It started with this tweet by Dr. Anthony Bradley:
"Being a ‘radical,' ‘missional' Christian is slowly becoming the ‘new legalism.' We need more ordinary God and people lovers (Matt 22:36-40)."
Needless to say, he had my attention. As I read the ensuing article the tweet inspired called "The ‘New Legalism'" (World Magazine), my curiosity quickly turned to confusion, then frustration and finally disappointment. Bradley so misses the mark with this piece that I felt it important to respond in some detail. Please read the original article first, as I don't want you to rely entirely on my perspective.
Bradley starts by identifying a very real and prevalent problem:
"I continue to be amazed by the number of youth and young adults who are stressed and burnt out from the regular shaming and feelings of inadequacy if they happen to not be doing something unique and special. Today's millennial generation is being fed the message that if they don't do something extraordinary in this life they are wasting their gifts and potential."
My reaction to this dynamic is somewhat conflicted. On one hand, I have seen the suffering he identifies and agree that not only do we need to address it compassionately, but also root out the underlying causes. On the other hand, in light of how most Christians around the world live, I have a hard time feeling too much sympathy for those who are almost entirely made up of the world's most privileged few. It is in this sense of tension where I think the problem lies: there is certainly a problem that needs addressing, but the diagnoses of cause(s) and the remedies suggested are so off the mark that I fear they might very well cause more harm than they remedy.
Bradley identifies two significant factors that, in concert with each other, produce this "new legalism": anti-suburban Christianity; and missional/radical narcissism. Let's look at both, then address the proposed impact and solution that he offers.
"In the 1970s and 1980s, the children and older grandchildren of the builder generation (born between 1901 and 1920) sorted themselves and headed to the suburbs to raise their children in safety, comfort, and material ease. And now millennials (born between 1977 and 1995), taking a cue from their baby boomer parents (born between 1946 and 1964) to despise the contexts that provided them advantages, have a disdain for America's suburbs. This despising of suburban life has been inadvertently encouraged by well-intentioned religious leaders inviting people to move to neglected cities to make a difference, because, after all, the Apostle Paul did his work primarily in cities, cities are important, and cities are the final destination of the Kingdom of God. They were told that God loves cities and they should, too. The unfortunate message became that you cannot live a meaningful Christian life in the suburbs."
Here is where we hit the first major problem. In one paragraph, Bradley seeks to explain (or explain away) a massive, complex set of movements that spans more than a century. As a result, he paints a caricature of the process, making unsubstantiated and unqualified claims we are expected to simply accept as true and accurate. While there are degrees of truth in his assessment, beyond a passing reference to "good intentions" he fails to address the very real and necessary critique of the suburban shift, as though all contexts are created equally. And though some might have put forward (directly or indirectly, intentionally or unintentionally) the idea that they could not "live a meaningful Christian life in the suburbs," I see in that history a far greater emphasis on a call for Christians to good where there was great need.