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TENTATIVELY RADICAL

Revolutionary, radical, extreme, stoked, amped: buzzwords used to sell everything from a Taco Bell Challupa to the X-Games. I find it hard to believe that teens and twenty-somethings salivate when marketers ring this bell, and I suppose I don’t particularly care either, except that the marketing of Christian books, magazines, music, and bands seems to tap into this same ‘radical’ impulse. This isn’t anything new of course: the cover of a popular New Testament from the 1960’s read, “Blueprint for Revolution.”

I’m conflicted about this appeal to the radical impulse. Conflicted, because there really is something quite radical and revolutionary about the Christian life. There are times when idols need to be toppled and dictators overthrown; I mean, what really is repentance but a spiritual coup against the flesh?

And yet as a marketing and recruiting tool, or as a rallying vehicle for the young, the language of revolution and radicalism tugs more at the Flesh than at the Spirit. It has a driving rhythm that syncs with the metabolism and ambitions of the Flesh, a drumbeat that arouses the hormones and passions. Pointed toward a godly direction or a spiritual goal, the drive of the Flesh can easily masquerade as a movement of the Spirit. This is what makes ‘radical’ and ‘revolution’-like terms dangerous territory (and not just a little) when popular Christian writers, speakers, and musicians, employ it. As performers pluck at the heart-strings of guts and glory in an effort to elicit love and commitment, radical and revolution fan to flame Flesh and not Spirit.

In truth, the spirit of radicalism, as opposed to the Spirit of God, is unsustainable as a motivational force. Sooner or later, the revolutionary needs to mature and find more substantial sources of growth and motivation. This is why Castro looks, or rather looked, ridiculous in his military fatigues and Che Guevara undergrowth: he believed that the revolutionary drive could be marshaled indefinitely through nothing more than good theater and fiery rhetoric on his part.

Radicalism is also a tainted fuel source. It has within it the drive to overthrow, to topple, to rebel. It has angry elements, grumblings that are anti-authority, anti-establishment, anti-elder. It is enflamed by an arrogance that others are too inbred, out of date, or out of touch to “get.” As with the purges of China and Russia, voices of history, tradition, wisdom, and moderation tend to be swept away. Radicalism always wants to reset the calendar to year 0.

To me, the most destructive elements of radicalism come from its polarizing view of the Christian life. The Christian life, the life of wisdom, keeps polarities in dynamic tension, retaining both and steering between them. Wisdom is both/and while radicalism is either/or. Like a marching army, the drive of revolution is always seeking food and fuel, and it finds it in polarizing rhetoric which pools together the combustible elements of anger, jealousy, resentment, prejudice, indignation, and pride.

Again, I am conflicted. The Christian life clearly has revolutionary elements and moments, and these can be constructive in the way that they ignite a certain passion, but true perseverance is driven not so much by a revolutionary spirit but by the Spirit of Christ in us.

Such “wisdom” does not come down from heaven but is earthly, unspiritual, of the devil. For where you have envy and selfish ambition, there you find disorder and every evil practice.

But the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere. Peacemakers who sow in peace raise a harvest of righteousness.

—James 3:15-18

Rick JamesComment