Thursday, March 5, 2015

The New Old Radicals...

I blazed through “Runaway Radical” last weekend. I knocked it out in a few hours which I don't often do. It’s the story of a kid who buys into the gospel message 100% and sets out to throw himself entirely into the call of the Great Commission, (as it is conceived by Evangelicalism anyway). He proceeded to slam directly into a wall of disappointment, letdown and personal betrayal.
In a lot of ways, this kid’s story and my own story overlap quite a bit. In fact, I had to put the book down at one point and go look up an old journal entry from over ten years ago. There are a couple of scenes in which Jonathan Hollingsworth, the young protagonist  of the story, has a series of conversations dealing with various people regarding a mission to Africa gone badly. The words in my journal entry were nearly identical to some of these exchanges that he relates. I also had a very similar conversation with my old pastor after a ministry experience that… did not meet expectations. In fact, some of the lines in the book...verbatim. Still, I don't think I got steamrolled in quite the same way. I actually never had any real hard feelings anyway. I knew the score and wasn't caught by surprise in quite the same way. In any case, reading the book was a bit of a flash back from ten years ago. 

The story also details a post-letdown encounter with another young zealous ministry-man who is fired up and ready to turn the screws of conviction on any one within reach. This was the one part of the book that was actually kind of a disappointment for me. It is told in the manner of Chaucer satirizing his debtors complete with details of glassy eyed sneering taking place. I felt kind of bad for the young dumb drunk youth pastor who was the designated bad-guy in this narrative. Was he an ass? Of course. Still, it was sort of harsh to frame the moment in print as a permanent memorial of how to over-shoot your zeal. To anyone in this youth pastor's circle of friends,  the identity of the prime offender is not going to be a real mystery. Whatever. We've all said dumb stuff in our 20s. Who am I to cast stones? To that young dummy, let me tell you kid, I've done worse friend. Anyway, what the Hollingsworths do illustrate is that at some point it is pretty apparent that the narrative of a particularly Americanized Christian witness gets played out to the point that it is actually a bit of a cliché. Real men love Jesus. Hmmm...

But why? Why does this nonsense go on? Legalism is the answer offered up by the young protagonist. That is a word only used by a particular set of Christians so it may or may not make sense to the reader, (depending on your background). But yes, perhaps legalism is part of it. But there is something deeper going on here. It can’t happen that so many people share a common pathology without having some implicit central idea in common. There is some philosophy or theology at work here. People have all sorts of variables in their wrongdoing.  Missions oriented evangelical churches often talk in great deal about how their theology is not central to who they are as a people of faith, (which makes no sense really). Rather, they assert that their theology is merely a peripheral accessory that is employed only insofar as it is helpful. I’m not buying. They do have a theology and it is solidly fixed. Furthermore, it is operative in every aspect of their lives. Heck, not having a theology is a theological position. 

So...we love Jesus. We want to give Him everything. The evangelical missions endeavor seems so noble. What could go wrong? Why is this not enough? I can even say that in my case, I think my former pastor had the best intentions, (at least in our particular encounter). In fact, I know he did. But what was he seeing in the mission that I was missing? Or, what was I seeing about the mission that he was missing? Or is it that the theology of mission that he taught wasn’t big enough?