Theology

“Radical” review: 183-217

Well, folks, this is it: the last chapter review from Radical. Since it’s largely a summary chapter, it gives me the opportunity to talk about some things I haven’t had the space for earlier.

One of the first problems that this chapter amptly highlights is David’s tendency to present things as either/or dichotomies:

Meaning is found in community, not individualism; joy is found in generosity, not materialism; and truth is found in Christ, not universalism. (183)

While there are certainly problems in individualism, materialism and in some ways universalism, it doesn’t necessarily follow that the opposite of those concepts are immune to critique or excess. Community at the expense of the individual can be unhealthy, even abusive. Even viewing generosity as the opposite of materialism is in itself a problem; materialism is the belief that the physical is more important than the spiritual, and giving all your stuff away isn’t actually a repudiation of that belief. In fact, generosity could be an affirmation that the physical is more important than the spiritual, and it’s possible to be generous for selfish reasons instead of altruistic ones.

Lastly, as a universalist, I staunchly reject the notion that I stand in opposition to Christ.

These things are not opposites. You don’t have to reject one to embrace the other. In part, David seems to have spent this book arguing that being “radical” is at least somewhat a rejection of nuance.

The rest of this chapter is an explanation for how the reader can live out a “radical experiment” over the course of a year, and he gives us five things to do that “guarantee[s] that if you complete this experiment, you will possess an insatiable desire to spend the rest of your life in radical abandonment to Christ for his glory in all the world” (184). These five steps are:

  1. pray for the entire world
  2. read through the entire Word
  3. sacrifice your money for a specific purpose
  4. spend your time in another context
  5. commit your life to a multiplying community

One problem, David: I spent the bulk of my teenage years doing all of that, and the only thing I learned to do was be heartily sick of all of it. I read my Bible through at least seven times in a variety of ways. I kept prayer cards in my Bible cover and prayed for a half-dozen missionaries every day. Every Wednesday my entire church would literally get down on our knees to pray for every single missionary we supported across the globe. Every year I would commit to give sacrificially “in faith.” I spent several hours every single Thursday going door-knocking, and every few years we would have cycled through our entire city. I was devoted to a church, and then a college, with similar goals as David’s Brook Hills Church.

Turns out it was all a cult and not really good for much except being ridiculously good at Sword Drills. I certainly did not graduate from almost ten years of living out those five steps having an “insatiable desire” to live in “radical abandonment to Christ.” In fact, it had the exact opposite result: me, in general, saying fuck it, I’m done.

So. Try not to make promises you can’t keep, David?

I’ve commented before on David’s apparent readiness to ignore any aspect of Jesus’ sayings that don’t agree with him for the purposes of this book, but it happened again in this chapter. He uses the instructions Jesus gave to his apostles in Matthew 10– which even a first-year Bible college student could tell you might maybe not apply universally to the entire Church for all of time— in order to convince us that prayer supersedes action in any believer’s life (186-87). Supposedly, Matthew 10 overrules all the other instructions Jesus gave to the apostles at other points, like the times when prayer doesn’t enter into it (“do you love me? Feed my sheep”).

You can’t just take what’s convenient at the moment. Yes, at several points, Jesus emphasizes the need for us to pray, both in word and example– but the bulk of his life points to action as being at least slightly more important. And, in encouraging us all to view prayer as primary to a Christian’s life, David cites Evan Roberts and his prayers as having “precipitated a revival in Wales in which an estimated hundred thousand people came to faith in Christ in a matter of months” (190). Except I looked up Evan Roberts, and the man didn’t spend all his time in a broom closet with his hands folded. He was a preacher, and an effective speaker capable of drawing huge audiences. That’s not prayer; that’s charisma.

Another glaring problem with David’s perspective is that it borders on idolatry of the Bible:

God has chosen by his matchless grace to give us revelation of himself in his Word. It is the only Book that he has promised to bless by his Spirit to transform you and me into the image of Jesus Christ. It is the only Book that he has promised to use to bring our hearts, our minds, our lives in alignment with him. (192)

Maybe I’m forgetting something, but I’m almost positive that God promised no such thing. Yes, they sent us their Word, but according to this “Book,” that Word is Jesus (John 1). Jesus transforms us. Following Jesus brings us into alignment with them. But only if we choose to act on what the Word illuminated for us: a radical life committed to love.

I also want to take a moment to highlight something that’s more an annoyance than anything else, and David is hardly the only one guilty of this. Jen Hatmaker did the same exact thing in Seven:

We are affluent people living in an impoverished world. If we make only ten thousand dollars a year, we are wealthier than 84 percent of the world, and if we make fifty thousand dollars a year, we are wealthier than 99 percent of the world. (194)

While yes, this is “true” after a fashion, these sorts of examples fail to take cost of living into account. If I made only $10k a year in my area, I’d be utterly destitute. I wouldn’t be able to afford rent, regular bills, and buying food regularly would be a serious concern. However, if I lived in Cambodia or Vietnam or Mexico and made $10k in American dollars, I’d be living it up. But, like I said, on the scale of things, this is merely annoying.

I think one of the larger problems woven throughout the entirety of Radical is David’s nearly overriding sense of white guilt, only translated onto a global scale. He dismisses the crises facing us here at home– how does one blithely use the $10k number without bothering to consider whether we here at home might be struggling with homelessness, even if we make that much? America, comparatively, is a wealthy nation, true– but that doesn’t mean we don’t face homelessnes and food insecurity, or point-blank food deserts. Many areas lack access to clean water, even. Collectively I think we’ve lost sight of that amid all our talk about “first world problems.”

In step #4, David encourages us to seek out “another context,” and pushes us toward contexts dominated by his idea of global poverty and ethnicity– an idea inculcated by his whiteness and economic status. Despite all the time he’s spent overseas, he has never let go of his tendency to see non-American peoples as the Other; he’s also never let go of the idea that he– and other middle-class white Americans like him– are “burdened with glorious purpose” and that brown and black people– who, because they’re not white and middle-class Americans– need us to fix them, their cultures, and their economies.

That position dismisses the disaster and harm white people have caused over the course of our many neo-colonialist attempts to assuage ourselves of guilt. Guess what? Black and brown people in Africa, Asia, and Latin America (since, apparently, no individual countries exist in David’s world) are perfectly capable of handling their own damn problems, and many of their problems would be best served by white people staying the hell out of their way. (Which, of course, is not to say that foreign aid and investments and the like are all ill-conceived efforts we should totally abandon. We just need to re-examine our ready acceptance that TOMS shoes are a good thing.)

In the end, there are a lot of things that David and I agree upon, especially our mutual desire to help people. However, if this review demonstrates anything, it’s that when someone ignores how their white, male, able-bodied heterosexual, American experience affects their interpretive bias, inevitably there will be concerns.

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  • Sheila Warner

    Bravo! I’m so happy that there is an upsurge in Christians like you. It took the Ferguson investigation to open my eyes to my own white privilege. I remember watching AG Holder reading the conclusions with my mouth hanging open. I’ll be 61 this year, & I don’t have much time left to speak out. It seems that the generations coming up behind me are moving this nation forward. Thanks for this great post.

  • I’m generally mystified by people like David who only see the world in terms of black and white. It’s kind of amazing that a man as learned and well-traveled as he is has such a small worldview. Unless he’s choosing to see things through a limited lens, which is what it sounds like.

  • ozymandias

    “While yes, this is “true” after a fashion, these sorts of examples fail to take cost of living into account. If I made only $10k a year in my area, I’d be utterly destitute. I wouldn’t be able to afford rent, regular bills, and buying food regularly would be a serious concern. However, if I lived in Cambodia or Vietnam or Mexico and made $10k in American dollars, I’d be living it up. But, like I said, on the scale of things, this is merely annoying.”

    Frankly, this strikes me as a mind-boggling lack of awareness of your privilege as a person living in the developed world. Statistics about world wealth are almost always adjusted for purchasing power parity– that is, how much the dollar can buy. The 88% of the world that lives on 10k a year are, in fact, *just that poor*– which is why hunger and lack of adequate health care are such problems.

    • I looked up what David was referencing, and it wasn’t adjusted for purchasing power.

    • Jackalope

      I was actually very thankful that this was pointed out because I also get frustrated by this particular comparison. I agree that living on such a small amount of money leaves you constantly on the edge and if you have any sort of crisis (particularly health-related) then you will be pushed over that edge into not-so-good places. On the other hand, if you live in a place where you have your own land and your own home (so that you aren’t paying rent or property taxes), and you are able to raise your own food, then you may be able to eke out a reasonable living, if a life that’s still on the edge. In a place like the US, on the other hand, you aren’t going to be able to do as well because there are costs you can’t get around.

      • Good point. I grew up in a rural agricultural area, and while a lot of people in my church were incredibly poor we tended to get by because some of us were farmers. People bringing corn and potatoes and watermelon and squash to church wasn’t unusual. Because of that no one went hungry.

    • Joy_F

      No they aren’t- poverty is actually really hard to define and keeps changing. The $2 day is a real dollar average. In terms of global poverty, things are improving rapidly. 1.5 billion were pulled out of poverty recently (in the past 30 years) Technological factors, government stability, educational advances – all of this is contributing to less poverty as a whole on the global level.

  • Timothy Swanson

    “being “radical” is at least somewhat a rejection of nuance.” That’s a great – and very true – assessment. If I were to try to distill down all the sermons and books on this topic that I myself experienced, I think that would be the best summary. Life without nuance. Without gray areas. Without, really, anything more than bounded choice.

  • Joy_F

    I haven’t read “Radical” but I remember when it came out and a lot of my friends were recommending it. I meant to get around to it at the time and never did because I was in grad school for International Relations at the time and was simply too busy.

    And with that background in mind, you bring up an excellent point that has been incredibly frustrating to me – Cost of Living. I spent four years living in China and was able to live a perfectly happy, upper-middle class lifestyle on about $800 a month – because of the cost of living difference. All my money went a lot farther. With what I made, I traveled whenever I wanted, stayed in hotels across Asia for around $10-15 dollars a night, healthcare was completely covered, food was super cheap and since I had no time to clean due to research I paid a housekeeper to clean my two-bedroom apartment that had a view of the river – all that to say – despite the monetary value of what I was making I was no where near “poor.” Much of China is not poor.

    But explaining this to churches in the States is hard. People get stuck on the monetary values and insist that this can’t be true – yet it is. I referred people for a while to studies by Hans Rosling detailing how less people by percentage are poor and how even those are improving- in fact the whole outlook for poverty around the world is actually really good, and it is possible that it could be eliminated altogether at some point. This doesn’t go over well and it took me a while to realize why: it’s because admitting that cuts at our worldview. We don’t get to ride in as Saviors because we aren’t actually needed. We can’t feel our system is superior because if this is true, then our system has some serious deficiencies.

    And perhaps the most difficult one for American Christians to swallow – the idea that things are actually improving worldwide messes with a lot of theological points.

  • spacegal2003

    So, you’ve heard the adage that a good sermon comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable? This book was clearly written to do the latter, and in some ways I sympathize – there are certainly people who are too concerned about their own comfort and could use to be shaken up, to remind them that there is more to life than things. But you’re right, the justification for doing so is so frustrating. And the only explanation for anything is a work of God. For example, someone was telling me a story about a missions organization in the 1800s (or possibly early 1900s) that was having trouble with recruits. Then they started advertising to “Pack your coffin” because you would certainly die doing this, from either disease or hostile natives. Then they had huge numbers of missionaries, because of their willingness to sacrifice for God, and wasn’t it just great how God worked in their hearts. I didn’t mention to him that convincing people that their lives will have meaning if they die in a worthy manner is a popular recruiting tactic, including for suicide bombers, and that maybe God didn’t have anything to do with it.