The following article by Phillip Carey first appeared as a review of Michael Horton’s book The Case Against ‘Radical’ Christianity in the 1 October issue of Christianity Today.
Like all opinion pieces, Carey’s review and Horton’s book cannot be read uncritically. Just the same, in an age of tumult, when the nations—and peoples within nations—are in uproar and Kingdoms fall (Psalm 46:6), when the bloodiest century ever, seems to be followed by a time of extremism of every kind, something seems to resonate here…
Horton’s message to restless believers:
stay put, and build the church.
Sometimes you can tell quite a bit about a book from its cover. On the outside, Michael Horton’s Ordinary: Sustainable Faith in a Radical, Restless World (Zondervan) looks a lot like David Platt’s bestseller Radical, and that’s no accident. Horton, editor of Modern Reformation magazine, a founding figure behind the White Horse Inn’s teaching ministry, and host of its radio show, aims to provide an alternative to trendy calls for radical living.
Horton thinks such calls serve mainly to make ordinary Christians anxious about whether they’re really Christian enough, and pastors anxious about ensuring that their ministries are ‘radically transformative’.
Horton comes to their aid with a Reformational perspective that diagnoses such anxieties as the outgrowth of works righteousness. If we are justified by faith in Christ alone, then we need not be anxious to show how Spirit-filled we are by living extraordinary, radical lives. Bonhoeffer beware.
Having already received the promise of the Spirit in baptism—God’s promise, which we can trust he will keep—we are free to serve our neighbours with ordinary good works. We are freed from establishing our credentials before God or our own consciences. And we are even free, Horton states, to enjoy our neighbours as gifts rather than making them into our own projects, as if it was our job to transform their lives.
For some time, ‘radical‘ has been a favourite word of advertisers and ideologues alike. Every website with something to sell now routinely promises a transformative experience.
Horton argues that the underlying theology behind oft-heard calls to be wild and crazy for Jesus / radical believers—as if Christianity were an extreme sport—is works righteousness in a new, consumerist mode. For some time, radical has been a favourite word of advertisers and ideologues alike. Every website with something to sell now routinely promises a transformative experience.
Instead of another call to be radical, extraordinary, or transformative, Horton would have us return to the ordinary means of grace, those practices of the church in which God has promised to make himself known: preaching the gospel, teaching the faith, administering the sacraments, and worshiping with a local congregation. Instead of advertising life-changing experiences or the next big thing, the aim is a sustainable faith for the long haul. The great strength of being ordinary, after all, is that you can do it for a lifetime.
The Contrarian’s Dilemma
Ordinary continues the long-standing work of the White Horse Inn on behalf of launching a new Reformation among Western evangelicals. But the tone is notably less shrill than Horton’s 2008 book, Christless Christianity, which attacked various celebrity preachers by name. Seeing the cover, I expected a few juicy remarks about megachurch pastors like Platt. My expectations were disappointed—which is a good thing.
Restlessness is to be expected in an adolescent, but the church needs to foster something better than the perpetual adolescence promoted by our culture… It’s like being married, in that the key virtues are faithfulness and constancy, not radical transformation.
Feisty contrarians can be fun to read, but they often fail to build up the church. And Horton seems to be outgrowing some of his contrarian urges. An explicit message of the book, in fact, is that it’s time for the “young, restless, and Reformed” to grow up. Restlessness is to be expected in an adolescent, but the church needs to foster something better than the perpetual adolescence promoted by our culture and institutionalized in many youth groups. We need to build up the church, and the restless tend not to stay put and build.
In a similar vein, we are often reminded that “radical” means getting to the root of things (as the Latin radix means “root”). But a good gardener (in one of Horton’s illustrations) does not keep pulling everything up by the roots and moving it around. You need to stay put for a while, untransformed, if you are to grow. It’s like being married, in that the key virtues are faithfulness and constancy, not radical transformation.
Or consider one of the best vignettes in the book, which illustrates Horton’s point that ordinary doesn’t mean mediocre. A passer-by once stopped at a massive construction site and asked what everybody was doing. “Hauling dirt,” replied one. “Cutting stones,” said another. “Building a cathedral,” said a third. All true. For the only way to build a beautiful church is to do a great deal of mundane, unglamorous labour, and to do it conscientiously and well. The impatient desire to be radical and extraordinary, to hasten the coming of the next big thing, interrupts the humble work required to accomplish something excellent.
But Horton faces a tricky problem. As a critic of the church on behalf of the church, he has to be careful about what he is tearing down. It’s too easy to take pot-shots at celebrity preachers and high-powered ministries, especially when your own ministry has gained visibility and grown rather high-powered itself. The White Horse Inn, after all, is now much more than a radio program: It is a multimedia entity that presents conferences, podcasts, blogs, publications, and various “special offers” on its website.
The great problem for a contrarian who loves the church is that relentless, highly visible criticism can feed further anxiety, driving harried pastors to look yet again for the latest new technique, strategy, or ideology that will genuinely make a difference… [Whereas] the work of hauling dirt and cutting stone is the work of building the cathedral.
So Horton’s chapter against “super-apostles” came as a pleasant surprise. Instead of inveighing against celebrity preachers, it focused on the ordinary work of ministry, the day in, day out of preaching, teaching, and pastoral care. A book written like this won’t grab attention like a scathing polemic, but that’s part of the point.
Gets the Job Done
The great alternative to consumerism and celebrity culture within the church is preaching the gospel, and Horton does a fair amount of that in his book.
For all his Reformed emphasis on doctrine, he knows that faith is not just a matter of believing the right doctrines, much less learning how to be saved. It means first and foremost being united with Christ, given by God’s sure promise, so that we can trust that our ultimate transformation is in his hands. Knowing this allows us to love our neighbour for our neighbour’s sake, not in order to prove how transformed we are.
Horton, in the edifying and non-contrarian mode most evident in the second half of the book, clearly aims to present good news for pastors in particular. He emphasizes that their regular work of preaching and administering the sacraments is the covenanted means of God’s redeeming grace—the transformation that cutting-edge conferences and websites can only talk about. It is like a reminder that the work of hauling dirt and cutting stone is the work of building the cathedral.
I hope pastors and many other ordinary Christians will find this book an encouragement to trust more deeply in the promises of God. Ordinary is not perfect, showing the weaknesses of a book written too quickly by someone who writes too many books. It’s a bit long-winded, a bit repetitive, and not always well organized. But like the work of preaching—which does not require superb, earth-shaking sermons every Sunday—it gets the job done. And the job is not to say something memorable of one’s own, but to point to what God has already said. An author who does that has done the proper work of the church.
Phillip Cary teaches philosophy at Eastern University in St. David’s, Pennsylvania. He is the author of Good News for Anxious Christians: 10 Practical Things You Don’t Have to Do (Brazos Press).