Just as your New Year’s resolutions are running out of steam, a lyrical reflection from S. Burns.

Behold, a zealous devotion to suffering, with the burnt offering of calories rising to meet the demands of the cult of extreme fitness. The CrossFit genre is, on the whole, resistant to the promotional Globo-Gym world, preferring the stripped down “box” to plush facilities, the practical motion of sledgehammers and tire-flipping to specialized pulley-equipment and the elliptical machine. America is the fattest it has ever been and yet the most militarized in its fitness. There is a striving for a reactionary cleansing, an elusive and set-apart authenticity. A counteraction to the obesity epidemic is needed and is welcome on multiple fronts. But the motto “Forging Elite Fitness” implies a menial tier of lesser fitness; for the weaker, slower, and impuissant there exists an exclusive baseline.

05e5af2f49bc55cd035510621ffc765aFor much of the American church there is a spiritual quandary running parallel to the aforementioned physical predicament, its members beset in equal measure by sedentariness, diet, and the isolating uncertainty of social and technological shifts.  But far from the forged “elite,” Christianity’s “neither Jew nor Greek” modus is precisely what set it apart. For the “heirs according to the promise” there is no exclusive baseline.  This fundamental beginning of unmerited acceptance does not always preclude amongst the “adopted heirs of Abraham” a striving for authenticity. Out of a self-imposed tension between accomplishment and grace there all too often emerges a desire to be “real.”

For Christians, keeping in mind Tertullian’s precedent that “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church,” the blessedly subversive appeal of the faith is that one should “consider it pure joy to suffer trials of many kinds.” But even the piety of the most radical acts is never meant to separate Christians into tiers based on an attainment of worthiness through suffering. Still, for situated, circumstantially comfortable Christians there can be a “grass is browner” and thus better mentality in the search for authenticity, which sometimes manifests itself by importing, via imitation, the “true” church, oftentimes identified as the persecuted and underground church of far away regions. Just as the trend of extreme exercise often comes with a gritty, exposed-rafter aesthetic, so too have some sanctuaries been actually filled with refuse and debris and made to look like the Mumbai of “Slumdog Millionaire,” with the aesthetic accompanied by extreme, hour upon hour “secret church” Bible studies that are conducted in windowless, chair-less, dimly-lit rooms set up in affluent suburbs.

Despite how out of place he would look at your local Spartathalon themed race weekend, a lot of now healthy, formerly obese owe a lot to the eccentric likes of Richard Simmons for a newfound sense of health and self-worth. Along with the positive potential of creating conviction and empathy, the radical call to arms to “get serious” about abandoning the “cultural preferences” destroying the true practice of the faith also has the danger of fostering elitism and alienation. In fact, while the American Dream is certainly in need of the pulpit’s critique, a constant and overt vituperation can be an easy way out of the pastoral work of meeting people, with patience and understanding, where they are. The same Christ that said, without contradiction, that whosoever does not hate their “father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple” (Lk 14), could also say, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Mt 11).

Jesus Christ was a master of the deference of differentiated instruction– meeting learners where they were. The newest trend of a “radical” religious rhetoric of reckless abandonment written for middle-class and above American Christians has the aura of a locker-room speech. And that is not entirely unbiblical: go, die, lose, sell, and faithfully disregard danger. But the “daily bread” of spiritual sustenance, of listening for the “still and quiet,” often is manifest in a very unsexy pragmatism.

The remnant of doing what we do not want to do, the bent will, is disquieting enough to drive us to seek to “measure up.” More or less, if we are to “become less so that He might become more,” then a more active, comparative status-assessment leaves us less receptive to opportunities of empathy and grace. Hyper-self-awareness, facilitated by the up to the minute global connectivity, renders movements hyping “realness” and authenticity often a matter of timing and fickle re-Tweeted chance.

For those “born not of the will of man… but of God,” the danger of a radical burnout holds no threat when an identity of the forgiveness of the Gospel is a settled matter from the start.  Our First Mover is our Last End. Despite the blindingly impactful conversion of Saint Paul, the quieter, more processional conversions of W.H Auden, C.S Lewis, and T.S Eliot in the last century are not rendered unmoving or insignificant. The reality of constant sanctification offers a processional saving from the daily dregs and doldrums of ourselves, from what we have done and what we lie awake at night thinking about that we have left undone.