American evangelicals, like Americans in general, are fascinated with being great. We long to live a great life. We want to be impactful. We want to make a difference for Christ. There is nothing wrong with wanting to live a great life: God has called us to live a life full of dignity and destiny. The problem, as noted by Julie Canlis in her excellent little book, A Theology of the Ordinary, is that many of us, especially in America, think that we become “great” when we are radical or fervent or extraordinary. We must do crazy things for Jesus if we want to be a great Christian. But what about the more mundane parts of our lives? Can we be radical or fervent or extraordinary when we wash the dishes, fill out an expense report, or go out to dinner with friends? In an age obsessed with greatness, what might discipleship look like in all areas of our lives, including the mundane? Is it possible to be faithful to Jesus and be ordinary? Julie Canlis argues that we should reject the dualism of the ordinary and the extraordinary. All of life ought to be lived under the banner of Christ. We want to live great lives, to be sure, but greatness is not measured in terms of passion only. Rather, as the Apostle Paul puts it in Romans 12:1, we are great when all aspects of our lives are offered to God as “a spiritual act of worship.”
In A Theology of the Ordinary, Canlis seeks to articulate a “robust Trinitarian theology of the ordinary [that] will not undermine being passionate or sold-out but will ground and purify it” (p. 3). Canlis offers a Trinitarian-grounded story of God as a counter to some false ideas (dubbed the Gnostic, Docetic, and Platonic Stories) lurking below the surface in many of our lives as we struggle to be great. This Trinitarian story begins by noting that the Father, in creating the finite universe, creates a cosmic temple for creatures to live and move and have their being. All that God creates is good; all is gift. The world is not self-made, however. As creatures, we are finite and limited; and this is a good thing for it points to our inherent relationality and dependence. Moreover, as divine image-bearers, humans are priests and priestesses of creation: all of life is spiritual, all of life can be lived in faithful worship to God in his cosmic temple. This vision of the Father’s blessing on ordinary life pushes against a faulty Gnostic understanding of the creation narrative. On the Gnostic reading, being creature is not good enough. Rather, to please God we need to reach beyond our limits; we need to be extraordinary. But this is to devalue God’s good creation. “If being sold-out is our goal, then we will eventually place the burden on people to do ‘big’ things—and we might miss the worship of God that is mowing the lawn, paying the mortgage, tucking children into bed, running the coffee hour at church” (p. 23). Rather, our main “requirement” is to live in gratitude and dependence upon God in daily worship.
There is a challenge to the claim that creation is good, however. Because of sin, we now live in a fallen world; a world full of the good, true, and beautiful, but also of evil, suffering, and death. Man lives “away” from the Garden of Eden. This world is not the way it is supposed to be. For those obsessed with greatness, we would expect God to fix things in a big—extraordinary—way. What we find in the incarnation is God the Son entering this world and taking on a human nature in a rather ordinary way and at a rather ordinary place. This is how God works. Man’s fundamental need is to be reunited with God. Sin is the problem, but payment for sin is only part of the story; Jesus came to draw us, along with all creation, back to God. What this means, according to Canlis, is that “the Son’s mission is not only the cross, but involves all human life as it is lived” (p. 30). Jesus’s mission is to reclaim every aspect of ordinary human experience back to him. This vision of Jesus as redeeming and restoring humanity, along with all creation, pushes against the Docetic Story. In this story, the ordinary, the material, the embodied is “beneath God” (p. 42). But the incarnation re-affirms the materiality of creation, including our bodies. All of nature is physical, but it is never merely physical. God is present and active in this world and thus all of nature can be a vehicle for us to worship. We don’t leave our ordinary life behind to follow Jesus, rather we follow Jesus within our ordinary life, and that is extraordinary.
With the incarnation, the extraordinary/radical/epic thing has already happened: God has infiltrated, re-created, and redeemed. We no longer need to carry the burden of being great or radical or sold-out. Rather, we are truly radical by living our ordinary lives in Christ (p. 50). But how, exactly do we do that? According to Canlis, this is where the Holy Spirit comes in: “The Spirit’s mission is to put us in Christ—to unite us to Him, and let His life flow into us” (p. 50). Ordinary life is “the Spirit’s Playground” (p. 50). We do not become “spiritual” by removing ourselves somehow from the world. Rather, spiritual life just is “a life lived by and in and through the Holy Spirit” (p. 51). Ordinary Christianity is not ordinary after all. The Spirit is present and active in the world, the Church, and in our lives, helping to unite all things in Christ. This vision of the Spirit’s work in the ordinary pushes back against the Platonic Story. On the Platonic Story, the spiritual realm is the really real, everything else is on a lower, secular, plane. The problem with this Platonic Story is that it denigrates the materiality of this world. God values this world and he is active and present within it. Thus, we should reject the spiritual/material dualism: God is at work in all creation; God is present in every realm.
In the end, the only dualism that we ought to maintain is between the old creation and the new creation (p. 65). I think that Canlis is surely right. We live in a sacramental universe. God does not seek to remove us from this world, rather this world is God’s home and as we grow in Christ, we will become more “at home” in God’s good world. That is extraordinary! As Canlis summarizes her book, “When we live our lives as ordinary persons, we become an extraordinary picture to the world of what we were intended to be: God and humanity united together in heart and purpose” (p. 66).
Review by Paul M. Gould