radical discipleship and the virtues of consumerism

Written by andrewtatum : November 13, 2007

Paul, in Galatians chapter five, tells us that the fruits of the spirit are love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. These theological virtues run counter to the central virtues of western culture: upward mobility, buying power, and individual autonomy. Being in seminary, I think, places the student at a strong disadvantage for ministry in the world outside the safety of a community that speaks theological language - and often nothing else. For example, as Brennan Manning writes, “Fidelity to the Word will take us along the path of downward mobility…in the midst of an upwardly mobile culture. We will find ourselves not on the path to power but on the path to powerlessness; not on the road to success but on the road to servanthood; not on the broad road of praise and popularity but on the narrow road of ridicule and rejection (The Signature of Jesus, 11).” What manning says here makes sense to me but, to people (Christians included) whose lives are lived in lockstep with the march of the almighty dollar, these words are foolishness. What are we to do? Do we need a postmodern apologetic? If so, in what ways will our embodiment of these virtues of Christ distinguish life in Christian community from life in the world? Is this even a necessary distinction? It seems to me that the challenge of the church today is to find ways to authentically embody the virtues of the church in ways that actually speak to a culture that doesn’t speak our language.

Certainly, there is value in the power of the cross to speak to and to change persons into radically different sorts of people whose lives are lived in the way of Christian discipleship but is the cross sufficiently scandalous to our culture? It is true that the virtues of consumerism often dominate people’s lives but it is also true that, as Peter Leithart has written, the church no longer faces the blatant paganism against which it once labored so strongly against. No the church today faces a “sophisticated civilization haunted by Christ.” We live in a culture that has the name of Christ on its lips but that does not know what it means to live a life of radical discipleship - people are unaware that the virtues of consumerism and the virtues of faith in Christ are quite opposed to one another. “Our neighbors are adherents of a sometimes jaded, sometimes gleeful, post-Christianity (Leithart).”

In this post-Christian consumer culture, what does it mean to be radical disciples?

Are all Christians called to this radical discipleship or are there, as Manning claims, “varying degrees of discipleship (Manning, 12)?”

Any ideas?

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5 Responses to “radical discipleship and the virtues of consumerism”

  1. Ben on November 13th, 2007 8:31 am

    I think Anna makes a good point. We are quick to point to some things that we can see as being markers of people’s level of discipleship. Sure, some of us find the “granite counters” of the world offensive but shouldn’t we really be focusing less on what people have and more on what we are all learning to give?

  2. Jason Barr on November 13th, 2007 8:39 am

    1. I’m not always sure what it means to be radical disciples. To a large extent I think I have some kind of handle on “radical”. My house is moving in the direction of lower consumption of energy, maintaining a lower level of participation in the industrial food culture, and towards cultivation of “a more organic life” (from our community statement). We dumpster dive, we often eat in community with our sister house and others in the neighborhood, and we are involved in organizing various projects related to promoting resistance to empire and mutual aid in our community including promoting discussion groups critical of the construction of I-69 in southern Indiana, film discussions, explorations into alternative education, and networking with other radicals through conferences and meetups.

    All of this, for me, comes from my understanding of who I am as a follower of Christ, but at the same time I do not always see how my action directly flows from my (and is a part of my) discipleship. I can talk about theology and its relation to anarchism and radicalism until the cows come home, but I can’t help feeling a disconnect between my theory and practice. Also, there’s a very large extent to which, as a disciple, I’m going at it alone. I have a church that I attend, and Christian friends with whom I talk often, and often we talk about Christianity and a radical understanding of discipleship, but I’m not sure I can say I really am part of a community of disciples so much as an individual who is a radical and a disciple (insofar as one can be a disciple as an individual). That’s different to me than being a “radical disciple”.

    2. I think all Christians are called to radical discipleship. All Christians are called to participate in the New Creation, to be subject to the Kingdom of God and not the kingdoms of this world, to die to self, take up their cross, to follow Jesus. I think there are different vocational contexts in which that plays out, but I really believe that it is precisely because all who are in Christ are called to radical discipleship and radical equality before God and each other that the way of Jesus is so subversive to the order. As such I believe all Christians should deeply reconsider their place in the world, their current vocations and such, through the lens of the Gospel that says “the New Creation has come - and in Jesus Christ we are enabled to be a part of it!”

    That doesn’t necessarily mean everyone has to become itinerant… but at the very least it calls for a very serious and critical re-evaluation of one’s life and how one makes a living for the Christian believer.

  3. Anna on November 13th, 2007 9:18 am

    This past Sunday I saw a “degree of discipleship” while attending a Bible study at a wealthy couple’s home. The subject was politics (as part of the Truth Project series put out by Focus on the Family) and one pet subject of the couple was the Welfare State. The wife said it was the Church’s job to care for the poor. She was leaning over her custom granite counter top while she said this.

    Yeah, I gagged on my lemonade at that point, but I also saw how this couple also works deeply in the community in other ways. She volunteers in the Christian school and he is a housing developer. They are committed here in more ways than I am. We have things to learn from each other.


  4. andrewtatum on November 13th, 2007 9:58 am

    I’m thrilled about this discussion. I should say that, looking back, the tenor of my post seems to me to be that there are Christians living radical discipleship and then there are these “other” consumer-culture trappped people out there who just don’t get it. However, I simply just don’t believe that to be true. Radical discipleship requires humility and a willingness to admit that I am in need of redemption through God’s grace. I rarely get it right but I’m hopeful that the spirit of God can empower us all to live lives of radical discipleship. To pose a counter question, What does this life look like in your communities? How have the virtues of the church been lived out in practical ways?

  5. Jason Barr on November 13th, 2007 10:46 am

    Andrew might one perhaps think that “radical discipleship” could include a prophetic witness to the culture of affluence that includes the hope that God will not only change other people but also that God will use other people to change us? And that just as we desire to witness the New Creation to the culture that God will witness it to us through them? A reciprocity of sorts? I think that might be what we’re getting at, and if so I like it.

    I’m kind of reminded of Yoder’s chapter on Revelation in Politics of Jesus. We witness to culture and seek as our highest priority being faithful to God as disciples who pattern our live together after the life of Jesus, while not willing to control the direction of the world but rather trusting that God will work in all things to direct the course of history to its fullness.

    That doesn’t mean we don’t speak and act of what we know, of course, but we ought to do it with great humility (probably with an attitude to listen more than to speak) and the realization that God is the one who changes hearts, not us.

    I need to be reminded of this often.

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