In the summer of 2021, the evangelical world discussed the “Rise and Fall of Mars Hill.” Embedded in that narrative was a reference to John Piper’s famous “seashells” sermon. Many of us who came to Calvinism during that time remember this sermon. The message was that people should not waste their lives on hobbies like collecting seashells. Rather, they should invest their time in missions or something equally radical and dangerous. The discussion reminded many of us that the Reformed faith was more than just Calvinism. It is also a specific way of viewing the Christian life. The proper response to a message like that, as one Reformed author pointed out, is not how radical I can be for Jesus, but what God in Christ has done for me.
Matthew Redmond wrote God of the Mundane amid the “Young, Restless, and Reformed” (YRR) phenomenon.1 He does not address YRR in this text, but one can reasonably surmise it was in the background. This book is in the vein of, though in many ways quite different from, Michael Horton’s Ordinary: Sustainable Faith in a Radical World.2
In terms of Reformed theology, piety, and practice, this book addresses practice. Unfortunately, it does not directly anchor the otherwise good practices in Reformed theology. Moreover, it is light on the actual praxis of the Reformed life: the nurturing fellowship of the church and sacraments. It does make many good points, to be sure, but these omissions prevent Redmond from making an even stronger case for a Reformed praxis.
The book is structured around fifteen chapters. He addresses everything from “The Question of the Mundane” to “Be Nobody Special.” Each chapter is three to four pages long and has at least one personal anecdote. Each chapter is a variation on the theme that “quiet is okay” and “the Christian life sometimes can be boring.”
Redmond’s thesis is that God does not need us to do something radical.3 In fact, he notes, “the Apostles are writing to normal people.”4 This message should give hope to the harried mother who is busy changing diapers or to the man stuck in what he feels is a dead-end job. The laity do not need to be told to be radical at their jobs.5 Redmond concludes this section by asking a very pointed question: “If all Christians are missionaries how come plumbers never speak at missions conferences?”6
Redmond’s answer is Jesus’ kingdom. Our lives as Christians take on fuller meaning because we are now in the kingdom, and this kingdom orientation “changes everything.”7 We can enjoy and appreciate the mundane moments because of this. In other words, God has already provided the normal Christian life with what it needs. We do not have to seek for spiritual ecstasy. As R. Scott Clark has regularly urged, we do not have to go on a “Quest for Illegitimate Religious Experience.”
This is not the only book on the mundane. Michael Horton has contributed as well, although Redmond’s book came out two years earlier. Horton’s book focuses more on God’s story, particularly covenant theology. Redmond’s book is more basic than that. His goal is to free Christians from “the myth of an easy life.”8Redmond tempers our expectations with realism, especially concerning the effects of the Fall. He concludes this section of the book with an email correspondence to a young mother with four children. The mother is realistic about her struggles yet exudes a real joy. She does not need to go on a radical mission trip, nor is she deluded about an easy Christian life.
Redmond’s main thesis—God does not need our life to be radical—is sound. In fact, he does break new ground, at least regarding one definition. Redmond notes that, “the category of ‘mundane’ only exists in relation to other categories.”9 For the American evangelical, there is the “extraordinary” category and the “ordinary” category. When well-meaning pastors call us to live extraordinary and radical lives, this usually turns out to be a call to inhabit other people’s stories. What we need is to orient ourselves to God’s story.
Redmond recaps God’s story with the creation narrative (Genesis 1–2), noting the ordinary stewardship of Adam and Eve.10 To be sure, our own labors do not exactly match those of Adam and Eve. Their stewardship was pre-Fall; ours is not. Being created in the image of God, we still have a steward-like role in the world. Unfortunately, this is where Redmond’s main thesis does not deliver on the minor points. He began with a very strong point, urging us to find our story in God’s story, but he does not flesh out God’s story. Presumably, he might think we know what that story is. Whereas other authors on this topic explain our role in God’s story by discussing his prior action of establishing covenants with his people, Redmond’s analysis stops short.
He mentions that the kingdom changes our story and adds meaning to mundane actions. That is true. He never expands, however, on just why that would be exciting. What he could have said is that we, as pilgrims in a dark land, inhabit an ancient story filled with prophets and kings. We look forward to the King’s return. When we languish from our journey, this King seals his promises to us by giving us bread to eat and wine to drink.
This illustrates that the Reformed life does not simply make a promise to give value to the mundane. It does do that, to be sure. Rather, it does that by the story of covenants. This covenant theology would then allow Redmond to discuss the sacraments. He does not do any of that, and the book is weaker for it. To anchor this Reformed view of praxis, we needed a discussion of the Reformed covenant theology.
Even though he makes good points on the Christian’s vocation, I do not think he draws the correct conclusions. For example, he says our common labors “push back” against sin in the world.11 He is correct in using the category of “common” in the Christian life. Common does not mean bad or neutral. It means distinct from the church. What is not clear, though, is how our common labors push back against the sin in the world. He does not quote Scripture on this point. Moreover, such a view undermines the very commonness of our labors. Being a good plumber, for example, is simply that. It does not need to push back against the sin in the world.
In the book’s most beneficial section, Redmond urges us to find the value in living quietly, noting that quiet is as much about tone as it is volume.12 Its conversational style and short length (72 pages) make it ideal for giving away to friends who have questions about God’s will or a healthy approach to sanctification. In comparison with Horton’s longer volume on the same topic, it lacks some theological depth. On the other hand, the book is a good introduction to Reformed praxis for those coming from American evangelicalism.
©Jacob Aitken. All Rights Reserved.
Redmond, Matthew B. The God of the Mundane: Reflections on Ordinary Life for Ordinary People. San Francisco: Kalos, 2012.
1 Collin Hansen, Young, Restless, and Reformed: A Journalist’s Journey with the New Calvinist, (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2008).
2 Michael Horton, Ordinary: Sustainable Faith in a Radical World, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2014).
3 Matthew B. Redmond, The God of the Mundane: Reflections on Ordinary Life for Ordinary People, (San Francisco: Kalos, 2012), 7.
4 Ibid, 16.
5 Ibid, 30.
6 Ibid, 33.
7 Ibid, 50.
8 Ibid, 53.
9 Ibid, 24.
10 Ibid, 25.
11 Ibid, 29.
12 Ibid, 36-37.
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- Office Hours: Horton On The Ordinary As An Alternative For Young, Restless, Radical Christianity
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Thanks, Jacob! Love this saying, “[W]e, as pilgrims in a dark land, inhabit an ancient story filled with prophets and kings. We look forward to the King’s return. When we languish from our journey, this King seals his promises to us by giving us bread to eat and wine to drink.”
Thanks, Steve. Your comments are always encouraging.
Good Comments and balance are noted in this thread.
Some of those comments, especially those endorsing Piper’s “Seashell” sermon are very disappointing, disheartening even. We really do need a new Reformation.
As I tried to make clear, I think people are shooting at extremes. Piper’s sea shell sermon does not encourage people to seek God in the means of grace (where God has promised to be found). That is primarily my critique of Piper.
If I am participating in the means of grace, what else do I need to do to be “radical”?
I understand Robert.
I agree with everyone that Piper is to be critiqued as is everyone else who dares to advance something. You included. There are safer harbors to get truth from. There are also good things as well as bad things to be learned and gleaned from others. As the doctrinal pendulum swings even amongst us we need to be very careful. I agree we need to have a heart to Recover our Confessional Heritage. I have seen it done and work.
You know me. All I think about is the means of Grace. I have been doing it for a long time. I wrote this as a young Christian. I am sure you have seen it.
I would acknowledge that this is a balanced look at the call to be “dangerous” or “Sold Out”. I came from a Navigator Group that radically called for scripture memory and we all lived in homes or the barracks together at NAS Oceana. It was probably the happiest and most hard time of my life. It has born great benefit in my life and the lives of others. There is a need for and understanding of God’s call upon individuals as they participate under the authority of the Church. It can be most wonderfully dangerous and sold out.
Oh, One more thing. As a Navy Airman and then a College Student I was single. That is prime time to grow in knowledge and love for the Lord as St. Paul noted when he spoke on Marriage. Life has its times and seasons. We are called to act differently in each station and stage of life.
1Co 7:29 This is what I mean, brothers: the appointed time has grown very short. From now on, let those who have wives live as though they had none,
1Co 7:30 and those who mourn as though they were not mourning, and those who rejoice as though they were not rejoicing, and those who buy as though they had no goods,
1Co 7:31 and those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it. For the present form of this world is passing away.
1Co 7:32 I want you to be free from anxieties. The unmarried man is anxious about the things of the Lord, how to please the Lord.
1Co 7:33 But the married man is anxious about worldly things, how to please his wife,
1Co 7:34 and his interests are divided. And the unmarried or betrothed woman is anxious about the things of the Lord, how to be holy in body and spirit. But the married woman is anxious about worldly things, how to please her husband.
1Co 7:35 I say this for your own benefit, not to lay any restraint upon you, but to promote good order and to secure your undivided devotion to the Lord.
Maybe this is radical.