Contemporary culture considers the quality of passion in someone’s life to be so important and admirable that the latest source of parenting angst is a fear that a child does not know what his passion is, or worse, that the child actually has no passion for anything. The culture honors and rewards passion, but it fears and punishes extremism.
It is important to recognize that both words, passion and extremism, have been dissected out of the language and isolated from their normal usage. The cultural immersion in social media regularly produces such phenomena. In bygone eras when jive talk and the deliberate abuse of language was pretty much confined to idle young people, the culture flowed around such linguistic pebbles without much effect on the part of grown-ups, but today, every nuanced variation is snapped up by professional media to fill the gaps when there is no news for them to read. Which is most of the time!
Hence, the morphing of passion into a quality to which everyone aspires and extremism into a quality to be feared and avoided and suppressed. Do take note that when the culture appends the letters “ism” to any word, it becomes a bad thing. Look what happened to the word creation. That is the word Christians use to describe how the universe came to be. Whether or not one agrees with that teaching, the teaching is about the origins of the universe, and the word creation expresses the view that the universe was created by some being greater than the universe. To teach creation or to believe in creation to explain the existence of the universe can be demonstrated to be a very logical conclusion from facts in evidence. However, when the culture appended the letters “ism” to that very normal word, it became creationism, and to all appearances, creationism is a mental illness.
The word extremism has followed a similar path.
In fact, a survey of several dictionaries revealed that passion and extremism are not, at their roots, very different. Merriam-Webster online dictionary, for example, defined passion as a feeling “that causes you to act in a dangerous way.” That facet of the word is part of the phrase “a crime of passion,” and is a reminder of the parallels between passion and extremism when viewed simply as words, not political or social agendas. Definitions of the words extreme and extremism reveal that political discourse and political commentary have come together to agree that extreme views are far from what most people believe while extremism is an uncompromising commitment to such views.
This is where the culture establishes the distinction between extremism and passion. The culture admires a person who is passionately committed to something, unless it is something very different from what the culture believes, in which case, that passionate commitment becomes extremism.
How do the semantics work out in real life?
It is generally agreed that religion is, at a high level, the way humans flesh out their other-worldly experiences. Some people reject the whole idea that other-worldly things can happen, because they believe that nothing exists unless it can be measured by science. That is the atheist position on the spectrum of religious experience. The spectrum includes a wide variety of experiences that people consider to be spiritual, and at the farthest end from atheism lies the point where people teach that a relationship with God must shape every aspect of daily life. In today’s US culture, a person who believes that no god exists can be passionate about dancing or chemistry or mountain-climbing, even to the degree that such passion involves mind-bending risks, but that person is admired. In today’s culture, however, the person who makes all his decisions about right and wrong by reading absolute truth from the Bible is not considered to be a passionate person who should be admired. Rather, this person is considered to be an extremist who is dangerous to other people.
The Bible is full of extremist sentiments, if US culture is to be believed. Psalm 68:3, for example, is a prayer in which the writer says to God, “Your steadfast love is better than life.” That statement is a passionate testimony to the blessing of knowing God and living in a close relationship with him. The US culture, however, considers that view to be “far from what other people believe,” and hence, it is regarded as extreme. Barna research confirms that a high percentage of people consider a person extreme enough to be a danger if he says such a thing in a public place.
A passion for Christ is what makes the culture consider Christians and the religion of Christianity to be extreme. The truth is that if anyone is passionate about anything, then he will look extreme to those who are not equally passionate. Interestingly, while the culture considers the term extreme to be pejorative in most contexts, it reserves the right to be fickle in its usage, choosing to admire the passion that drives extreme sports. Mountain climbing, polar expeditions, and free diving in blue holes are all approved forms of extremism, while praying in public, becoming a missionary, publicly demonstrating against a government policy that suppresses religious liberty, or telling your children that it is a sin for people of the same gender to have sex together are disapproved forms of extremism.
Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego were passionate about God, and they were so extreme that they dared to defy the direct order of a king. They even told him that no matter what he did to them, they would not obey, rather like Kim Davis who was willing to go to jail rather than do something she believed to be immoral. Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego’s model for godly behavior is recorded in the Bible, which makes that story an example of extremism to US culture. Barna group’s recent study reveals that more than half of all adults in the US consider it extreme to give up a good job and go to Bolivia to be a missionary. However, if you give up working and ask people to donate money so you can walk across Antarctica, then you are passionate about doing something hard, and you are much to be admired. Almost half of all adults say that it is extreme to think sex should be confined to marriage; in fact, the development of Common Core elements that encourage elementary children to touch themselves sexually and figure out what they like suggests that sex is viewed like an activity of daily living. On the other hand, if an adult tells his children that two people of the same gender must not engage in sex, the culture regards the adult, not the immoral teaching, to be extreme.
Christians need to know what the culture thinks in order to be ready for cultural reactions to normal Christian practices. Public prayer. Sharing Jesus. Rejecting same-sex marriage. Advocating against abortion. Reading the Bible while waiting for a bus. The culture is not Christian, and much of the culture actually considers Christianity to be dangerous extremism. What should Christians do about this situation? Christians should do exactly what they did in the Roman Empire during the earliest years after Christ rose from the dead. They should do what they have done for 2000 years. They must put their hope in God, not in government or the social structures or even the church. They must look at the world God’s way, recognizing that he will triumph over obstacles humans cannot surmount. They must see people the way God sees them, and love people the way God loves them, letting the love of God overflow into the world around them. They must never take the stance of victims, feeling sorry for themselves, but rather, they must assertively love their persecutors and always be ready to bless and pray for those who scorn them.
The apostle Paul traveled all over the Mediterranean world sharing Jesus wherever he went. The Roman Empire was at first dismissive of Christians, but later, after the emperors became aggressive about being worshiped, the Empire found that Christians had extreme views about worshiping only God, not people. Christians were viewed as extreme then, and they are viewed as extreme now. Paul wrote to Timothy, “all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.” (2 Timothy 3:12) In fact, he was only echoing what Jesus himself said on the night before he was crucified: “In the world you will have tribulation.” (John 16:33)
Go ahead. Be passionate about your faith. Do what Christ taught Christians to do. Do not fear to be called an extremist. In the beautiful new earth that will replace this broken one at the end of time, Christians who did the things the US culture calls extreme will receive the rewards Jesus promised to those who overcome. Contemporary culture calls it “pie in the sky,” but from inside the Christian worldview, that opinion sounds pretty “extreme.”