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A few thoughts on the "new radicals" and Christianity Today.

March 21st, 2013 | 4 min read

By Matthew Lee Anderson

I've been grateful for the feedback on my Christianity Today cover story on the so-called "new radicals."  Much of it has been thoughtful and helpful, which is as much as a writer can reasonably hope for.  I will often treat my writing as a form of exploration, a launching of a hypothesis to be discussed, rather than a definitive account of something.  To have responses at all is enormously gratifying.

My purpose here is similar.  Given the questions that have come in and many of the criticisms, I want to offer a few clarifications.  Let's go about it Q&A style.  You know, for kids!

"Why are you hating on these guys?"

Okay, that's stronger wording than most people used.  But Josh Moody's description of the piece as a "critique" was a common one, and entirely understandable. After all, the ending of the piece gets into some questions that can be very easily construed as critical.  Yet my main purpose in the piece is in fact not to critique, but to explore what the popularity of these books indicates about ourselves and our world.  That so many people reached the end and thought I was being unduly critical means I probably failed in that effort.  

"David Platt, Francis Chan, Kyle Idleman, Steven Furtick, and Shane Claiborne....whaaaaaaat?!"

Ed Cyzewski did a good job of laying out this criticism, with the strong form being that the mere comparison of Furtick and Claiborne is enough to destroy my credibility.  (So let it be said, so let it be done!)  Yet it's important not to let surface differences hide fundamental similarities.  Here I'm just going to quote Hannah Anderson, who did an excellent job restating my point:

The thing that connects people like Platt and Claiborne isn’t their practice but the form of their rhetoric–they both identify status quo as inconsistent with Christ’s message and call people to intensified response.

And the subsequent response is largely shaped by how they define Christianity in the first place. Those for whom evangelism is central end up practicing their radicalism very differently from those for whom spiritual formation is central. But both responses are rooted in the same rhetoric: radical=truly Christian. If your faith (however you define that)doesn’t become radicalized, it is not mature or real.

It turns out that while their methods and responses are different, they both have fundamentally similar stances toward "the American dream" and the malaise that American evangelicalism is in. It's not an accident that when Platt's publisher released Radical they listed Claiborne's book as among those that are similar.  One group of upper-middle class evangelicals are leaving their megachurches and going off to foreign countries, while the other are leaving their colleges and moving into inner cities.

"So, um, those are some pretty sweeping generalizations."

That's not a question, of course, but let's not quibble.  In an earlier draft I stressed that there are doctrinal and pragmatic differences between each of the people I mentioned. And those differences matter.  But they might not matter as much as we doctrinally minded folks (and I include myself among them!) think they matter. Carving up the world along the lines of doctrinal affirmations is illuminating in some respects. But it is not the only way to consider American Christianity, and turning toward other forms actually raises a different set of questions and (I think) provides a different set of insights.

"I read your piece and liked it, but that ending....are you really providing cover for people to go about living as they already are?"

I'm not denying the subversive nature of the Gospel on some aspects of the American way of life.  Nor, contra my very smart commenter, am I suggesting that the American form of life is "neutral."  (I had, in fact, a quote from Jamie Smith on liturgies in an earlier version that did not, like so much else, make the cut.)  I'm doing a degree in Christian ethics, after all, because I want to be more holy myself and because I want to help the Church discern the shape holiness should take in our world.  And I'm not at all interested in letting us all off the hook by sanctioning "tossing change at the homeless on our way into Disney World," as it were. 

But I do think that we start from where we are, and for most of us that does mean developing a more mundane spirituality that is more attentive to the homeless fellow nearby us than it is the grand, architectonic life decision that (say) uprooting from our middle-class lives and going off to the urban city or the third world represents.  How many of us are in fact stopping to help our neighbors whose cars are broken down, and how many of us continue driving past without a second thought?

Which is to say, a life of faithfulness often begins at things that are very, very small and will almost certainly be forgotten.  And an entire life of faithfulness may be so made up.  That doesn't mean I am sanctioning being inattentive to broader concerns:  it is that in the rhetoric of such broader concerns we risk missing out on the happenstance of many of the obligations that are placed upon us by providence.

I don't think anyone really disagrees with that.  But then, the point doesn't exactly come shining through in the rhetoric, either.

There's more to say, of course, and I hope to address a few other questions tomorrow.  But let's leave it there for now.


Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is an Associate Professor of Ethics and Theology in Baylor University's Honors College. He has a D.Phil. in Christian Ethics from Oxford University, and is a Perpetual Member of Biola University's Torrey Honors College. In 2005, he founded Mere Orthodoxy.