The Alphabet of Grace: W is for Weirdos

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 Dreyfus.

It 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.”

Everyone who appeared 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 or weird 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 is 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?

Where are our weirdos, the round pegs in square holes? In my book Keep Christianity Weird, I try to make the case for why all Christians should be a little weird.

ALL CHRISTIANS ARE WEIRD

The word eccentric comes from a combination of the Greek terms ek (out of) and kentron (center). When put together, 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 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.”

As the King James Version puts it, “a peculiar people.”

Today, the church in America seems to have traded in its mandate to be eccentric and aimed at a kind of middle class suburban conventionality. 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, the weird ones. Or at least we should be.

GOD IS AN 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 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 it means 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. God is not middle class. God is not black. Or poor. Or rich. Or Southern Baptist. Or Pentecostal. Or Republican. 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.

THE KINGDOM OF GOD IS A WEIRD PLACE

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 patriotism. 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 within you.” (Lk 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.”

Wow.

[This is an abridged excerpt from my book, Keep Christianity Weird, NavPress: Colorado Springs, 2018]

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The views expressed are my own and do not necessarily represent the official views of Morling College or its affiliates and partners.

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7 thoughts on “The Alphabet of Grace: W is for Weirdos

  1. Love this Mike – thanks for the reminder. These are some rousing and inspiring words… reads like a good manifesto!

  2. When he first entered the shed, he saw a beam and looked at the luminous band of brightness filled with floating specks of dust. But when he moved over to the beam and looked along it, he gained a very different perspective. Suddenly he saw not the beam but framed in the window of the shed, green leaves moving on branches of a tree outside and beyond that, 93 million miles away, the sun. Looking at the beam and looking along the beam are quite different.

    To the bystanders at Pentecost it resembled drunkenness, to scientists a hysteria or nervous disorder. How can a natural action of the vocal cords express the supernatural indwelling of the Holy Spirit of God?

  3. For some of us who have grown up in the church and followed the mainstream church life for decades, it can be a crisis when it finally dawns that we are a square peg in a round hole.
    From being a youth leader, constant attendee, committee member and Elder of the UC, my faith was not healthy, for many reasons. Having gradually stopped going to church, my faith is stronger in Jesus, God and His Holy Spirit. I’m not against the church but I don’t think the church is serious in looking at people and life outside its walls and treating everyone with love. Love your writing and your heart, Mike.
    Keep the faith!

  4. The I am.

    The soul.

  5. Great post! Everyone has forgotten that Christianity & God are weird!
    I have 1 quibble. You said:
    “God is not an American. God is not middle class. God is not black. Or poor. Or rich. Or Southern Baptist. Or Pentecostal. Or Republican. 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.”
    This is true & utterly mind boggling. However, there was 1 label you still claim God has to fit into –
    That God is He. A Him. Masculine.
    This isn’t what the Bible says.
    I realize it’s easy to do this because everyone does this, but it’s not correct from a logical standpoint if you really believe what the Bible says.
    Keep in mind too, how harmful claiming God is ONLY masculine to people who are not men (again, think of the logical conclusions. God is masculine, men are also masculine, women are not masculine, therefore women are not like God in the same way or as much as men are.)
    She Who Is by: Elizabeth Johnson makes this painfully obvious in the 1st few chapters (though I don’t agree with her on everything.)
    But in the Bible:
    1st, Genesis clearly states both men & women are created in the image of God (this includes people who don’t want or aren’t easily labeled as such).
    2, yes Jesus was a man & also God. But if you argue that you’d also have to say God is also Jewish, & a carpenter.
    3, God is beyond comprehension, thus the Bible uses all sorts of metaphors to describe God / God uses such metaphors. Including feminine ones (such as midwife & mother bird & bear) & elements such as fire, wind, a burning bush, etc.
    3, God says this when talking to Moses out of the burning bush, when Moses asks God’s name (Exodus 3:14)
    “God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM. This is what you are to say to the Israelites: I AM has sent me to you.”
    I AM is gender neutral.
    Don’t know what else to say. Sounds clear to me.

    1. Good point, well made, Ada. I do try to avoid the masculine pronoun but I completely overlooked that on this occasion. You were right to pick me up on it.

      1. It’s easy enough to do, since it’s tradition. I do too.

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