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.

 

Posted by Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is the Founder and Lead Writer of Mere Orthodoxy. He is the author of Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to our Faith and The End of Our Exploring: A Book about Questioning and the Confidence of Faith. Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook.

  • Waiting eagerly for more of what you have to say tomorrow! : )

    • FWIW, I offer an apology. I’ve tried writing what I feel I need to say and am failing. It will have to wait until another day.

  • M. Leary

    “It’s not an accident that when Platt’s publisher released Radical they listed Claiborne’s book as among those that are similar…”

    Which makes the sentiment you are critiquing (as common among these authors) also a marketing principle that deserves to be unmasked/discredited. From this perspective, I think your point stands.

  • Tim

    Thanks for the clarification with this article. I agree with your last point, that often things we think are very small are often most important. God’s idea of big I think is in stark contrast to America’s idea of big. Thanks for the words!

  • “…a life of faithfulness often begins at things that are very, very small…”

    So important, but I have to turn my head and squint to even see it at all.

    Such is the way of the mustard seed.

  • Jason B. Hood

    “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.”

    Very, very good, MLA. Let me say that these things are in fact related (and again, the rhetoric doesn’t always connect these dots). Interested parties can check out the connection in Les Mis, as highlighted by Andy Le Peau: http://andyunedited.ivpress.com/2013/01/les_miserables_you_never_knew.php

  • Dave Strunk

    Matt,

    I agree with the substantive force of your argument in the article. I was at a conference last year that had two major speakers- Chan and Keller- and, man, was the difference stark. Chan, as you, I think, effectively relate him to the other authors mentioned, has a pretty bad hermenuetic it seems to me (Christian Smith anyone? I jest). There’s a very overly simplistic and reductionistic view of biblical interpretation afoot but I couldn’t figure out what it was. In general,it seems like guys that want to divorce the American dream from Christianity also divorce Christianity from centuries of interpretation. A “me and the Bible” take lends itself to a weird asceticism for these authors.

    I’ve often suspected that this crowd dispels words like “ordinary,” “mundane,” “routine,” and “simply faithful.” And as I style myself as a moderately high churchman/clergyman, things like the “ordinary means of grace” -Word and Sacrament- hold more allure, as does the hospital visit and my neighbor’s lawnmower, than does any appeal to radical living, even if “radical” is framed as living simply. Whatever happened to the simple ministry of the church? (I promise I’m not making a 2K argument. Not this time at least).

    Anyways, great points. You narrowed in on something I felt (Jamie Smith and “know-how” anyone?) but hadn’t been able to articulate.

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  • This: “[Doctrinal and pragmatic] differences matter. But they might not matter as much as we doctrinally minded folks (and I include myself among them!) think they matter.”

    I keep seeing that “generalization!” critique of your piece and, from where I sit, it’s by far the weakest. You lay out plenty of qualifiers throughout, and as the quote above indicates, the ‘ordinary’ folks in broader evangelicalism (those not likely to read or publicly engage your piece) would recognize your grouping immediately.

    I can think of plenty of friends off-hand who love Platt, Chan and Claiborne while despising folks like John Piper, Ed Young, Mark Driscoll, and Andy Stanley (talk about weird combos). You are pointing to a distinct cluster, my friend, hands down.

  • If I have any critique it is that you don’t go far enough! The Radicals sound very spiritual because of how seriously they take certain Scriptures that few people see how badly they ignore others.

    For instance, the Radicals frequently devalue enjoying the things of this life — a reader of Platt could easily feel guilty for spending money on a vacation or nice clothes. Contrast that with the “Proverbs 31 Woman” who was both very generous to the poor, but also bought her family purple linens — literally the most expensive clothing one could buy.

    The Bible, taken as a whole, is an invitation to joy — joy through obedience, through generosity, through knowing God, and through the many earthly gifts God has granted us.

  • I think if we spent more time learning about each other — different walks of life, different cultures, different languages, different nationalities, different pasts and histories — we would change our assumptions of what is “ordinary”, “mundane”, “routine”, or “radical” altogether. Maybe part of faith starts with our willingness to put ourselves aside for a second and trust God in our relationships with each other.

  • Steve Schuler

    I just read the CT cover story, and I’m grateful for your clarifications here. At the end of the original article, you asked whether this movement has the potential to create and sustain institutions of high culture: learning, music, arts, etc. Perhaps it does. The exhortations to self-denial and self-emptying, the embrace of personal risk and the suspicion of mediocrity, and even the strong interest in other cultures… these are not antithetical to high culture. They are prerequisites.

    I recently dipped into the Rule of St. Benedict. Vows of chastity, poverty, and obedience, coupled with long periods of enforced silence and obligatory manual labor don’t seem like a recipe for the creation of high culture. Yet we owe a lot of our high culture to the monastic movements that followed. It’s dangerous, of course, to draw historical analogies. The point is that Christianity has a curious habit of redeeming the culture that it appears to be in the process of rejecting outright.

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  • Smallvoice

    I don’t think Kyle Idleman belongs with these others, he is genuine and not seeking fame and shock value like some of the others you name