The lifeway practiced by the man Jesus was seriously hard-core. The lifeway practiced by today’s comfy Christianity is often a sell-out. Might there be a way between–a transformative path for those who want to raise loving families and practice radical discipleship?
The larger-than-life British explorer Ernest Shackleton accomplished many things, but he is most famous for what he did not do: traverse the Antarctic continent in 1914. His infamous exploratory voyage aboard the Endurance is one of history’s most inspiring failures: rather than crossing the vast Antarctic, the Endurance became trapped in polar ice, and the expedition turned into a heroic struggle for survival, creatively and courageously endured by twenty-eight crewmen over a span of nearly two years. The incredible thing is, Shackleton seemed to know what he was getting into. Legend tells us that in preparation for the epic voyage, he posted the following want ad in a London newspaper:
Men wanted for hazardous journey.
Low wages. Bitter cold.
Long months of complete darkness.
Constant danger. Safe return doubtful.
Honour and recognition in event of success.
Authentically following the Way of Jesus can seem equally daunting sometimes: hazardous, foolish, impossible in our modern society. Like many residents of the U.S. and Canada today, I grew up middle-class. We had our own house, we had a decent family car, and college was an assumed right. We never experienced a hint of malnutrition, displacement, or the terror and chaos of living in a war zone. We were blessed with security. Globally speaking, I was born into privilege. I also grew up in a Christian home. As a teenager, I made my own decision to follow Jesus. Raised both privileged and Christian did not seem odd in affluent America; in fact, it seemed the norm. Therefore, I felt ambushed when I encountered the story of Jesus and the rich young man in the Gospel of Mark. In this dialogue, Jesus tells this man of privilege who has “done all the right things” that he still needs to do one thing: “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor.” The story continues: “At this the man’s face fell. He went away sad, for he had great wealth” (Mark 10:17-30).
Demands Too Daunting
The man went away sad because Jesus’ demand was just too daunting. Give away everything, right now? Not gonna do it, thought the rich man. How about you? If you’re like me, the challenge is too daunting as well. I’ve got a family to feed, bills to pay, college for my kid to plan for. Jesus’ challenge has been too daunting for most Christians. It seems that most Christians throughout history have somehow sidestepped or explained away this daunting demand. In doing so, we sidestep full participation in the kingdom of God as well.
The challenge to the rich man is not the only extreme expectation Jesus throws down, of course. Andrew and Simon may have jumped at Jesus’ invitation alongside the Sea of Galilee. But if I’d been there with my brother, hip-deep in our fishing work, I might have responded: “Leave our nets, right now? Are you serious?” Even though I’m wild about Jesus, I probably would have said, “Let me catch some food for my family, then I’ll be right there.”
If I’m honest, the needs and wants of my family come first. Because of this, I don’t meet a lot of Jesus’ other qualifications for hard-core discipleship, either: in the Bible Jesus asks those who follow him to drop our careers, love our enemies, hate our families, share our resources, turn the other cheek, and be prepared to lay down our lives nonviolently for our friends.
I must say, I’m not doing any of these very well.
Looking across the last two thousand years, I find many other daunting examples of discipleship I’m not ready to emulate. Look at the fourth century, when Constantine created an unholy alliance of moneyed church and military state: am I ready to leave empire and live the rest of my life in a desert cave like the desert fathers did? Hardly. Am I prepared to dive into a life of strict voluntary poverty like Clare and Francis did in Assisi in the 1200s? I like a simple life, but not that simple. How about devoting my entire life to lepers like Mother Teresa did in Calcutta? No again.
As I contemplate my inability to follow these examples, I realize something obvious: my spiritual tradition overwhelmingly emphasizes the single, childless life. The landscape of Judeo-Christianity is packed with stories of single people who seem to have no families to provide for, no debts to pay back, no homes to keep up, no crops to cultivate, no diapers to clean. Nowhere in the New Testament do I read, “John slept through the morning prayers because his baby kept him up all night.” Or: “Paul stayed longer than expected with the church in Corinth, because his teenager was on the track team.” Or: “After supper, Jesus and the twelve took some time to wash dishes, and Peter stayed behind to deal with the crusty soup pots.” The most memorable time kitchen chores are mentioned is in the story of Martha, who is shown to represent the worst of two choices (Luke 10:40-41).
Give away everything. Dwell in the desert the rest of your years. Embrace poverty as a way of life. Renounce family. As a parent with kids to feed, these daunting demands of renunciation seem so unrealistic that, if you’re like me, you reject them before you even begin. As G. K. Chesterton famously said, “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult, and left untried.”[i]
A Way Between
So here’s our modern dilemma: we avoid absolute renunciation for good reasons, but then we completely cave to dominant culture. We may have deep relationships and wonderful worship experiences within our church communities, but we still cozily conform to consumerism. Our souls, and our habits, are allegiant to corporation culture, unconverted. Along with everyone else around us in modern society, we settle for practicing a comfortable, market-approved version of Christianity. We focus on our families and jobs, surrounding ourselves with other middle-class families, and together we live lives of isolated busyness and unexamined privilege. We are a staid and stale shadow of something that should be full-bodied and transformative. Søren Kierkegaard may have felt much the same in a very different time and a very different place. More than 150 years ago in Denmark, he determined his country’s Christianity—both domesticated and desiccated—to be about as genuine and flavorful “as tea made from a bit of paper which once lay in a drawer beside another bit of paper which had been used to wrap up a few dried tea leaves from which tea had already been made three times.”[ii]
Between the options of absolute renunciation and unexamined affluence, could there be another way? Our precious planet, God’s gift, is imperiled, largely by the actions of affluent industrial societies like ours. Could there be a transitional path that might help privileged people like us unshackle from consumer culture to wade ever deeper into the kingdom of God?
I think there is. My mind turns to some biblical examples of life change that seem a touch more possible for people like me. I don’t normally think of a locust-eating wilderness prophet in a camel’s hair cloak as a guide for families, but listen to this straightforward advice from John the Baptist: to be part of God’s ideal society, those who have two cloaks should share with those who lack; those who are blessed with surplus food should do the same (Luke 3:11). And then there’s the life example of the tax collector Zacchaeus, who—after experiencing radical acceptance by Jesus—feels so forgiven and blessed that he immediately gives half of his possessions to the poor, and pays back those he cheated at 400 percent interest (Luke 19:8).
These two examples are not about absolute renunciation: they encourage us to give away half and keep living in the world. Now this kind of mandate seems both powerful and possible: countercultural and life-changing, yes, yet doable, even when raising a family. Are we, as modern disciples with surplus possessions, called to a path of significant relinquishment? Looking at the inequity in the world, how could we not be?
And so we come to the key questions I write about in my book Rewilding the Way: How can we nurture families and practice radical discipleship? How can we be in today’s consumer culture but not tamed by it? How shall we imagine and embody a better, wilder “good life” in this watershed moment of history—one that is better for ourselves and our aching planet?
These are daunting questions for those of us who have grown up captive to corporation-controlled thinking. We’ve been trained to think small and ask permission from the authorities. We’ve been conditioned to believe this is the only kind of life there is. We are at a crossroads, seeking a way.
My family is part of the massive silent body of modern Christians who live in two worlds, striving to follow the radical Jesus while still being shackled to Caesar. Maybe you are too. We are the tribe of the semi-transformed, the halfway-there, the partially free. We want to live more transformatively, but we’ve made important life commitments—meaningful vocations, good marriages, growing families, home mortgages, community involvements—that we don’t intend to break.
Is there any hope for sorry half-disciples like us? Luckily, yes. Remember what Jesus said as the rich young man turned away sad, unwilling to give away his possessions? “With man, this is impossible, but not with God; all things are possible with God.” We follow a God who is extravagant, mercy within mercy within mercy. God knows our hearts. He created us, inconsistent and imperfect, to be just as we are. I have to trust that God expects us to love our families and seek to walk the Jesus Way.
May the wild return.
[i] Gilbert K. Chesterton, What’s Wrong With The World, (New York: Dodd, Mead, & Co, 1912), 48.
[ii] Malcolm Muggeridge, A Third Testament (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2004), 88.
Want to hear a secret most of us know but rarely admit? The good life in modern society really isn’t so good. In fact, these days it often feels exhausting. Frantic. Broken. Headed for a cliff. Actually, why is it called “the good life” when it’s so often a stress-inducing, resource-hogging, soul-deadening, never-ending pursuit of more? What once was good—personal advancement, increased consumer choices, and technological progress—has gone haywire. For all its glittering perks, the current version of “the good life” often feels suffocating: to ourselves, other people, and the planet.
Millions of us know we are shackled to earth-ruining, life-sucking systems—like an economy based on producing plastics, burning coal, driving cars, and ripping resources out of the ground. Because we depend upon these systems, we act in ways we know are not best for ourselves and the wondrous planet we depend upon. Fast food, cheap oil, chronic debt, and constant pressure are only some of the slippery cultural cages that hold us captive. Bottom line: We’ve been constrained and colonized by corporations. We’ve become their tamed and well-fed pets. And we willingly let it happen, every day, through the choices we continue to make. I know I do. We let our very identities be domesticated by a dominant and destructive consumer culture.
Enough is enough. Our authentic selves, our awaiting children, and our aching planet need us to find a better path. It’s time to break from dominant culture to become the free and untamed people God has always wanted us to be. Many of us are waking up to realize our current version of the American Way—a path of strength, superiority, and self-centeredness—is often opposed to the Jesus Way. We’re also seeing that what has become the modern “American Dream”—ensuring personal privilege by raiding the commonwealth of the planet—is not nearly as satisfying or significant as God’s dream. Millions of folks seeking to follow the way of Jesus in the shadow of modern culture are—in ways both small and large—defecting from business as usual. We’re beginning to ask: what kind of a better “good life” can we embody in today’s times—one that is better for us and our world?
Making a Break
Fifteen years ago, my wife and I acted on that question. What kind of a better “good life” did we embody? We moved from Albuquerque, New Mexico, into a little adobe house, heated by a wood-burning stove, high up in the Sangre de Cristo mountains near Taos. There we raised our son, ran a summer camp, and started an innovative public school that uses the surrounding farm and wilderness as its classroom. We dove headlong into transformative work with youth and the task of reinventing public education. It was an amazing life, full of close friendships, meaningful labor, inspiring breakthroughs, and incredible natural settings. It was also exhausting. For those ten years we worked extremely hard with little time for anything else, which meant we were still deeply engaged in the American Way, purchasing and consuming and throwing away far more stuff than any generation before us.
Five years ago, we made another significant shift. We decided to engage deeper with our watershed in our search for a better practice of the good life. We reduced our work demands a bit and relocated into a yurt we built in our backyard. With some like-minded friends we milk goats, shear sheep, plant trees, catch water, and try to grow a lot of our food in the high desert. More than once we have been called “feral.” Once a citified visitor from Philadelphia giggled in awe when she entered our thirty-foot diameter yurt, and she immediately started snapping photos. She simply couldn’t believe we use a composting toilet and carry water by hand in buckets, like millions of people across the world.
If you’re daunted by our example, don’t be. We’re pretenders. Yes, we’ve cultivated a slightly parallel existence, but don’t be fooled: we’re still solidly embedded in American consumer culture. My family has a laptop per person, too many cars, a cappuccino maker, cell phones and a voracious appetite for Netflix. We daily take our son to soccer practice in a Prius and monthly drive a hundred miles to shop at the nearest Trader Joe’s. Though we dabble with homesteading in the high desert, we’re still embedded in the economy of empire, deeply conforming to the system.
Like us, you too might be deeply enmeshed in the very systems we need to transform. Lucky for us, we follow a God of mercy who ever invites us to take another step deeper into the Way. As the poet Rumi invites: “Come, come, whoever you are. Wanderer, worshiper, lover of leaving. It doesn’t matter. Ours is not a caravan of despair. Come, even if you have broken your vows a thousand times. Come, yet again, come, come.”[i] Our wildly loving and extravagantly forgiving God knows our inconsistent hearts, and asks us to take another stumbling step into the Kingdom. But I’m not going to lie: we’ve got some creative and courageous work ahead of us. For modern affluent Christians, our task is clear: it’s time to reinvent our current American Way so we can better follow the Jesus Way. It is time to rewild our Way.
Rewilding Biology, Rewilding Spirituality
Rewilding is a concept I’ve borrowed from conservation biology to name the system-changing, ecologically-grounded spirituality Christians need to embody in our times. In biological terms, rewilding means just what it sounds like: a scientific vision to bring our ecosystems back to a wilder state, at a scale previously unimagined. Ecological rewilding—as a guiding vision—has become the ultimate weapon in the fight against fragmentation over the last two decades, as a coherent way to design, connect, and revitalize protected areas.[ii] Since the late 1990s, extraordinary steps to “rewild the world” have been taken across the globe. Countries have rallied to place vast amounts of land under protection. Geographical “megalinkages” have been restored, throughout and in between vast continents. These restored megalinkages—massive, international land corridors linking core wilderness areas—once again allow apex predators and keystone species to migrate and flourish, which then improves health for the entire bioregion.[iii]
Rewilding the Jesus Way
So how can rewilding inform the Jesus Way? Ecological rewilding resurrects natural vitality within ecosystems that have been overly controlled, manipulated, and domesticated. I want spiritual rewilding to do the same for the Way of Jesus: resurrect its original vitality after being, for far too long, alienated from Earth and manipulated by corporate industrial culture. Many Christians like me live too easily in this time of unprecedented environmental and economic precariousness. We’ve become like domestic housepets, tamed by the twin masters of nonstop technology and comfy consumerism. How we who follow the Way of Jesus choose to act right now—in this “watershed moment” of history—matters more than ever. We need to rewild our Way, and restore our own “megalinkages” between a God-filled heaven and a God-filled earth, between following Jesus and doing justice, between sacred belief and transformative praxis.
A Look Ahead
Do you love Jesus, but you’re leery of what institutional Christianity has become? Me too. Are you eager to redirect a consumer-frenzied culture gone terribly awry? So am I. Ready to become the earth-honoring, untamed people God yearns for us to be? Then let’s get going.
My new book Rewilding the Way, coming out in September 2015, is an unapologetic rallying cry to revive a Christianity that has become terribly tame. Can today’s cozy Christians become the countercultural prophets God aches for to be? Will we repent—turn around to God—and be able to vitally embody the subversive and transformative lifeway that Jesus practiced and offered? Raised in our over-civilized and ecocidal society, what traits must we rediscover to be partners in God’s plan, so that instead of being anxious foot-draggers and bland bystanders we can be salt, light, and leaven in a future where God mightily uses our gifts?
Over the next six months, I’ll be blogging about these questions. I’ll be writing about our current predicament and our incredible potential as children of God, and the wilderness testing that has always been God’s way to craft a transformed people. I’ll be writing about how we might become deeper allies of God: more love-spreading, culture-defying, fear-abolishing, earth-honoring followers of the Jesus Way. And I’ll be writing about some of the highlights I see in our society today: some of the Spirit-filled cultural initiatives and social movements that are already shifting our society toward a positive future in an uncertain time.
Read on, if you are willing to be transformed and become one who transforms. The road is long and there are no maps. Together we have a journey of doing and undoing to begin. Remember that we follow a ferociously loving and fantastically living God, whose unbound Spirit is always present and active, ready to lead us even in the most troubling of times.
May the wild return.
[i] Faith Citlak and Huseyin Bingul, Rumi and His Sufi Path of Love (Somerset, NJ: Tughra Books, 2007), 81.
[ii] Caroline Fraser, Rewilding the World (New York: Metropolitan Books, Harry Holt & Co, 2009), 8–9.
[iii] Ibid. 10. Fraser reports: Only one thousand protected areas existed in 1962, representing 3 percent of the earth’s surface. Now there are over 100,000 protected areas worldwide, expanding conservation to more than 12 percent.