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, and Martha Graham. 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, 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 worshipped 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 Saint Peter. That’s pretty crazy.
He was one of the crazy ones. Round pegs in square holes. And it feels as if there is less and less 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 ek (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.
Richard Beck, a professor from Abilene Christian University, asserts 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.
The early church eventually usurped and conquered the Roman world by living such a sublimely alternative lifestyle they attracted thousands of people bowed and broken by the cruelty of life under Caesar. These Christians were a peculiar people that lived what many deemed as “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.
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. God is holy, 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. 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. It might even make us the round peg that God is looking for.
You’ve been reading from Keep Christianity Weird: Embracing the Discipline of Being Different by Michael Frost. Watch the video, get the book, or read more free excerpts by visiting KeepChristianityWeird.net. You can also learn more about Michael Frost at Mikefrost.net.