If you were holy rollin’ like me in the late 2000s, you might have been part of the Francis Chan craze that swept conservative Christian circles across the nation — and the New York Times Bestsellers List.
Some of you might remember him. Tall, slim Chinese American guy with a book that took conservative Christian church Sunday Schools by storm. It was called Crazy Love: Overwhelmed by a Relentless God. Chris Tomlin, a darling of the contemporary Christian music world, did the forward, for chrissakes. And the book, well, it was supposed to awaken a revolution.
In some ways, Crazy Love WAS revolutionary. It was a bold, fierce, scolding reminder that if the Bible was completely true like Evangelicals insisted, then its God was inconceivably more powerful, beautiful, awe-inspiring, and terrifying than the American church currently acted. It urged Christians to embrace a new idea of what Christian looked like: to fall madly in love with such a god as this, and to live radical lives to prove it. “Because when you’re wildly in love with someone, it changes everything” (back cover.)
But it was so much more than even that. Because to Chan, if God was that unspeakably enormous, it followed that humans owed everything in service to him. Chan took conservative Christianity’s fondness of servitude and self-deprecation and burst out in full-throated insistence that anyone who thought God didn’t demand their obedience was absurd: “Can you worship a God who isn’t obligated to explain his actions to you? Could it be your arrogance that makes you think God owes you an explanation” (33)?
Chan came out and said it: all the toxic things conservative Christianity already believed about humans, but 10x more blunt.
- He proclaimed that in the movies of our lives, we are extras in one scene with “two-fifths of a second where you can see the back of your head” (42).
- That worry and stress “communicate that it’s okay to sin and not trust… [and] reek of arrogance” (42).
- That no matter how good you try to be, your deeds will be like “menstrual garments (think used tampons)” (60).
- That God’s “courting, luring, pushing, calling, and even ‘threatening’ demonstrate his love” (62).
In Chapter 3, Chan described the abuse he suffered under his own dad, and struggling to heal his ability to imagine a non-abusive love with the Heavenly Father. In Crazy Love, he then goes on to construct a dynamic between human and God that is horrifically abusive. The title of his next heading is “In Love with the One I Fear” (56). And that, I think, sums up the book.
There is SO MUCH about broader conservative Christianity’s problems that we could talk about here. Crazy Love is, after everything, a perfect lesson, a magnification, of the psychologically toxic ideas conservative Christianity teaches about humans. Mental illness and basic human feelings are made into sin. Your life is not your own, and you’re insane to think otherwise. Don’t just understand you have no choice but to be God’s slave, you should be OVERJOYED for the opportunity. God is so amazing, you’re pathetic, Jesus had to die for you, and you just keep forgetting. Abusive dynamics are dressed up as the ultimate love.
In fact, skimming the book, this is some of what I can talk about in this review:
Chapter 1 (Stop Praying): Chan says that Christianity’s God is beautifully incredible (and this is where my love for God came from; the accompanying videos shook me), but turns this around to say he’s so big you have to worship and fear him by default, and for you to question the order of things is just arrogant. Like a fire devouring what it burns on, God’s greatness runs on humans’ supposed patheticness.
Chapter 2 (You Might Not Finish This Chapter): Chan showcases Christianity’s fondness for “death scare”, aka trying to worry people into accepting the message faster by reminding them how short life is and that there’s a chance hell could be real.
Chapter 3 (Crazy Love — so well named): Chan proposes that people being afraid of God isn’t right. You have to love AND fear him, then it’s fine. He writes about his experiences with parental abuse with seemingly no self-awareness about creating a new abusive dynamic between himself and God.
Chapter 4 (Profile of the Lukewarm): Just a straight up list of what American Christians are doing wrong today.
Chapter 5 (Serving Leftovers to a Holy God): Chan convicts lukewarm Christians with Biblical backup that God thinks they’re evil, so useless they’d ruin manure, and wants to spit them out. God demands everything you have.
Chapter 6 (When You’re in Love): By making your entire life about making God look good and realizing how tiny you are, you will become free, because that’s what love does. Here we see the language getting as intense and weirdly sexual as lots of prayers and CCM: “Be all in me. Take all of me. Have your way with me” (111).
Chapter 7 (Your Best Life… Later): It’s foolish to seek fulfillment outside of God, and the only way to please Him is by total surrender. You should give up your time, income, job, and entire lifestyle to advance God’s kingdom.
Chapter 8 (Profile of the Obsessed): A list of what people who are “obsessed” with God do: love everyone who hates them, put God’s kingdom before their very safety and lives, connect with the poor, look weird to mainstream society, are intimate with God, live thinking about heaven, can never be humble enough and take slavery as joy.
Chapter 9 (Who Really Lives That Way?): Inspiring stories (including his own megachurch.)
Chapter 10 (The Crux of the Matter): So how are you supposed to change your lifestyle? Pray about it. God will tell you.
Why am I doing this?
I spent 18 years, from birth, in the world of Evangelicalism. When I think back on what it was like, I see magic. I smell campfire smoke, wild, tangy and familiar as my own blood, hear the thick snaps of sparks and the wind in the darkness as I pledged myself to a whirlwind romance, an all-out pursuit of a god who held me in everything. I see the morning light falling in meek golden bars against my palm as I turned the pages of my devotional, the red spotting my knees from praying so long on my bedroom floor. But most of all I remember the feelings. Our congregation, our family, in the dim warmth of the sanctuary, one in minor-chord melody. The explosion of emotions in my chest when I stood in a lake with storm rain lashing my face as I begged God to show me his. My heart, on a Sunday morning, full to burst with sensations I could not name.
So I called it love.
Crazy Love was a huge part of helping me see it. This magic I called love.
It has taken me so long to see the crazy.
I LOVED this book. I read it again and again in my head, and every time I was interrupted I went back and read the whole chapter again. I watched the accompanying videos over and over on my bathroom (and bedroom) floor until I cried. Skimming it now, I walk the paragraphs as familiar as streets from my childhood.
I loved Chan’s understanding of how amazing God was. I never saw how deeply his conclusions about what that meant for us as human beings fucked me up. Until now.
And I still have this book, because when I left and lost my faith, I held onto it as proof that I wasn’t making up everything I had believed and the passion with which I believed it. Now, it’s time to make use of it.
This review is my hope to make it up to myself. To honor the awe and beauty and glory I saw in everything God, could be and the love our relationship could have. To explain myself forgiveness for all the reasons why this cosmic romance, electrified by Chan’s Crazy Love, turned so abusive that it destroyed my very concept of self. And to open this conversation up to others. Your stories, your feelings, your adventures and your hurt. To talk about what it is to be in crazy love.
When I was looking up Francis Chan videos to share in this intro, I came across a Ted Talk by a woman who’s now one of my favorite humans. Her name is Lilia Tarawa, and she left Gloriavale, a Christian cult in New Zealand. When she speaks of the good memories of her upbringing, you should see the smile on her face. But just a few minutes later, her voice breaks as she describes the pain of the dysfunction, trauma, and abuse that came with them. I hear echoes of my Christianity, and Crazy Love itself, in her story.
How beautiful and radical Francis Chan’s idea of God was, the God of E-minor and pine needles. And how fucking terrible his view of humans is, that believing means “beating your body and making it your slave”. How it all went so very wrong. How it hurt me beyond belief. And I’m writing this because I bet there are others out there too.
See, Francis Chan has a huge influence. In 1994, he founded Cornerstone Community Church in Simi Valley, California. Crazy Love, published in 2008, sold over 2 million copies, followed by Forgotten God and Erasing Hell. By the time he left in 2010, it was a 4000-member megachurch, and by some accounts, a cult. He is Chancellor and Founder of Eternity Bible College. He has spoken at major conferences to tens of thousands, and he now leads We Are Church, a San Francisco-based network of house churches. His ideas have reached so many people.
Other than other Christians put off by Chan’s radicalism, I have not found any articles about how Crazy Love hurts. No one is talking about it. So I’ll start. I invite you to follow along. And, maybe, talk a little about it too.
I’ll try to post one chapter a week, 10 in total. And all of them, I think, are just already-toxic ideas and tendencies in conservative Christianity taken to the extreme.
Francis Chan’s book is a perfect example of so many of the more “mainstream” Christian ideas that hurt human self-esteem, minds, and hearts. And I mean to drag every one out into the open.
So, here we go. This is Crazy Love.