Thursday, June 20, 2013

Is It Okay To Be Ordinary?

Guest Post by Brian Mattson

Anthony Bradley has recently ignited some deep reflection on what he perceives as new forms of legalism in the church. In his experience, many young people are burdened with the call to be “radical,” “missional,” or otherwise extraordinary.

Christianity has always had its “radicals.” One of the most famous was Simon the Stylite who went out into the desert and sat on top of a tall platform for 30 years. That is a feat worthy of the term “radical.” Few of us would wish those extremes, but there nevertheless have always been voices urging Christians to go just a little further down that sort of path: asceticism, self-denial, and withdrawal from the pleasures of the world.

Our times are no exception. American Christians particularly live in an affluent society, and worldly pleasures abound. We are a people, after all, who have an incredibly successful and powerful entertainment “industry.”  It is no surprise to find an impulse among many pastors and authors to urge something more from their congregants and readers. I don’t mean to just pick on pastors and authors; we all feel to some extent a disjunction between our heavenly callings and earthly pursuits. Who hasn’t wondered whether being a missionary to the Third World might better serve the Lord than, say, enrolling in trade school or taking the LSAT?

I think that nagging feeling is precisely what makes books like David Platt’s Radical: Taking Back Your Faith From the American Dream or John Piper’s Don’t Waste Your Life so popular. Because we are sinners who know that we deserve nothing, there is a nagging sense of shame, perhaps, in just how much stuff we have. Or better, how much stuff we waste, not just our money but our time. I once wrote in a song: “I throw away more than the ancients ever had / Why isn’t that enough?”

The call to be radical is alluring, and it seems relatively simple. Don’t be worldly. The very notion of a “broad” road to destruction seems to entail that what the majority of people are doing is very probably really bad. And you should be doing something different. And that something “different” takes a lot of forms.

But it isn’t simple at all. In fact, the idea of being a “radical” Christian raises profound theological questions of its own. “Radical” with respect to what, exactly? Is the idea of a “norm” somehow inherently morally suspect? Is “stuff” morally problematic? Are some vocations more sanctified and God-glorifying than others? What is the moral status of human culture? Does “popularity” alone overlap with Jesus’ “broad” road? How does our heavenly citizenship connect with our earthly one? Are they opposed to each other? Completely separate? Or integrated?

In short, “radicalism” raises important theological questions all along the history of redemption: it involves a particular view of Creation, Fall, Redemption, and Consummation. It has its own way of relating the work of Jesus (Grace) to our everyday lives (Nature). Theologians have been grappling with how to relate nature and grace, creation and re-creation, for millennia now, and what strikes me is that much, if not most, of the literature these days urging “radical” Christianity makes little effort at dealing with and resolving the crucial questions our (wiser) forbears thought necessary.

In a series of posts over the next week, I want to explore some of these deeper questions.


WisdomWonderBeauty said...

I've always been interested in this question! Does being a Christian under the influence of the Holy Spirit make you different? If so, how? I think yes, there is a difference, even though it doesn't come from us and therefore isn't something we should boast about. Still, how does that play out? Radical, better, worse?

Art is a great example I've been wrestling with. Art comes in many forms and shapes. It can be difficult to define, but I think most people would agree truth and beauty are important aspects of art. If we also believe truth and beauty are defined by/characteristics of God, is it reasonable to think that a person genuinely seeking after God does or can produce more beautiful, more honest art?

Or is that missing the point entirely? Are we called to BE rather than to DO, and therefore 'ordinary' is actually a sign of a healthy/healthier Christian? I could go in circles for hours! Very thought-provoking post, I'm looking forward to what comes next!

Anonymous said...

Since my beloved wife's diagnosis of cancer, her 98-yr-old mother has called to almost every day to touch base and tell her she's praying for her and loves her. She has led a very "ordinary" small town life. She once took the chance to ask a hungover, fighting couple in her campground, "Don't you go to church?" Whereupon, the idea germinated, took root, they went to church and got saved! "Ordinary," "extraordinary," "radical," misses the point. It's not about us; it's about Him. As he said, "I will build My church...."