Thursday, March 21, 2013

Matthew Lee Anderson: Here Come the Radicals

I could write at length about this article but rather than do that I'll note a few excerpts.

... [in the lexicon of character in the radicals Anderson describes] there aren't many narratives of men who rise at 4 A.M. six days a week to toil away in a factory to support their families. Or of single mothers who work 10 hours a day to care for their children. Judging by the tenor of their stories, being "radical" is mainly for those who already have the upper-middle-class status to sacrifice.

Nor are there many stories of "failure"—of people sacrificing without visible signs of transformation. As a result, many of the narratives implicitly convey that the reason to go and die is the gospel success that will follow. In most stories, the results come during the lifetime of those who decided to "come and die." That's why the single most refreshing moment in the canon for me was Furtick's lengthy acknowledgment that God's "greater" often seems like disappointment and failure, and that in our "most dire moments [God] seems almost absent." Given how prevalent such moments seem in the Christian life—and in Scripture—they are disproportionately underrepresented in the "radical" literature.
As a former Pentecostal (as in I began to transition out of Pentecostalism decades ago) Anderson's observation that the new radicals have ideas that resemble Keswickian concepts of sanctification is intriguing, to say the least!  That to be truly and more fully Christian you have to be sold out, on fire for the Lord, and all that, is hardly a new idea to anyone who was once steeped in Pentecostalism and its roots in the Holiness movement, let alone with a hefty dose of premillenial futurist eschatology.  That many of the radicals Anderson refers to may not subscribe to premillenialist or futurist views is probably not hugely important, since through the ostensibly opposite avenue postmillenialist historicist types with an interest in theonomy can end up getting to somewhat similar places in advocating for a radical Christian approach to shaping society.  It can be sort of like the extremes in the left and right in sloganized politics, move far enough to the left or right and you can see the same kinds of repressive social and political structures emerging.  Or, to get more acid about it, move far enough to the left and right and people seem to agree that anonymous international Jewish bankers must be ruining everything.
But, moving along ... Anderson notes that a paradox in the radical chic that it is presented through the Christian-conference-publishing-celebrity-industrial-complex.
... What's more, the radical message comes packaged in the Christian-conference-publishing-celebrity-industrial-complex. While Platt warded off critics early on by donating his profits to relief and missions work, the popularity of his call for radical living requires the existence of a lucrative publishing culture that, by its nature, has to think and act with profits in mind. The really radical path for a megachurch pastor these days would be to refuse to publish, to take a smaller church, to not podcast sermons, and to embrace a more monastic witness. The irony is that if they tried, we'd probably turn them into larger celebrities and laud their humility. The desert fathers had a similar problem. But if the message is going to critique the American dream for the people in the pews, then we may need pastors willing to show us the path of downward mobility with their lives.
Anderson's too polite to suggest that this irony is on the order of a porn star advocating for abstinence
The same could be said for Carl Trueman a few years ago in remarking on the unresolved matter of Mark Driscoll talking about the "crisis of conference Christians" while continuing to speak at conferences.  But this sort of meta-level irony is worth noting and it's good that Anderson has noted it--it's strange that the radicals use what can be considered the apparatus of consumer cultivation and product distribution to challenge people to be less consumeristic.  How does this get affirmed, this message of being sold out, when the way the message is presented so often seems to sell out?  Does this beget being really sold out or a kind of moral licensing in which wishing we were really sold out is treated as having reached that state?  Or at least gotten us to the point where we can tell others they need to be at that spot?  It's not like this isn't a question in the writing of someone like John Piper with a book title such as Don't Waste Your Life.  The good news of Jesus is for people who waste their lives, too, isn't it?  Let's just set aside entirely the question of how Piper or anyone else would surmise that a person has led a wasted life.  There's a sense in which if we're looking at one radical we're looking at something common to them all. 
When I was younger I'd hear that great things would happen if I'd just cut loose and get on fire for the Lord.  Cutting loose and getting on fire has not been, isn't, and likely will never be characteristic of me.  Something may change so this is not something I'm saying may always be the case, but the Pentecostal notion of "on fire" simply doesn't describe me over the course of most of my life.  Even though I grew up Pentecostal for a number of formative years I came to question so many things about Pentecostal practice I withdrew from that scene.  I don't regret the thing wholesale because it was a Pentecostal youth pastor who introduced me to work by Gordon Fee, Francis Schaeffer, and Solzhenitsyn. 
Suffice it to say I grew up in a highly unusual, atypical Pentecostal sort of background compared to what might be culturally expected.  I somehow managed to be around a youth pastor who cared that teenagers like me learned about exegesis and hermeneutics and around Pentecostal church musicians who were glad I was getting interested in Dave Brubeck and Duke Ellington.  Growing up in the Pacific Northwest, apparently, meant I had the fortune to grow up in an area where cultural and intellectual interests were not considered to be "quenching the Spirit".  The older I get the more grateful I am for that.
But things don't always last and in my later teens I began to hear more Latter Rain themes creeping into preaching.  That youth pastor moved on and subsequent leadership tended to stick more Latter Rain this and that in.  Revival sermons can inspire a teenage kid for a few years but after about six years they began to pall.  The level of radicalism expected within that movement seemed unsustainable and so, now, when I get the sense that that impulse is appearing in other streams of Christianity I get cautious, maybe too cautious.  Some folks have been telling Wenatchee for years that it's not only possible to be overly cautious but that that's what Wenatchee is.  :)
Well, yes, let's just grant that up front.  As Anderson put it in his article, the radical stance simply doesn't seem to account for the reality of failure.  It's possible to go through life failing at all sorts of things.  In a strange paradox for radical preachers who might preach from prophets, most of those prophets completely failed to secure the reforms and policies they advocated for while today's radical advocates may be oblivious to this concept when preaching from prophetic texts to make a point.  There may be more than a few observations about how Jesus fulfilled prophecies X, Y and Z and that's a wonderful, worthy consideration.  But let's not forget that Jesus said that the prophets were killed and cast out and ignored.  What if, to be particularly polemical about this point, today's radical advocates may show us how conformist they are precisely because so many of us find it so very easy to literally buy their message?


Cal said...

What would be radical if these mega-pastor-stars took their venues out of the US and other money making hotspots and maybe preached to a couple of shepherds in Central Asia. Of course there's no money, no fame and certainly the risk of losing your life. But, of course, we can't expect to be that RADICAL.

Thanks for putting this up with your own commentary. I've lurked around for awhile, good stuff here.

Even though I've been following Jesus for a mere 3 years, I've already began to realize the constant flame is better than firecrackers. I'm content to be a peasant in the Lord's Kingdom. It is comforting to be out of the kingdom of darkness and into the kingdom of His Son.

Wenatchee the Hatchet said...

Cal, thanks for reading.

I wonder, often, if radicals using the publishing/industrial apparatus to sell their anti-consumeristic stance have ever put together how odd it is to sell out messages of not selling out. :) At least John Lennon said that selling out was the whole point to begin with for him, and that eventually he wanted to do something more than just get bigger than Elvis. Not that I'm actually a fan of John Lennon at all but he managed to be up front about wanting to sell out and get bigger than Elvis and to admit that once he got there it was not what he imagined it would be. Whether or not radicals can concede disillusionment with being able to live up to the ideals they espouse is a perennial question, whether the radical advocacy could be a Platt or a Rand or a Tolstoy or any other idealist, whatever the ideals. Does that vitiate the ideals entirely? Well, not necessarily but that'd be a whole separate line of discussion, wouldn't it?