Normal (ˈnɔːməl): A normal variety of anything; that which, or a person who, is healthy and is not impaired in any way.
I remember the first time I heard the term “Jesus Freaks.” A veritable shiver ran straight down my spine as I shrunk a little, hoping nobody would see me as one of those people. Great, I thought, it’s not like the world doesn’t already think Christians have problems enough, now we’re going to save them the trouble and call ourselves “freaks”? I was horrified. For some reason, many of us seem to think words connected with extremes are somehow desirable. I recall a bumper sticker—I cringe in remembering it—that said, “If you’re not living on the edge, you’re taking up too much space!” While the message seems cute, it’s really not. Words like intense and ultra and extreme contain a larger meaning than simply having more of a good thing; they imply abnormal.
Do we want the world to think of Christians as extreme or abnormal? Keep in mind, I’m not talking about lacking passion or commitment; I’m talking about demonstrating a self-imposed fanatical zeal that can result in segregation from our culture. Consider that “extreme” means “something at the outermost edge, and farthest from the center and something exceeding the limits of moderation and even opposed to moderation.” Again, this is not about being lukewarm or lethargic, it is about being wise. I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to be opposed to moderation—the Bible, in fact, tells us to be moderate. Of course, we are not to be lukewarm, but then again, moderate does not equal lukewarm-ness.
With this in mind, you can imagine my joyous surprise when I came across the book title Radically Normal. Not, Extreme Christianity, How to Be an Ultra-Christian, or What God Wants: Intense and Blasting Mega-Christians. Instead—beautifully! —the author had the bravery to call it Radically Normal. I was—radically—interested.
Josh Kelley’s book is excellent for many reasons. It’s exceedingly readable, chock-full of real-life humor, and it has just the right balance of introducing valid and often less popular ideas in a way that isn’t preachy or condescending. In fact, Kelley is heartwarmingly open and willing to be vulnerable.
So just what is this normal Christianity? According to Josh, “normal,” among other things, means not being an obsessive Christian. You know the ones, the well-meaning but condemnatory types who are void of balance, overly legalistic, and can make you feel small unless you are planning on being a missionary somewhere hellishly hot or callously cold: the types who seem to think fun is a four-letter word. They think in a binary that Josh aptly calls “2 tiered Christianity,” where suffering saints broiling away on the mission field (presumably without showers to make matters even a bit more … sticky) are high on the totem pole, while the average coffee barista—something Kelley knows about—is the second-class Christian.
The chapter touching this is called—so cool—“Greatness for Average Joes.” Josh does not suggest God, the perfect heavenly parent, wants us to be blasé, sub-par, indifferent, or even tame. (If you are a fan of C. S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia series, you might remember that the deific lion Aslan, while absolutely good, was also not a “tame” lion). What Kelley tells us is that “God delights in the normal,” because “normal” is good! Moreover, as he points out, nowhere does the gospel call craziness or obsessiveness a virtue. Again, we are back to normal.
Speaking of joy and our perceptions of God, let’s answer Josh’s question, “Who is more fun, Satan or God?” If we think of Satan, we have been deceived—despite what some pompous and puritanical well-meaning preacher has (erroneously) proposed. Joy, we are carefully shown, is one of the central and foundational tenets of the Christian life. And not just spiritual joy either. Both spiritual and earthly joys. Josh unapologetically states, “A good party can help prepare you for heaven.” For emphasis, Kelley asserts, “Many people have been led astray with a damnable heresy that removes tangible joy from our faith.”
He then voices a great quote: “It’s Satan, not Christ, who hates the physical appetites and the proper joy linked to them. It is Satan, not Christ, who is the great teetotaler, the joyless puritan, the cosmic killjoy.” Josh believes so strongly in the importance of joy that he says, “I do not believe that God should be your only happiness. Not because he wouldn’t be enough (he is beyond sufficient for an eternity of delight), but because he doesn’t want to be. He has filled this world with many things that he longs for us to enjoy.”
Speaking a bit more to joy, Kelley admonishes us about the dangers of binaries. For instance, he challenges the notion that going to a prayer meeting is more holy than going to a ballgame—even if for the reason that then we are unlikely to invite God along with us to the game. Instead, we need to know that certain things are called for certain times. Kelley illustrates that this normality extends itself to all aspects of our lives. Thus, we are exhorted that while He was here on earth, “Jesus prayed, worshiped, read the Bible, fed the poor, and did all of the spiritual stuff. But he also feasted, drank, slept, laughed, cried, and told jokes.”
For Kelley, this is balance, and this is precisely what we Christians are called to. We are called to be examples of His love and His mercy and His good works, but we are to do it while living here on earth. If you, like me, feel frightfully fatigued at the frenetic extremes that our culture – even sometimes the Christian one – seems to fixate on, and breathed a breath of fresh air when you saw the word “normal,” you might just really savor reading this book.
As I reflect on Kelley’s analysis of a life well lived, I am reminded of G. K Chesterton, a Christian writer famous for his affable wit and spirited charitability. Chesterton had something to say about everything, including the value of our everyday lives. With reference to his own experience writing stories, he commented that a particularly onerous part of narrative spinning is in ever re-creating the normal everyday occurrences that fill the majority of stories. While the exciting plot twists and turns are more fun to write, it takes a surprising degree of endurance to persist in reiterating the seeming ordinary—“normal”— aspects of life. This is not really that surprising because accomplished authors often tell us this is exactly the skill that makes an especially memorable tale. After all, to be believed, a story still has to be about real people—doing real things.
And this is where Kelley’s view of being radically normal comes to play for me. Kelley and Chesterton both affirm the importance of the everyday stuff that we average folk do. They suggest that God Himself does not grow bored with our daily tasks and routines. Just as a parent does not get tired of watching her child’s daily activities, so, too, God, our heavenly parent, does not become disinterested or dissatisfied with ours. And while being normal might not sound as cool as being radical, it does consist in the actions of the majority of parts of our lives.
And for certain, Kelley isn’t claiming that Christianity is all tickles and giggles and perfume-scented bubble baths. But hey! Those lovely and beautiful and joyous things are meant to be part of our life as well. Our lives are meant to encompass a very large space; and a good part of that space is joy. Indeed, as Kelley says, “being radically normal is not easy, but it is achievable.” Two cheers to being normal—radically normal.