On ‘Radical’ Christianity: My Latest for Christianity Today

I’ve got a few thoughts over at Christianity Today about the “radical” subcurrent of American evangelicalism.  Only by “few” I mean 3000 words worth and by “subcurrent” I mean “tidal wave.”

Long, yes, but by no means complete.  There’s a good deal more to be said about the movement which I didn’t get to.  Unfortunately, some of the distinctions and emphases I tried to keep through got a little muted during revisions, in order to ensure I didn’t go on ad nauseum.  But that’s simply part and parcel of writing in that context.  The medium and the message end up coming together, necessarily, which you might say is part of the point of my piece.

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I should also say that I like a lot of what’s going on in the movement, which might not have come through as clearly as I wanted either.  David Platt’s work, particularly, is interesting.  Getting people together for long hours to read and study the Bible is always a good idea, for instance, though doing it over simulcast is a bit weird.

I won’t say anything further about it, at least not right now.  Go read the whole thing if you want or start with this small sample:

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 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.

 

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  • karen

    I liked your Christianity Today article so much I bookmarked this site so I can get more! It was refreshing and simple, and sure to stir up a few comments around CT. Thank you for the courage to write it all.

    • Matthew Lee Anderson

      Thanks, Karen. Hopefully you enjoy our work around these parts.

  • http://www.docsdining.blogspot.com/ Jason Kanz

    Matthew,

    I shared this article with several people today and I described you as one of the most promising young writers around today. I guess I don’t know how old you actually are, but regardless, I suspect your wisdom outpaces your age. I look forward to seeing how your thinking and your writing continues to develop in the years ahead. Thank you for this article.

    • Matthew Lee Anderson

      Jason, I’m getting older by the second. And hopefully wiser, too, though that is seriously in question. : )

  • http://twitter.com/matthew_loftus Matthew Loftus

    A few thoughts from one of those “radicals,” FWIW:

    1. We’ve had time “to create the institutions and practices that can transmit such an inheritance to the next generation.” These institutions are not creating a ratio of frontier missionaries to artists/philosophers/theologians that is tackling the issue of a billion unreached people appropriately. Radical language is… well, appropriate for these needs. I cannot be nonchalant about the plight of the unreached, the unborn, people in slavery, etc.

    2. Not sure about Chan, but I know that Platt and Claiborne live it out. Piper (who absolutely belongs in this group based on how extreme some of his language is) pretty much does the same, too, and he has directly addressed the issue by saying that he firmly believes that he can have a greater impact (for now) by publicly capitalizing on his fame to call more people to radical self-sacrifice.

    3. From what I have read of “the radicals,” most of what they emphasize is… the “less spectacular, frequently boring, and overwhelmingly anonymous elements that make up much of the Christian life.” They just add a few well-established but not culturally normative set of elements– like having your neighbors over for dinner, being extra frugal, etc. They also emphasize that they should be done in places where there aren’t enough faithful Christians already. Part of the radical language is also to emphasize just how hard doing these things are, especially in places like the inner city of the 10/40 Window.

    4. Given that most of these movements get a lot of their people from universities and (at least in my circles) encourage those people to get thorough training in some profession (including theology), I don’t think I can agree with casting aspersions on their views of strong institutions. I also have seen all of these calls for “radicalism” happen in the context of churches and communities working together, so I think it’s hard to pin the “individualistic” label on these movements.

    5. I think we have to be careful about any kind of “zero-sum ministry” pronouncements– it can be easy to assume that more people building institutions will lead to less people doing frontier missions (or vice versa!) But, like I said, there are not enough frontier missionaries, so why not say that they are desperately needed and will need to radically change their life to serve God?

    • http://www.mereorthodoxy.com/ Matthew Lee Anderson

      Loftus, love your thoughts and pushback, as always. Full response coming tomorrow, I hope.

  • Drew Paul

    Matthew, this was a much-needed article, as certainly there is a particular movement brewing among evangelicals–particularly younger evangelicals–with all of these books being published. I particularly appreciated two things: the wider historical context of the new religious movement, and the call to avoid overlooking the less glorious acts of service (Mark Galli had an excellent article in CT in 2010 on the latter point that I cite frequently). Thanks for that.

    However, I find myself a little disturbed overall by the underlying context of this piece. This appears as the cover story in what is inarguably the premiere “establishment”publication of American evangelicalism and perhaps THE flagship institution of (White) American evangelicalism. Many of your critiques seem to be voiced in a status-quo-affirming tone, a sort of “let’s not get TOO radical here” conservatism. That your article is set alongside glossy advertisements for pricey Christian educational institutions and the latest Christian bookstore merchandise makes it seem all the more reactionary, defending against the threat that these authors might actually threaten “the system” with their railing against cultural Christianity. I have nothing against CT, but this piece lacked a sort of critical self-awareness of its own medium.

    That underlying context only magnified the thinness of some of your critiques:

    1) The false dichotomy between acts of service/commitment and acts of “worship and community practices” as means of forming disciples. I believe all parties involved are advocating a holistic approach, no?

    2) I don’t see the grounds for your labeling radicals “interior oriented” or suggesting they will require “perpetual revivals” for sustenance. This seems like a grab-bag critique, as the radicals are railing against personal introspection-based Christianity or anything resembling emotion-based revivalistic conversions.

    3) Perhaps more difficult to follow is your critique of a movement that draws families to rebuild communities within abandoned neighborhoods as failing to: create a “culture,” perpetuate future generations, or institute community practices that overcome “individual radicalness.” Where in such family-centric, community-centric actions lurks this danger of “individual radicalness” or a lack of sustainable culture? Isn’t this exactly what the early church did?

    4) The radical message comes “packaged in the Christian-conference publishing-celebrity-industrial complex.” I love this point, Matthew, but who exactly stands outside this complex? You, the book-promoting, conference-speaking blogger? Certainly not me, the book-buying, conference-attending blog commenter. And certainly not CT, which survives on the advertising revenue of said complex.

    5) The affirmation of a “mundane Christianity” at the end is dangerously underdeveloped. Dangerously because the implication is Christians can go about their day-to-day lives largely in the same manner as their secular counterparts with no fear of cultural accommodation, the ever-seducing power of consumerism, the numerous cultural idols our culture champions, or any risk of complicity with larger systems of injustice and oppression. James K.A. Smith talks about the need to overcome a naive belief in the harmless neutrality of “secular liturgies” (work, shopping, vacations, media) that are persistently getting ahold of our desires and hearts, and I see that belief in neutrality lurking here. I’ll interpret your last paragraph charitably as trying to return to your earlier point of appreciating more routine and boring acts of compassion and service, but I certainly wish you could have said more here.

    Again, I appreciate you writing the piece, but some of your critiques seemed haphazardly selected and lacked a needed self-reflexivity.

    • http://www.mereorthodoxy.com/ Matthew Lee Anderson

      Thanks for the comment. I’ll try to respond to it tomorrow. I really, *really* appreciate the feedback.

  • Stillwell

    I read your article in CT today. I think you had an agenda. Of all of the tribes in modern American culture to knock down, you chose people who love God and are seeking to obey Him. Your article will be a distraction to people who want to serve God and a discouragement to men who care about the lost and the least in this world. I pray that your call to orthodoxy doesn’t supersede your call to Christ. I appreciate the “Radicals” and their clarion call.

    • http://www.mereorthodoxy.com/ Matthew Lee Anderson

      Thanks for the comment. If by “agenda” you think that I am being unwarrantedly critical, well, I don’t know what to say to that. I am not actually trying to “knock down” anyone, if you can believe it, so much as explore and inquire into the nature of faithful Christian living today. And I have no interest in being a distraction or discouragement to those who want to serve Christ. But then, intentions aren’t everything and if it turns out in the final analysis that I am guilty of what you’ve charged me with then I hope I will repent.

      All the best,

      Matt

  • http://sukofamily.org/ Caleb

    I really dislike it when I see a christian trying to be radical for radical’s sake. On the other hand I did read Platt’s book “Radical” and I agree with his main premise that following Jesus will result in some sort of radical departure from societal norms.

  • http://www.mereorthodoxy.com/ Matthew Lee Anderson

    All, thanks for the excellent comments. Just a head’s up that I was trying to get more thoughts down today and, well, I couldn’t pull them together for a variety of reasons. I hope to have more on Monday. Hope.

    Matt

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  • Maranatha John

    Great book! Heard about it from a friend too. A great addendum to this would be Dag Heward-Mills’ “Tell Them”. It expounds on 120 reasons why we must share the gospel. One may call it ‘radical’, but the author of this book perceives this as the basic task of every Christian; thus, it is presented in simplicity of style, yet with profound zeal and charisma for evangelism. Check it out and be blessed! :)

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