Resources for Radical Living: The book and course, version 2.0–the revised case studies

This is the third in a series of posts on the Resources for Radical Living course(s) and book by Mark Van Steenwyk and me (Chris Armstrong). The first post presented the original version of the course. The second presented the revised structure of the course and book.

This third post presents the revised list of case studies.

Even more important, this post asks you, dear readers, to comment on these case studies and suggest any primary or secondary readings that you think will help Mark and me as we work on these new case studies and our students as they plunge into this challenging area of “radical Christian living.”

The Prophetic Life (200 – 500 words)

Do governments, corporations, and other “principalities and powers” behave in Christian ways? No. Should we expect them to? No. But how do we live Christ-like lives and build God-pleasing churches in light of modern states’ endemic failure to preserve peace and justice for their peoples? What does the famous “obedience passage” of Romans 13 mean in light of this sad reality?

Version 1.0 of the course used Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Oscar Romero here. My hesitation about this is that, for all the parallels we may draw between the contexts of those two figures and our own, we Americans live neither in Nazi Germany nor under the political and religious repression of Romero’s El Salvador. Because of this cultural distance, and because both of these figures were martyred, it is too easy for us to treat them as saints without seeing how their example challenges us in our own lives and situations. I won’t say it’s impossible–we still have much to learn from both Bonhoeffer and Romero. But it seemed to me that we should be able to find figures, movements, issues that challenge us in more apt and pressing ways. After a long conversation in which we came up with over a dozen alternatives, Mark and I hit on the following:

John Chrysostom and economic justice from the early church to today

We haven’t yet written a profile of Chrysostom. He lived from 347 to 407 AD and served his church as archbishop of Constantinople. His powerful preaching earned him the sobriquet “John of the golden mouth.” Most important for our purposes, he lived among the wealthy (both lay and clergy!) and never stopped challenging them to obey the gospel teachings and bring succour and redemption to the poor. When Asbury’s Christine Pohl went spelunking in the past during her research on Christian hospitality, she ran across the rich mine of Chrysostom’s sermons. That’s where I first discovered this remarkable and prophetic man.

Of course, this theme of economic justice raises an important challenge to the structure of our course: How are we to distinguish prophetic from compassionate living? Surely we could deal with the problem of the poor just as aptly in that section? In fact, we do–in the case study on Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker Movement. What, then, justifies our putting Chrysostom here and Day there? Mark suggested that the difference is this: prophetic living is a life of proclamation, of challenge to the structures of power. Dorothy Day was only secondarily a prophetic figure in this sense. Yes, she wrote about her principles, but her primary value to us is that she lived out a life of compassion. Chrysostom, on the other hand, or the Catholic social encyclicals, are most valuable as examples of prophetic truth-telling to the structures of society. That is not to say that Day didn’t speak prophetically, nor Chrysostom live compassionately. It is just to recognize the difference between these two giftings and life foci, and to treat them separately.

Daniel and Philip Berrigan, the Plowshares Movement, and Christian peace activism

I won’t say much here, since I don’t know much about the Berrigans, except that they are/were (Daniel is still alive) Christian poets, priests, and activists given to public prophetic actions (and thus knew well the inside of prison!). They were Roman Catholics–Daniel a priest and Philip a former priest. Since Constantine, Christian pacifists have taken prophetic stances and tangled with state power with often fatal results. One thinks also of the 16th-century Anabaptists. This issue of the proper Christian stance on war is a very difficult one that will undoubtedly test the limits of our charity as we discuss it together.

The Compassionate Life (200 – 500 words)

Neither Testament of the Christian Scriptures, for all their stunningly super-natural gospel message of God’s transcendent love and grace, stays very long away from the theme of compassion. Though that gospel is so clearly not a teaching about a moral system, it clearly does revolutionize everything we thought we knew about human morality. Why? Because the gospel refuses to leave us alone in the personal, individual (and super-spiritual) realm of “my soul and its relation to God.” Constantly it pushes us back to the horizontal (and thus messy and indeed physical) dimension of relationships with others—of mercy, charity, compassion. It is with us as with Matthew: sheep and goats are separated at the Judgment by cups of cold water, clothing for the naked, visits to the imprisoned.

Under this heading in version 1.0 of the course we had Dorothy Day, whom we are keeping, and “the early Christians.” Since we are using Chrysostom–and therefore by extension the early Christians–under the prophetic life, Mark and I decided to replace them with a new case study:

Christian medical and physical-social compassionate ministry

Awkward title, I know. And so far we haven’t hit upon a single figure to use as our biographical focus–any suggestions? Perhaps a 20th-century medical missionary?

This case study might touch on any or all of the following (recognizing some overlap with compassionate ministry to the poor):

–early Christians’ adoptions of abandoned Pagan infants,

–the medieval invention of the hospital,

–early Franciscan leper colonies,

–the hospice movement (founded by a Christian),

–Jean Vanier’s L’Arche community,

–the crisis pregnancy movement,

–modern adoptions by American Christians,

–medical missions,

–Christian ministries to alcoholics, addicts, and the homeless/mentally ill.

Dorothy Day/Catholic worker movement

This case remains from version 1.0

Hospitality to homeless, the poor (and other radical impulses flowing out of it: Berrigans—both lived in Catholic Worker communities). During the Great Depression, America found itself blessed with an unlikely saint. Coming to faith from a background in communist activism, Dorothy Day (along with Peter Maurin) founded a movement of “Catholic Workers” who committed themselves to the works of mercy. Practicing hospitality among the dispossessed, Dorothy Day demonstrated a deep way of compassion that still serves as an example not to only dozens of Catholic Worker houses around the world, but to an entire generation of Christians who are discovering the power of radical hospitality.

The Penitential Life (200 – 500 words)

The penitential life is about clearing away everything in your life that has the potential to interfere with your devotion to God—and, indeed, to others. A corrupted version of “penance” led to the division of the Western church into Catholic and Protestant branches. But the concept itself is sound: we are fallen people, prone to many sins that separate us from God. “Penance” simply means the ways we discipline ourselves and train ourselves toward God, in light of this susceptibility to sin. If the world insists we need material goods in order to live a fulfilled life, then we choose a life of simplicity for the sake of the gospel. If the world sets up sex and romantic involvement as idols, then we choose to give our bodies and hearts to God alone. If the world tells us that to be successful, we must gain for ourselves power and fame, then we choose a path of weakness and humility. To say the penitential life is unpopular today in America is to severely understate the case: self-denial is positively un-American, unless it is a sort of discipline intended to win for us even more money, sex, or power.

Both of the following cases remain from version 1.0


Francis lived in a time of increasing plenty and ease—at least for the rising merchant class to which his wealthy father belonged. The problem was: he found it hard to be Christian and wealthy at the same time. Famously, he stripped off his very clothes before the bishop and gave them to his father, proclaiming that he had now only one father: God. The most important thing for Francis was to live a life in imitation of Christ. He symbolically married “Lady Poverty” and lived a praying, preaching, begging life, content to subsist on whatever the Lord provided through his people. This looked crazy. But so had Jesus’ own life, in many respects! And people flocked to Francis to join this penitential discipline of poverty, so that the story of his order became a story of the perpetual struggle between institution-building and, as the American Shakers later put it, the “gift to be simple.” Few figures challenge Western Christians as much as this one.

Wendell Berry & New Agrarianism/Back-to-the-land

Although he hardly ever uses the word “penitential,” Wendell Berry is, perhaps, modern America’s clearest penitential voice. In a society of hyper-mobility, he exhorts us to stay put. In a culture of consumption, he calls us to frugality, care for the earth, and sustainable practices. In a climate of increased individualism, he calls us to the kind of interconnectedness and community that requires personal sacrifice. He is one of America’s strongest voices against greed, violence, and waste, and for this he is like a modern-day John the Baptist. Berry doesn’t cry out from the wilderness; rather he calls out from the small farm. And many have been responding to that voice. In a movement that has much in common with earlier “back-to-the-land” movements, people are again exploring a sustainable way of life that is anchored to a sustainable place, while the chaotic storm of American life rages.

[We may include in this case Schumacher (Small is Beautiful), the rise of rural intentional communities, rise of environmental concern.]

The Devoted Life (200 – 500 words)

The Puritans were on to something when they framed their conversion narratives as stories of first trying to live good lives out of their own strength, then crashing and burning, then finally being pulled from the wreckage by the grace of God through Jesus Christ. Without the grace mediated to us by Jesus, none of us is capable for one second of living lives that are prophetic, compassionate, penitential, communal . . . or, in short, lives that are very much good to anybody, including ourselves, let alone “radical.” So we come to the importance of devotion. Quite simply, the devotional life has been the engine of all successful Christian reform since the beginning of the church. It has also been—despite the good efforts of modern teachers such as Richard Foster, Dallas Willard, and Eugene Peterson—the most difficult and elusive aspect of the Christian life for Americans to grasp and live.

Wesley/early Methodists

This case remains from version 1.0:

John Wesley’s and the early Methodists’ style of devotion to God speaks to us today because it was both rich and seamless, like a finely brocaded carpet. Certainly the gold thread that ran through it was the experienced, liberating power of saving grace. But this was not sheer experientialism: Wesley wove his vision of the Christian life on the loom of Scripture (in an era when many Christians discounted Scripture’s authority and put their faith, instead, in reason and self-effort). Likewise, the tapestry of early Methodist life featured a design of intense, wholehearted worship of the Living God. But alongside these powerful images of devotion shone pictures of compassionate action. Finally, the early Methodists did weave into their lives the intense, private devotions of the spiritual diary, the prayer closet, and the solitary study of scripture. But they knew that without the public discipline of accountable community, such private practices would become threadbare and useless. Said Wesley: “’Holy solitaries’ is a phrase no more consistent with the gospel than holy adulterers. The gospel of Christ knows of no religion, but social; no holiness but social holiness.” We are beset today with trendy “cafeteria spirituality”—devotion as consumerism. The early Methodists challenge us with the disciplines of a truly integrated Christian life.

In version 1.0, our second figure/movement was Thomas Merton, the Trappists, and the Cistercian order historically. Merton is a fascinating figure, but problematic in some ways, and not necessarily easy to access for evangelical students. So Mark suggested the following, which immediately resonated with me:

Slave spirituality—trajectory to MLK Jr.

This is a particularly strong case study for demonstrating how devotion can ground radical social change. Slave spirituality was a contextualized spirituality very different in a number of respects from that of the white evangelicals of that era. It highlighted the Exodus narrative, with its themes of liberation. It was intensively communal. And it issued more in a social morality than in the privatized morality that often characterizes white evangelicalism. There is no question that a deep devotion is at the heart of slave Christianity. But this devotion bore fruit in Christian radicalism, issuing in social challenges against slavery, racism, and economic and political injustice.

The linchpin (200 – 500 words)

Though the majority of readers of this book will not end up in an “intentional Christian community” of the sort represented by monasticism (old or new), we all need to recognize the communal dimension of the Christian life: we are saved as individuals, yes, but also into community—the kingdom community that the Peter calls “a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people” (1 Pet. 2:9). To be healthy and productive (and radical!), our Christian lives must be lived in the context of community. That’s the mystery of the church, which as Paul says is like a marriage (Eph. 5). Spouses may separate for a time, by mutual consent, but the normal married life is a life lived together.

The church is a mystery, but maybe God made the community of Christians central to his salvific purposes because this is the place where the two prongs of the law of love come together: here we love others (in ways both prophetic and compassionate), and at the same time we love God (in ways penitential and devotional . . . and also by receiving the prophetic and compassionate ministries of others)

The Communal Life (200 – 500 words)

Community is the context of our faith. So much of what is broken about modern Western Christianity can be tied to a growing loss of community. Christianity assumes mutual submission, mutual aid, and communal spirituality. As a remedy for the dark side of individualism, we will examine a number of models of community including those of the Benedictines, modern “new monastics,” and liberationist base communities.

Benedict/Benedictines—trajectories to today (e.g. new monasticism and other intentional Christian communities)

This is another figure/movement we are keeping from version 1.o.

Far from being removed from the struggles of life, Benedictine spirituality has always fostered a deep sense of humility, and cultivates practices of hospitality, stability, and  fixed-hour prayer can help reform our imaginations as we seek to move deeper into a communal way of life that sustains.

In version 1.0, our second case study under this heading was Anabaptist intentional communities. For the initial book proposal, Mark and I replaced the Anabaptists with the interracial southern Koinonia Community. For various reasons, that now seems a less-than-ideal choice, but we still want to include more non-white cases, and since we dropped Romero from our prophetic category, this seemed an apt replacement:

Ernesto Cardenal and ecclesial base communities

Cardenal is a liberationist thinker, priest to the Sandinistas, and Nobel-nominated poet who created a primitivist community on the Solentiname Islands in Nicaragua. Again, this is Mark’s guy, so I won’t say more here, though I look forward to learning more about him. The base communities are Latin American liberationist communities: small Christian groups among the poor that are dedicated to social and political (class) improvement as well as Christian living. They are usually Catholic and bear some family resemblance to the cell groups once popular with charismatics and other evangelicals in North America. (Yes, I know that’s an inadequate description . . .)

Well folks–any comments/suggestions?

2 responses to “Resources for Radical Living: The book and course, version 2.0–the revised case studies

  1. Pingback: Women Practicing Medicine in the Early Church « Biblical Paths

  2. So agree with your choice of Chrysostom! I’m just getting caught up with these posts – wish I could sit in on all this!

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