Notes from the Margins: The New Radicals are Already Here

Each week in Notes From the Margins, D.L. Mayfield writes about the kingdom of God, marginalized people groups, and popular culture.

Shane Claiborne speaking. Image: aenonfire via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Being a radical Christian has its perks. The word (if not entirely the concept) sells books, DVDs, conference tickets, and lends a patina of spirituality to all those who claim it. Identifying with this word (or its cousins subversive and/or counter-cultural) has thrust more than a few teachers and authors into the limelight. As Matthew Lee Anderson chronicled in his recent Christianity Today cover story, David Platt, Francis Chan, and Shane Claiborne are but a few names selling vast numbers on the topic of rejecting the status quo. But for as many books as they sell, they seem to inspire a certain amount of backlash. I have heard often people talk about feeling guilty, overwhlemed, and paralyzed after reading RadicalCrazy Love or any Claiborne book.

Writers, thinkers, stay-at-home-parenters—everyone seems to be weighing on how you don’t really need to move into an inner-city neighborhood and sell your car in order to be radical for Jesus. That can’t be right, since so many of us aren’t doing it. No, I hear people saying, this isn’t the way of Jesus. There is a holiness in the mundane, in the stuff of every day life, of getting up and going to work and providing for your family, protecting their well-being.

I hear elements of this backlash in Anderson’s piece, which rightly critiques methods of platform and language while somewhat missing the spirit of the practitioners (Anderson did respond to some of the criticisms recently here). The mystique of Christians on the edges of society causes some to worship them and others to fear what one of my friends calls the “spiritual gift of guilt” many of these New Radicals are alleged to posses.

Both of these reactions are contrary to what most of these thinkers and practitioners would advocate for. Instead, what I hear when I read the works of Platt, Chan, Claiborne et. al (and lets not forget the women–like Margot Starbuck and our own Helen Lee) is a tale as old as our religion. For centuries we have always had teachers, thinkers and prophets asking Christians to flee the sinking ship of society, to come back to a place of simplicity and service to Christ (which in fact makes the New Radicals sound like the Desert Fathers and Mothers of our modern age). It’s a call to reject the societal norms that keep us from following Jesus with everything that is within us.

People within the New Radical movement (who would most likely hate to be identified as being “new”, “radical”, and possibly even a “movement”) are a much wider and more diverse crowd than a Christianity Today profile would make us believe. Although a few of them are easily identifiable by their dreadlocks and burlap pants, most of the people being called to live on the margins of the American dream do so quietly, in love, and without any fanfare. Most of all, they are people who are deeply in love with Jesus and committed to obeying his still small voice, and who often find their life going in directions that is not affiliated with the status quo. There is no getting around this element of the New Radicals: they are right to critique American culture and the church’s compliciteness in valuing distinctly western ideologies. Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness were never the topic of conversation around Jesus–in fact, in his upside-down kingdom, it was quite the opposite.

It is also quite terrifying. We who read and are struck with fear and awe at the overwhelming possibilities of following Jesus should take heart. This is the proper response, the ones we see laid out in Scripture. Everything about the Kingdom of God is contrary to the way the devil would have the world work—Jesus works through the small and broken, the weak and the dumb, the mustard seeds. For readers to dismiss authors such as Platt and Chan based on their usage of words like “radical” and other intensifiers, or feelings of guilt and paralysis, is a shame. Whatever our reaction to stories of life changes (also called discipleship-based obedience) we should be grateful to experience a reaction at all.

The New Radicals are not out to inspire heroism or guilt; nor are they asking anyone to live exactly like them. In their works, their (extremely varied) lives, their church communities—many of our modern-day desert prophets have very few practical similarities. I would argue that their words and lives are not prescriptive—nor have any of them said as much.

So the choice is ours. Do we lean in to our feelings of guilt, and discover that it really might be our desire to read Scripture and believe in all the promises of Jesus? Do we dare listen to the still small voice inside of us that says yes, now is the time to take the next step. For that is what I propose the stories of the New Radicals are: stories of people, taking step after step in their road to being obedient to Jesus. There is no one model, no method for making us holy, likeable, or successful in any wordly measure. But we can be inspired to take our own steps forward, to never sink peacefully into the sinking ship that is the American Dream, into trading our obedience for a life built on comfort, safety, and temporal happiness.

The people listening to the modern-day desert mothers and fathers are all around us, responding to the truth that the American dream is not synonymous with the kingdom of God. Most of them aren’t writing books, or living grandiose lives. They are just simply taking the next step of obedience, day after day.

The New Radicals aren’t coming. They are already here.

About D.L. Mayfield

D.L. Mayfield's life is about 90% mundane and 10% cray-cray. She loves food and books and a good outsider perspective portrayed in pop culture. She gets very, very excitable when anyone mentions the phrases "kingdom of God". You can find her blog here and on twitter as @d_l_mayfield.

  • http://hargaden.com/kevin Kevin Hargaden

    I suspect from reading Matthew Lee Anderson’s piece on Mere Orthodoxy and just by following his usually excellent work that in this case, he was undone a bit by the vagaries of having your pieces edited for a global magazine. As he says himself, it is hard to make a fair critique in 3000 words. And whatever you call this “movement” he terms “new radicals”, it is a sign of maturity that critique is offered. No one critiques the new radical movement in Ireland, because we don’t have one!

    But as you gently pointed out, Matthew seemed to rest a lot of his argument on the little quirks of language within the movement. It _really_ seems to me that idiomatic expression is not a firm basis for a theological argument. And the parts of his piece that were truly superb (for example, his analysis of how Chan or Platt’s books only get read by so many people because of a pre-existing capitalist systems of publishing that mimics a celebrity-culture) actually made the case for new radicalism. Christianity in the west is so in thrall to counter-Kingdom systems that we can’t even discuss alternatives without embracing counter-Kingdom media.

    The truth is that one of the things new radicalism must try to create is a new way of affirming the graced goodness of everyday life in the urban and suburban centres of the western world. But that affirmation cannot be true if it doesn’t come also with critique and a call to transformation. Matthew’s critique, where it is sharp, is really sharp. We need to be able to be radical followers of Jesus who also happen to be insurance brokers or PE teachers. But that doesn’t negate the need for radicalism but only deepens our need for it and for the experiments in faithfulness that it brings.

    I’m _really_ sorry for this _really_ long comment but this piece _really_ got me thinking. :)

  • http://dlmayfield.wordpress.com D.L. Mayfield

    KEVIN! you said it so well. “That affirmation cannot be true if it doesn’t come also with a critique and a call to transformation”. Perfect.

  • Scott Cunningham

    I have nothing worthwhile to add and this may be bad form but just wanted to say anyway that this is an excellent article that I’m going to print when I get to work hold in to for a while. AND I’m going to print out Kevin’s excellent comment as well. Both are very meaty and helpful so thanks.

  • Steve S.

    I have a lot of respect for Platt and Chan, and I think they probably are aware that if enough people took their books seriously, the publishing industry supporting the books would collapse. I don’t think it would necessarily bother them.

    I really don’t think either one is trying to be theologically innovative. Platt certainly doesn’t see himself that way. I doubt Chan does, either. You’re right that their style doesn’t lend itself to complex theological discourse, but they’re not trying to write original theology, and when a pastor is speaking to a widely diverse congregation, he has to speak in order to be understood. Their aims are pastoral, not academic. If any of these guys sat down to write serious theology, they’d have to quickly change their style, and I expect they would.

    Their style, though, is part of their strength. Their language is straightforward and pointed. They articulate their principles clearly They use concrete examples and images. They use anecdotes without letting their discourse be controlled by autobiography. They have a head for Scripture and are, for the most part, attentive readers. If preaching suffers today, it’s not because of people like Chan and Platt. There are many ways to preach badly, but in my recent experience, bad preaching today tends toward the trivial and the ambiguous for fear of giving offense. Vagueness is the constant refuge of the coward in the pulpit.

    But as to the whole “New Radicals” label, how long until they become the Old Radicals?

  • http://www.linkedin.com/in/pgepps pgepps

    I thought Anderson’s piece was helpful in a way that is obscured in this response: it pointed out the thin line between being sold-out and selling out. While “holy fools” will always be with us, and needed and welcome, they will also always need to be precisely in the margin (and the strongest part of this piece is your praise for the truly and naturally marginal); when the “marginal” has its own pyramid display at your local bookstore, you have to ask where the center is. Authority matters, and being “subversive” is a pretty bad way to establish it.

  • Casey

    With the exception of Claiborne, most evangelical “radicals” limit their criticism to American Christian obsession with creature comforts, and thus a soft critique of wealth. Few criticize evangelicals cozying up to American political or military power. Until they cross that threshold, it sounds like bellicose pietism.

  • http://www.charismanglicann The Charismanglican

    ^^^^^^^
    This guy nailed it. How radical can Christianity be when it ignores the systems of violence that still hold sway 2,000 years after crucifying the Son of God.

  • http://www.inamirrordimly.com ed cyzewski

    Well gosh, you already know how I feel about this one and I’ve appreciated your thoughts on this all along. One detail that I find helpful is the way Claiborn and some others attach the word “ordinary” to radical. I think Claiborn at least has taken away some of the intensity and asked us to consider how “radical” could actually be normal and ordinary. that little verbal trick has been immensely helpful and liberating for me.

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  • krys

    Perhaps God has calls believers to a variety of different callings/gifts/locations…weather the suburbs or inner-city is irrelevant and doesn’t warrant an article posting categorizing types of Christians “radicals” and inferring one is better than the other. Arguably, this article was a waste of time and just fueled more divisiveness instead of unity.

  • Teri Clifton

    I read Shane’s book years ago and to my knowledge, he never sought a “grandiose” expression of his faith. Notoriety happened as a result of his advocacy. He did not choose to take a mainstream job and attend church weekly, he chose something radical and others were inspired and joined him.

    I embraced this movement and find joy, not guilt, in frugality but if guilt is put forth as something to be avoided then I am left confused… is not the absolute message from Jesus that we should share, avoid greed, and would that not be compatible with identifying yourself as a Christian?

  • Kathy

    I am an older Radical. I have lived the American Dream. I have been a Pastor’s Wife, a church planter, Teacher, Music Director, Women’s Director, writer, administrator – you name it……and I love the church. I have often found, however, that the very separate “Church” is not meeting the very diverse needs of society. Diverse ministries for our diverse society. The gospel is unchanging, but the methodologies of our traditional churches should change to meet our changing world. I have often seen first hand the exclusivity of approved ministries in some of our churches. In Mark Batterson’s book, Chase the Goose, he says “we must move from being irresponsibly responsible to responsibly irresponsible”. This spoke to me because it showed me that I have always been “irresponsibly responsible” – listening to people who show me a pattern of being responsible to things that Jesus never thought were important. Christ wants me to be to be responsibly irresponsible – responding the the “take up thy cross and follow me” gospel of Jesus Christ. Christ does, however, want me to do it responsibly. I believe that He means for me to be a part of a church, but embrace His teachings on reaching out to the poor, helping to heal the broken hearted, ministering to the needs of those who are outside of our churches. Most of our churches do a good job of taking care of their members, while being very selective in those it helps outside the walls of the church. I have seen many church people spend an inordinate portion of their time involved in frivolous activities that Christ would question the need for. I do not want to spend my senior years doing what I’ve always done. I want to wholeheartedly embrace the expectations of Christ. I doubt I’ll sell my house, but I will make it available to those in need. I will not stop buying clothes, but I will be more frugal and will take part in clothing those who have no clothes; I will try to feed the hungry, entertain strangers, sponsor orphans, sacrifice my comfort for the comfort of others. I do not ever again want to be involved in activities in the church that do not fall into a category that fulfills Matthew 22:37-40, Matthew 6:19-21, 1 John 3:17, Matthew 25:36-46…..etc. If that is being Radical, then I want to be Radical!

  • Steve

    Platt, Chan, Claiborne and a host of others who think either positively or negatively that they’re doing anything new here is to be mistaken. John R. W. Stott wrote a book in 1978, originally entitled “Christian Counter-Culture,” (a commentary on The Sermon on the Mount – during a time where the terms used here (radical/counter culture) had some salient meaning if not pejorative connotations. Even as far back as the the first century church, the radical message the first disciples shared was seen as being done by those “who have turned the world upside down…” May that be our approach to whatever neighborhood or vocation God calls us – whether we call ourselves or others “radicals” or not.

  • Beth

    I confess that I have not read Platt and Chan but I am well acquainted with Shane Claiborne and in fact I am a part of a community you may have seen listed in the back of his books, Common Ground. If reading Shane’s writing invites you to feel guilty then perhaps you should ask yourself, why. I ask myself: what if Jesus really meant all that stuff he said? I measure my life by my response to that question. If you call yourself a Christian, shouldn’t you do the same thing? Jesus was a radical, if we follow Him, we will also look like a radical. I can’t make this statement in a better way than Kathy did so I will close by quoting her last comments: “I want to wholeheartedly embrace the expectations of Christ. I doubt I’ll sell my house, but I will make it available to those in need. I will not stop buying clothes, but I will be more frugal and will take part in clothing those who have no clothes; I will try to feed the hungry, entertain strangers, sponsor orphans, sacrifice my comfort for the comfort of others. I do not ever again want to be involved in activities in the church that do not fall into a category that fulfills Matthew 22:37-40, Matthew 6:19-21, 1 John 3:17, Matthew 25:36-46…..etc. If that is being Radical, then I want to be Radical!”

  • Will

    This article is great. My wife and I have been inspired by the idea of being “ordinary radicals” and we try to live it. There are lots of us out there, and it’s a great thing. Jesus was a radical, that’s what I like about the guy.

    On a side note, I don’t get why Francis Chan and Steven Furtick are included in this list. Can anyone help me understand why they are considered “radical.” From my point of view they seem like clean-cut megachurch guys. I don’t really get that part of the original article.

  • http://neighborfoodblog.com Courtney @ Neighborfood

    Thank you for this gentle and thoughtful response. I’m frankly excited that the “radical movement” has gained enough traction to warrant a critique. I personally was moved by Claiborne’s Irresistible Revolution, and I still blame that book and Jesus for the reason I’m in an urban neighborhood working as a community organizer today.

    But here’s the crazy thing–once I started reading more books in the “radical” category and started studying Jesus life more intently, suddenly all those decisions that seemed to defy the status quo (or common sense) didn’t seem so radical. They seemed like a natural overflow of our journey to love Christ and love people. When we made the decision to move into the most violent neighborhood in our city, we didn’t feel radical. In fact, we felt downright ordinary. There’s nothing special about us. There’s nothing special about what we’re doing. Like you mentioned, we’re just trying to quietly and purposefully love God–and this is the best way we know to do it right now.

    It drives me absolutely crazy when people tell us how “brave” we are for the choices we made. We’re not brave. I’ve never felt like some adventurer going into the trenches with a machete and a Bible. We’re just here…getting to know our neighbors, loving our neighbors. That’s about as brave and as radical as we get.

  • Michael

    While I appreciate some of the pushback in the article, I would be careful classifying the guys as “modern day desert Fathers and mothers.”
    While I understand the generic, broadbrush association, it also reveals the author doesn’t know much about *the* desert Fathers…
    Otherwise, good article :-)

  • BenL

    The phrase which most stands out to me in Anderson’s piece (and an idea present throughout this conversation) is this: “…it’s unclear whether we can invigorate faith….” As Christians, faith is given to us. We do not earn it or create it or invigorate it. I’m not saying that we have no free will and no spiritual influence, just that ultimately we are all less than perfect and our competence comes only from Christ. No megachurch or monastery, house-church or private study, suburb or inner-city slum or mountain top is necessarily any closer to the heart of Christ than another. Man looks at the outward appearance (it’s just how we are, for now) and God at the heart. Yes, faith bears fruit, but it is not we who ULTIMATELY determine the quantity or quality of the crop. Thanks be to God that this is the case because I for one would make an awfully lousy farmer.

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