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Rockin’ The Suburbs: Thinking Christianly About “Radical Christianity”

June 24, 2013

The Radical Christians. We all know them now. From Shane Claiborne’s kimono to Francis Chan’s solid-color tees, the trappings of this movement are quickly becoming familiar to the evangelical world. Combining a rosy-cheeked enthusiasm for kingdom work, a strong social conscience, and a critique of the American Dream that would put most punk rockers to shame, the “Ordinary Radicals” have swept the Christian world by storm. Books like Chan’s Crazy Love, Claiborne’s The Irresistible Revolution and David Platt’s Radical are storming the bestseller lists. And the influence goes beyond the bookstores. In my own little world of Wheaton College, Shane Claiborne spoke to a highly enthusiastic crowd, and Francis Chan was picked by this year’s graduating class to deliver the commencement speech. Crazy Love or Forgotten God are probably the only works of theology not by C.S. Lewis that the majority of Wheaton students have on their bookshelves. The “Ordinary Radicals,” (or whatever it is they call themselves), look like the shot in the arm that the church has desperately needed.

Shane Claiborne: AKA The Platonic Ideal of the Youth Pastor

     Or perhaps not. Recently, several devastating critiques of these writers have come out. It’s easy for stuffy, bearded, Reformed types to think of Christianity Today as a bastion of squishy evangelical hipsterism, but they came out with this article. Then, the other day, I read an article by Dr. Brian Mattson addressing the movement. After reading these critiques (and feeling somewhat relieved that I am not the only Christian who isn’t infatuated with Francis Chan), some thoughts occurred to me.

The “Ordinary Radical” movement gains a lot of its energy from its criticisms of the “American Dream,” the “Wife, Kids, and Picket Fence” world of suburbia. The implicit statement of the movement is that there is something wrong with enjoying the privileged life of the American suburban Christian. If you’re really Christian, you’ll do something more social justice-y, like moving to the slums of Jakarta, or Chicago’s South Side, and renouncing your privilege. Sometimes there’s a bit of Liberation Theology-lite attached to this (especially in Claiborne), at other times, it’s more of a calling to break out of the “nice” suburbs and into the more gritty and “real” world of African orphans or the urban poor, or the unbelievers (this is more of Chan’s approach). The core idea that the radicals share, however, is that living a “normal life” in the suburbs is somehow less authentically Christian than becoming some sort of missionary/social justice advocate.

Dr. Mattson sums up the core message of the “Ordinary Radicals” fairly well:

 Stop taking your privilege for granted and to reach out to the marginalized and suffering. Take your faith back from “the American Dream.” Turn your back on the 401(k), retirement, 40 hour work week, and do something radicallydifferent than what normal people do. Be “missional” and move to a poor neighborhood in the inner city. Quit your lucrative career and engage in full time “ministry.”

Certainly there’s some good in this. Americans don’t have a lot of problems with bowing down before Dionysius or Molech, but the idols of prosperity, comfort, and respectability all too frequently command our worship. Every culture has its inherent sin problems, and one of the roles of the Church should be to provide a Biblical critique of those sin problems. However, the mentality that Christians who are living out their lives in the suburbs instead of the inner city, raising two or three kids and a dog instead of building an orphanage in Nigeria, and working for a business that doesn’t include the words “fair trade” anywhere on their website, that these Christians are somehow “less authentic” than their more activist brethren, is just wrong.

The Suburbs are bad. Seriously, the Arcade Fire totally sold out and went mainstream on that album.

The Ordinary Radicals are right to criticize the suburbs. The suburbs are gross, ugly, egregious, silly, dehumanizing, and the result of bad city planning–all the more reason for Christians to be there. The push for inner-city/Global South activism has latent traces of the “cool imperative” contained within it. Let’s face it–doing ministry in the inner city is way cooler than doing ministry in the suburbs. The inner city is for young, diverse, idealistic, and usually fashionably leftist Christians who wear old clothes and square glasses. The suburbs are full of old, white, cynical Righteous Republicans who also wear old clothes and square glasses, but somehow don’t pull it off in the same way. Living in a house with a square lawn, driving a minivan full of kids to the soccer game, camping trip on the weekend–how bland! How bourgeoisie! 

H.R. Rookmaaker said, I can’t remember exactly where, that Christians should not look a lot different than the secular world, but that we should look a little different from them. In other words, we should not form some sort of Amish-style culture, complete with our own uniforms, jargon, and secret handshakes. The nauseatingly wholesome homeschoolers of the 80s and 90s did that with their homemade sweaters and denim jumpers. Cool Christians would like to think that we’re beyond such tribalism, but the impulse to create a badge of identity has not died, merely transmuted. The denim jumpers have been replaced by skinny jeans, the homemade sweaters are worn in an ironic way, and the “simplicity” motif has been given a postmodern spin, but the basic impulse remains the same. We’ve created another brand of Christians who are more “authentic” than other Christians, because they’ve followed some extra rules.

Government Education–pssh! So mainstream! What, do we look like soccer parents or something?

How should we then live in the suburbs? It may be necessary for some people to give away all of their possessions, rich young ruler-style, and move into the slums. But I doubt this should be the case for everyone–if all the Christians moved into the inner city, there would be no one to preach the gospel to the suburbs. Instead of looking for a “Radical” Christianity to swoop in and save the day, Christians can work for small, but substantive changes in the suburbs. Take the issue of possessions. American culture is saturated with materialism; it’s an unfortunate side-effect of capitalism (The side effects of other economic systems are considerably more unfortunate). What if Christian families in the suburbs decided to live with just a little less stuff than everyone else? What if they decided that some things were more important than having the Xbox 720 or the newest car? A concerted effort to live in the suburbs without falling prey to commodity fetishism or the myth of “Keeping Up With The Joneses'” would be powerful. Or what if Christians in the suburb decided to work towards creating community with their neighbors. This could be an excellent way to engage in mission work without ever stepping off the street you live on.

Christians have many opportunities to make a difference in the neighborhoods that they’ve been placed in, regardless of the socio-economic status thereof. If we want to be truly radical, perhaps it would be best to look for the changes that we can make within our spheres on influence rather than looking for a “special” ministry opportunity somewhere else.

Current Listening: Land of the Living by Matthew Perryman Jones

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One Comment leave one →
  1. July 4, 2013 10:37 pm

    And ironically, this radical Christianity has come hand in hand with a rejection of biblical worship for something that feels more “real.” This is ironic because it’s really the only way to actually change the world.

    You wanna be radical? Be biblical. Have children, baptize them, and feed the people the Body of Christ every week. THAT’s radical, because no one is doing it.

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