Theology

“Radical” review: 23-42

And we’re jumping right back into the Radical review. After I did the introduction and first chapter, I tweeted something about how the subtitle should have been “I take hyperbole literally,” and after reading through the second chapter again (titled “Too Hungry for Words: Discovering the Truth and Beauty of the Gospel”), I’ve realized it’s not just hyperbole. It’s everything. David takes everything as literally as possible.

I have the tendency to interpret things overly literally, especially when I’m tired, and even I can recognize sarcasm, hyperbole, metaphor, and the distinctions between exposition and poetry. Like, look at this:

Jesus told us everyone who sins is a slave to sin, and Paul went so far as to say that we are captive to the devil himself. (31)

Honestly, fellow, if you have to premise something with “they even went so far as to say” maybe, just maybe, you should take a step back and ask yourself—if they’re really going so far, do they mean it literally?

David also has a pretty serious problem with taking his own understanding of Scripture and elevating it to something pretty close to Scripture itself, and that’s me being generous. There’s this:

We are each born with an evil, God-hating heart. Genesis 8:21 says that every inclination of man’s heart is evil from childhood … (30)

And this:

Why is [Jesus] in such agony and pain [at Gethsemane]? The answer is not because he is afraid of the crucifixion. He is not trembling because of what the Roman soldiers are about to do to him … (34-35).

Three things: first of all, if the verse you’re about to quote says “the imaginations of a man’s heart are evil from his youth,” running around making the claim that means we’re all God-haters from the moment we’re born doesn’t make much sense. Second, while it’s entirely likely that Jesus was also worried about whatever is in the Cup he’s asking to be passed, it seems dismissive and uncompassionate to point-blank declare that Jesus wasn’t afraid of the crucifixion. Jesus was human like as we are. Assuming he couldn’t possibly be afraid of the coming crucifixion (35) seems just a touch Arian to me.

The third and last is that David is a pretty committed Calvinist, and he’s refusing to even acknowledge that there are other approaches to Christian theology. According to him, he lays awake at night terrified for all the people who aren’t an avowed Calvinist like he is. To him, everyone who isn’t a Calvinist is completely and utterly wrong and we will die in hell.

He does this sort of thing throughout the book, and it never ceases to be frustrating. I’ve never been impressed by men who are this arrogant.

The second biggest problem I have with Radical he also introduces in this chapter: asceticism. If you’re not familiar with asceticism, it’s typically a religious attempt to abstain from indulgences or pleasure. There are varying degrees of this, ranging from things like Lent to wearing a cilice and whipping yourself. In my case, it showed up in things like my Sunday school teacher telling me to wear uncomfortable shoes in order to “mortify the flesh.”

In many respects, Radical is a modern argument for Christian asceticism. If David wasn’t so virulently Protestant he’d probably have realized he’s really just recycling St. Francis of Assisi and stopped writing the book. Here, he questions music, padded chairs, air conditioning, decorations, and a bit later on, even sermons (27, 40).

Why all of this bothers me is that it has gnostic overtones. When we buy into a harsh divide between our souls and our bodies, it’s easy to take some passages from the Bible and make them be about all bodily impulses as being evil and corrupted. There’s a long tradition in Christianity of sexual abstinence—in fact, it’s possible that at least one of the early church fathers castrated himself (Origen, according to Eusebius). Even if they didn’t go as far as castration, you can see the leftover movement in the modern Catholic requirement for priests to abstain from sex and marriage.

The problem is, this leaves out things like other Scripture passages (like Paul’s instruction that we sing psalms and hymns in Ephesians), and ignores the fact that the Christian religion is one very much concerned with embodiment. Jesus is God made flesh, God with us, Immanuel. The two sacraments we all agree on—the Eucharist and Baptism—are fundamentally about recognizing that our bodies and our souls are inseparably the same, and that spiritual acts are physical ones and vice versa.

In my opinion, arguments for asceticism—whatever religious or secular place they come from—always ignore this reality, and arguments that ignore reality can’t be successful. I’m especially sensitive to this as a chronic pain sufferer—take away indoor heating and padded chairs and I’m unable to come to your church service. Make church services last six to twelve hours like what he talks about here and I will not be able to fully participate in your church.

The third and last significant problem with this chapter is that he’s very much of the “Christians talk about how God is love too much, we need to focus on how God is wrathful and hateful and a holy judge” persuasion. Like here:

Yes, God is a loving Father, but he is also a wrathful Judge … And in some sense, God also hates sinners … On psalmist said to God, “The arrogant cannot stand in your presence; you hate all who do wrong.” (29)

Leaving aside for the moment that the psalms are poetry and therefore treating an outpouring of a psalmist’s emotions as literal factual truth about the nature of God themself is more than a little ridiculous, let’s take a crack at his “God is also hateful and wrathful” assertion. He positions their wrath as being in tension with their love, as though God’s love and wrath are opposites. I’d like to posit that they are not opposites, but that one results from the other. God is wrathful because they are loving.

This springs from my understanding of the context—if you examine almost every time that God is being portrayed as wrathful, it is in response to someone being oppressive. In almost every case it’s the Israelites doing things like refusing to observe the Year of Jubilee, like in Amos. Supposedly God gave them every opportunity not to turn into an oppressive Empire that preferred the wealthy and powerful over the poor and needy, and they took every opportunity to become precisely that. And when that happens, the prophets and the psalmists spend a lot of time condemning it, writing about how they believe God feels about it, too. According to them, God’s usually pretty upset and for good reason.

During Jesus’ ministry, it seems he spent most of his time addressing the injustices he saw. He fed the hungry, healed the sick, lifted up the poor in spirit. The times he’s shown as angry are in reaction to the elite using their positions to abuse those below them—like the moneychangers in the temple, or the Pharisees giving their followers a “back-breaking burden.” Jesus loved, and because he loved, he grew wrathful when he saw oppression and injustice.

But, according to David, God is wrathful, and because someone thousands of years ago sinned, we’re all born completely and totally evil – “you are an enemy of God, dead in your sin, and in your present state you are not even able to see that you need life” (32)—and Jesus had to bear all the fury and wrath “stored up from the beginning of the world” (35) in order for God to be able to come down from his mountain again (33) and tolerate being around us.

Just … is God actually that petty?

There are a few things in this chapter that I could almost agree with him on, like his rejection of a “superstitious sinner’s prayer” (37). I’ve even compared the sinner’s prayer to a magical incantation, so obviously this idea is something we both dislike. But we almost immediately diverge from each other, because he’s a Calvinist and I’m not. He’s still viewing Christianity in terms of saved and unsaved and I’ve moved past that to being a Christian means following Christ.

Maybe somewhere in this book we’ll fall more in step with each other. I doubt it.

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  • Beroli

    Yeah, I doubt it, too. Why would anyone want to be anything other than an enemy to the god he describes: wrathful, hates everyone, demands his followers eschew pleasure and torture themselves? (And if his answer is “because he’ll torture you for eternity if you’re his enemy”…how does he not realize that that makes his god sound even worse, not better?)

  • Amanda Morrow

    God is wrathful in response to oppression….. MIND=BLOWN
    Thank you!

  • Trevel

    I do sometimes wonder if asceticism was what kinky people did before the discovery of kink.

    • St. Teresa of Avila.

      • Trevel

        “I saw in his hand a long spear of gold, and at the point there seemed to be a little fire. He appeared to me to be thrusting it at times into my heart, and to pierce my very entrails; when he drew it out, he seemed to draw them out also, and to leave me all on fire with a great love of God. The pain was so great, that it made me moan; and yet so surpassing was the sweetness of this excessive pain, that I could not wish to be rid of it…”

        — yeah, no sexual subtext THERE.

  • notleia

    Just…..white male Calvinists. Ugh.

  • Debbie

    Thanks, Samantha, for reviewing this book. I recently read it for a book club (in which I am by far the most progressive member) and skipped the meeting when we were supposed to discuss it because of how concerned I was with the message.

  • Kathleen Margaret Schwab

    Too bad I cannot gift David with my chronic pain, and then see how he feels about eliminating padded chairs. I’ll tell you – coming down with chronic pain gives a person a unique view on people who want to cause discomfort because feeling happy might be sinful, or lead to being sinful. Have I ever mentioned that I had a Calvinist friend who once told me that she was convinced that breathing is sinful?

    I dislike authors (or speakers) wanting to impugn how I relate to God. “We are all God – haters from birth” ? Speak for yourself, dude. In fact, I would find it moving if David confessed his personal struggles with something like, “At times I felt like I hated God, even when I was very young I felt that way…ect” but when he assumes that his experience must be universal, I just switch off.

    • Jackalope

      What?? How on earth could someone call breathing sinful?? I’m.. speechless.

    • oe_leiderhosen

      Yeah, I need to know how breathing is sinful.

  • So far I’m not feeling much motivation to finally read this after buying it a few years ago (M.Div. research that never really got to it).

    The wrath part is hugely important and it is shocking how many “Bible-believing” Christians never bother to read the context of the Bible around the wrath bit. I did a word study on orge (wrath) in a Greek class and it was pretty consistently that same conclusion from anybody who was trying to be remotely objective: wrath is one expression of love, not an opposite of love.

    I can’t help but wonder why anybody would work so hard to ignore that, to add a “but” after the Bible’s “God is love”? Why does Blatt and others of his ilk feel like God’s love has to be diluted or countered? So that we don’t feel as bad if our own love is conditional or occasional?

    • Beroli

      Or–so that it makes sense to say God hates anyone who doesn’t share his religious beliefs, without needing to come up with an actual reason other than “you were born human and you don’t have what I consider the correct beliefs.”

  • Sofia

    After several years at a Calvinist church I had to leave, because even though I considered myself a Christian, everything they were teaching made me feel like God hated me. There was an extreme focus on the wrath of God – I’ve never felt so unloved as I did during the last few months I went to that church. I left because I just wanted to feel loved again.

  • Meredith Indermaur

    Platt’s statement: “Yes, God is a loving Father, but he is also a wrathful Judge … And in some sense, God also hates sinners … On psalmist said to God, “The arrogant cannot stand in your presence; you hate all who do wrong.” (29) I’m just not seeing the Jesus of the Gospels (the lens with which we view God) responding this way to the “sinners” He collected as companions. Am I missing something???

  • And if you’ve dealt with abuse, hearing “God loves you, but he is also a wrathful judge” takes on a whole new, lovely meaning (sarcasm).
    Even though I’m now more in line with the belief that God got mad due to oppression, and no, Jesus did not die so he could stand being around me, lines like this still terrify me.

    • Kathleen Margaret Schwab

      Your comment makes me wonder if people with the mindset of abusers are attracted to Calvinism because it presents a God who is like them. I mean, abusers often genuinely believe they love the people they are abusing, and the abuse and the love are wrapped up together. I remember reading a book by a Calvinist about how great God’s love is, but every time he said that God loves us so amazingly, he always added that we have to remember that we don’t deserve God’s love. That sounds like an abusive kind of love to me – I love you so much, no one could ever love you so much as me (just remember you really don’t deserve to be loved by someone so awesome as me – I’m doing you a big favor)

      • This. This so much.

      • Beroli

        It’s always seemed to me that what Christians see in God says a lot about them. LaHaye describes God in terms that evoke a monstrosity that would make Cthulhu cringe; another Christian I know online (who’s nice, but prudish and weirdly overconcerned with things other people are doing) describes him in terms that I would sum up as “a mostly benign but weirdly controlling prude,” another Christian, whose online comments are usually morally sound but who is very bad at admitting when he’s wrong, describes God in terms that suggest an entity who’s usually morally sound but never ever acknowledges it on the occasions when he’s not, and Samantha describes an entity genuinely filled with love and enraged by injustice (and not, as in the case of my first example, by violations of arbitrary rules which he calls injustice).

      • Karen Renee

        This was what I finally realized. They don’t understand how God can love without also hating and despising those he loves (and playing manipulative games with rules nobody can live up to) because they don’t know it’s actually possible to fully love the imperfect without condemning and excluding the imperfection.

        The reason they didn’t really believe my ex-husband was abusive (instead of just a little rough around the edges and needing patience) was because they really believed that his tendency to see the worst in me, try to make me live up to his expectations, and blame me for his frustration and anger was pretty much how God sees everyone, too.

        They ruled the church in the same way my ex attempted to rule over me. Going against their authority by leaving the marriage was so much worse than being abusive, in their minds, that they kicked me out of the church as if he’d been right about me all along. I received letters from the members blaming me for “lying for so long to make them trust me” and putting them in a position where they could no longer love me anymore.

        And why not? After all, they believe their “loving” God would do the same.

  • Erik K

    I’m constantly frustrated by the new “understanding” in modern Christianity that says God is made up of three distinct things: Holiness; Love; Justice. The understanding is that God is equally those three things, and that they are all at odds with each other. A Holy God cannot stand being around sin; a Just God cannot stand a sin going unpunished; a Loving God cannot stand not being around his Children.

    This understanding is where a lot of dangerous ideas flow from, including this whole mistaken view of “wrath” and how God just really, really, really wants to see everyone burn and only Jesus begging him causes him to hold back what we really truly deserve.

    It’s just… sad.

  • Northwoods Dan

    I agree with what you and others are saying. God is love. Period. I wish folks would content themselves with stopping there and dwelling in God’s love and then passing it on without any “but…” Samantha, I agree with your review and the comments posted here by others. I’m a first time visitor and glad that I stumbled across your blog. Keep up the good work. Peace.

  • Jackalope

    Two thoughts. First of all, thank you for the comment on gnosticism. When I look at the world, I find it so hard to believe that God hates every non-miserable moment we have. Look at how wonderful nature is; look at the breathtaking beauty that surrounds us. Taste how amazing food can be, and how all cultures have their own wonderful food that is unique and flavorful. Reproduction could have been just two people cutting off toenail clippings and mixing them in a bowl, but instead it can be this amazingly pleasurable and bonding experience. Even something as simple as drinking cold water when you’re thirsty is a joyful experience. How can you look at this and assume that God wants us to be miserable and deny our bodies? Yes, there can be times of self-denial that are healthy, but denial for denial’s sake has never struck me as being in that category. I can understand the logic of, “I’ve got so much extra, I’m going to take the money I would have spent on myself and use it for mosquito nets or vaccines or clean water or whatever for those who don’t have what I’ve got,” (not to say that there can’t be issues with that too, but at least it’s healthier) but how is wearing uncomfortable shoes going to do anything but give you blisters?

    Second, I used to have issues with the sinner’s prayer, and even prayed it a few times when I was younger just in case I hadn’t been sincere enough the first time. What helped me have peace with it (don’t know if it will work for anyone else, but I’ll throw it out there just in case) was the realization that it’s really just the whole of Christian life. You say that you believe in Jesus, that you’re a sinner, but that you’re sorry and will try your best to follow Jesus from now on. The sinner’s prayer may be the first time you do that, but really if you’re following Jesus you’ll be doing all of those things to varying degrees for the rest of your life; trying to be a more Jesus-like person, failing sometimes, saying you’re sorry when you do, and continuing on.

  • marciepooh

    “According to him, he lays awake at night terrified for all the people who aren’t an avowed Calvinist like he is.” That doesn’t seem very Calvinist to me. If it’s up to God to decide who’s saved (hopefully everyone!) and who’s not and it doesn’t actually matter what the individual believes. But then I’m a PCUSAer, so I’ve been taught Calvinism but not a CALVINISM maybe?

    • Supposedly there is supposed to be some sort of mechanism involved, something along the lines of “hearing of the Word of God,” but they can’t be led astray by a “false gospel” like he thinks easy-believism is.