Your revolution is limited, bent, needs work
It’s more than hemp bracelets and a Che Guevara T-shirt.
—Mars Ill, “You Can’t Stop”
In 2007 the leftist political magazine In These Times featured a cover story entitled “Preaching Revolution” about a new generation of Christians that secular leftists “need to know.” On the cover: the iconic silhouetted image of Che Guevara made over with a crown of thorns. Jesus as Che. The story, which focussed heavily on Rob Bell (then at Mars Hill Church in Grand Rapids, MI) discussed how the rhetoric of revolution and radicalism was out of vogue at the time with the secular left since it was viewed as too extreme to be practical, and meanwhile, ironically, that same rhetoric was gaining traction with this new generation of evangelical Christians.
The evangelical credentials of Rob Bell have since been called into question (and I imagine even at the time he would’ve been uncomfortable with the label himself), but that’s beside the point. What the article got right, and what continues to be true, is that there is tremendous appeal—especially among Christians who are younger than, say, 50—to the idea that Christianity is radical, countercultural, and revolutionary. (In fact, a quick internet search reveals that there are lots of churches literally named Revolution).
In the seven years since, this trend has shown no sign of abating. Countercultural Christianity is here to stay, at least for a generation or two.
Now at times, the language of radicalism is just being (what I’m sure the secular left would consider) co-opted. That is, it’s nothing more than marketing. In the US at least, there is a great deal of marketing value to the language of revolution and counterculture. It can sell computers. It can sell tacos. It can also sell churches.
Even politically moderate and conservative Christians have adopted it. Tim Keller, pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian, is fond of the phrase he coined that Christians should be “a counterculture for the common good.” But, even further to right, the idea of being “radical for Jesus” or “resisting the culture” fits perfectly with fundamentalist theologies of cultural separatism and the persecution complex of more civically-engaged politically conservative Christians. It is not at all unusual to hear words like “revolution” or phrases like “radically living out the gospel” on the lips of the Mark Driscolls of the world.
At other times, the ethos of radicalism runs a little bit deeper than a sexy spray-on gloss. Take, for example, folks like Shane Claiborne who have successfully brought some of the elements of Christian anarchism and radical Anabaptist theology (e.g., voluntary poverty, solidarity with the poor, abstaining from governmental politics) into more mainstream expressions of Christianity. Then there is Jim Wallace, advocating for a politically-engaged but nonpartisan Christian leftism. There are a number of popular biblical scholars, including N.T. Wright and Walter Brueggemann, who have emphasized the anti-imperial message running through both the Old and New Testaments—and exerted a great deal of influence on preachers in the US and UK. Or, at the more academic level, there is the Radical Orthodoxy movement, where theologians like John Milbank are in serious dialogue with leftist philosophers like Slavoj Zizek.
The ideas and praxes of this second group are not always compatible, but they have in common a sense that a more faithful Christianity will be a more countercultural one. They employ language like “contrast community,” “counter-polis,” “resident aliens” and “peculiar people” to describe what the church should be. And they see their role as a prophetic one calling Christians to be more radical, more willing to look different.
My guess is that someone who came into my church on any given Sunday would count me as one of this new generation that is preaching revolution. Admittedly, I read and listen to and like a lot of the folks in that previous paragraph. I am also, admittedly, prone to framing Christian discipleship as countercultural. However, I think that the Christianity-as-counterculture move has its limits. And they are significant enough that they’re worth thinking about.
The first is the potential the rhetoric of counterculture has to backfire. It’s intended goal is to get Christians to be more radical. That is, to be willing, for the sake of Jesus and his kingdom, to live differently than the pagan world around them. But, in the post-cultural-revolution US, we Americans have a completely inverted relationship with conformity and rebellion, wherein our first impulse (collectively as a culture) is nonconformity or rebellion. I.e., we live in the complex and somewhat paradoxical situation in which rebellion is conformity to our cultural norms. Our culture is counterculture.
In such a situation, the “countercultural” Christian can have her cake and eat it too. That is, I can identify as radical and feel that I’m being countercultural while adopting views and practices that are actually embraced and celebrated by the culture around me. This can happen on a very superficial level (“I’m so rad ‘cause I have tattoos and listen to punk rock”) or on a deeper level (“Look at me counterculturally supporting gay marriage!”).
Nothing is inherently wrong with having one’s cake and eating it too, but, if genuinely radical discipleship is the goal, this situation is most definitely NOT shaping people to do that. When push comes to shove and actual nonconformity/rebellion/willingness to be persecuted and hated by the world is called for, I’m almost certain my tattoos will not have prepared me for it. If anything, those of us in this situation are atrophying our capacity for genuine resistance by stroking our own egos. The kid who buys the “WALMART SUCKS” T-shirt at Hot Topic is engaging in praxis that is shaping him to be a consumer, not praxis that is shaping him to resist consumerism. The pride with which he wears the shirt only makes it worse.
Case in point, the struggle that avowedly countercultural Christians increasingly have with fully embracing the (actually) radical sexual ethic of historic Christianity. The article mentioned above quoted Jim Wallace as saying of young, revolutionary Christians “[they are] breaking away from the Right in droves – but they will never be captured by the left. They’re going to challenge the left on a lot of things: For these Christians, sex is covenantal and not recreational. And they oppose abortion and they are not going to move away from that.” Seven years later, these words ring hollow. Many of the revolutionaries have indeed been “captured by the left” on sexual ethics, and very few are “challenging the left” on these issues. (Though see Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig for a refreshing example).
The second concern I have is that, depending on one’s social context and historical moment, Christianity isn’t always countercultural. There are always some points at which the values of the dominant order overlap with the values of the kingdom of God. But it seems that we countercultural Christians are conditioned to be opposed to, or at least suspicious of, anything “conservative” or “mainstream.” The danger in this is not merely that it sets us up for knee-jerk thinking, that it shapes us into haters who are automatically against whatever we perceive is part of the regnant order. The greater danger beyond that, it seems that folks for whom the countercultural-ness of the Christian faith is its central appeal are prone to choose being countercultural over being Christian when the two come into conflict.
Sometimes the way this plays out is that people allow a political ideology to shape their views more than the faith and then do a lot of biblical or theological gymnastics to maintain their ideologically-shaped views are Christian. But I also know folks who eventually left the faith altogether because other, more radical lifestyles/worldviews were more appealing.
Don’t get me wrong, I still want to be part of a revolution. I’m not ready to let go of the language of counterculture just yet. In fact, I think it’s a pretty necessary lens for viewing the Christian faith. But those of us for whom it’s our favorite lens need to do some careful thinking about how we use it, to make sure we’re using it to clarify, and not distort, what it means to be faithful to the kingdom.