Toxic Christianity: Can Jesus Save Us From It?

Toxic Christianity: Can Jesus Save Us From It? April 18, 2016

Has Christianity turned toxic? I wish I could say that it hasn’t, that it is a religion full of adherents who freely pass onto others the grace, reconciliation and forgiveness so generously given to them. That adherents make statements seasoned with the humility of human limitations and unknown and unexamined prejudices. That adherents take seriously the admonitions of Jesus to love their enemies and seek to do good for them.

And I think these things happen all the time. But they rarely make the news. More, such attitudes and decisions do not build large churches and giant media presence and lucrative book contracts.

So today what passes for Christianity in the public eye has indeed become toxic.

On occasion, the lone and often ignored voice of the prophet calls out and says, “there is another way to do this.

How Jesus Saves the World from usOne such voice is Morgan Guyton. I’ve been following his blog for a number of years, often in deep envy at his ability to articulate his cries for change with both passion and solid scholarship. His first book, How Jesus Saves the World From Us: 12 Antidotes to Toxic Christianity, published by Westminster John Knox Press, has just come out.

And he does indeed speak truth here while he calls us back to Jesus and away from a religious culture that has elevated things like performance, terror, correctness and leadership over far more biblical values such as worship, honor, communion, and servanthood.

The section that I found particularly compelling concerned the contrast between the toxic value of “clean” versus the more biblical value of “empty.”

Guyton writes of how clutter, the accumulation of too much disordered stuff, can genuinely hurt us. Certainly it is so in our physical spaces, as cluttered houses make it nearly impossible to get rid of potential allergens, for example. He also speaks of it in our spiritual lives where our insecurities and hidden agendas create so much anxiety that our irritability spills over in our treatment of others.

The toxic agenda, however, puts the focus on clean not uncluttered. Clean, in Guyton’s experience and in my own as well, means keeping people isolated from possibly polluting influences. Instead of emptying ourselves of the impediments to the free movement of the Holy Spirit, we load ourselves with tight rules that emphasize outward purity and rejection of any possible influence that might sully the mind or body.

But the emphasis ignores that fact that the mind and body have all the internal capabilities necessary to carry out the sullying process without restraint. So all may be outwardly clean but inwardly disastrously full of clutter.

Morgan mentions Bill Gothard, the now disgraced founder of the Institute of Basic Life Principles. It is from his rigid teachings on outward cleanliness that the now infamous reality TV Duggar family based their lives.

God only knows what other damage done will eventually surface for the many younger children of this family with 19 offspring. What we do know is the oldest son, living through possibly the cleanest upbringing ever, molested four sisters and a babysitter and then became addicted to porn and paid for and engaged in rough sex with prostitutes.

His porn/prostitute life took place all while routinely impregnating his young, innocent and utterly helpless wife to the tune of four babies in four years and speaking with great forcefulness on a widely promoted public platform about the importance of family values.

I will write personally here. I used to work for Bill Gothard, although, thanks be to God, not directly so I never had to fight off his many seductions of young women. However, his teachings of impregnable male headship and total female submission formed the basis for my first marriage.

That marriage ultimately ultimately crashed and burned, not because either of us were bad people, but because it meant I had to completely disappear as a sentient human being to keep it alive. It very nearly ended with my suicide. I finally found the courage to choose divorce, but it took a terrible toll on my family with repercussions still reverberating more than 20 years later.

Guyton offers a glorious alternative: “To be truly free means to have a heart that has been emptied of spiritual clutter–all the cravings, anxiety, paranoia and impulsivity that make us restless and miserable, even when we say we’re having fun” (p. 38). And “The goal is not to keep ourselves perfectly clean and absent of any scars or smudges; the goal is to be emptied enough of our self-preoccupation that we can lose ourselves in God. If you are preoccupied with staying clean, you’ll still preoccupied with yourself.” (p. 41)

We live in a messy world. If we want to be ministering in that world, we will get messy ourselves. As Guyton says, “God wants people who hearts that are emptied enough that they are ready to go out and get dirty doing justice in a mess world.”

Read the book. It’s worth the time.

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  • LaurieB

    Why read a book about what Christ said? Why not just read the Gospels? Father told us to “listen to him”, Jesus said repeatedly that if you’ve seen him you’ve seen the Father, and that he came to show us the Father, that he only speaks the words the Father gave him, etc. etc. If you want to know Father, listen to Jesus. His message is true and simple.

    • I grew up with a certain emphasis when scripture was interpreted. As a result, When I read the words, it is filtered through that emphasis. Black and white words become associated with ideas and concepts and colored by shades of hue and meaning not written in Scripture – so oftentimes I need a little help cutting through the static in order to get a clear picture of the Gospel. Reading books about what Christ said actually helps to focus on the heart of Jesus’ message. Were I to just read the Gospels, that filter of mine kicks back in and keeps me from seeing certain things that are written and in effect adds to scripture to obscure what it really says. That’s what toxic Christianity does.

      • LaurieB

        Understood. Apparently I left out the part about turning off the filters when reading what Christ actually said. My bad. The problem is, how can you trust what men & women write in “books ABOUT what Christ said?” Why not just listen to what Christ said, for yourself?
        A few years ago my husband and I decided to take a year (or so) off from listening to anyone but Jesus, about spiritual matters. We only read the Gospels–not books written by men, including the rest of the Bible. (I know…the Gospels were written by men, too, I just have to trust that they diligently recorded what they remembered from Christ’s visit to earth.)
        It was amazing how many things became more clear about Christ and his message from Father. His message is so simple, compared to what christianity has made it. And yes, christianity is toxic, as men have made it over the years. This isn’t what Father intended.
        I would encourage anyone reading this to stop listening to men, listen what Christ really has to say, and discover his truth and the freedom it brings. “If you remain in my word, then you are truly my disciples. You will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” John 8:31-32

        • I would if I could, but for me, words switch meaning. With passages like: “For God so loved the world …” my filter kicks in and translate that as: “For God so loved the elect …” Or a word like “mutual” no longer refers to an action that two people do to one another but something held in common by two people without reciprocity. I lack the ability to turn it off. When I read a book written by somebody else, it registers as a new perspective – which the filter isn’t equipped to sabotage so it’s able to sneak past under the radar as it were. Here and there it might kick in a little with specific churchy words, but for the most part it’s easier. I have so much that I have to unlearn, so much baggage that it really weighs me down. At the moment, i just don’t feel like getting into it. It started not that long ago when I noticed a verse that says: “because of the angels.” In English was translated to: “a fact that the angels verify” in another language and it really hit home how biased translations can easily be used to manipulate and twist the scriptures.

          • LaurieB

            I am sorry that your past has given you such difficult filters to overcome. I cannot stress enough that you should be able to glean all you can from Jesus himself. It does take time, too, no way around that.
            Don’t forget that other men (authors of books, pastors, etc.) are adding their own filters to whatever they pass along. We need to think for ourselves to determine whether they are speaking in line with Christ or not. Father gives us the Spirit to help with that:
            “But the Counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things, and will remind you of all that I said to you.” (John 14:26 WEB)

            Jesus tells us to SEEK OUT God’s Kingdom, our top priority:
            “But seek first God’s Kingdom, and his righteousness” (Mat 6:33 WEB)

            Here Jesus emphasizes this priority:
            “Again, the Kingdom of Heaven is like a treasure hidden in the field, which a man found, and hid. In his joy, he goes and sells all that he has, and buys that field. Again, the Kingdom of Heaven is like a man who is a merchant seeking fine pearls, who having found one pearl of great price, he went and sold all that he had, and bought it.” (Mat 13:44-46 WEB)
            In both cases the person sold everything they had!

            Is seeking the Kingdom such a priority for us that we are willing to do anything in order to enter it?

          • That’s why when I feel like reading, I try to balance different perspectives, I don’t just read ‘sugar’ but ‘meat’ and ‘potatoes’ as well as ‘fruit’, ‘vegetables’, ‘beans’, and ‘rice’. The error I ran into was just having one source from which to understand and draw from. Just the other day, I was in a fascinating conversation about the role of tricliniums in the New Testament. I learned from “Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes” that by virtue of being a westerner, we approach reading scripture with our own biases and as a result we tend to misinterpret the text. That’s where it’s helpful to read books that break down the honor / shame dynamic in Scripture – because there’s a lot that’s in there that goes unsaid or went without saying and so it doesn’t translate to our own context very well. There’s so much a modern American reading the gospels would miss when we picture these settings taking place as if they were in our homes, at our tables, in our streets and stores. These and other books can help fill in the gaps for us.

        • Edwin Woodruff Tait

          You can’t turn off the filters. It’s a destructive illusion. The “filter” that says “you can read with no filters” is responsible for a good deal of the “toxic Christianity” present in contemporary America.

          • LaurieB

            Please explain, ‘The “filter” that says “you can read with no filters” is responsible for a good deal of the “toxic Christianity” present in contemporary America.’

          • Edwin Woodruff Tait

            After the American Revolution, a particularly radical understanding of “sola scriptura” took root in American Protestantism–the view that we can just read the Bible in a “common sense” way without the “filter” of tradition, and that if we do that we will be able to figure out what God meant in Scripture and will get back to a “pure Christianity.” This led American Protestants to identify their particular theological ideas with “the plain meaning of the Bible.” Slaveowners picked up the Bible and found references to slavery that were not condemnatory, and announced that clearly the plain meaning of the Bible supported slavery. (Mark Noll has written about this in _America’s God_, which I’ve read, and _The Civil War as a Theological Crisis_, which I haven’t.) Baptists and many other conservative Protestants developed a theology combining salvation by faith alone, penal substitution, original sin, assurance of salvation, and eternal security in such a way as (in many cases) to provide a sturdy coating of protection for the natural human tendency to hypocrisy and self-righteousness. (If you are a believer, you are eternally secure in spite of any sins you may commit; if you aren’t a believer, nothing you do has any value–this leads to a vicious double standard.) This theology has complex historical roots, but to people who hold it these roots aren’t visible or relevant. The theology seems, to its adherents, to be the obvious meaning of Scripture, even though to people outside the paradigm it seems anything but.

            In short, pretty much everyone running around the American Protestant scene is claiming to “just listen to Jesus” and “just take the Bible at its word.” Prescribing this as the cure is like prescribing laxatives for a person with diarrhea. Americans have been doing exactly this for 200 years.

            I don’t actually like the metaphor of “filters,” because it assumes, again, that there is something we can choose to use or not use. Here’s how I would look at it instead:

            Language works, necessarily, through association. We understand words because we have heard them used before in other contexts (or, sometimes, because we have looked them up in a dictionary and been given a basic, usually rather simplistic summary of their most common associations). Every word that we use in communicating with each other carries along with it a long train of associations. There is no “real” meaning behind the associations. If you see a word that has no associations for you whatever, it will have no meaning. If you look it up or ask someone what it means, the definition you’re given needs to be in words that _do_ have associations for you already, or it will be meaningless too.

            Scriptural language is no different. The words of Scripture (which most of us read most of the time in translation–a whole other set of problems) mean something to us because we know those words from other contexts, or because we have been taught by somebody to define them in terms of words we are familiar with. These associations will _always_ carry with them cultural and/or religious assumptions. We can’t get away from this. There is nothing to get away _to_.

            That’s why we need to read more “other writers” on Scripture, not fewer. We need to read books that challenge our assumptions about Scripture and give us new associations for the Biblical language.

          • That’s what I noticed when I read “Misreading Scirpture with Western Eyes” they used the word “lens” or “cultural blinder” but it was the same basic idea. I think it helps to know people who are from other cultures who speak other languages to help get us out of our own way of doing things. When I went to visit a friend of mine who lives at the equator, I had to learn that there are just two seasons: dry and wet and not four. Likewise, she had never experienced snow and didn’t have a context for understand what it was like. That’s how we are with the Bible – we don’t have a context for understand what the ancient world was like. We’ve also had to deal with our own culture’s biases and preferences. We’re a guilt/innocence society, the Bible speaks to an honor/shame society. We viewed things even at the most basic level differently. We bring our own assumptions with us as we read the text. One example is in the story of David and Bathsheba – David speaks to a servant to ask who the woman was and the servant answered with a question – “is this not so-and-so?” It was the honorable way to answer that question, it’s not right to shame the king by knowing something that he does not know. Even in the rest of the story, a dynamic of honor and shame is woven throughout, it’s easily missed because we’re a people who aren’t swayed by honor or afraid of the horror of shame. Such facts can’t be read from the Bible, but from books about the Bible.

          • Edwin Woodruff Tait

            Yes, I’ve looked at the book briefly and it seemed a bit simplistic, but making some good points.

          • We all have to start somewhere. I just wish there were more books like it.