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?

Everyone has a philosophy. I figured that you can go on being a bad philosopher with a bad theology or you can find out what you really believe and why.

Which leads me to what I see as the truly radical element of “Runaway Radical.” It is not only the account of the “office interview” that resonated with me. Jonathan’s story is not my story. In my particular story, I was at a different place in life when things came to a head with evangelical ministry. The circumstances were different as well. Neither was I ever thrown under the bus in quite the same way. I experienced betrayal but it wasn't quite so bald face. Furthermore, I had one thing this young kid seemed to have been missing. I had an older, experienced friend who had also, as a young man, thrown himself headlong into the Evangelical endeavor. This man was a close mentor in my life. He was still very much involved in ministry when I was young but he was frank about the bullshit and he offered me invaluable input on how to avoid really stepping into it. Nonetheless, as far as Jonathan's account reads, our experiences do seem to come to much the same end. My journal entries from this period of life repeatedly hinged on the following questions: 

The Reality of God.
The problem of pain.
The nature of God as not only love, but One who loves personally.

Jonathan frames these questions as follows:

Is He Real?
Does he see?
How long do I have to grovel at his feet?

The radical questions are the universal questions. Not just for Christians either. Disappointment forces these questions to the surface, but they ARE universal question. These are the questions that matter because they matter for all of us. Radical questions in fact, demand a theology because a philosophy will come up just short. It would have to be a theology that is so expansive as to be universal. It would have to be a radicalism resonating for both kings and subjects, intellectuals and laymen. I would propose that Christianity is second to none in its capacity to deal with these questions

The radical is not realized in Kerouac’s “On the Road.” In American that story keeps getting dressed up in evangelical clothes and retold as some sort of band of gypsies missionary work akin to how we imagine, (badly I might add), the early Church...that narrative is just ill-formed on so many levels. The Jesus Movement was cooking it up in the 70's and their kids are spinning it out now as the Emergent Movement, (or whatever anti-label they are using now), of the early 21st century. Please.  

In any case, Walker Percy’s “The Last Gentlemen” shows us that this sort of American radicalism was already played out and empty as early as the 1960’s. By the late 60's that sort of radicalism had been domesticated as a phony marketing gimmick. For Percy, the real radical is the man who knows his place in the world of love and dirt and is consumed by the sacramental. Incidentally, this was in all of Percy's work. He was saying so as early as "The Moviegoer." Anyway...

That is not to reject the radical. God please that we be radically moved.
However, the radicalism that matters isn’t in the staying or the going, in the not-doing or the doing. In an anti-culture of consumerist placeless-ness and living emptied of content the real radicalism is in Being. The portal to Being is the radical questions. To genuinely ask is to believe. The radical question is an act of faith.

Only the infinite could suffice.

We should never let anyone tells us that maturity of faith means an end to questions.
“Eli, Eli, lama sabachtani?”

In fact, deepening of faith means that the questions will only become more real.

Like all men before me and all the men who will follow me, we come to THE Radical Question and find that only the infinite will suffice.

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