual influence.  Guyton's grandparents were my neighbors, close family friends, and pillars of my home church.  His huge, strong grip and booming voice, and her rose perfume are indelible memories.  They knew how to love and serve others selflessly as well as anyone I have known.  I, too, remember his love of Jesus and theological curiosity.  I know they would be proud and delighted with Guyton's ministry and writing.

Thanks to Edelweiss and the publisher for the complimentary electronic review copy!

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