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“Radical” Christianity vs. regular Christianity

“Radical” Christianity vs. regular Christianity March 18, 2013

The latest thing in contemporary Christianity is “radical Christianity.”  From the Christian bestseller lists to programs in megachurches, Christians are being told that Jesus was “radical” and that they should give up their “middle class” “mediocrity” and start helping the poor.  But how is this different from just liberal mainline Protestantism?  And isn’t just another form of works-righteousness?  For all the talk of the “demands of the Gospel” (doesn’t that turn the Gospel into Law?), I don’t hear anything about the Gospel.  That is, Christ on the Cross atoning for sinners.  Some of these teachers are making valid criticisms of typical evangelicalism, it seems to me, but they are slipping into some of the same mistakes, just in a different key.  And it also reaches for the spectacular, minimizing ordinary life, a serious “theology of glory” rejection of vocation.  (After the jump, read an account from Christianity Today and give me your take on this.)

From Matthew Lee Anderson, “Here Comes the Radicals!” in Christianity Today:

At the heart of [David] Platt’s message is his claim that we mistakenly turn the “radical Jesus of the Bible … into the comfortable Jesus of 21st-century American culture.” He warns that the culture of “self-advancement, self-esteem, and self-sufficiency” and our “individualism, materialism, and universalism” have neutered American Christians’ witness and blinded us to widespread global poverty, an orphan crisis, and the massive number of those who still have never heard of Jesus. . . .

It’s really hard to read these books, one after another, and confidently declare yourself a Christian at the end.

Platt [author of Radical] isn’t the only one attempting to recover a more rigorous understanding of the gospel’s demands. Six years ago Shane Claiborne introduced “ordinary radicals” into the American Christian lexicon. His book The Irresistible Revolution offers a critique similar to that of Radical, albeit with a political focus that includes a more explicit repudiation of American nationalism (Platt’s own work has hints of this) and a pacifist critique of violence.

More recently, Kyle Idleman, teaching pastor at Southeast Christian Church in Louisville, Kentucky, wrote Not a Fan after realizing he had made following Jesus “as appealing, comfortable, and convenient as possible.” Francis Chan caught the wave with Crazy Love, a book that tries to affirm our desire for “more God,” even if we are “surrounded by people who have ‘enough God.'” Steven Furtick, whose Elevation Church in North Carolina is one of the fastest-growing megachurches, added Greater to the mix, proposing that Christians are mired in miserable mediocrity and should open our “imagination to the possibility that God has a vision for [our] life that is greater” than what we’re experiencing. All of these have hit the Christian best-seller lists, and most are still on them.

In other words, the radical message has found an eager market. The books have their theological and pastoral differences, but the thrust of their rhetoric moves in the same direction. They have both incited and tapped into a widespread dissatisfaction with many Americans’ comfortable, middle-class way of life and the Christianity that so easily fits within it. These pastors may not be saying much new about the Bible or Jesus, but their message says enough about us.

Really. If there’s a word that sums up the radical movement, that’s it. Platt’s Radical opens with it, by describing what “radical abandonment to Jesus really means.” Idleman says he’s going to tell us “what it really means to follow Jesus.” Furtick says that “if we really believe God is an abundant God … we ought to be digging all kinds of ditches [for when he sends the rain, as Elisha did in 2 Kings 3:16-20].” Do those who lead mediocre, nonradical lives for Jesus really believe at all? . . .

These teachers want us to see that following Christ genuinely, truly, really, radically, sacrificially, inconveniently, and uncomfortably will cost us. Platt wants to safeguard the distinctness of God’s saving work over and against our effort. But his primary concern is for the “outflow of the gospel.” This means “putting everything in our lives on the table before God” and being “willing to sacrifice good things in the church in order to experience the great things of God.”

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.

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