A Conversation with Morgan Guyton on “How Jesus Saves the World From Us”
By R.L. Stollar, HA Community Coordinator
A while ago Morgan Guyton asked if I would review his new book How Jesus Saves the World From Us: 12 Antidotes to Toxic Christianity for Homeschoolers Anonymous. Guyton writes at the Patheos site Mercy Not Sacrifice and is the co-director of the NOLA Wesley Foundation. He felt its message would resonate with HA’s readers. I agreed to take a look.
While I enjoyed reading his book, I felt hesitant about recommending it in a straightforward manner to our readers. I certainly appreciate Guyton’s vision of a non-toxic Christianity. The problem for me is that the book—geared towards how “we” are the problem in the American church—is the wrong message for many survivors of child abuse and religious abuse. In fact, telling abuse survivors that they are what is wrong in our world is probably one of the worst, most damaging messages they could be sent.
That is not Guyton’s intended message to survivors. In fact, it is the opposite. His goal is help survivors who desire to find a healthier version of Christianity, and he does not aim to proselytize those who decide Christianity just is not for them. He also has empathy for homeschool alumni—his cousin grew up in ATI and Guyton dedicates an entire chapter to Bill Gothard, Recovering Grace, and the devastating toll purity culture has had on young people.
But Guyton’s book uses language that has the potential of being experienced as exclusionary by survivors. I told Guyton about my concerns and we both agreed it could lead to a fruitful conversation. So instead of me writing a review of his book, we decided that we would publish our dialogue on HA to show how we worked through my concerns, his responses to them, and our disagreements (as well as agreements).
Our conversation began with him describing where he is coming from as an author:
Morgan Guyton (MG): Growing up evangelical in the eighties, the toxic culture wars defined my existence. Like many other post-evangelicals, I spent most of my early adulthood trying to figure out where to land spiritually. In my early twenties, I found myself in a mostly LGBT United Methodist congregation in Ohio where I heard a completely fresh and beautiful gospel being preached, based largely on the teachings of Henri Nouwen. My book How Jesus Saves The World From Us: 12 Antidotes To Toxic Christianity is an attempt to articulate this beautiful gospel in a way that carefully dismantles all the objections I’ve heard from the fundamentalist voices in my head.
Ryan Stollar (RS): I think that your heart on these issues comes through strongly in the book—that’s one thing I particularly appreciated about reading it. Your vision of God as “the DJ of the dance party that is our world” is certainly a stark contrast from the God that many of us learned about growing up in a conservative evangelical world:
“That is worship. That’s what human existence is supposed to be. God is the DJ of the dance party that is our world. Like every good DJ, God’s goal is to make us dance with abandon and wonder. Without an agenda. Without worrying what other people think.”
On one level, I just love the imagery because I am a big fan of dance and electronic music. Imagining the Kingdom of God as a rave isn’t something I normally do. So I thank you for that idea! But on another level it reminds me of something Jerome Berryman talks about in Godly Play:
“Jesus pointed to such a response. Become like a child, he said, if you want to mature as an adult. To play the ultimate game, don’t rely on will, belief, denial, or reason alone. Play. Play in a Godly way. Play with the Creator. Enter the existential game with imagination, wonder, and laughter if you want to become new without end.”
As someone who grew up in the Christian homeschooling world and often heard that loving God meant becoming the President of the United States and taking over the world for Jesus, I really appreciate hearing this counterpoint. I appreciate the idea that God actually wants us to enjoy our lives. That we can worship God when we enjoy our lives.
Can you maybe elaborate on this? Is this part of what you were hoping to communicate to people like me, people who survived child abuse or an abusive experience with the American church?
MG: Yeah what I believe is that God us wants to delight in the universe. That’s what worship is. The best worship experience I had was at a rave in New York City in 2003 after a huge anti war protest. I’ve always been a very body-conscious person but in the room with the drum and bass, I lost myself in the song and I danced like I didn’t care. And it was like a voice said to me “This is worship.” My dream ever since then has been to create a church that would be basically a dance party. I think that’s what authentic worship has always been. The problem is when religious people make it into a competitive performance.
RS: See, that sounds awesome to me—and I was homeschooled in a conservative Christian home my entire childhood. But when I was 18, the thought of God DJ’ing at a rave would have scared the living Christ out of me—and I mean that theologically, not as a cuss phrase. I think that’s one area I am struggling with as I think about the book in relation to the world I operate in—alumni of conservative Christian homeschooling and survivors of religious abuse. As much as I agree with you, the question for me: how can one communicate this idea of God DJ’ing and life being a rave to people who grew up fearing that any music with a simple back beat invites demons into their hearts?
What are your thoughts on that?
MG: Right. I remember members of my family teaching specifically that any music with a beat was of the devil. It’s all part of this idea that you’re supposed to be ashamed of your body and paranoid about other people looking at you the “wrong” way. Any music that makes you shake your butt is obviously demonic because shaking your butt is sexy.
I really think we have to reclaim the concept of holiness from its toxic perversion in shame/purity culture. Holiness is being completely awake and alive. It’s having perfect physical vitality. It can include shaking my butt. It’s true that there are some addictions and harmful behaviors I can fall into, but the reason they’re harmful is because they make me less alive, not because God sets arbitrary limits in order to test our loyalty. If we put limits on our behaviors for the sake of holiness, it’s so that we can be more fully alive.
When the apostle Paul talks about living in the spirit rather than the flesh, he’s not talking about hating our bodies. Body is a different word in Greek. Flesh is the word for meat. To live as meat is for our lives to be mindless consumption. To live according to the spirit, or the breath, is to live mindfully, to enjoy existence fully.
RS: Well, and I think that dancing in whatever way that one wants does not always have to be about sex. I think that is one way that both purity culture and secular culture have twisted how we think about our bodies and other people’s bodies. It’s one of those ironic meeting places where purity culture and secular culture have the exact same approach to life, despite claiming to have completely different foundations.
MG: Exactly. Sometimes girls wear bikinis because they like the way the sun feels on their bodies, not because they’re trying to be erotic. Holiness describes a state of being in which we can walk around with other people regardless of what they’re wearing and simply enjoy their company. We certainly have natural biological responses when we’re physically attracted to someone. But it’s also the case that capitalism has exploited our natural biology and made sex very addictive in our culture.
RS: All this raises some bigger issues for me, though. For example, I am aware—while we are talking and using religious language—that some survivors of abuse, whether child abuse or religious abuse—will be super-triggered. They’re not in a place where they are ready to “rescue” or “redeem” these words and ideas from the toxic Christianity they grew up with. In fact, some of them cannot even step foot into a church without having a panic attack. And I am speaking from experience. Most of my adult life I have had to avoid churches for my own mental health.
Would you say your book is addressed to such people? And if so, what are you hoping they get out of it?
MG: You’re describing a world that is beyond my personal experience. It was hard to know exactly how to frame my presentation of the gospel for this reason. I wanted to rebuke the lies directly. I also wanted to write in such a way that open-minded moderate evangelicals could have their issues addressed and step into greater freedom. It’s hard to know how to rebuke and reframe. I used the Bible a lot in order to persuade the moderates, but I understand that could be difficult for people who have been abused by the Bible.
I did set up a completely different frame in my uses of the Bible. For example, the story of Adam and Eve to me is not a story of incredibly wicked disobedience that was the cause of a giant curse over all of humanity. They ate a freaking piece of fruit! It’s an allegory that represents our loss of innocence when we become self-conscious and leave the world of wonder that children enjoy.
I can’t imagine what it would be like to spend your childhood inside of a fundamentalism that steals your joy. I do believe that our spiritual journey is about becoming children again or, perhaps for some of us, getting to be children for the very first time. My hope is that my book can provide a resource for healing, but people recovering from spiritual abuse might encounter some triggering words as part of the process because of my blind spots.
RS: I loved how you interpreted the story of Adam and Eve. In fact, I’d love to hear more some day from you about how you worked through that passage. I’d also be interested in hearing more about how you think the snake fits into the story. Sometimes I think there’s potential continuity between how Jesus discusses the abusive religious leaders of his time as serpents and the way the serpent acted in the Garden.
And to be clear—I think your book can help people recovering from spiritual abuse. Not everyone is in the same place in life. Some spiritual abuse survivors want to burn the whole institution of Christianity to the ground. Others are dying for resources like this—resources that can help them find an alternative vision of who God is.
At the same time, the recovery process has many stages, and not everyone is in the right stage for this, I think. To be honest, some days I am not in the right mood for it, either. The first day I read your book, I could only get through one chapter and then I had to put it down for a while. It felt too “religiousy” at the time. Later I felt in a more appropriate mood to read it.
But we all have areas where we’re weak. So I think this is a great opportunity to talk about how we recognize and work to overcome them.
MG: Absolutely. To me, the one thing we need to be saved from is self-justification, the need to always be right in every circumstance and always have an answer for everything. That is the fundamental poison of toxic Christianity. The true Christians (or Boddhisatvas or gurus or whatever word we want to use) are those who enjoy the freedom to be wrong and can apologize, learn, and move forward in perfect grace. We are all wounded and we all wound others. To me, church is supposed to be a community of trust between humble, vulnerable people. And it’s totally cool if the word “church” needs to be replaced with something else and if the goal is not to be a “good Christian” but simply a healthy human being.
RS: Agreed. Though I think the toxicity of fundamentalism—at least the fundamentalism I saw within Christian homeschooling—isn’t just about being right. I mean, we all try to make sense of life. That’s part of being alive. So I don’t think I’d hold it against anyone if they are trying to figure out what makes the most sense in their lives. I think the danger happens when people make “being right” more important than being loving and kind and compassionate. That’s when we value ideas over humans and I think that’s the heart of fundamentalism. I do like your sentiment of embracing doubt but I also think we need to not forget to value humans, too—more than our certainty or our doubt.
For me, I think the struggle I felt in your book came from two places: First, you express this beautiful sentiment in your conclusion: “To hear Jesus speak, we must sit at the feet of the youngest and most marginalized voices in our community.” But second, in the beginning, you say this: “I’ve tried to write this for everyone.”
There’s a tension there. I know I should listen to you—I want to, that’s why I read your book. And you tell me it’s for everyone. But then you say who I should be listening to are, well, people who are almost the very opposite of you.
…does that description of tension make sense?
MG: Indeed. There is a tension. “Should” is the most dangerous word in religion and it should be used with great caution. But I do think that when Jesus says that we have to take up our crosses to follow him, he’s privileging the crucified over the comfortable. Of course, if I should be listening to what Jon Sobrino calls the pueblo crucificado, then why am I the one writing this book? I can’t really justify doing it as yet another progressive white guy with a theory for how to fix everything in the church. I guess it feels like a duty to everyone who has taught me in my journey, especially the folks at the LGBT church in Toledo, Ohio where I heard the gospel I believe today for the first time.
RS: Well, to be clear, I think it’s great you wrote the book. I think there’s an audience that needs to hear it. But I do think perhaps one weakness here is that you “moved out of your lane,” if you will, in suggesting—or at least making it appear you are suggesting—that “the youngest and most marginalized voices in our community” are also part of your intended audience. Because if they are, then you are telling them that they are what is wrong with the Church today. Which, I mean, is probably the worst thing you could tell them. Sure, we could argue about original sin or something. But if we’re talking about redeeming the Church from toxic ideas and practices, “the youngest and most marginalized voices in our community” are the ones hurt by those toxic ideas and practices. They’re not the ones perpetuating them.
MG: That’s a very good point. One of the things I’ve come to question after writing this book is the ability to speak in universal principles. Can anything be said that is true for everyone? Or is universality itself an Enlightenment myth? Is reality inherently situational and contextual?
As a Christian pastor, I want to be able to say that Jesus’ cross and resurrection have something to offer to everyone’s spiritual transformation, regardless of their social location, and that who we are simply determines what we need to appropriate from Jesus, whether it’s primarily his solidarity with our victimhood or his conviction of our oppression. But maybe there are some for whom Jesus’ cross simply cannot offer anything, no matter how it’s framed. That’s a hard possibility to face as someone who was indoctrinated with the idea that I’m supposed to share the gospel with everybody.
One thing I should clarify, by the way, is that I meant for the emphasis to fall differently in that sentence about “trying” to write for everyone: “Though I’ve tried to write this for everyone, at times I will be addressing my own demographic, which the world seems to need saving from the most.” I meant that to come out as a disclaimer and recognition of the limits of my social location.
RS: That difference makes sense.
Well, maybe let’s talk about a group that your book is great for: parents of children raised in conservative evangelicalism. Your chapter “Empty, Not Clean,” which addresses Bill Gothard and Recovering Grace, was my favorite. It contained my favorite line, where you discuss how parents’ “moral citadels”—erected with the purpose of protecting children—can actually increase the abuse of children by creating enclosed communities without transparency. Such communities are thus easier for predators to take advantage of:
“When you build a moral citadel to keep your children safe and clean, those hard, thick citadel walls become the reason your children are unsafe from authority figures on the inside who sinfully exploit their power and destroy the lives of those they’ve been given the authority to protect.”
I felt that chapter would really appeal to parents who are leaving Gothard’s worldview and are trying to find an alternative vision of Christianity.
At the same time, I know you want that chapter to help the children of those parents, too.
MG: Definitely. The question is how to reframe the most toxic, abusive aspect of moral teaching in the moral citadel culture: purity of the heart. I’m not sure how well I did. My experience has been that seeking a heart empty of anxieties, addictions, and agendas is way more important than seeking to keep myself morally clean. It’s important to clarify that “emptiness” for me does not signify self-negation. I don’t think we should try to become identity-less, but rather baggage-less. Emptying to me is not about avoiding moral taboos, but about learning prayer and meditation practices that “cleanse” my mind of all the racing thoughts that keep me hostage.
RS: Yeah, I definitely understand what you mean by emptiness and I also understand what you mean by asceticism in that chapter. (For those reading and are unaware, Guyton presents the concept of asceticism as a counterpoint to Bill Gothard’s legalism.) It reminded me a lot of Dallas Willard’s book, The Spirit of the Disciplines. It isn’t about self-negation, as you say. It’s supposed to be a way to more abundantly embrace life.
The problem here is, I think, language—as well as a lack of parsing differences. Gothard, for example, is a huge fan of fasting. So when you argue people should fast—as part of a regimen that is supposed to be so different from Gothard’s—children who grew up in ATI are going to be really confused. When you suggest asceticism and they grew up in a world of self-negation, it could be really triggering.
Knowing that now, do you think you would rephrase it? And what are your thoughts on how that could be done?
MG: Yeah I think that was a very important lesson for me to learn. One of the basic truths that I could have emphasized better is that each person must discover their own spiritual practices on their journey. We can have mentors on our journey whom we choose to follow. But the idea of creating a hierarchical regimented program to establish uniform spiritual practices for a whole subculture of people is antithetical to the way the Holy Spirit works. It’s making spiritual practice into a Tower of Babel rather than Pentecost. The Holy Spirit doesn’t create industrial complexes.
I just don’t expect any other person to do what I do to pray. I pray the Orthodox Jesus prayer in Greek using a Catholic rosary. I fast on Mondays and Fridays. I don’t do this because it’s what everybody is supposed to do, but because I had a particular set of spiritual encounters that drew me onto a particular path. I have about eight lines from psalms that I recite as mantras in Hebrew, because those eight lines are meaningful to the very specific context of my spiritual journey. I like walking in a prayer labyrinth as part of my ritual every Monday.
I would encourage others to explore establishing their own rituals. My practices are rooted in Christian scripture because it’s most meaningful to me to stay connected with my past. But I’m not sure what you do when your spiritual roots are poisonous. Maybe you have to find a whole different tradition to start over. The point is to find sacred things to say and do with our bodies in order to make space and find relief from our anxiety.
RS: So I got chills when I read, “I’m not sure what you do when your spiritual roots are poisonous. Maybe you have to find a whole different tradition to start over.” For the people I work with, I think that’s a really important message to hear—especially from a Christian. There are of course some survivors who need to find healing outside of Christianity. But for those of us who are still trying to be Christians, it can be super hard to find a way forward when just about every way you were taught as appropriate now freaks you out. Speaking personally, I wished to God many times I could go into churches. Even during my apostate years, I didn’t want to have to endure panic attacks just to attend a friend’s wedding.
So hearing that it is ok—receiving that permission—I think could be so much more empowering and healing for some people than hearing they should experiment with asceticism. I think you could mention what worked for you in the context of “Hey, I enjoy this,” but I think people leaving Gothard’s world would find more healing in hearing the message, “Hey, God is not going to hate you for valuing your self more than what a religious authority says you should value.”
MG: Right. Admittedly, part of the posturing I was doing somewhat subconsciously in that chapter is precisely what Jesus said not to do. I was trying to one-up the Gothardites by saying look, I probably fast more than you do, so you should take me seriously. As soon as fasting or any other spiritual practice becomes about credibility, it’s lost its value entirely. That’s not what it’s about. To be honest, I still don’t know what fasting is really about even though I’ve done it for five years. It’s still a mystery to me. I just know I’ve had some really cool ecstatic spiritual experiences while I’ve been in that state. It’s a tool that helps me to focus, maybe? For some people, that tool might be yoga instead. The goal is to quiet the mind, whatever means we use.
RS: Speaking of yoga, I think exercise is a good analogy for how different people respond better to different manifestations of Christianity. Some people love yoga. My partner loves yoga. I hate it. I like walking or dancing. But some people hate dancing. In the end, the goal is to be healthy. So whether we get healthy doing yoga or dancing, we should support each other’s goals to be healthy.
In the case of Christianity, it’s ok for us to have different walks. Some of us might like asceticism, like you do, because of our life experiences. Others of us might find asceticism really triggering, because of our life experiences. I was thinking about that Thomas Merton quotation you had about how freedom wasn’t about smoking cigarettes whenever you want. But I actually disagree… for some people. For some people, doing something unhealthy is a necessary part of their process. Some people find Jesus in a cigarette. Because for them, there is freedom there. Hopefully they don’t pick up the habit, but faith works in funny ways.
I mean, I know people who found Jesus in the bottom of a whiskey bottle and I know people who lost Jesus during a church service. There’s no guaranteed outcome.
I think that’s something missing in your book, as much as I loved the God-is-DJ analogy: that permission to find your own path.
MG: Ha. I wrote a poem once about how each cigarette was a prayer to God. I totally get the need to have a “fuck everything” phase. I’m also not going to say that mind-altering substances are always wrong. I’ve had some genuinely spiritual encounters when my mind was altered. Its always the practical question of avoiding addiction and abuse.
Regarding the lack of permissiveness in my book, I think it was because I was trying to perform an adequate orthodoxy for the evangelical litmus-testers so that I could evangelize them and not be dismissed out of hand. It’s tricky to figure out who your real audience is. I’ve got a fundamentalist in my brain who’s always critiquing what I write as I write it.
RS: Well… I usually write with Christian homeschoolers in mind, so I certainly understand the need to pay attention to how you phrase things!
And I think this conversation itself is helpful in itself. I think it’s probably clear you and I see some things differently but we also obviously appreciate each other’s perspectives. Growing up, I always felt I had to hold people who thought differently about spiritual matters with suspicion. I’m glad I don’t have to do that anymore. It’s freeing.
MG: Indeed. It’s so tragic thinking that someone else has to be completely wrong about God or else I’m completely wrong. I talk about this in my chapter “Kìngdøm not Stadium.” One of the hardest things I have to accept is that God has not completely forsaken the fundamentalists. God is meeting them where they are just like God is meeting me where I am. I do think their beliefs cause harm but I can’t say they are utterly cursed and outside of God’s love.
RS: It’s been interesting for me, as I am pursuing my MHS in Child Protection, to read about how certain unique aspects of different cultures—even conservative, fundamentalist ones—can actually help their members. That’s a hard pill to swallow. But it’s helped change how I approach advocacy. I now want to amplify and magnify those good things more and am trying to attack the bad things less.
Though I do think the act of critique can be a work of love, too.
MG: It seems like critique is most effective when it presumes the best intentions possible on the part of the one being critiqued. I really do believe that toxic Christian theology has made good people cause harm. Sure there’s plenty of human frailty and nastiness that gets in the mix as well. But the toxic theology is the decisive factor.