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Review: Misadventures in radical Christianity

A calling or a personal dream? In new memoirs, young believers share tales of self-denial, heartache and the discovery of simple, transformative grace.

We’ve seen a surfeit of Christian bestsellers in the recent years — detailing the lives of believers who equate divine calling with radical adventure. 

The books, marketed to idealistic students and twentysomethings, encourage a kind of zeal that can be satisfied only through seismic shifts in lifestyle and focus. 
But new books are emerging in response from young people who took to heart the messages of radicalism and have their own stories to tell. 
In Print | Laura Anderson Kurk
Two recent memoirs detail the lives of men in their 20s who shook off the fetters of middle-class American life to pursue a radical calling and, through doubt and disappointment, began to see grace and calling in a different light. 
The shattering power of the book, “Runaway Radical: A Young Man’s Reckless Journey to Save the World ,” comes from the dual perspectives of a son attempting to live out authentic Christianity and a mother, helplessly watching her son deteriorate. 
With the tagline, “When Doing Good Goes Wrong,” mother and son writing team Amy and Jonathan Hollingsworth recount the events surrounding Jonathan’s decision to spend a year as a missionary in the West African nation of Cameroon
The wounds are fresh, and the pain on these pages is, at times, nearly unbearable. Jonathan’s obsessive worry that he wasn’t doing enough for God, fueled by books such as “Blue Like Jazz ,” led him to give away his possessions, shave his head and sleep on the floor of his closet surrounded by quotes scribbled on the walls to remind him of his vow of self-denial. 
He accepts a job with an organization serving in Cameroon, raises funds, takes a year off from college and starts his new life. 
His dreams are destroyed, though, at the hands of a corrupt organization, church leaders with unreasonable demands and a living situation that amounts to house arrest. 
His parents are unaware of the extent of Jonathan’s suffering, and Jonathan slips into a dangerous depression, becoming disconnected from God and family — a break that lasts long after he returns home, altered and exhausted. 
In exquisite prose, Jonathan and Amy share the nightmare that held their family captive for years. 
Another young memoirist, Ryan J. Pemberton, also writes about waking up to the knowledge that our calling is to trust God’s persistent love. In his new memoir “Called: My Journey to C. S. Lewis’s House and Back Again ,” Pemberton takes a quieter look at the complicated forces behind following a radical calling. 

‘Both memoirs, refreshing in their honesty, provide balance to shelves populated with books that overlook the beauty of the ordinary in favor of radical experience.’

As a college graduate and an up-and-coming marketing executive, Pemberton’s story appeals to readers in the post-college stage of life. “Called ” is an earnest portrayal of a young man broken but redeemed. 
Pemberton followed his dream, and what he believed to be his calling, from the Seattle area to Oxford University to study theology and to be part of a place still bursting with the ideas of his hero C. S. Lewis. Along the way, Pemberton and his wife had the remarkable opportunity to live in the Kilns, Lewis’ former home.
Pemberton’s book seems to turn on the same motif of the radical Christianity bestsellers: A young Christian liquidates his bank account, quits his dream job and sells his things in order to move to a foreign land to follow the path to which he believes God has called him. 
But readers must look more closely at “Called ” because this is a story that builds slowly and shines light into the private and needy places of the human heart. 
The story, captivating in its transparency, begins with this: “Bob Dylan once said a poem is a naked person. I’m not much of a poet, but I hope you’ll excuse me if I go ahead and take off all these layers.” 
Pemberton asks the question that’s on all our lips — What if what we thought was a calling was just a personal dream? 
Called ” is an important book because it takes that most knotty of issues — the Christian calling — and helps to unravel it so that we can better understand our own callings.
Both memoirs, refreshing in their honesty, provide balance to shelves populated with books that overlook the beauty of the ordinary in favor of radical experience. 
Sometimes, as Jon Hollingsworth discovered, transformative grace comes from simply loving the person in front of you.

Laura Anderson Kurk is the author of young adult novels “Glass Girl” and “Perfect Glass.” She and her family worship with the A&M Church of Christ in College Station, Texas. 

Filed under: Features Headlines - Secondary Reviews

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