After poking fun at Stephen Baldwin for the last couple months, I finally got my hands on a review copy of his book, The Unusual Suspect: My calling to the new hardcore movement of faith. So I can now say, with an informed basis for doing so, that Baldwin manages to be dumb, dangerous, and theologically wrongheaded all in equal measure. So here, in all seriousness, is why the radical, hardcore faith he sets forth is anything but unusual.
Baldwin's book sells itself as being young, hip Christianity with skateboards and Hollywood cred (which Baldwin possesses far more in his mind than in reality). This isn't some stuffy old preacher—he's got tattoos and calls Paul "freaking brilliant." But somewhere along the line (probably around the chapter that's an extended metaphor about that hip extreme sport, golf), we begin to realize just how out of touch Baldwin really is. My favorite passage from the book is full of self-assured swagger and its author seems quite convinced that he's saying exactly what young people want to hear, but I couldn't make head nor tail of it:
"In my mind I pictured a guy holding back a raging pit bull with a muzzle and a choke collar at one end of a football field. On the other end stood a guy with holding a stinky slab of steak. The moment the muzzle and the leash come off the dog, he attacks. That's how I felt. I was God's pit bull. And that is still how I feel. By the way, when I took off I ran right past the steak because I saw a herd of cattle, and when I got to the herd of cattle I saw a ridge and now I want to know what's on the other side. Once I make it past that ridge with God I'm going to see another one and I already know there's something more beyond that, and even more beyond that because, when it comes to Jesus Christ, this pursuit is never going to end."Wait a minute, weren't we on a football field? I think this particular metaphor got out of God's control.
That sort of bizarre moment is what you expect from the book, and for the most part, it's what you get. But in the last few chapters, things get downright insulting. Baldwin consistently characterizes his faith as "radical" and "hardcore," but when we examine that claim, his idea of being radical seems to mean A) having tattoos, B) thinking it's okay to say "crap," and C) thinking that churches should bring the Gospel to people who have tattoos and say "crap." When it comes to actually wanting to radically transform our world, he's downright reactionary. Nowhere is this more clear than in the much-discussed passage in which he criticizes U2's Bono for his charity work in Africa:
"You would do far more good if you preached the gospel of Jesus rather than trying to get third world debt relief. If you asked me, and you didn't but here it is anyway, I would tell you to preach the gospel on MTV. God will take care of that third world country. Get back to your calling, Bono."Conservatives have frequently used Jesus' statement in John 12:8 ("You will always have the poor among you") as an excuse for why they aren't trying to eliminate poverty. "God said there will always be poor people," the argument runs, "and it's arrogant of us to try and prove him wrong by fighting poverty." Not only that, any attempt to fight poverty under a secular banner is doomed to failure because there is no true charity without the name of Jesus. This flies in the face of Jesus' actual message about poverty, as put forth in the parable of the good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37) and Matthew 25:37-40:
"'Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?'John 12:8 is not an excuse—it is a condemnation and a challenge. Baldwin and other conservative evangelicals want to leave the problem of poverty to God. But "the kingdom of God is within you" (Luke 17:21). It is our responsibility to do everything in our power to alleviate the suffering around us, to try to bring the kingdom of God to Earth.
The King will reply, 'I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.'"
In Baldwin's eyes the message of Christianity has little to do with caring for "the least of these." It's about saving yourself (and having a gnarly thrill ride while you're at it). One of my main problems with evangelicalism is its self-centeredness, its focus on "what can God do for me?" In Baldwin's case, the end result of this selfishness is an overwhelming pessimism about the power of faith to bring about social change:
"I hear this from people all the time. They say we are responsible for our fates, we don't need God. All we need to do is band together and we can solve all our problems. War. Disease. Poverty. Violence. Global warming. . . Let me tell you something, buddy. If you got all six billion people on the planet together and went to work on all that plagues this earth, all of us collectively still couldn't do enough to fix it because this world and its problems are too big."In other words, since we can't solve all of our problems overnight, we shouldn't try to solve any of them. This is the same pessimism about human nature that led George W. Bush to argue that we will inevitably need weapons in space. And, sure enough, right there in the Epilog of The Unusual Suspect, we find an endorsement of Bush and his "Christian agenda"—an agenda, it is worth noting, that does not include trying to eliminate war, poverty, global warming, or third world debt, with or without the name of God attached.
So I have to ask—what's so radical about this? It looks to me like the same old reactionary evangelicalism, selfishly tied up with personal rewards and ardently opposed to those who want to enact Jesus' social teachings. The messenger may have tattoos, but the message is hardly "unusual."