Can American Christianity be detoxified? (A summary of my first book)

"Bible with Cross Shadow," David Campbell, Flickr C.C.

“Bible with Cross Shadow,” David Campbell, Flickr C.C.

Have we become what Jesus came to stop us from being? Many evangelical Christians in my generation are haunted by this question. The loudest Christian voices today sound too much like the first century religious elites who crucified Jesus. We’ve watched our tribe get co-opted into a partisan voting bloc. We’ve been taught to focus on protecting our nuclear families instead of seeking first the kingdom of God. Our theology depends upon non-Christians being wretchedly wicked, so when we meet non-Christians who are more Christlike than we are, it triggers a crisis of faith. How did our faith become so toxic? Can it be detoxified of the corruption that is from the world and not Jesus? This is the question with which I grapple in my first book How Jesus Saves the World: 12 Antidotes for Toxic Christianity.

I realize that not everyone thinks American Christianity is toxic. Some of you might be offended to hear me say that it is, because you’re thinking about the gracious, humble Christians in your life whom I seem to misunderstand and misrepresent. I have very gracious, humble Christians in my own life whom I love dearly despite the fact that some of their theology is deeply problematic and a distortion of what the Bible actually teaches. Through a careful study of God’s word, I believe that I’ve discovered some ways that the Christian gospel has been corrupted and remade in the image of our neurotically toxic American culture. Below I summarize each of the twelve chapters from my book that seek to provide antidotes for the toxins I’ve found in American Christianity.

1) Worship not performance

Everything about the Christian life flows out of our worship of God. If our hearts are filled with worship, then we will treat other people with love and dignity as a result. The lack of a worshipful heart will make us anxious, fussy people who hurt those around us. But we have to understand what worship really is. I define worship as authentic delight in the beauty of God. It is not the show that we put on for each other and for God to prove how zealously righteous we are. When worship is about saying the right things and performing the proper gestures, it’s not really worship; it’s a performance. Many Christians think and say that the problem is performing for other people when we should be performing for God. But I say the problem is that authentic delight in God has become almost impossible within the masquerade ball of anxious posturing that Christian culture has become. If your definition of worship involves the word should, then it’s really a performance (though it’s also true that the road to discovering authentic delight in God often involves training and habit formation that feels like obligatory duty at first).

Children know how to worship. That’s why Jesus says we must become like children to receive the kingdom of God (Mark 10:15). They live in a world of wonder and delight in God’s beauty that we lose when we acquire the curse of shameful self-preoccupation represented in the story of Adam and Eve’s loss of innocence. We can only regain our innocence when we accept the unconditional grace God offers through Jesus Christ and renounce every attempt to justify ourselves before God through our pious performances. When we stop performing for a God we think is scowling at the universe, then we can discover the warm gaze of the One who delights in our delight. It’s only within the perfect safety of God’s loving gaze that we can delight in God authentically and become conduits of the love that is poured into us.

2) Mercy not sacrifice

The only Old Testament scripture that Jesus quotes twice in the same gospel is Hosea 6:6: “I desire mercy not sacrifice.” Both times that Jesus cites this verse in Matthew, he’s talking to his religious elite opponents who thought that the best way to honor God was through austere lives of sacrifice. The Protestant work ethic of our capitalist culture likewise champions sacrifice. In itself, sacrifice is not a bad thing. It’s an important part of self-discipline. What becomes a problem is when we make our sacrifice the basis for our legitimacy. In the transactional world of capitalism, sacrifice is always supposed to earn something. In religion shaped by capitalism, sacrifice is the currency that earns you the right to judge others and refuse to help them on the basis of their perceived lack of sacrifice.

God proposes a different economy than the transactional economy of sacrifice. He offers us mercy as a unilateral, unconditional gift. Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross for our sins rescues us from a life of trying to legitimize ourselves through sacrifice by inviting us into a life of complete dependence on God’s mercy. As our perspective is transformed, we come to understand our lives in terms of God’s mercy rather than our sacrifices. We become grateful rather than entitled.  As we accept the reality of God’s mercy in our lives, we become God’s mercy in the lives of other people. God offers us the same invitation that the merciful father offers to the older brother in Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son. He says, “Everything I have is yours,” which is a gentle way of saying also, “Everything you have I gave you.” We can join the party of those who live under the mercy of God or we can remain outside in the bitter hell of our self-justifying sacrifice.

3) Empty not clean

When I grew up in the eighties and nineties, the core raison d’etre of my evangelical community was to protect its kids from sex, drugs, and rock and roll. Our publishing industry was built around this. The homeschooling movement exploded because of it. In particular, sexual purity became our greatest obsession to the degree that when we hear the word “morality” today, we presume somebody is talking about sex, even though morality is supposed to encompass all aspects of right and wrong behavior. This cultural impulse is consistent with the bodily purity that French philosopher Michel Foucault observed to be the primary mechanism of self-definition for the emerging European middle-class in the age of Enlightenment. If we are clean, middle-class people can define ourselves against people who aren’t, whether they are Hollywood serial divorcees or unmarried welfare queens. Indeed, middle-class society continues to be built around the importance of cleanliness. Ever since the Civil Rights movement created the backlash of modern-day suburbia, it has been marketed first and foremost as a clean, safe place to raise children.

But the cleanliness by which secular middle-class culture naturally defines itself is not the same thing as the holiness to which Jesus calls us. Jesus does invite us away from a life of gluttonous self-indulgence, but the goal is to become empty, not clean. What Jesus models for us on the cross is a life of self-emptying for the sake of solidarity with the other. The best contrast between clean and empty can be found in the parable of the Good Samaritan. The priest and Levite didn’t stop to help the wounded man on the road because their lives were built around staying clean. The Samaritan stopped because his heart was “moved with compassion.” A heart that is cluttered with idols and addictions cannot be moved with compassion. So we need to be emptied of our idols and addictions, not to have the cleanliness that allows us to define ourselves against people who are “dirty,” but so that our hearts are fully available to be God’s love and solidarity in a messy, broken world.

4) Breath not meat

The Christian apostle Paul talks a lot about the contrast between the Greek words pneuma and sarx. They are usually translated as “spirit” and “flesh,” but these two words have created a lot of confusion because they’re understood to stand for abstract vs. concrete or idealist vs. materialist. When Paul tells us to live according to the spirit and not the flesh, he’s not telling us to disregard our physical bodies and virtualize our existence by becoming disembodied avatars on the Internet. Toxic Christianity tells us that our bodies are an inherently sinful inconvenience that we must learn to repress in order to become perfectly abstract, rational minds. Anything that feels physically good must be a sin, while things that feel intellectually good like winning arguments are righteous.

So I have decided to translate pneuma and sarx as “breath” and “meat,” which are equally legitimate English translations. Breath and meat represent two radically different physical existences. Meat is a metaphor for dead living, because meat is literally dead life. Our bodies become meat when we allow ourselves to be the sluggish automatons of the market. We eat what we’re told to eat and buy what we’re told to buy and wear what we’re told to wear. Our bodies become commodities that are bought and sold as we give our existence over to the buying and selling of commodities. In contrast, breath is not disembodied existence, but fully embodied existence. To live according to God’s breath is to be fully awake. For people who are fully awake to God’s presence, our bodies and every physical object around us become sacraments that proclaim the glory of God’s love. The primary way that Christians orient ourselves to live as breath and not meat is through the sacred practice of Holy Communion which should make all our eating and drinking into thanksgiving and joy.

5) Honor not terror

Are we supposed to be afraid of God? Throughout the Bible, people are commended for “fearing the Lord.” So it’s easy to think that God is supposed to be scary and that Christians who have encountered an unscary, gentle God haven’t met the real God and are instead projecting their own personal Santa Claus yes-man into the clouds. But what’s interesting when we look at the way “fearing the Lord” is described in the Bible, it’s never being frightened that is commended, but rather the integrity to do the right thing even when you have the power to do evil without earthly consequences. Fearing the Lord looks a lot more like honor than terror.

Being afraid of God is actually not commended by the Bible. In Jesus’ parable of the talents, the third servant who buried his talent in the ground explains to his master, “I was afraid for you are a harsh man.” When we’re afraid of God, we choose the safest path possible instead of accepting his invitation to take risks and be vulnerable for the sake of his kingdom. What we need to fear is not what God will do to us, but what we are doing to God when we trample over truth and justice in situations where nobody can stop us. This is why God represents himself to us as a helpless, bloody man on a cross. To say “I fear the Lord” as a Christian should mean that I fear doing anything that further crucifies Jesus. Every violation of truth and justice in our lives is a betrayal of our crucified God. The more comfortable we become in our dishonor, the more torturous it will be to spend eternity with the One we have always crucified.

6) Poetry not math

This chapter reflects my personal bias as an English major who began college in the engineering school. But I really believe that the problem with the way many Christians read the Bible is that they see it as a math problem to be conquered rather than poetry to be embodied. When we read the Bible with exclusively rationalistic eyes, we become ideologues who build a wall of truth with proof-text bricks that we can pull out and throw at other people in our all-important Facebook theological battles. We can only become disciples who do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly by reading the Bible with prayerful eyes. While it’s important to try to understand the objective meaning of scripture, unless our reading is ultimately subjective, it will do nothing to our hearts and lives.

It seems like many Christians have basically applied the scientific method to the Bible when they need for every verse to have one meaning that can be plainly deduced by every impartial observer. When I think about how God has actually spoken to me through his word, it has often been in ways that would not be deduced by any other person reading the text. There’s a basic difference between the authority of poetry and math. The authority of math is transferred to the mathematicians who gain more power with every theorem they conquer. Poetry retains its authority over the reader because of its deposit of infinite mystery that cannot be exhausted. Those who read the Bible like math are seeking to conquer God, while those who read it like poetry are seeking for God to conquer them.

7) Communion not correctness

The word orthodoxy can have two very different meanings depending on which definition of the Greek word doxa you’re using. For Aristotle and the other pagan philosophers, doxa meant “opinion” so orthodoxy would mean having the correct opinion. For the apostle Paul (and the translators of the Septuagint Greek Old Testament), the Greek word doxa translates the Hebrew word kabod, which means “glory.” So to Paul, orthodoxy would be “right glory.” When evangelical Protestants use the word orthodoxy, they usually side with Artistotle, while the Eastern Orthodox are using Paul’s definition. I side with the East and say that orthodoxy measures the fullness of our encounter with God’s glory.

So I believe that doctrine is about communion, not correctness. We teach the truth about God for the purpose of empowering Christians to experience God’s glory. Pursuing doctrinal correctness as an end unto itself is a toxic sabotage of the full richness of orthodoxy. We should always teach doctrine with the understanding that each of us is wired differently and called to a different role in the body of Christ. Not everyone can grasp divine truths in the same way or at the same depth. All of us are heretics to varying degrees and God graciously offers us a taste of as much glory as our feeble minds can handle anyway. We should not think that God punishes incorrect theology by withholding glory from us; it is rather the case that bad theology constricts our field of vision so that we cannot experience as deep a communion with God. We are not justified by our correct doctrine, because God always unilaterally, graciously invites us into deeper communion. The more we learn the truth, the deeper we climb into the arms of God.

8) Temple not program

We’ve all heard since the time we were kids that the church is the people, not the building. And many Christians today meet together in very ugly, utilitarian buildings that look more like shopping malls and movie theaters than sacred temples where strange and wonderful otherworldly things could happen. The eminent practicality of American society is killing our aesthetic imagination; we need the wasteful extravagance of sacred space. The main room in a church is called a sanctuary because it’s supposed to be a place of respite and peace. But there can be no sanctuary in a church that has been filled with the anxious energy of consumeristic programming designed to attract young families.

While I respect the need for accountability, when church is data-driven rather than Spirit-driven, we have killed the one thing that we have to offer to a world that longs for the sacred. If we want for people to come to church for the right reasons, then we need to invite the Holy Spirit to reign over us in the physical space of our buildings. Our visioning needs to involve actual listening to God through a lived rhythm of prayer rather than an entirely secular, calculated process of strategic planning. Our weekly schedules should be structured to give priority to prayer. We should be inviting congregation members to enter our buildings during the week to sit and listen to God. Programming is necessary and important, but the church should be a temple first.

9) Solidarity not sanctimony

How should we respond to the sins of other people? Many Christians respond with sanctimony, “Love the sinner, hate the sin” being one of our favorite phrases. Sanctimony defines sin as breaking the rules or rebelling against the authority of whoever is in charge. When you define sin in this way, you limit sin to cases where explicit rules and clear chains of command have been established. This leaves out ways of being mean and unloving which don’t technically violate any Biblical commands. It also means that authority figures who are at the top of the chain of command get a pass, because calling out their sin seems like a sinful rebellion against their authority.

What Jesus models for us throughout the gospel stories is a posture of solidarity towards both sinners and victims of sin. Jesus was exceptionally gentle with sinners and exceptionally harsh with the people who judged them to the point of being a real jerk sometimes. Simon the Pharisee didn’t deserve to be publicly humiliated by Jesus just for shooting a dirty look at the prostitute who was making out with Jesus’ feet. Neither did Martha deserve to be rebuked for asking Jesus to tell her sister Mary to help out around the house. But Jesus’ solidarity with sinners required his brutality against their judges. Solidarity defines sin as simply the failure to love. This is why Jesus says that “all the law and the prophets” serve the purpose of teaching us to love God and neighbor. While sanctimonious Christians love to hate the sins of other people, Christians who seek to emulate Jesus’ solidarity hate their own sin because it prevents them from loving others fully. To the degree that we counsel our fellow sinners about their sin, it must always be from a place of self-emptying solidarity rather than self-aggrandizing sanctimony.

10) Outsiders not insiders

The main reason that Jesus was rejected by the religious insiders of his day was because of his solidarity with the marginalized, which he expressed through socially disruptive behavior like eating with sinners, healing on the Sabbath right in the middle of worship gatherings, and driving the money-changers out of the temple courtyard. Too many Christians today have turned our faith into a means of validating the legitimacy of social insiders rather than extravagantly welcoming social outsiders. When we moralize normativity whether it’s white “Christian” culture, patriarchal “traditional” gender roles, heterosexuality, or cisgenderedness, that’s what we’re doing.

One of the most provocative prophetic statements that Paul makes is in 1 Corinthians 1:28, where he says that God “has chosen the despised ones and those who are not to bring to nothing the things that are.” When I look at the battle over sexuality in the American church today, I see the fulfillment of Paul’s prophecy. What queer Christians threaten is the idolatry of the nuclear family that has immunized so many Christians against Jesus’ call to leave their comfort zones and enter into ministry with the poor and marginalized. As long as that idolatry is allowed to stand, American Christianity will “focus on the family” instead of “seeking first the kingdom of God.” As I wrote above in my summary for chapter 3, everything Christians do to rein in our self-indulgence is for the sake of solidarity with the world’s outsiders.

11) Servanthood not leadership

American Christianity has a major leadership fetish. White men who stand in front of stadiums with lapel microphones love to talk about the crucial importance of white men who stand in front of stadiums with lapel microphones. Christian leadership guru John Maxwell says that leadership is influence. So eager potential Christian leaders (like myself) spend all of energy trying to build our platforms so we can have the greatest possible influence. We call ourselves “servant” leaders, but the servant part has become a meaningless adjective.

When Jesus said, “The greatest among you must be your servant,” he was using servant as a noun, not an adjective. For Jesus, leadership is not influence, but servanthood. The purpose of my leadership as a Christian is to empower the people whom I am called to serve. Servanthood means not just providing for other peoples’ needs, but putting myself beneath them. In terms of visioning, Christian leaders should not see ourselves as shepherds, but as carefully listening sheep who counsel and train other sheep to listen well to our invisible shepherd. Jesus is our only shepherd. I am not an intermediary between my congregation and Jesus. My effectiveness as a leader in Christian community should be measured by how directly connected each member of my community is with the shepherd who presides over all of us.

12) Kingdom not stadium

One of the most important contrasts in the Bible is between the story of Babel in Genesis 11 and Pentecost in Acts 2. Babel was a tower that the people tried to build to heaven. They had uniformity of language and purpose. Babel is a metaphor for the hegemonic impulse of every empire. God broke up the project of Babel by confusing the peoples’ languages because God hates hegemony. Pentecost is the radical undoing of Babel. Instead of seeking uniformity, Pentecost translates God’s truth into every possible dialect of humanity. Pentecost shows the way that the Holy Spirit is innately subversive and anti-hegemonic as Gentiles like Cornelius and other outsiders are given spiritual gifts that they’re not supposed to have.

Many Christians today are seeking to build a tower of Babel rather than becoming agents of Pentecost. We build empires of praise stadiums rather than journeying into the wide open space of God’s kingdom. The stadium signifies a space in which the man with the lapel mic is in full control as an intermediary of God’s truth. The kingdom signifies a space in which the Spirit is uncontrolled by us. To pilgrimage into God’s kingdom rather than building our own hegemonic stadium requires accepting that other Christians who radically disagree with us might be equally sincere in their faithful obedience to the call from God they are hearing. Evangelism takes on a thoroughly different posture when we are pilgrims journeying into a kingdom rather than groupies building a stadium. I can share my journey in vulnerable sincerity with others without the need to see their difference as something which must either be inferior or superior to my journey. Everyone regardless of where they are in relationship with Christ can be a traveling companion on my journey into God’s kingdom with whom I can learn amazing truths.

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About Morgan Guyton

I’m the director of the NOLA Wesley Foundation, which is the United Methodist campus ministry at Tulane and Loyola University in New Orleans, LA.