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“Radical” review: 43-60

David opens up this chapter of Radical with a horrifying story.

In it, he relates how a seminarian from Indonesia (his name is Raden) was in a village where the local witch doctor challenged him to a fight. Even though Raden was trained in martial arts, he declined by saying “My God does the fighting for me.” Supposedly, at that moment, the witch doctor starts gasping for air and within minutes has “fallen over dead” (44). Raden goes on to use this as an opportunity to “share the Gospel” with the villagers. Everyone, as you might expect from these sort of “missionary tales,” converts on the spot.

Over the next page, David totally embraces the concept that God took direct action to literally kill a man so that Raden’s message would appear more powerful and convincing to the villagers. While he says that this isn’t a method we should try to duplicate (no shit, David), he doesn’t doubt that God did do this– which makes me wonder why he thinks this isn’t something we should attempt again? Apparently, the death of one man was worth it to God at least in that instance. Why not others? If God did it, why shouldn’t we “make pronouncements that lead to their deaths” (45)? The whole point of this chapter is that we’re completely ineffectual without God’s involvement. Isn’t it true from David’s perspective that if God did something– even when it looks like murder– it’s ultimately a good thing? “God is sovereign” and all that?

However, he doesn’t even bother acknowledging that question.

~~~~~

Throughout the rest of this chapter, David returns to one of the principle messages from chapter one– that the American evangelical church has adopted the “American dream” and strayed from our original design and purpose. He re-launches into this argument with:

To this point, we have seen how the American dream radically differs from the call of Jesus and the essence of the gospel. This differentiation is heightened when we contrast trust in the power of God with reliance on our own abilities. (45)

All I could ask was uhm… how exactly have we seen that? He’s ranted a bunch about how wealthy we are in comparison to underground house churches in Asia, and he’s condemned “the American dream” a bunch, and he’s ranted about what the Gospel really means a bunch, all without giving me anything truly concrete to work with. He doesn’t think easy-believism is the reality of the Gospel, and has shouted a bunch of Calvinistic stuff about how we’re sinners and God hates us, and he thinks padded pews might need to be tossed out to save us from our apathy, but … it all has just been a rant so far. He hasn’t put forth a substantive argument.

Here, though, he tries a little bit by giving us a slightly-less-fuzzy articulation of “The American Dream”:

… we can do anything we set our minds to accomplish. There is no limit to what we can accomplish when we combine ingenuity, imagination, and innovation with skill and hard work. We can earn any degree, start any business, climb any ladder, attain any prize, and achieve any goal …

The dangerous assumption we unknowingly accept in the American dream is that our greatest asset it our own ability … But the gospel has different priorities. The gospel beckons us to die to ourselves and to believe in God and to trust in his power. In the gospel, God confronts us with our utter inability to accomplish anything of value apart from him. (46).

Ah. He means meritocracy.

Like him, I’m frustrated with the concept, largely because it’s a lie. My partner is an excellent example: he’s intelligent, talented, and a dedicated, earnest worker. He accomplishes a lot at his job, and is routinely recognized for his significant contributions. I’m proud of him, and he deserves every award, every raise, every glowing performance review.

But.

But, he’s only there because he has a master’s degree from one of the best engineering schools in the world. He has that degree because his father paid for it out of pocket. His father was able to do all of that because his father paid for him to get an engineering degree. His grandfather was able to do all of that because he was an engineer at the booming Chrysler company. His grandfather could do all of that because he came from a reasonably comfortable farming family who were able to survive the Great Depression and make sure their kids were all able to go to college and do things like become extremely successful engineers and neurosurgeons.

At least four generations of wealth, prosperity, health, and education led to the place where my upper-middle-class white male partner is an up-and-coming leader in his department. That’s meritocracy for you: the prevalent belief that the rich and educated don’t help each other.

So yes, in a way, I share David’s frustration with the concept. However, instead of recognizing any of that, he slams to the complete opposite end of the spectrum: he believes in our utter inability to accomplish anything of value apart from God.

I really don’t want to live in David’s universe because it seems like a maddening, frustrating place. Through the next few pages he relies on the word desperation, saying:

Think about it. Would you say that your life is marked right now by desperation for the Spirit of God? Would you say that the church you are a part of is characterized by this sense of desperation? (60)

… which reminds me of a conversation I keep having with people. If they’re approaching religion from a typical evangelical way of understanding concepts like “personal relationship with Jesus,” and they read my blog, they’re probably going to walk away from here feeling somewhat dissatisfied with my lack of … well, evangelical-ness. I’m not bursting with talk of how God has worked in my life, our recounting ways that I’ve been just so blessed. There’s no stories here about how the spirit of God moved on my heart, or how I was convicted or “given a word,” according to whatever parlance you’re used to.

So, from David’s understanding, no, I’m not desperate for the Spirit of God, but it’s not because I don’t think we should be. I just have a different perspective on what this means. In many ways– most ways, probably– I am extremely desperate. Desperate, at times, is the only word to describe what I feel.

I am desperate for the unceasing tide of misogyny I have to wade through every single day to end. I am desperate for the police brutality and white supremacy in my country to be repented of and eradicated. I am desperate for trans people to be loved and accepted, for them to be able to grasp the healing and wholeness that is– or should be– out there.

Yes. Desperation is the only word that fits. And I pray. I do. I’m still uncertain what possible point prayer serves, but my soul eternally cries out to someone to just make this all stop.

But then I realize that the “someone” I’m asking for help is me. And it’s you. Unlike David, I don’t think we are “utterly incapable of accomplishing anything of value” without God’s direct intervention. I believe that God, unlike what David argues, uses likely and unlikely tools (53). Sure, they asked someone with a speech impediment to become a public speaker. But, they also asked Deborah to become a judge of Israel, and the record we have of her leadership is one of boldness, confidence, and competency.

Evangelicals like to tell stories like Gideon and Moses and Peter and Saul– the unlikely men, the people who seemed most unsuited for XYZ position. They embrace these narratives and argue that our abilities, our talents, are fairly irrelevant to God. In fact, the more pathetic and broken you appear to be to everyone else, the more likely They are to use you. Just to be sure that everyone “gets the message” that it only happened because God did that, and not because that person was smart and capable.

But what about Joseph, who was an excellent administrator? What about Lydia, who was a beloved community organizer? What about Phoebe, a proficient leader? Or the person(s)who eventually recorded the Gospel of John, a thematically beautiful written work?

All of this, to me, begs the question: what do people like David really mean when they say we can’t do anything “apart from God”? Do they mean that God gave us all the talents and abilities, so anything we do is ultimately their doing? Do they mean that God took direct action and planted the ideas for the granaries in Joseph’s head, a la The Chairman from The Adjustment Bureau? That God put the words in place before the author of John could write them down?

This is why I find these arguments frustrating. In a way, they’re unfalsifiable. Whatever David does mean by the “Spirit of God enabling us,” there’s nothing one way or the other that supports or disproves him. He can say literally anything he wants.

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  • Amanda Morrow

    re: the first part with the guy magically falling dead… obvious horribleness aside, I never understood why people who write these christian books feel a need to embellish on their stories with these utterly ridiculous, unbelievable claims. The last “bible study” that i attended before leaving my cult-church was doing a book on prayer, and the author made all kinds of grandiose claims about how he was off speaking at some conference and God told him to pray, and later he found out his house was on fire and his prayer basically like put out the fire and saved his family or something. He had a TON of stories in this book that were equally “miraculous” (read: ridiculous). I can’t recall the name of the book. But this seems to be a really common theme in Christian writing… telling what are obviously tall tales in an effort to demonstrate the power of God (or to make an effort to prevent your narrative getting challenged in any way). It’s disturbing to me that so many people who read those books accept those anecdotes as fact. The cult leader loved to tell this story about some “prophet” he knew who had a gift of healing, and he went to a hospital to visit a very sick, very frail old woman… the prophet was 100% sure that God told him to pick up this elderly, frail woman and throw her as hard as he could against the wall, and she would be thusly healed! And as the story went, he did, and she was. And the people in the cult believed this story!! AHHH!! For as momentous as some of those occasions are, you would think googling would produce newspaper articles on the topic. You’d think 😉 I wish those authors didn’t feel the need to resort to gross embellishment and lies to get their points across. It’s as though they don’t think God is interesting enough himself…

    • ReverendRef

      My opinion is that the largeness of your tale is directly related to the smallness of your god.

    • Jackalope

      I’ve heard some pretty amazing stories from credible people, however, so while throwing someone against a wall (to use your example) seems out of line, the miraculous doesn’t automatically make me think it’s false. (Which may not be what you’re saying, but just to respond to that idea.) I have a good friend who has done a fair bit of missions work in 2nd and 3rd world countries* talking about some amazing miraculous healings that she saw. I was living in one of those countries with her during a couple of these trips (she was an interpreter), and remember her coming home and saying, “Jackalope, I can’t believe it; we were praying for someone [with legs of different lengths] and I SAW his leg get longer.” She hadn’t really had time to talk the experience up to herself or exaggerate it. And there were some other stories like that. While I don’t expect that you will believe a second-hand story like this from someone you only know from the internet (and rightly so), for me hearing that sort of story from someone with integrity made me more willing to be open to some of the stories that seem unlikely.

      *2nd world countries originally referring to the former Soviet/Communist bloc (slightly more complex than this); I’m only using this to specify that they were not European or North American white cultures.

  • Timothy Swanson

    One of the uncomfortable corollaries of the “God does it all” belief is that God sure seems to like blessing wealthy white skinned people more than he does poor brown skinned people. (Also uncomfortable – particularly for Calvinists – is the observation that God elects to save more Western white-skinned people…) Just a thought.

    • I keep bringing this up with Calvinists. “Kinda weird how, according to your interpretation, most of the elect are white people, huh?”

      • oe_leiderhosen

        How do they respond, if they do?

      • More like the majority (only by 16% currently) of people who say that they are elect are white. There is a difference between merely saying that you’re a Christian and actually being one. So if God truly does it all, then there is no way that you or anyone can confidently say that most of the elect are white.

        • Link, please?

          Also, “people who currently say they are elect,” and “people who Calvinists have historically defined as elect” aren’t the same group. According to the viewpoint I’ve heard from most Calvinists (feel free to point me in the direction of a Calvinist who disagrees with this), it’s only possible to be “elect” if you’re also part of a group who can “believe” because you’ve had the Gospel preached to you (which they pull primarily from Romans 10:14). Historically speaking, that’s mostly white Europeans with some parts of North Africa and the Near East thrown in. The missionary movement is, on the scale of the last 2,000 years, a rather recent development.

          • I did some quick estimates using the data from this http://www.pewforum.org/2011/12/19/global-christianity-exec/ (assuming the US, and Germany to be all white to account for some of Europe)
            Yes, people have to choose to believe before they can be saved, and they also have to choose who they will tell about the gospel. That’s in more passages than just Romans. I am trying say that Calvinists do not believe in a racist God, and that is true for most levels of knowledge of the theological system.

          • keefanda

            I consider myself a Calvinist who disagrees with this.

            There’s a more liberal way of being a Calvinist. In the same way that one can
            be a Darwinian evolutionist while disagreeing with Darwin on some
            points, and in the same way that one can be a Christian while
            disagreeing with the Christian Bible on some points, one can be a
            Calvinist while disagreeing with Calvin on some points. So if we allow a
            sufficiently liberal interpretation of what Calvinism means, then
            universal reconciliation (universal salvation) is a form of Calvinism,
            which is to say that every universal reconciliationist is a Calvinist
            who believes that there are those who are saved without ever hearing
            about Jesus. I’d venture that this describes many ministers and
            theologians in the Presbyterian Church, USA (the liberal Presbyterian
            denomination I grew up in).

            On universal reconciliation and Calvinism, here is what I think is an
            amusing complaint about Calvinism from a conservative who thinks that
            Calvinism ultimately logically forces us to reject his conservative
            beliefs in hell and in the idea that one can lose one’s salvation:

            http://www.patheos.com/blogs/rogereolson/2010/12/calvinism-leads-to-universalism/

            He might be right at least to some degree. Although the major reformers
            Luther and Arminius believed that one can lose one’s salvation even if
            one is truly saved, Calvin was the one major reformer who believed that
            it is not possible to lose one’s salvation if one is truly saved. Calvin
            is the “father” of both the mainstream [Scottish] Presbyterian and
            [Dutch] Reformed denominations, which have produced many of the
            mainstream liberal Christian theologians over the years. In 1967, the
            Presbyterian Church, USA affirmed that “If God can save a person, then
            God will save that person.” This is the closest to affirming universal
            salvation that any major Christian denomination has ever come.

            One last set of links on universal reconciliation and Calvinism (and even evangelicalism):

            http://blogs.thegospelcoalition.org/trevinwax/2009/08/11/why-calvin-is-more-biblical-than-some-calvinists/

            http://www.christianuniversalist.org/resources/articles/universalist-tulip/

            http://evangelicaluniversalist.com/forum/viewtopic.php?f=10&t=3198

            https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christian_Universalism#Modern_types

            A sufficiently liberal interpretation of Calvinism also leads to the
            following, based on the above about Calvin: Everyone who accepts in some
            form the idea of eternal security (once-saved-always-saved) is in some
            sense a Calvinist. And there are quite a few such Calvinists even in
            conservative Christianity who accept that at least some if not at least
            many who never hear of Jesus are saved. Believe it or not, Billy Graham
            is one such person – and, believe it or not, he was OK with Darwinian
            evolution. (The guy was actually more open-hearted and open-minded than
            many seem to think. He was a Democrat, not a Republican, which should
            say something about his open-heartedness and open-mindedness. But his
            son is quite different.) Here are two links that show these two facts:

            http://www.mercifultruth.com/graham.html

            http://www.patheos.com/blogs/thepangeablog/2009/08/06/quote-to-ponder-billy-graham-on-evolution/

  • I really like what you said about the “desperation” stuff. Back when I had THE MOST personal relationship with God, it was all about how we NEED God, we can’t do anything without God, we’re so weak and desperate and we have to work really really hard to never forget that. We have to constantly bemoan the fact that we’re sinners, and pray and pray and pray that we can become closer to God- live every day like it’s a huge crisis and we need God like we need food…

    The way I see it now, God was really important to me and I really wanted to follow God as much as I possibly could, but I was in a belief system which only cared about “spiritual needs” and not like, actual problems in the world. I really agree with what you said about being desperate for the end of injustice in the world, and working towards that- I wish Christians who are totally fine but trying to force themselves to feel like they’re helpless and need to pray more would look beyond the whole “personal relationship with God” thing. Our religion should be about the world and how we treat each other and the kingdom of God (ie justice and equality).