Runaway Radical: A Young Man's Reckless Journey to Save the World
Jonathan Hollingsworth; Amy Hollingsworth
Thomas Nelson, 2015
214 pp., 15.99
D. L. Mayfield
The Yeast of the Pharisees
We are here just what we are at home—not one bit better—and the devil is awfully busy … . There are missionary shipwrecks of once fair vessels.
He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose." Jim Elliot wrote those words in 1949, when he was a college student bent on complete and utter obedience to the Lord. In 2001, as a high school senior, I took those same words and painted them onto a large poster board which I proudly displayed as a part of my final art project, sure that I was on the cusp of missionary greatness myself. In 2012, Jonathan Hollingsworth, a 19-year-old idealist, perhaps scribbled that same quote on the walls of his closet, sure of the importance both of the task God had set before him and the necessity of all the sacrifice that it would entail. How many other souls, more often young than not, have felt the same yearning and desire to do something with their lives? How many of us grew old and tired and despondent, wondering about the God who seemed to get us into this mess? And how many of us walked away, crushed by the weight of our desires to be of use to God, and never looked back?
Jonathan Hollingsworth is at the center of Runaway Radical: A Young Man's Reckless Journey to Save the World. He is no Jim Elliot, the book makes clear, and this narrative is a fly in the best-selling missionary memoir ointment. The subtitle sets the reader up for the premise: When Doing Good Goes Wrong. The authors are an interesting mother-son combination—Amy Hollingsworth is a well-recognized writer and speaker on such topics as psychology, creativity, and Mr. Rogers, and her 20-year-old son Jonathan is the "radical" in question. Amy, the stronger writer of the two, shoulders the burden of the narrative for the first half of the book, detailing what it was like to parent a child who even from a young age was fiercely committed to understanding and pleasing God. She recalls an incident when Jonathan was eight years old: he asked God if he was real and in return received a mysterious "touch." She writes of watching her boy grow and go on a short-term mission trip to Honduras as a teenager, seeing how it strengthened his resolve to do good but also led to deep undercurrents of hopelessness and doubt in a God who could let suffering and starvation co-exist side by side with the comfortable life that Jonathan enjoyed with his family. She watches as he begins to give away his worldly possessions, as he moves into his closet, as he starts to plaster his walls with quotations from his beloved radical heroes. And eventually she watches as with great fanfare he travels across oceans to go do good in faraway Africa, where he signed up to work with a mission organization for a year in Cameroon.
And then things go terribly wrong. Due to torrential rain, miscommunication, and various other factors, Jonathan finds himself stranded and unable to fulfill all the visions he had of doing good. He is shocked to discover that his local Cameroonian church has been infected with a materialism very much like that which bedevils his American brethren, and he becomes ever more restive in the tightening grip of his mission organization. He is told not to smoke or drink or hang out with those who do; he is asked not to associate with non-Christians or in fact with anyone not part of his particular organization; his communications to the homefront are carefully monitored to ensure he generates positive attention—and attracts donors. He becomes ill, malnourished both physically and spiritually, and tells his mother that his situation is closer to house arrest than he would care to admit. Finally, after four and a half months, Jonathan returns home, a shattered version of himself.
The book is the result of both Jonathan and his mother trying to make sense of what happened—where did the good intentions go so wrong? It also comes as a direct rebuke to his sending church, which asked him to never reveal the layers of corruption that he experienced in Cameroon. Who wants to hear a story of failure? But of course, failure has always chased after our heroes, and has always been an important thread in the narratives of those who do the impossible for God. Elisabeth Elliot, Amy Carmichael, and David Livingston all experienced times of great doubt, despair, sickness and tragedy—but those moments tend not to be the parts of the story that we remember. They don't make for such excellent, inspiring quotations.
In a blog post early in his time in Cameroon, Jonathan quoted Mother Teresa: "do small things with great love." I have this same quotation emblazoned across the front of the journal I currently write in, and I stare at it from time to time. Like Jonathan, I admire Mother Teresa greatly, and there is a part of me which wishes to emulate her, and a part of me which despairs at how much I don't. Jonathan and Amy diagnose this problem succinctly as "the yeast of the Pharisees," the ever-present scourge of legalism. It is here, in their swift and sobering critique of crippling religious impulses, that Runaway Radical becomes very important.
In some respects, Jonathan reminds me of the heroes I grew up idolizing—missionaries such as Jim Elliot (who stayed away from girls lest they distract from his pursuit of God, ate healthy foods and exercised compulsively in order to be in shape for the mission field, and agonized for years over his eventual decision to marry Elisabeth). As I read Runaway Radical, I was struck by how I couldn't think of a single famous missionary or counter-cultural Christian author who didn't live by rather rigid rules and principles. I also know of many young people, like myself and Jonathan, who have read inspirational books and upended our lives in order to try and emulate such paragons, with varying degrees of "success." There is a natural pendulum swing: first making drastic life changes, then settling into the longer, harder, and much more boring work of pursuing spiritual disciplines and loving God and neighbor.
But this is not the case for all. Amy's descriptions of Jonathan's increasingly strict rules for himself and others are laced with both confusion and sorrow. Don't we all want our children to follow hard after God? But don't we also want them to experience at least the tiniest bit of joy? In the end, Amy especially comes down hard on the authors and ideas that influenced Jonathan so profoundly, blaming them for her son's "reckless" behavior. Although Amy and Jonathan made the conscious choice not to name specific books by contemporaries in Runaway Radical, it's hard not to immediately think about the bestsellers—books by Shane Claiborne, David Platt, Francis Chan, and others—which have sold briskly in the past decade or so. Amy, at one point, criticizes Basil the Great and the legalistic directives he made under the "guise" of compassion for the poor (as she puts it) way back in the 4th century: "the bread in your closet belongs to the hungry; the coat unused in your closet belongs to the one who needs it; the shoes rotting in your closet belong to one who has no shoes; the money which you hoard up belongs to the poor." She and, to a lesser degree, Jonathan now believe that this sort of application of the words of Jesus is not only misguided but is actively harmful to those who might be idealistic enough to go try it out.
Legalism, moralism, an obsession with twisting God's arm by our own selfless acts of love—these are all very real dangers to the Christian, no matter where we might place ourselves on the "radical" continuum. Still, I disagree with Amy and Jonathan's conclusion: that passionate attempts to both read and obey the commands of Jesus inevitably lead to places of obsession and depression, as happened with this particular young man. The vulnerability and honesty which Jonathan displays in parsing his own bent toward rigidity and obsession loses some of its luster when the end result is a dismissal of those trying to take the words of Jesus seriously in light of the poor and suffering of the world.
The other glaring problem is that Runaway Radical is an encapsulation of a short, dramatic clash of ideologies and cultures (after all, Jonathan was overseas for less than five months). In Cameroon, Jonathan veers wildly (within the course of a few weeks) from praising the local church ("an African church service will ruin you for any other type of church!") to becoming despondent at the depths of materialism and coercion he sees there. I found Amy's re-telling of Jonathan's months in Cameroon to be especially problematic, as she categorizes the cultural complexities into the singular problem of "The African Way"—referring to the system of hierarchy wherein subordinates are required to do the bidding of the leader, no questions asked. Jonathan's exposure to what he and his mother call "The African Way" leads him to compromise in ways he didn't foresee, promising God's blessing of wealth and material goods and husbands, always putting on a good show and a wide smile for the congregation. What follows is a complete sense of disillusionment with both the mission organization and the Christian community at large.
The monolithic portrayal of "The African Way" is problematic indeed. Jonathan spent only a few months in Cameroon before leaving—hardly making him an expert on the culture. Still, he does try to make sense of what he saw by filtering it through his own lens of experience. However much he might despair at the patriarchy, materialism, and legalism of the Cameroonian church, he was in reality being asked to face those pathologies in his own Western culture—and most important, inside himself.
Mary Karr talks about one of the greatest flaws of memoir being the un-self-aware narrator: "I always tell my students that if the reader knows something about your psychology that you do not admit, you're in trouble." Amy can come across at times as a mother bear, willing to defend and protect her child at all costs, with very little reflection on her own responses to the words and commands of Jesus. The book, written very shortly after a rather whirlwind experience, at times feels rushed and reactive, the conclusions premature. In the end, the authors wrote a book to fill a gap in the narratives of contemporary radical heroes, acknowledging failure and disappointment with God, an unfinished wrestling with privilege and cultural understandings of wealth and blessings. And for all its weaknesses, this heartfelt tale of one earnest young man—who so badly wanted to give up what he couldn't keep to gain what he couldn't lose—is a story we need to hear.
D. L. Mayfield has a book of essays forthcoming from HarperOne in 2016. She lives with her family in Portland, Oregon.
Copyright © 2015 by the author or Christianity Today/Books & Culture magazine.
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