On Christian Radicalism

Christianity Today’s criticism of Platt, Chan, and Claiborne et al.

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 really trust 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 need 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.

HOWEVER:

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

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dchen.05@gmail.com'

David

David graduated from Princeton University with a degree in Electrical Engineering and received his medical degree from Rutgers - Robert Wood Johnson Medical School with a Masters in Public Health concentrated in health systems and policy. He completed a dual residency in Internal Medicine and Pediatrics at Christiana Care Health System in Delaware. He continues to work in Delaware as a dual Med-Peds hospitalist. Faith-wise, he is decid­edly Christian, and regarding everything else he will gladly talk your ear off about health policy, the inner city, gadgets, and why Disney’s Frozen is actually a terrible movie.

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11 Comments

  • kle.seaton@gmail.com'
    Kelly commented on April 12, 2013 Reply

    These are interesting points. I often struggle with point #3 -Our culture celebrates the authenticity of experience over the humility of obedience.

    I think Jesus gave us an example of both in Scripture – “radical”, immediate action (turning out the moneychangers) and quiet, humble obedience throughout his life.

    In some sense, I think both are needed. We often need “radical” actions in the American context, to try to grab people’s attention and to get on the radar screen, so to speak. However, unless we follow through with a life that is authentic, passionate, and humble in its service of Christ, we risk turning people away from the true message of the gospel.

    In the end, I’m reminded of 1 Corinthians 3:5-7:

    “What, after all, is Apollos? And what is Paul? Only servants, through whom you came to believe—as the Lord has assigned to each his task. I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God has been making it grow. So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow.”

    I think it’s great when we have leaders like David Platt and Francis Chan and others, who can catch the attention of both believers and non-believers alike. But at the same time, it will be the everyday witness of faithful, local believers that can and should be the light when the rubber meets the road. Those of us who notice the Zaccheus’s in our lives and who aren’t afraid to invite them over for dinner.

  • geek2inherit@comcast.net'
    Emily commented on April 12, 2013 Reply

    Honestly, I am overjoyed that this conversation is even happening in our church. In a society in which comfort is worshipped over Christ, I am delighted that the Holy Spirit has convicted many to take up their crosses and follow Him (and not just those who read these new Christian best-sellers, although I do not discount the importance of such books in reminding people who it is they are following). I think what I found to be most frustrating in both the “Christian radical” books and the critiques I’ve read of them is that there seems to be this assumption that radical, bold discipleship and humble, “boring” obedience are mutually exclusive. The “radical” viewpoints hold that any church that is spending time and money on interior art or sound equipment must not be truly honoring the call of Jesus. The “traditional” viewpoints insinuate that sacrificial giving, relocating to live with the poor, and renewed understanding of “real” commitment may be little more than mere theatrics.

    Really, though, any follower of Jesus will have a life that includes elements of both sacrificial commitment and mundane faithfulness, and the particular balance of those elements will not be the same for everyone. We even see this in the Gospel – Jesus challenged the rich young ruler (Luke 18:18-25) far differently than the formerly demon-possessed man (Mark 5:1-20) or Martha (Luke 10:38-42). Does a large portion of the American church need to be challenged to consider selling everything and giving it to the poor? Absolutely! But since this was not Jesus’ response to every person who came to him, it would be unreasonable to emphasize a certain type of sacrifice as a litmus test for discipleship. And as you pointed out in your last two paragraphs, David, Jesus should always be the point of any lifestyle, whether radical or (seemingly) not.

    There was one quote in Matthew Lee Anderson’s critique that struck me as particularly noteworthy: “…the problem with the call to radical Christianity is that it may not be radical enough. It’s clear that middle- and upper-class Christians are looking for a deeper, more profound experience of faith. Yet it’s unclear whether we can invigorate faith without revisiting our worship and community practices, asking whether they are forming disciples at subterranean levels.” Jesus asked us to “go therefore and make disciples” (Matthew 28:19), and that can happen through long-term commitment to serving the urban poor or long-term commitment to serving the children of the American dream. If our focus is on making (and being!) disciples, rather than on living one or another style of Christ-following, then we will be ready to listen to Jesus and go where he wants us to go, and stay where he wants us to stay.

  • kle.seaton@gmail.com'
    Kelly commented on April 12, 2013 Reply

    Emily – I really love your last line –
    ” If our focus is on making (and being!) disciples, rather than on living one or another style of Christ-following, then we will be ready to listen to Jesus and go where he wants us to go, and stay where he wants us to stay.”

    Very well said!

  • morningstarsong@sbcglobal.net'
    Mo commented on April 12, 2013 Reply

    Please note my comment here is only on this blog post, not the original article referenced, which I have not yet read.

    My comment is also a bit of a side note, but I think it needs to be said.

    I can’t speak about the other two people listed because I’ve only heard their names and don’t know much about them. But I know of Shane Claiborne and read, I believe, his first book. I see nothing wrong with criticizing his views as being not in line with Scripture. Many of the views of the more “radical” Christians are not Christian views at all, but Leftist views.

    Some examples:

    The Bible is not anti-war, in the sense that ALL wars are always immoral. God is not a pacifist. Should WWII not have been fought to defeat the Nazis?

    The Bible doesn’t teach that being wealthy is inherently immoral, any more than it teaches that being poor is inherently moral! One can be wealthy and use that money to help many people and spread the Gospel. One can also be poor and be consumed with jealousy and hatred of others! Job and Solomon were directly blessed by God with wealth!

    Socialism, where the government forcibly takes from one person to give to another. That’s not biblical. That’s theft.

    Illegal immigration – It is not moral for people to enter this country illegally, going to the head of the line, as it were, before all the others who’ve worked hard to enter by proper channels. Supporting such lawbreaking is immoral, not biblical.

    I could go on, but I think that’s sufficient for now.

  • jbw7@comcast.net'
    jbw4u commented on April 12, 2013 Reply

    I like all these authors a lot and have utilized video series by two of them with professional students. That said, I have noticed some over-hyperbole ;-)

    I’ve noticed the prophetic kudos from other evangelicals typically comes for their promotion of redistributive social justice activities as evidence of being radical. Interesting common thread.

    Not sure they’d get the same if they included an example example or two of faith under fire for people who spoke out pro-life as per Psalm 139:13-18. Like the Asian peer in the fictional movie, Juno. Or spoke out pro-marriage as per Genesis 2:23-24 in a public context at a major university or in a public interview with the entertainment industry inviting struggling couples to a Marriage Encounter and footing the bill for several couples. Maybe they’d get the same kudos and publishing and high billing conference speaker platforms.

    Clearly when another mega pastor and author was outed on a proposition in California, he has received much vile treatment especially now during an untimely, vulnerable time of personal grief. And he was very couched about it at a national debate and in other contexts where he spoke quite carefully. I still like Platt, Chan, and Idleman, and even what I heard at one convention from SC though I hear the latter may be the most redistributive justice advocate fixated.

    I’d promote the three in a heartbeat and if CT’s biggest critique is over-hyperbole :-) well, that is very very very laughable ;-) as far as being a significant controversy.

  • jbw7@comcast.net'
    jbw4u commented on April 12, 2013 Reply

    I probably should have said I really like most of these authors as one I’ve not read. Also instead of saying ‘over-hyperbole’ as a tease I should have intensified it with over-over intensifiers, really! I did like the bottom line paragraph where the good Samaritan wasn’t going on a trip or project or budget experiment but was different in character even while interrupted in the course of every day life. That does speak of being transformed and being transformational…er uh radical, no really!

  • jon.corbett@att.net'
    Jon Corbett commented on April 12, 2013 Reply

    I actually appreciated the original CT article and I fear that both sides in emotional response fail to listen to each other. I only really know Platt. There is much he says which I like and some that makes me feel a little off put. And I never really have liked the term ‘radical’ much and would personally much rather adopt ‘incarnational’. I fear the ‘radical’ model starts with man, it’s an image we are projecting back on Christ and then mining the Gospel’s to find a Jesus that fits everything that it means to be a radical (Granted a lot of what he does on first blush fits that model). But I’d rather go with incarnational, a model that starts with Christ. Remember, Christ lived a normal life for 30 years as a carpenter and did normal stuff. We tend to shorten the scope of Christ’s earthly ministry based upon our theological tradition (some only caring about his death). I worked full time campus ministry for 1/2 pay for 8 years of my life, I have multiple advanced degrees and willingly gave up high paying jobs to do that ministry. Most the time it was thankless. A lot of the time it wasn’t triumphant in the sense that most people like to market things. And my presence on campus made a big difference (but that was God, not me). Now that we have a new born, I am a stay at home dad who works very part time off campus. I suppose if I were a ‘radical’ we’d stuff our daughter in some sort of impersonal day care so I could go off and do my own triumphant things. I’m not, and part of being an incarnational Christian for me at this point is to stay home and extend love to our daughter (and my wife who wanted to pursue her profession). It’s hard work, a lot of sacrifice and doesn’t feel personally fulfilling in the sense that the triumphal view finds fulfillment. I think the radical model falsely places the onus on people as the center and measure of all things instead of starting with God who is the source of all things. It is somewhat disingenuous at points to past generations of faithful Christians. It can lead to a diminishing of important vocation and calling in life. It can lead to a semi-Pelagian outlook both on achieving God’s work and also on salvation. But of course, as a person, I am much more of an intellectual than an activist which may cloud my own personal views. It does offer a harsh and needed critique of entertainment focused churches and easy-believe-ism. I just wonder if it replaces perceived self-sacrifice for entertainment, which may be an improvement, but ultimately God’s love and response to God’s love through love of God and Love of neighbor should be the motivation both to worship and mission.

  • dchen.05@gmail.com'
    David commented on April 13, 2013 Reply

    Thank you for the thoughtful comments. As a note, some have been removed (by my discretion) according to the ESN blog policy found here: http://blog.emergingscholars.org/commenting-policy/

    If you have further questions, please feel free to e-mail me at admin@theurbanresident.com

  • brenda.hey@gmail.com'
    bdheyink commented on April 15, 2013 Reply

    Thanks for your article. I thought you did a good job pointing out the positives of the Christianity Today article, while also raising helpful questions about potential problematic areas.

    I also liked how you placed yourself within the radicals – not because you live an intentional community, but simply because you want to follow Jesus faithfully. That in and of itself (wherever you live whatever you do) is radical enough. My husband and I were just talking yesterday about how radical it is to choose the life of a monastery (a friend of his had made profession 2 days ago) or even of the priesthood. And yet, because it doesn’t fit our current day notions of radicalness, we sometimes miss this or even other things that are more radical – the same way we’d be likely to miss the widow’s penny tithe.

  • hughe036@gmail.com'
    Joel commented on April 15, 2013 Reply

    Cool post about an interesting article–thanks for pointing that out. In my view, the thing being discussed here about radicalism pits American institutionalized evangelicalism against self-sacrifice in social activism (not totally–I am over-simplifying). However, there is another approach to radicalism that Jon Corbett brings up! The intensely relational ministry style that involves self-sacrifice. Way to go, Mr. Corbett. Discipleship is a blast, and that is really radical (pun intended).

  • jon.corbett@att.net'
    Jon Corbett commented on April 19, 2013 Reply

    I know this post is a little old, but here is another interesting Review of Platt’s radical, that I found interesting given the perspective the reviewer is writing from: http://www.worldmag.com/2010/05/if_platt_s_radical_was_radical

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