Radical, Ordinary Christians
Matthew Lee Anderson, head writer over at Mere Orthodoxy, wrote the cover story for the March issue of Christianity Today. The cover image caricatures Shane Claiborne, David Platt, and Francis Chan leading an army of “ordinary radicals” with fists raised.
It's worth reading. Anderson identifies some key tensions in the Radical Christian movement and helpfully points out deficiencies in American Christianity's language that lead to the overuse of intensifiers such as “really” and “truly.” The story has generated a good bit of conversation, both in the comments section and on other sites, to which Anderson has responded here and here.
The negative feedback that Anderson has gotten hinges on a misunderstanding of the point of his post. According to Anderson, many have mislabeled his post as a critique, while his goal was “to explore what the popularity of these books indicates about ourselves and our world.” The problem isn't that Anderson critiques the movement. The problem is the critical subtext evident throughout the piece. It takes him over 2,000 words to get to the real meat of his exploration.
Two correctives would help reach Anderson's stated goal.
The first is more of a surface-level observation regarding the piece's slant imbued by the title and cover art. The radicals aren't “new;” they've been around for centuries. The radicals aren't “coming;” they're already here. D.L. Mayfield writes:
For centuries we have always had teachers, thinkers and prophets asking Christians to flee the sinking ship of society, to come back to a place of simplicity and service to Christ (which in fact makes the New Radicals sound like the Desert Fathers and Mothers of our modern age). It’s a call to reject the societal norms that keep us from following Jesus with everything that is within us.
The people listening to the modern-day desert mothers and fathers are all around us, responding to the truth that the American dream is not synonymous with the kingdom of God. Most of them aren’t writing books, or living grandiose lives. They are just simply taking the next step of obedience, day after day.
The New Radicals aren’t coming. They are already here.
Second, Anderson lumps Shane Claiborne in with the others, but never addresses the term “ordinary radicals.” A constant refrain in his piece is the overemphasis of the spectacular by the radicals. One example:
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.
Anderson is right; there must be a place for the ordinary and mundane in the conversation about what it means to follow Jesus. And that's exactly what Claiborne did when he coined the term “ordinary radicals,” and what he's been dedicating himself to since writing Irresistible Revolution.
In a terrific response, Ed Cyzewski points out the simplicity of ordinary Christian discipleship lived out by Claiborne and others that form a part of the new monastic movement. He pinpoints a significant disconnect in Anderson's piece:
So while we should be thoughtful about radical rhetoric and the ways the wealthy will try to address poverty and injustice, let’s remember that the new monasticism of Claiborne and many of my friends around the country has more to do with downward mobility. It’s spurred by a commitment to love others and is far from a hip new rhetorical challenge from Christian authors and pastors.
One of Claiborne’s constant themes in interviews and speaking engagements is providing simple ideas for living the radical lifestyle. No one has done more than Claiborne to provide practical ideas for Christians at any income level to live as a radical.
Critiques are a good thing. Critiques of a movement are especially good, inasmuch as they force rearticulating our reason for being. And this sort of rearticulation can sustain a movement.