Thursday, March 21, 2013

The Ivory Cubicle | Roots, Radicality, and Setting Things on Fire

It’s a trend these days to be radical, to think outside of the box, kick Christianity up a notch, and infuse it with a spirit of religious fervor. Shane Claiborne called us to an Irresistible Revolution, dressed in burlap clothing and sparked the “New Monasticism” movement. David Platt littered his church’s stage in trash and encouraged his church body to “take India,” raising over a half a million dollars for Compassion International. And, as a Christian YouTube sensation once said regarding our worship music, “one thing in your song should always be on fire, be it our hearts, our souls, this generation, something needs to be in flames.”

Foundations, Forms, and Flames

This is, in a way, a good thing. In a materialist consumer culture like America, we often need to be jolted out of complacency. But the problem is that these well-intentioned attempts to electro-shock Christianity to a higher level end up missing the problem, instead turning into railings against religion, a denial of sound Biblical doctrine, or an attempt to manufacture heaven here on earth.

Why is this? Well, I think the answer can be answered in the etymology of the word radical itself. The word “radical” comes from the Latin word radix, which literally means “roots” or “foundation.” A radical, then, is one who advocates a change at the foundation, he desires an uprooting of a current order in favor of a new one.

That said, the Christian faith is radical, in a sense. It demands that we put to death the old man and put on a new man. It changes man at the root, giving him a new foundation. It takes him from a life of isolation and slavery to a life of freedom and unity, grounding him in the eternal body of Christ that endures across space and time. And insofar as the new “radicals” are advocating the mortification of sin, denying one's self daily, taking up one's cross and following Christ, I'm on board.

The problem is that the criticism often turns to an attack of the very body of Christ that this radical shift plugs one into. Often these critiques attack the “formalism” of Christianity, which reduces it to simply going through the motions of stand, sit, kneel, recite a prayer, take communion, and leave. In response, the “radicals” emphasize a “relevant” Christianity that overthrows the formalities of the sacred tradition that have been passed down to us.

But content is handed down to us in forms. We are not ethereal, disembodied spirits interacting with abstract ideas. We are buried with Christ in baptism, we participate in his body and blood during Holy Communion (1 Cor 10:16). Truth is carried in the words we speak, as we pray “our Father, who art in heaven,” when we doff our cap in reverence, when we anoint the sick with oil, when we kneel before a holy God in prayer, or when we are instructed in sound doctrine.

The problem isn't in the formalities of reverent Christianity. The breakdown occurs when the forms are handed down without an understanding of the content that they are to contain. A coworker of mine explained the problem like this – form and content are like a fireplace and a fire. If you have a fireplace without a fire, you won't be able to keep warm. But if you have a fire without the fireplace, you're going to end up burning the house down. Similarly, formalism without content results in a cold, dead Christianity, but content without form results in disorientation and a loss of foundation. And, as Matthew Lee Anderson wrote in Christianity Today, “when the call to individual radicalness is disconnected from a counterbalancing concern for the public form our Christian worship takes, we stand in danger of assuming the messages of the surrounding culture as we mimic their methods.”

We need to make sure that our zeal for radical transformation isn't accompanied by the destruction of the forms that have been handed to us. We need something stable that is capable of transmitting truth from one generation to the next. If we're going to ask God to light a fire, we need to make sure that we have both a vessel to hold it and the fuel to keep it going.

Posted by Nick Barden
Image: From sermon series by Community of Hope Methodist Church.

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