Radically Normal: An Interview with Josh Kelley

Josh Kelley and I have a lot in common. We both live in Washington state, we both have a background in the same denomination, we’re both pastors. One area we differ is that he’s a published author with Harvest House Publishers, and I’m not.

If I didn’t know how much we had in common before starting Radically Normal, I would’ve figured it out pretty quick. The characters and experiences he describes gave me a profound sense of deja vu. My background is awash with hyper-spiritual, holier-than-thou types (many of which have since shipwrecked).

In Radically Normal, Kelley uses these stories as a jumping off point to remind us that many super Christians aren’t, and that the most profound thing we can do is live a radically normal life of simple obedience.

I talked to him about his book today:

In Radically Normal, you communicate the value of not hyper-spiritualizing Christianity. One example you use is late-seventies Christian artist Keith Green who was known for browbeating Christians with a militant “WHY AREN’T YOU GUYS ACTING LIKE REAL CHRISTIANS!?” message. How hard was it for you to get off the emotional treadmill created by those kinds of Christian voices?

I would describe getting off that treadmill as slow but non-traumatic. I was raised in a home that encouraged questions, so I was able to safely doubt the standard lines. After high school, I had friends asking some the same questions. Then I worked for a senior pastor who was actively doubting radical Christianity and we kind of fed off of each other.

Even still it took almost 25 years from my first question (“Is Radically Randy really God’s ideal?”) to when I finally felt completely free (that evening sweeping the Starbucks floor and realizing that hard work, in and of itself, honors God).

You describe your initial reaction to needing to get a job at Starbucks while pastoring as a bit of an emotional struggle. Obviously, it wasn’t the trajectory you imagined, but God used that time powerfully. How do you feel situations like this look differently to “radical Christians” as opposed to someone with a healthier spirituality?

Josh KelleyI think a hyper-spiritual Christian (and many of us are at least a little hyper-spiritual) would have two reactions, one real and the other a façade over it.

The real reaction is disappointment, feeling like you’ve failed God and he’s failed you. But because no one wants to feel like a failure (and we’re all afraid to accuse God of failure), we’ll give it a spiritual-sounding spin to cover the real response: “God gave me a mission to preach to all the customers who are waiting for their coffee.” If they’re especially hyper-spiritual, they might start writing “John 3:16” on the bottom of coffee cups. Obviously wanting to share the gospel is a good thing, but the problem lies in only valuing things if they sound spiritual.

I believe the healthier response would then be: “God, this is not what I had in mind and I’m struggling with disappointment. Please help me to trust you to work this out for your glory and my good. Help me work hard and glorify you in all I do, even when I don’t understand.”

What do you think drives the behavior of a “Radical Randy?” 

Good question. I am sure there are many different possibilities, including an honest, yet tortured, desire to please God. But to truly be a Radical Randy, I think one would have to be motivated by spiritual pride—the need to feel like a better Christian than everyone else. For some reason, most of us struggle with “just” being a Christian. We need to add something to it: Christian + speaking in tongues, Christian + missionary, Christian + perfect theology. Any of those things are fine, until we use them to feel like a better Christian than others.

Was there a section or concept in Radically Normal you struggled to get right?

The entire book was a struggle to find balance as I addressed both obsessive Christianity and complacent Christianity. There was a real fear of God on me lest I excuse sin as I attacked legalism. The chapters “Between Legalism and Worldliness, Parts 1 & 2” were especially tricky to write for that reason and a lot prayer went into them. I hope that by clarifying the difference between “the world” and “worldliness” I’ll make it easier for believers to be holy without being legalistic.

If the 1999 version of Josh Kelley read Radically Normal, what would have resonated with him?

Strange as it sounds, what I would’ve needed the most was simply the books’ conversational tone and self-deprecating stories. You see, in 1999 I was a brand new assistant pastor, fresh out of college, and trying very hard to make sure everyone knew how smart I was. If that Josh would have written Radically Normal, it would’ve been an impressive tome, filled with big words and complicated exegesis. In other words, boring.

But I don’t think simply reading Radically Normal would’ve been enough—God first had to work deeply in my life to help me understand that my value and identity are in him, not being a “Christian + Bible expert.” Once I got that, I could start seeking to serve others instead of wanting being served by them.

Writing a book to like you’re smart and have your act together serves author; doing whatever it takes to communicate serves the reader (even if it’s telling a story about peeing your pants).

Sometimes you read a book that challenges and compels you to action, and sometimes you read a book that says, “Hey, take a breath and relax. You’re okay.” For me, this book fell in the latter category. That’s not a criticism—more often than not, I need to be reminded that Christ’s yoke is easy and his burden is light.

If this is a message you need to hear too, pick up your copy of Radically Normal. I’d give you mine, but I’m going to read it again.

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