How Jesus Saves the World from Us: A Book Review


I’m new to the realm of book reviews. But given that books remain one of the most powerful means to express ideas, I’d like to try my hand at more reviews. I’m starting with How Jesus Saves the World From Us by Morgan Guyton, a Methodist campus minister at the NOLA Wesley Center. While I am not a Methodist, my time at the Wesley Center in college was formative in my religious journey and I’m glad to see progressive Methodists, in particular, campus ministers add their voice to the public discussion.

If I was to summarize this book this sentence captures it:”…the goal is to be emptied enough of our self-preoccupation that we can lose ourselves in God.” (41) The 12 antidotes to toxic Christianity are founded on this premise. The move from self occupation, self justification, and self presentation to an openness to one other in solidarity, to God without need of buttressing ourselves up, and to the world in worship and taking it all in.

So what stands in the way? Self consciousness. The first chapter provides some apt descriptions on page 8:

Children…live in worship because they haven’t learned that they are supposed to be performing some role that society or peers of self consciousness tells them they should be praying.

Children are genuinely wowed by the features of God’s creation that grown ups have stopped noticing because we’re so preoccupied with our careers and agendas and platforms.

…we all lose our innocence. We are all transformed from curious delightful worshippers into anxious self obsessed performers.

This is what Morgan Guyton identifies with original sin. Like most accounts of original sin it is a fundamental feature of human life. It is not subject to will power to overcome, in fact that would be self defeating. An openness to grace could give us some means to mitigate against this feature of our life but that is a life long journey which Morgan points to. And the Christian tradition has some tools to help along the way.

I didn’t know the term hypocrites meant to be in performance in front of the critics. In this, all of us as adults are hypocrites. And Jesus spends much of his ministry in the many scriptural accounts Morgan recounts, trying to free us from this. This book, as one reviewer called it, is a Jesus or Christocentric account of faith. And it relies on the Bible to give us the vocabulary to name a central problem in human life.

I appreciate that way of using the tradition and it should be highlighted. We don’t start with what religion tells us must be the case. We start with what we experience and see in the world and then go to religion to provide resources to relate to that. In that move, even as I have some disagreements, this book is in the classic liberal tradition. And it is what makes it compelling to me.

Royce also identifies original sin in the development of self consciousness. But self consciousness is also the source of our individuality. And it is in our individuality that we can become a gift to others. So that what carries our vice and our virtue is the same vehicle. We can’t go back to the Garden, even if we wanted to. The question is how to relate our individuality in a way that is as grace filled as Morgan describes.

So what are the resources the Christian tradition provides for this problem? The example of Jesus, the ethic of solidarity even empathy with others, and ritual practices that take us outside of ourselves and opens us up to God and the world. Let  me respond to a few of these without giving a way more of the book than I have.

We have the stories of Jesus as he expressed solidarity with women, tax collectors, prostitutes and Morgan recounts many of them. But we also have the solidarity of the cross. A solidarity vindicated by God through the physical resurrection. It is very Pauline. And yet as a liberal I don’t go with Morgan on this. Why? Because physical bodies don’t do this. And so the story doesn’t reveal something fundamental to our world. I believe good doctrine does this, which is exactly how Morgan treats original sin.

So why does Morgan hold to the physical resurrection? On page 90 he writes

Without Jesus resurrection, the cross would mean nothing more than the tragic death of a beautiful man. The resurrection proves that God’s love triumphs over evil…It means all of the injustice in the world will be vindicated in the same way that Jesus’ unjust death was vindicated.

The thing is: we don’t know that. That is, we don’t know if God’s love really conquers evil and we don’t know whether all injustice can be vindicated. Why? Because our history suggests a mixed world, where overcoming is evident but genuine loss and evil is in the mix even as genuine good too has made it’s mark. Because we don’t live in an unambiguous world, given our history, I don’t think we can project a wholly different kind of existence in the future. To the degree that every event is objectified in God and constitutes any possible future to come, the evils as well as the goods remain.

This is an important existential difference that shapes faith in different ways depending on what direction you choose. Morgan makes a sound case on why trust in the final triumph of good has been key from Martin Luther King to any number of movements for social change. I’d argue that not believing in this doesn’t have to necessitate resignation.

It could teach us that no triumph is assured. That we must not rest on our laurels. Given the precariousness of the good, we must commit ourselves anew as every generation must, to that struggle.As we see institutions which were a given in the past, the EU, many denominations and other institutions crumble, we are reminded again of this fact.

By the time Morgan starts to unpack resurrection in our life, it takes on a spiritual quality that does fit any age and time as we see the struggle for rebirth, of transformation, of the death of the old self. In a spiritualized resurrection, we find evidence all around us. But it takes a trained eye to see. And that is why some of my favorite chapters include that on worship and on temple, not program.

He makes an important observation for us religious liberals. Theologically it is right to say that every day is holy but we need to set aside a certain day to remind us of this. Otherwise no days become holy. They become mundane. Likewise, all ground is holy ground including that of nature. But unless we mark special spaces, churches, sanctuaries, etc. for that purpose, no place is holy.

The theology of the universal presence of God while a sound theology can produce bad practices, whereby we don’t knowingly experience God. So it takes some level of intentionality, to become aware of it. This includes thought about our worship spaces. It can also mean taking on spiritual practices, which he recounts from fasting to prayer beads. You can pray anywhere and yet having those beads is a reminder, a tactile act, like kneeling, which connects our body and mind together in open receptivity towards God.

I think you can tease out a concept of God in this book though it is never something addressed. As a process person I find that disconcerting. But he uses a more powerful tool in terms of reaching people: his own story, in all of its vulnerability. The only one story I’ll mention is how a primarily LGBT congregation helped reconnect him to faith again. Starting with one’s story provides an opening for others. It’s more invitational than a systematic account that starts with concepts first.

Given my own prejudices, I prefer knowing the concepts right from the beginning so they can be evaluated. But his book is more powerful because he invites others into his journey and then through that provides an occasion for readers to reflect on their own journey. In that, this book embodies the ethos it is presenting to others.

Dwight Welch is the pastor at the United Church of Norman, Oklahoma


Categories: Blog, Feature, Religion

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