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HERE'S TO THE CRAZY ONES
Blessed are the weird people ...
In 1997, Apple launched its now-iconic "Think Different" advertising campaign, featuring black-and-white footage of groundbreakers like Albert Einstein, Bob Dylan, Martin Luther King, John Lennon, Mahatma Gandhi, Pablo Picasso, and others, and voiced by actor Richard Dreyfuss, intoning, "Here's to the crazy ones."
To this day, there's debate about who actually wrote the copy for the "Think Different" commercial. Most agree it was largely the work of Rob Siltanen, a creative director and a managing partner of the ad agency that produced it. But like all ad campaigns, it was a collaboration that included contributions by Steve Jobs himself and various members of the team from the agency. In any case, the "Think Different" voiceover is one of the truly great pieces of advertising copy ever written:
Here's to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers. The round pegs in the square holes. The ones who see things differently. They're not fond of rules. And they have no respect for the status quo. You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them. About the only thing you can't do is ignore them. Because they change things. They push the human race forward. And while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius. Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do.
You can hear a hint of Robert Frost and Jack Kerouac and even a touch of Kurt Vonnegut in the cadence of the language. But that's not the only reason why it's so good. It works because it resonates so strongly with us all. Everyone who appears in the "Think Different" campaign really did epitomize the spirit of the campaign. They broke the rules, they were vilified, but they changed stuff. Dylan, Lennon, Gandhi, Ali, and King all drove their contemporaries around the bend. But looking back, we now view them as groundbreakers who left the world a better place. We all know it's true that crazy people change the world.
So here's my question: Why isn't there a bit more crazy in Christianity these days? And I don't mean crazy as in zany or juvenile (there's plenty of that!). I mean crazy as in Picasso, Jim Henson, Martha Graham, and Cesar Chavez. I mean crazy as in round pegs in square holes. Could it be that the church has closed its doors to the misfits and rebels and troublemakers? Does the church make space for and foster the contributions of those who see things differently? If Steve Jobs was right and the world is pushed forward by people who break the rules and have no respect for the status quo, what does that say about the church's vision to change the world?
Not that it's always been this way. In fact, the church has produced these "crazy ones" in the past (MLK being a case in point), and while their contemporaries might have viewed them askance, they are widely regarded as those who pushed the cause of Christ forward.
St. Boniface was an eighth-century Scottish missionary to Germany who became frustrated with the Germanic pagans' devotion to a sacred oak tree worshiped to honor Thor. The Germans feared that to even touch the tree would bring down the wrath of the gods. So Boniface took an axe to the oak, and having felled it, used the wood to build a church at the site dedicated to St. Peter. That's pretty crazy.
Francis Xavier, one of the craziest evangelists in history, having established Christianity in western India and the East Indies, met a samurai warrior named Anjiro in Malacca in 1547. Anjiro was on the run from the Japanese authorities, having killed a man there. Francis shared the message of Christ's forgiveness with Anjiro, who accepted Christianity and decided to return to Japan to face the music. But he also begged Francis to accompany him and to bring the gospel to his homeland. Remember, this was 1547! Francis had already traveled from his native Portugal to India to modern-day Indonesia. Asking him to go to Japan may well have been like inviting us to the moon. But he agreed, and became the first Christian missionary to the closed kingdom.
Or there's the exotically named Count Nikolaus von Zinzendorf, who virtually relinquished his highborn status to join a band of traveling asylum seekers from Moravia and Bohemia (the Czech Republic today) who had camped on his estate in Germany in 1722. The Moravians were a disorderly bunch, but nonetheless, the temporary village they created on Zinzendorf's estate soon became a refuge of religious freedom that attracted persecuted Christians from across Europe. But these people were persecuted because of their passionately held views, so as Zinzendorf's model village swelled with fanatics from differing perspectives, things got very rowdy. Differing factions charged each other with heresy, and their leaders accused each other of being false prophets. Things heated up when these leaders started trading apocalyptic visions at a hundred paces. The village fell into disarray and serious conflict.
Most of Europe's landed gentry, when faced with a disorderly mob camped out on their estate, would have simply and quickly evicted them and been done with it. But not Zinzendorf. He joined them!
He pretty much left his castle to live in the Moravian village, to pray and minister to each family, and to call on them to live together in love. That's just plain weird. But weirder still is the fact that God chose to use this strange community of refugees to ignite the modern missions movement. On August 13, 1727, the Holy Spirit descended on the village, bestowing what Zinzendorf later called "a sense of the nearness of Christ." All their differences were blown away and this unlikely community became an extraordinary global missionary force.
I could go on. I could mention Anne Hutchinson from the Massachusetts Bay Colony, who was described as "a woman of a haughty and fierce carriage, of a nimble wit and active spirit, and a very voluble tongue, more bold than a man," whose crime — according to America's founding fathers — was usurping male authority. She was banished from the colony for her eccentricity.
Or Mother Ann Lee, the founder of the Shaker movement, whose views on equality between the sexes and her then-bizarre practice of speaking in multiple heavenly languages and worshiping by ecstatic dancing or "shaking" (hence the name) led to her being beaten regularly by mobs in England, and later, Massachusetts.
Or the fiery John Brown stirring up ferment against slavery in Kansas.
Or the hermit architect and devout Christian Antoni Gaudí designing the most curious buildings in Europe.
Or Albert Schweitzer madly playing Bach and Mendelssohn on his pedal piano in the Congolese jungle.
Or Stanley Jones hanging out with Mahatma Gandhi in his purpose-built Christian ashram in India.
Or Aimee Semple McPherson hamming it up in her extravagant set pieces every Sunday at Angelus Temple in Los Angeles (and even getting "kidnapped" to Mexico, but that's another story).
Or Arthur Blessitt, who started carrying a huge wooden cross around America in the 1960s and who has gone on to drag it faithfully all over the world (including over 300 countries and Antarctica).
They were the crazy ones. Round pegs in square holes.
And it feels as if there are fewer and fewer of them these days.
But before we imagine Christian eccentricity is the domain of just a few outstanding personalities, allow me to try to make a case for why all Christians should be eccentric.
The word eccentric comes from a combination of the Greek terms ex (out of) and kentron (center). When combined, ekkentros means "out of center." The term gained currency in the late Middle Ages, when astronomers like Copernicus dared to suggest that the earth was not at the center of the solar system. By claiming the earth in fact orbited the sun, Copernicus became the original eccentric.
Enter Richard Beck, a professor from Abilene Christian University, who pushes the definition of eccentricity a bit further. In his book The Slavery of Death, Beck takes its literal meaning ("out of center") and suggests that an eccentric identity is an identity where the focal point of the self is shifted to God. He says, "The ego, in a kind of Copernican Revolution, is displaced from the center and moved to the periphery. The self is displaced being the 'center of the universe' so that it may orbit God."
In other words, all Christians who have made God the center and focus of their lives can rightly be called eccentric.
The alternative, Beck says, is what Martin Luther called incurvatus in se, the self "curved inward" upon itself, with the ego at the center of our identity. "Incurvatus in se suggests that human sinfulness is rooted in self-focus, self-absorption, and self-worship." It's me at the center. A true conversion to Christ involves displacing me and becoming truly "off center."
Now, of course, that's not how we usually use the term eccentric. When we think of people who are "off center," the center we have in mind is usually some cultural or behavioral norm. So eccentric people are those who act in a socially unorthodox fashion. They're strange, unusual, sometimes deviant. But Beck is trying to rehabilitate the term, to drive us back to its original meaning and to suggest eccentricity should not only be expressed in zany behavior but also in truly biblical Christianity. When we put God at the center of our identity and push our egos out to the edge, we will become a different kind of people. He says,
Eccentric Christianity is a new orbit where the self is displaced and God is found at the center of life. And in this displacement the Christian begins to act in "strange and unusual ways" in relation to the norms of the world.
We become, in the words of the King James Version, "a peculiar people."
In my previous book Surprise the World, I make the case that the early church eventually usurped and conquered the Roman world by living such a sublimely alternative lifestyle that they attracted thousands of people bowed and broken by the cruelty of life under Caesar. These Christians were a peculiar people. Or, as I pointed out in that book, they lived "questionable lives."
Today, the church in America seems to have traded in its mandate to be eccentric and aimed instead at an unconscious conventionality. Rural norms are too quaint, urban norms too dangerous, so the church finds a happy medium in a suburban spirituality. It's impolite to think of ourselves as rich and demoralizing to think of ourselves as poor, so we find a happy medium in the middle class. We are happy. We are medium. We fit in. And very often we baptize that conventionality by suggesting that God is primarily concerned with order, and with us living peaceably with our neighbors. I'm certainly not suggesting we shouldn't be peaceable, but neither should we be indistinguishable from our fine, upstanding non-Christian neighbors.
We're the "off center" ones. Or, at least, we should be.
THE ECCENTRIC GOD
If Richard Beck's more psychological argument about displacing the ego and orbiting our identity around God isn't convincing enough (he is a professor of psychology, after all), he also offers a handy theological basis for eccentricity as well: God is eccentric.
Yep, we have an eccentric God. Think about it. While many religions see their deities being intrinsically bound up in creation, the biblical God is "off center." The God of the Bible is separate from the created world. Certainly, God is involved in the created world. God draws close to his people. He's described as sustaining the universe and involving himself in human affairs. And he is revealed to us most clearly as the enfleshed Messiah, Jesus. All that is true.
But orthodox Christianity teaches that the triune God remains wholly Other, separate from the universe he has created. Beck puts it this way:
The eccentric God is always experienced as "outside" the system and status quo. God approaches us from "the outside" of our current arrangements and understandings. Consequently, when it comes to God the community of faith has to adopt a receptive posture, waiting upon the initiative of God. And while all this is often described with the language of "transcendence" — using a higher vs. lower metaphor — it can also be described by the eccentric metaphor, an inside vs. outside distinction.
He's right. God is holy, ineffable (indescribable), beyond. And there's something thoroughly eccentric about that. It means God can never be captured or made "ours." If God exists beyond us, God can't be circumscribed or reduced to our agendas or systems. I'm not suggesting we can't know God. In Christ, God has reached out to us. God desires relationship with us and has shown us great mercy and kindness. But we don't get to own God.
God is not an American or Australian. God is not middle class. God is not black. Or white. Or poor. Or rich. Or Southern Baptist. Or Pentecostal. Or Republican. Or Democrat. Or any of the other containers we try to put him in. He's an eccentric God, and an eccentric God is free — truly, utterly free.
And we need this truly, utterly free God, because all of us (conservatives and liberals, left and right) are so profoundly tempted to align the voice of God with our own voice.
As Richard Beck points out, to be a genuinely eccentric people, we need to serve an eccentric God, one that "cannot be bounded, encircled or delimited to our group, our interests, our values, our nation, our way of life, our choices, our worldview, our economy, our church, or our theology."
In other words, if we can make God captive to our cultural preferences, then we will most certainly ourselves be captive to them too. We have to learn the often-challenging truth that God exists beyond our agendas, which in turn could free us from our own unhelpful, even ungodly, plans and schemes.
But there's more. Beck adds a third dimension to this discussion of eccentricity — the Kingdom of God is eccentric.
We know the Kingdom of God isn't a specific territory. The Kingdom of God is like salt and light. Like God, it cannot be contained or walled in to a particular zone. It's not like America is Kingdom-of-God territory and Syria isn't. The very character of God's Kingdom is alternate to the character and values of this world. It doesn't create borders and defend them. It doesn't foster parochialism or insist on pledges of allegiances to particular flags. Its values are justice, reconciliation, beauty, and wholeness. It can't easily be identified in conventional, observable ways. Jesus said as much when the Pharisees challenged him to show them this kingdom he was speaking about. He replied, "The coming of the kingdom of God is not something that can be observed, nor will people say, 'Here it is,' or 'There it is,' because the kingdom of God is in your midst" (Luke 17:20-21). Similarly, Richard Beck says,
The eccentric Kingdom doesn't claim territory over against the world. The eccentric Kingdom doesn't erect walls to create a gated community. ... The eccentric Kingdom is the embedded, pilgrim, landless, possessionless, homeless, sojourning, itinerant missionary community called and commissioned to live lives of radical service and availability to the world.
ROUND PEGS IN SQUARE HOLES OR SQUARE PEGS IN ROUND HOLES?
Apple's "Think Different" ad quirkily referred to round pegs in square holes, even though the common expression is "a square peg in a round hole." It seems the campaign writers were willing to be eccentric even in their use of idioms. The challenge of eccentric Christianity is that quirks so regularly get mainstreamed into the dominant culture: Round pegs are hammered uncomfortably into square holes, or even — sometimes — offered round holes in exchange for their compliance. What began as surprising over time becomes unremarkable. So the call to be eccentric people serving an eccentric God, and sent out to alert others to the eccentric Kingdom, involves a call to perseverance, an active resistance to domestication.
I think we should all be striving to dethrone our egos and have our identities shaped by God as our center. We should all be seeking to become more off-center. But in our general attempts to become the eccentric Christians we're meant to be, it appears that God gives us certain "crazy ones" who seem freer to embody the faith. They are beacons to us. Indications of the life we were set free from in order to live. The John Browns or Aimee Semple McPhersons seem more capable of throwing off convention than the rest of us. We need to find these people and value them.
Of course, the church has a habit of either banishing or killing their crazies. But they are essential to the church's health and future. In a fascinating study in Scientific American, Shelley Carson examined why creative people are more eccentric than the rest of us. She concludes that it partly has to do with brain function. Studies have shown that highly creative individuals are more likely to display something called cognitive disinhibition. That's the tendency to indulge in information that is irrelevant to whatever you're working on or thinking about. Most of us inhibit or filter irrelevant information when we're concentrating on a particular task. But creative people don't do that. They let it all come flooding in.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Keep Christianity Weird"
Copyright © 2018 Michael Frost.
Excerpted by permission of NavPress.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
1 Here's to the Crazy Ones, 1,
2 What Are Weird Cities Telling Us?, 25,
3 Jesus Was the Original Weirdo, 53,
4 Before We Became Conventional, 77,
5 What Kills the Weird?, 101,
6 Seeing Things Weirdly, 123,
7 If We're Not Weird, We're Doing It Wrong, 149,
What People are Saying About This
This book does not disappoint. With Michael’s usual mix of biblical and historical wisdom, cultural exegesis, and keen wit, Michael invites us to be God’s peculiar people in the best possible ways.
Mike Frost is one of the sharpest thinkers we’ve got. I don’t just mean that he’s clever (he is), but that his ideas cut through nonsense with prophetic clarity. And so, of course, this book does just that. Large swaths of the Western church are in dire danger of cultural assimilation at the precise time that our wider culture is looking for new ideas and alternative answers. Thank God, then, for Mike’s message, which calls us back to the glorious weirdness of the gospel.
Michael Frost reminds us with winsome prose and challenging clarity that if our neighbors don’t see us living out our Christian faith together as alternative story, something has gone horribly wrong. Read this book and ignore the noise of conformity. If we do, the best days of the local church are just ahead of us.
Following the apostle Paul’s advice to the Roman church, “Do not conform to the pattern of this world,” Michael Frost offers us a poignant meditation on the weirdness of our Christian faith. Keep Christianity Weird is the irresistible sort of book that I will read and reread to remind myself what it means to follow in the way of Jesus and in the footsteps of the faithful cloud of witnesses who have gone before us.
Michael Frost calls us away from a generic, domesticated, deistic gospel and back into a wild, incarnate, neighborhood-focused, authentically weird, attractive Christianity—which looks, oddly enough, just like Jesus and his Kingdom come.
Michael Frost invites us to open our eyes to the way of the Master and to reimagine what it means to be the people of God in our time. He looks at Jesus (the original weirdo) and numerous biblical and historical figures whose unusual ways of relating to the world around them reflected the Kingdom of God and brought about miraculous change. Michael reminds us of things we may have forgotten. Hold on tight.
Keep Christianity Weird is a provocative book, but only for people who need to be provoked. For the rest of us—people who need a fresh reminder of the Good News or the great commission—this book is a gift.