On Christian Radicalism
[Originally written for the Emerging Scholars Network blog, but you can see it earlier here. You should really check it out some day!]
For its cover story last month, Christianity Today published an article on contemporary Radicalism. The article struck me as controversial and provocative because it held out criticism of controversial and provocative people: David Platt, Francis Chan, and Shane Claiborne among others. The overall tone is quite critical of the icons and the culture of emerging Christian radicalism:
These teachers want us to see that following Christ genuinely, truly, really, radically, sacrificially, inconveniently, and uncomfortably will cost us…
The reliance on intensifiers demonstrates the emptiness of American Christianity’s language. Previous generations were content singing “trust and obey, for there’s no other way.” Today we have to reallytrust and truly obey. The inflated rhetoric is a sign of how divorced our churches’ vocabulary is from the simple language of Scripture.
And the intensifiers don’t solve the problem. Replacing belief with commitment still places the burden of our formation on the sheer force of our will. As much as some of these radical pastors would say otherwise, their rhetoric still relies on listeners “making a decision.” There is almost no explicit consideration of how beliefs actually take root, or whether that process is as conscious as we presume.
Or as dramatic. The heroes of the radical movement are martyrs and missionaries whose stories truly inspire, along with families who make sacrifices to adopt children. Yet the radicals’ repeated portrait of faith underemphasizes the less spectacular, frequently boring, and overwhelmingly anonymous elements that make up much of the Christian life.
I felt angry when reading it the first few times, mainly because it struck me as unfair. Unfair for levying a harsh criticism on people who both called for and demonstrated significant sacrifice. Unfair because it seemed like a defense of the status quo. Unfair because it did not offer anything in the author’s life as a vicarious and effusive counterpoint to the radical examples offered. Unfair because it did not celebrate the successful transformation and gospel-centered changes taking place in people’s lives. Unfair because I had chosen to live what many would call a “radical life” and felt similarly stereotyped and criticized.
However, in a more careful analysis, I see some points that are valid and some that need clarification. The best way to tease out these conflicting emotions and points are to lay them out this way:
1) Radicals, Christians, and most of the American population needs to write with better style. William Safire grumbled about the radicalization of language years ago:
Now that hyper is looking down at super, is there a prefix above both — some hyperlative on the way? (That’s one step up from superlative, and is a term that Hyperman would use to describe his Lois Lane.) – New York Times Magazine, 2003
I read this as a college student while sitting on the toilet; the stench of over-writing and hyperradicalization of language has since become an anathema to my self-editing spirit. On this point, I am in full agreement with the author.
2) Radicalism by itself saves no one. This point is the most difficult to begrudge, and I believe is the author’s central thesis. He could have easily pointed to Scripture:
If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing. – 1 Corinthians 13
3) Our culture celebrates the authenticity of experience over the humility of obedience. In our increasingly cynical, self-centered, and sensory-driven society, the most forceful arguments are the personal narratives. We want to post something on our social media platforms that says, “This is awesome (e.g. unusual, radical, atypical, newsworthy)!” while saying, “This is real (e.g. genuine, authentic, legitimate)!” The author is right in pointing out that we are no longer content to hear that something is simply true; it must be overwhelmingly, sensationally, compellingly, and tantalizingly true. Therefore, the more exotic the narrative and the more suffering and grotesque the sacrifice, the more inclined we are to believe and share it as gospel.
I will say that the author does too little to point us in constructive, gospel-centered, humble directions in response. Even though there may be legitimate criticism of the bombastic language and methods of the contemporary/modern/chic/hipster forms of Christian radicalism described here, the author’s suggestion of a response that honors faithful obedience falls short of the exhortations of the gospel, whose criticisms of wealth are certainly radical: as a disciple, you will have no place to lay your head; let the dead bury their own dead; sell all you have and give it to the poor; it is difficult for rich people to go to heaven; love your enemies; and follow Jesus even as he leads where you do not want to go.
I moved into the inner city nearly one year ago. Nearly everyone, including myself, thought that this was insane. I freely admit that at first it seemed like a huge sacrifice, and I am certain that my motives were tainted with pride, a Messianic complex, a degree of condescension, and a penchant for radical truths. But now, I call it the best decision I have made in my life, because through it I have been incredibly blessed and now understand what Jesus was saying more clearly. I know what it means to feel like a man without a home, to give freely of what I have, to love my enemies, to walk stepwise in the directions I would rather avoid. I see how, as the author said, we should seek Jesus in the everyday grind. That said, I would caution him that the parable of the Good Samaritan is NOT about “what we do in everyday life” so much as it is about whom we define as our neighbors, and that Jesus most readily identifies with “the least of these.”
I made these “radical” decisions and lifestyle changes long before I heard anything by David Platt (though I love his messages now because his call towards Christocentric obedience rings true). I made these decisions because the gospel of Jesus Christ, in as plain a reading as possible, convicted me that the way I was living was incompatible with what a Christian should say, live, and do.
Matthew Lee Anderson, if you have read this far, please know that I hear and understand you, and agree with much of what you say. I only ask that you point people more towards Jesus Christ and less at the semantics and culture of what his followers may seem to do. Whether from false motives or true, so long as Christ as preached, we can and should rejoice together.
It is true that some preach Christ out of envy and rivalry, but others out of goodwill. The latter do so out of love, knowing that I am put here for the defense of the gospel. The former preach Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely, supposing that they can stir up trouble for me while I am in chains. But what does it matter? The important thing is that in every way, whether from false motives or true, Christ is preached. And because of this I rejoice. – Philippians 1
I think your comment about how regardless of your initial motives you gained a lot from this move, points to two things that I have thinking about.
1) American Christianity in general focuses a little too much on motivation, over action. We psychoanalyze everything we do to understand what was “in our heart”. I think this is helpful to an extent, but I think it too easily leads to a Christian schizophrenia. We care so much about wanting to do things for the right reasons, that many of us use our faulty hearts as an excuse for not doing anything. We then make ourselves feel better by criticizing those “radicals” by trying to demonstrate how their seemingly good acts are marred by pride. There is a notion that right actions stem solely from having the right theology. I think there is a priority place on our minds over our bodies, and we confuse our heart with our mind. I think our “hearts” are something much deeper in our beings, that our harder to access and interpret than we make it seem. Furthermore, I believe that our motives will always be mixed, in focusing too much on our motives before acting we fail to recognize that the one who changes our hearts and motives is not us. We cannot change our hearts through therapy, but through obedience.
2) You hint at how you gained a great deal from living in the inner city. You better understand the heart and mind of Christ. Many times radical Christianity is presented as a matter of doing radical things in order to be Christian. We are presented with daunting examples of radical obedience and are paralyzed because they sound “too difficult”. I think there is something missing in our language about radicalism, which is the idea of invitation. Christ is not simply commanding us to gain obedient followers, but, in his love, inviting us into a new life, filled with blessing and opportunity. This blessing and opportunity is not health and wealth. This blessing and opportunity is what you have experienced in living in the inner city. We can resist Christ’s radical commandments, but are depriving ourselves of a life where we can see God at work, and deepen our relationship with Him.
Just some of my reactions. Thanks for writing.
I love the leadership of a fully sacrificial movement, and the humility that accepts creative variance from said leadership. Very few are called to sacrifice so much, but your community of doctors need to hear of this type of lifestyle management. Face it, your sacrifice is minimal as compared to those in persecuted in oppressive, violent countries, great and admirably as your sacrifice has been. Even your ministry asks for measured and wise level of sacrifice, There’s always greater movements. The Holy Spirit is always impressing greater levels of sacrifice. Our language struggles to keep up.
Thanks for your ministry and cultural leadership,
I found my way here through the ESN blog–appreciated this post a lot, especially bullet #3 re: humility of obedience (makes me think about the non-flashy, unintentionally radical components of the immigrant churches that I grew up in)
“Even though there may be legitimate criticism of the bombastic language and methods of the contemporary/modern/chic/hipster forms of Christian radicalism described here, the author’s suggestion of a response that honors faithful obedience falls short of the exhortations of the gospel, whose criticisms of wealth are certainly radical: as a disciple, you will have no place to lay your head; let the dead bury their own dead; sell all you have and give it to the poor; it is difficult for rich people to go to heaven; love your enemies; and follow Jesus even as he leads where you do not want to go.”
I needed that today, thanks for writing.