I am continuing to sort through the responses to my piece in Christianity Today.  It is a gift to have thoughtful readers who have interacted with the piece, but also a bit intimidating.  The quality of the responses exceeds that of the original piece and the discussion has gone a good deal further than I had hoped.  I would like to be able to duck and run from all the critiques, but that’s never been my style.

One of my longstanding concerns about evangelicalism is the way our doctrine of creation has been myopically focused on the question of how God created.  That is, no doubt, an important concern.  But there are other questions that a doctrine of creation must address, questions which may precede that one in importance.  David Wilkinson’s essay on this at Christianity Today highlights a number of them, but I would add one more:  a robust doctrine of creation is crucial for discerning our own responsibilities to the world around us, as it illuminates the nature of the goods of creation and helps us properly order them toward God.*

One of the key points I tried to make in my essay is how the context into which the “radical” rhetoric extends potentially distorts an otherwise appropriate and true message.  It may not be so much that Platt or anyone is wrong, in other words, so much that their emphasis gets distorted because of what their audience is missing.

A doctrine of creation doesn’t sanction enjoying every material good for its own sake and not for the sake of anything else. But it would help us discern our responsibilities in light of God’s providence and our place. The emphasis on responding to the poor and denying ourselves comforts for the sake of those who don’t know Jesus is the right emphasis. But if there is no rich appreciation of the doctrine of creation behind them, and a potentially thin set of practices and institutions as well, then such emphases will invariably no longer be emphatic.**

None of that has anything to do, though, with whether Platt or Chan or anyone else is right or wrong.  They may be right in all they affirm and deny, but sometimes saying the right thing to a broken people creates problems of its own. Telling a young fellow looking for a wife that he should get out and meet some women is the right advice, but not entirely helpful if he has never used a comb.

Enough, maybe, on that.  Let me pivot just a little and address another point.  One of the underlying concerns of my piece is that the medium has its own message and it forms us in ways we don’t realize.  That’s not very radical, I realize, but perhaps we can talk through it later.

In January, I tried to account for what seems to me the danger of an overwrought passion in evangelical politics. We care, a lot, and so our rhetoric gets inflated and emphases end up getting distorted.  It was a controversial point then and probably none the less now.  What has that to do with being radical?

It’s tempting to say that because of the magnitude of the problem before us that any and all rhetorical devices are justified. “A billion global poor and you are quibbling about a few intensifiers?”  The point has a good deal of intuitive pull, I realize. Relief organizations face this sort of struggle all the time:  put a photo of someone who is suffering up in front of people and giving goes up accordingly. Those who raise worries are easily dispatched:  there’s good stuff being done. Let’s get on with it!

English: Engraving of American poet John Green...

English: Engraving of American poet John Greenleaf Whittier by J. A. J. Wilcox, based on an 1855 photograph by Southward and Hawes, Boston. Scanned from The Writings of John Greenleaf Whittier (vol. 3) by John Greenleaf Whittier, Published by Macmillan & co., 1889. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Maybe. But it just might be that the reasoning is no good, even if the ends being pursued actually are.  The means we choose form us in ways we don’t intend, as we’ve talked about with technology plenty in the past. A rhetoric of intensifiers may create urgency—but will such an urgency be enfolded into a life and structures such that it lasts and is passed on? And if those structures and background commitments are not there, will that urgency bring people to repentance or wrack them with guilt?  (And I do not think they are the same.)

Such intensifiers create passion, of course, but it might just be the case that encouraging passion is the wrong strategy for evangelicals. There’s a substantive strand of the Christian tradition that looks askance at enthusiasm and we ought be a little attentive to it.  We may need a language of love that is more stable, a little less feverish, a little less tumultuous and with fewer intensifiers and a good deal more steady, confident, and quiet.  A dose of John Greenleaf Whittier, in other words, to temper us and redirect ourselves in a more permanent way toward the good:

Breath through the heats of our desire

Thy coolness and They balm;

Let sense be dumb, let flesh retire;

Speak through the earthquake, wind, and fire,

O still, small voice of calm.

Which is to say, we ought not be consequentialists in our reasoning about salvation and social justice any more than we are in any other realm. The ends are not all: means matter and if we are not attentive to them then we shall almost certainly be co-opted by them.

Why would one take up intensifiers despite the work before us, then?  Last year about this time I offered this point about tattoos:

In order to understand the world in which we live and thereby more clearly grasp our place within it, sometimes it is more effective to put questions to it that seem irrelevant than those which are incredibly contentious at the front.  The forces and dynamics that have made tattoos a plausible option aren’t simply limited to aesthetics and self-expression.  And even if they were, what happens in one sphere of life shapes the whole.

As I said then, tattoos are “superficially innocuous practices.”  They seem totally irrelevant given the scope of the world, and yet it is often such irrelevant, insignificant aspects that form us in the most subtle of ways.  It is no accident that Jesus emphasizes the “jot and tittle” by which our words will be judged: what happens at the margins often reveals what is really going on at the center.

The rhetoric of our speech did not emerge from a vacuum, and while the intensifiers of our faith are not the whole substance they say something about how frail the substance actually is.  It is easy to critique the emptiness of American culture. But if our own language needs buttressing so, then we may be suffering from the same disease.

*Oliver O’Donovan’s Resurrection and Moral Order is the book to read here.

**See Fred Sanders’ The Deep Things of God for how this goes.

Update: It’s worth reading Marcus Goodyear’s post on Platt’s Follow Me and the potential absence of a robust conception of creation that allows for a conception of work as intrinsically good.  It’s quite close to what I’m trying to get at above.

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.

  • I think the intensifiers point is really worth a lot of time and thought. Increasingly I hear proponents of one issue or another give ridiculous statistics or stories in favor of their point. Most of them you can just tell by reading are wrong.

    A lot are essentially urban myths. One particularly egregious story was passed on by a cousin of mine. She is politically conservative, pro-military and against Obama. (I am not any of those things.) But her story just seemed like it had to be wrong. I looked around for about 15 seconds and saw that there was some truth to her statement, but nearly everything about it (they why and how) were wrong.

    I responded to her facebook post (which is never a good idea I know) and gave her some links to articles that agreed with parts of her point but clarified what was really going on.

    She (and some of her facebook friends) essentially said, well if this one instance is wrong, there are many others that are right. So why worry about the particular truth of this particular story. The point is Obama is wrong.

    I brought up news stories (and she said the liberal media lies). I brought up a story from the Dept of Defense trying to counter the untrue story and she said DoD was controlled by Obama.

    I said as Christians we need to be concerned not only with the truth, but also with the means of achieving our goals (she threatened to block me.)

    I once again have committed myself to ignoring the blatantly untrue facebook posts of my family. But this is no less a problem for Christians talking about Christian issues. ‘Sex will be great if you wait till marriage’, ‘Leave things in God’s hands and he will take care of them’, ‘God will never give you more than you can handle’…and more bumpersticker theology just is not helpful in the real world with real people.

    Sorry for the rant.

    • Wait, so you’re saying that Facebook isn’t a good medium for these discussions!? : )

      • We all know that Facebook is a bad place, but we still do it. That is because we usually know the people and people often say dumb (and sometime rehensible) things online.

        It is a good place to practice good behavior (but it shouldn’t be the first place you practice how to have a civil disagreement.

  • Delonte Harrod

    “And if those structures and background commitments are not there, will that urgency bring people to repentance or wrack them with guilt?”

    I often hear this argument or ,rather, this line of thinking when it comes to Chan and Platt. And, I often wonder after I have listened, why do YOU feel like this? Did the disciples feel like this when Jesus said these things? What about our culture makes us feel guilty when someone comes along an says things like this? You call this language of Chan and Platt, intensified, but aren’t you putting them in a category–or building one, maybe–that really doesn’t exist? In other words, creating categories for their speech and their actions steadily builds, or helps to build, anxiety about what they are saying or have said! Also, the people who are anxious about what is being said, I am presupposing something here, what is their understanding of the gospel? What is your understanding of the gospel that you would help the anxious become more anxious? I don’t know if your articles are helpful or harmful to what Chan and Platt are trying to communicate. Maybe you should invite them to Mere for an interview so that they can speak for themselves!

    • Thanks, Delonte, for the comment. It is possible it’s only me, but judging from my email inbox I’m not alone on this.

      Best,

      Matt

  • I’ve been waiting all weekend… and I’m honestly a little disappointed.

    I’ve made these two points to you already, but I’ll put them out here (a) because I feel like you didn’t respond to them terribly well before and I was hoping you might return to them and (b) so others can see:

    1) You might just be reading a little too much into what is essentially a personality difference between the type of personality who goes to Afghanistan to serve Jesus and the type of personality who goes to Oxford to serve Jesus. Both are equally kingdom work, but draw on a different set of Scriptural passages and emotional colors.

    2) You have examined such a small sliver of the “radical” movement and you argue that the whole kit & caboodle is undermined by this overwrought emotional/theatrical display. However, most people within the movement would completely affirm everything that you have to say about the small, patient,

    • Sorry to hear I’ve disappointed you, Matthew, though I can hardly promise it will be the last time.

      I am not particularly interested in reducing these things to “personality” issues, nor do I suspect Platt et al. would want to call them that.

      As to your point about the “small sliver,” that is also possible. We’ve talked about that some via email and I didn’t see the need to repeat it all here. But then, I *haven’t* argued that “the whole kit & caboodle is undermined by this overwrought emotional/theatrical display,” if by “kit and kaboodle” we mean the good things that are happening. In fact, if you read the above my point is that *good things are happening* but maybe happening with problematic means or methods. That doesn’t “undermine” the fact that good things are happening. It simply means that we need to rework the means by which we are bringing about those good things. Or as I said in my piece, maybe we should be *more* radical about our faith, and not less.

      To frame even *that* as a critique misunderstands the piece. Pushing a line of thought further and trying to get people to see how it might unwork other areas that they are not being attentive to (like their rhetoric or their speech or their use of media, etc.) does not invalidate their work or their positions. It just tries to consistently apply them.

      All the best,

      matt

      • Thanks for responding so graciously.

        I still feel like I must be misunderstanding your argument, because every time I try to summarize your position you say I’m missing the point. Your third-to-last paragraph in your original essay states pretty clear that you suspect that these movements aren’t going to endure because of the emotional rhetoric. Yet you say that radical speech doesn’t “undermine” the good that’s happening– but it “might unwork other areas.” How bad of a threat, then, is radical rhetoric? What can or can’t John Piper say that won’t work against his long-term goals to see churches planted among people who are dying without any opportunity to hear about Jesus?

        In summary, I feel like you have failed to show how having people who get really fired up about something important at conferences and in books is somehow bad for an otherwise Bible-saturated, Jesus-loving, slow-and-steady-wins-the-race kinda movement. I see the potential danger– but I don’t think it’s happening. I think a lot of people live with both in their life wherein radical rhetoric does not work against a slow, patient, quiet trust in God– rather, just the opposite.

        Thanks for continuing to dialogue!

        • Thanks, Matthew. Just FYI, I’m setting this aside (and really, everything else too!) for the rest of the week until after Easter. I will try to pick up the thread then.

          Matt

  • I wonder how much the words “really” and “radical” are really acting as intensifiers. These words can also be used as authenticators (as in my previous sentence), and they have an important role in that capacity. Words and phrases have a slippery way of losing meaning over time, but our commitment to the words of Jesus goes beyond our understanding of them. We can’t just chuck Jesus’ words and start over again with new words of our own–we have to go back and rediscover what those words really mean. (Multiple times a day, if you’re like me… =/)

    So I think the “new radicals” really do have something important to say, and I’m not sure how you’d go about saying it without those pesky buzzwords.

    But those particular buzzwords turn out to be even more slippery than most, and it’s easy to hear them as a call to just do everything on a bigger scale.

    Which, as you point out, completely misses the point of everything that’s really radical about Jesus.

  • Jason Jones

    I find this author’s writing filled with a bitter jealousy. I really don’t like quoting non-Biblical txt as a response but in this case I couldn’t get around this Bob Dylan song when reading this man’s writing.

    Times are Changing! “Your old road is Rapidly agin’ Please get out of the new one If you can’t lend your hand”

    Matthew, you are welcome to follow me around for a week of fellowship. You have to see this to get it.

    • Heh. Gee, with an interpretation as generous as that I’ll be thrilled to spend a week following you around. I’m sure I’ll have a grand time! : )

      All the best,

      Matt

      • Jason

        Out of love, I sure hope you take me up on it.
        I bet we both grow more than we could either imagine. :)

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