I just finished my favorite book of the year—and it hasn’t even been released yet. Reading Runaway Radical by Amy Hollingsworth and her son Jonathan was like looking in a funhouse mirror of my own idealism, radicalism, and disillusionment.
Cathartic, powerful, and emotional, Runaway reminded me how much of our hard-won wisdom crawls from the ashes of misplaced devotion.
My ancient/future radicalism
I’d been ministering in Charismatic churches for nearly 20 years—and it was wearing me out. I was growing tired of the stress of ensuring that the emotional level of each service would be a ten. I was tired of the premium people placed on new and wild interpretations of Scripture that made them more zealous but less rooted in theological history and tradition.
But I persevered because I placed such a premium on charismatic expectancy. I believe in a personal God who wants to move, heal, and interact. I expect a supernatural aspect to my relationship with God, otherwise I’m just believing in a philosophy. So, despite some of the flakiness and excess, I endured.
Then I discovered the mystics.
My descent into mystical madness
I was given a copy of Cloud of Unknowing by a friend and I read it quickly. Then I was off to the races, devouring John of the Cross, Julian of Norwich, Teresa of Ávila, the Desert Fathers. . . it had all the stuff I had longed from my charismatic background but was missing—it was deep, historical, and profound. God was knowable and, if I rightly applied myself toward my spiritual formation, I could have a nearly conversational relationship with him.
[pullquote]Runaway reminded me how much of our hard-won wisdom crawls from the ashes of misplaced devotion.[/pullquote]What I didn’t realize as I devoured these works was what it was doing to me on the inside. They elevated forms of asceticism and romanticized suffering as a fast track to spiritual maturity. There was also strong focus on withdrawal and solitude that appealed to me as an introvert but was unhealthy for me as a family man and pastor.
My frustration was overwhelming. I idealized a lifestyle I couldn’t replicate and I found myself in a cycle of trying harder, failing, hating myself, not caring, and then repentance before the cycle would start over. This sequence contributed to some of the worst decisions and experiences of my life.
My idealistic nature didn’t read these centuries-old books and adapt them in ways that made sense to a twenty-first century lifestyle. No. Instead, I started to see the responsibilities of modern life as a hindrance and stumbling block to the higher calling of my devotional life.
By the time I realized what was going on, I had done a lot of damage to myself—and others. It took a nearly two-year hiatus from the trappings of faith to feel normal again.
The books weren’t really the problem. I still love and read them. The problem was that, at that point in my life, I wasn’t prepared to think critically about the demand they placed on me.
All of that’s a rather long, self-indulgent preface to what I loved about this book. Runaway tells the heartbreaking story of Jonathan’s own idealism, radicalism, and ultimate disenchantment.
Through Amy and Jonathan’s narrative, we watch Jon embrace radicalism’s call to give up everything for the poor and live a life of revolutionary dependence on God. It’s hard enough to watch him struggle the implications of fanaticism and legalism, but the stress is compounded by aggressive mismanagement of ministry organizations and hyper-authoritative church leadership. As if that’s not enough, we see it all through the eyes of a mother who, through no fault of her own, doesn’t see how bad things have gotten until too much damage has been done.
As I read, and re-read, Runaway, I was taken by the fact that Jonathan and I seem to belong to the same fraternity of people who struggle with an “all-in personality.” Whether it’s the stringent expectations of radicalism, mysticism, orthodoxy, purity, holiness, or any number of micro-legalisms, there are those of us who have that perfect mixture of faith, naiveté, sincerity, and desire to live lives that “count,” that we’ll often discount or overlook the implications of our current, well-intended trajectories and run headlong into trouble.
I know there are writers seeking to rescue those people who conflate Christianity and the American dream, but their message usually misses that target. It’s the idealistic causeoholics like me who gobble up their books, messages, and conferences. And with each successive call to a more radical lifestyle, we lose our moorings and end up adrift on a sea of new legalisms and dashed on the rocks of an imbalanced gospel.
There seems to be no end to traps available for the sincere to fall into. When your primary objective is to please the Lord, you’re ripe for demands to sacrifice more and more.
I don’t want to give away too much about the book, and I’ll probably be talking about my personal epiphanies from reading Runaway Radical in upcoming posts. In fact, I intend to interview Amy and/or Jonathan when the opportunity presents itself.
Suffice it to say, I loved this book. It was raw, open, and honest. You can tell the words were penned while the wounds were still fresh and weeping, and the pages are a salve to the writers and the reader.
It’s part mystery, part biography, part drama, and all cautionary tale. I wish I could give a copy to everyone. The implications travel so far beyond the gospel of radicalism to touch every believer.
If you pre-order a copy from Amazon right now, you’ll save 25%. I suggest you go there right now and pre-order yours. When it ships in February, you’ll have forgotten about the order and it will be a complete surprise! I promise you won’t be sorry.