Over the last few months, I’ve been half-following this conversation in the Christian blogosphere about what it means to be “radical,” whether faith can be radical in the suburbs, and whether calls to radical faith are helpful or harmful for those trying to follow Jesus. Last week Anthony Bradley, a professor at King’s College in New York City, wrote a piece that’s been bothering me. After a long conversation with an undergraduate wrestling with the idea of vocation, Dr. Bradley wrote:
I continue to be amazed by the number of youth and young adults who are stressed and burnt out from the regular shaming and feelings of inadequacy if they happen to not be doing something unique and special. Today’s Millennial generation is being fed the message that if they don’t do something extraordinary in this life they are wasting their gifts and potential. The sad result is that many young adults feel ashamed if they “settle” into ordinary jobs, get married early and start families, live in small towns, or as 1 Thess 4:11 says, “aspire to live quietly, and to mind [their] affairs, and to work with [their] hands.” For too many Millennials their greatest fear in this life is being an ordinary person with a non-glamorous job, living in the suburbs, and having nothing spectacular to boast about.
I am 32, so I was born with one foot (and my soul) in Generation X and the other foot (and my technological little hands) in the Millennial Generation, but I know what Dr. Bradley is talking about. We are also the Passion generation, marked by John Piper’s stories of elderly women flying into eternity off a cliff in Africa, marked by youth leaders who asked us to bow our heads and raise our hands to promise that we’d give at least a year to foreign missions, marked by an unprecedented awareness of global needs and growing wealth disparity. And now that we’re growing up, we’re struggling with what it means to change the world while we’re busy changing diapers.
While I think Dr. Bradley is right in naming this struggle, and in encouraging young people to take 1 Thessalonians 4:11 to heart, I do take issue with his description of us as simply afraid of “being an ordinary person with a non-glamorous job, living in the suburbs, and having nothing spectacular to boast about.” Millennial Christians are not wrestling with the idea of vocation because we want to be spectacular; we wrestle with vocation because we want Christ to be magnified, and because we want to be faithful to the very real, very radical call of Christ in our lives. My friends who have chosen to live with the poor didn’t do it because they thought it would be more “awesome” than living in the suburbs; they did it out of obedience to God. I realize that Dr. Bradley means to criticize leaders, not millennials, in this piece, but in doing so he paints us as passive consumers of a message, driven by fear rather than by love, and I don’t think that’s accurate.
To be honest, though, I have grown weary of this conversation. I want to say that it’s simpler, and more personal than all this. I want to say that it is radical, because — go read the New Testament. It just is. But I also want to say that some of the most radical words you’ll find from Jesus are these: Love one another as I have loved you. To be clear, that might be a radical call to move to Africa, but it also might be a radical call to move in with your aging grandmother in the city. It might mean taking a vow of simplicity and living on the margins, or it might mean getting a medical degree to provide the best possible care for the sick and dying in a small town that needs a doctor. It might mean working in an orphanage in East Asia, or it might mean raising your own babies in the suburbs. Love can mean any of these sacrificial tasks.
What following Jesus most certainly does not mean, however, is finding a spiritual way to justify American values like power, fame, wealth, safety, security, and consumerism — which is what I sometimes fear these critiques (and my own critiques) of “radical” faith secretly want to do. I’m suspicious of any call to stop struggling with how to to follow Christ.
Ultimately, though I take issue with the way he gets there, I do agree with Bradley’s conclusion that a strong understanding of how vocation contributes to human flourishing is essential. If Dr. Bradley’s undergraduate came to me, I’d probably tell him this. I’d say: Keep struggling with the Scripture. Lean into the heart of God for the poor and marginalized. Don’t neglect the challenge of loving your neighbor, of forsaking all for the kingdom, and of living at peace with all men. Recognize that following Christ has less to do with whether you live in city, suburbs, or countryside, and more to do with what you value. It has less to do with what kind of work you do and more to do with how you do that work. Following the call of Christ means allowing your heart to be shaped and your values transformed by the Holy Spirit. It will likely mean giving up all your dreams and it will likely mean realizing the desires of your heart. Whatever it is, wherever it is, it will be hard and rarely glamorous, but as your heart is transformed, your face will shine with the glory of God.
And that’s radical.