shane claiborne's the irresistible revolution

"Have you read Claiborne's book yet?"
Finally, I am able to respond "Yes".

There is a lot to like about this book.

1. There is that title. Ever since I read David Wenham's The Parables of Jesus: pictures of revolution twenty years ago I have been partial to the use of the word 'revolution' as a contemporary equivalent (roughly) to Jesus' idea of the 'kingdom of God'. A bit militaristic but... Wenham writes of the "excitement of Jesus' message. He was announcing a dramatic forceful change in society to people who really longed for such a change" (Wenham, 23). Claiborne captures something of that excitement so well in his book.

2. He strikes so many prophetic blind-spot-exposing notes in what he writes.

His plea for a fresh generosity with a commitment to hospitality because "redistribution springs naturally out of rebirth (163)." We still need the wealth-creators. It is the distribution of that wealth that needs addressing.

His courageous and perceptive exposure of the priority given to patriotism in the USA, as seen in things like the American flag at the front of churches. That has always seemed odd to me. That "messy collision of Christianity and patriotism that has rippled across our land (197)." He writes of the need to see the church develop a sense of being one family "without borders". He resists speaking of the church as plural - only as singular (which is, of course, one of the striking things about 1 Peter 2). Terrific stuff.

Chapter 12 is entitled "growing smaller and smaller until we take over the world". His critique of BIG things carries weight for me. He is onto something that needs to be heard. This is why for ten years I have never asked a pastor how many people there are in his/her church. Not that numbers do not have their place, but such talk immediately prejudices the subsequent discussion in unhelpful ways.

I think his passing critique of Wheaton College - where many of my own in-laws went to school - is not unfair and he seems to want to be critical of Willow Creek, but can't quite pull-the-trigger (because he has too many valued relationships in the organisation, I suspect). But he still manages to explode a few bombs around seeker-sensitivity (104-106)!

3. Then there are some profound contributions to my understanding of different issues. For example:

Holding the tension of dignity and depravity in our self-understanding. "Some of us have been told our whole lives that we are wretched, but the gospel reminds us that we are beautiful. Others of us have been told our whole lives that we are beautiful, but the gospel reminds us that we are also wretched (245)."

There are 'activists' among the social justice circle; there are 'believers' in the church circle - but what is needed are "lovers" of people.

The inner city may have its crime, but let's not forget that "the suburbs are home to more subtle demonic forces - numbness, complacency, comfort - and it is these that can eat away at our souls (227)." Brilliantly said.

His call for the use of the imagination, his desire to see vocation redefined, his maintenance of the attack on dualism in the church, his stopping short of rubbishing the church ("we mustn't detach from the church in a self-righteous cynicism" (354)). It is all good stuff. Yes, I really liked the book. If I am honest, I liked it more than I expected.

There is some stuff that leaves me a little cautious as well

1. Claiborne admits that this is a 'book of stories' and that he is writing autobiographically. That's fine - but when he is so good at it, he needs to take care. There is an awful lot of Shane in this book! Not sure that heroes of his like Bonhoeffer - and maybe even Mother Teresa - would write like this. While I do not doubt for one minute that he is a deeply committed follower of Jesus, impressionable readers with less maturity are in great danger of becoming disciples of Shane, rather than Jesus primarily, after reading this book. It doesn't surprise me that he tells a story about being caught up at one point signing autographs for younger people. He writes in a way that attracts that kind of celebrity status from the young.

I've watched this sort of communication impact young people here in NZ for thirty years. It is a frequent feature at Easter Camps and Parachute Music Festivals, for example. Inspiring personal story-driven messages that seem to display more confidence in the speaker's own story than in the story of God and Jesus as revealed in the Bible. The fruit of this can be seen in the struggle we have had creating mature disciples among the young who can prevail beyond the time when the inspiration runs out. For three decades I have grieved the lack of confidence in the Bible among so many of our youth ministries... In Claiborne's next book I'd love to see him base what he says more in the Bible, with his own story being illustrative of what he is revealing from the Bible, rather than the other way around.

2. I have some suggestions of where his engagement with the Bible could be deepened! This book was crying out for some Ecclesiastes. On page 225 I was sure he was going to jump across to Ecclesiastes 11. It would have been so compelling in his gifted word-making. At numerous times I was sure he was going to touch down in Ecclesiastes 4. I missed him unpacking the passages in the Epistles that so deepen our understanding of what it means to be church. And then when he writes about complacency in the suburbs - please, please, please take us to the post-exilic prophets (Malachi, for example) for whom this was their message. But no - each time I was left really disappointed.

3. I love his Marks of a New Monasticism. I do love what is there - but I am a little concerned about what is not there. Our understanding of the gospel needs to be truly wholistic and not one with holes in it. Never assume things, or else they will tend to be forgotten by those who follow. There is such a danger today to underplay the importance of sharing Jesus with people using words. For example, when Jesus mourned over Jerusalem at the end of Matthew 23, it was not because the city of Jerusalem was beginning to slip into nearby Gehenna, an environmentally-unfriendly wasteland. Nor was it because the people of Jerusalem were oppressed and impoverished, even though they were. Jesus was mourning because they had rejected him and they were lost until they found him, enabling him to be to them "as a hen gathering her chicks under her wings" (Matt 23:37). That is why Jesus mourned. Creation care and/or caring for the poor is not the full gospel. Lost people were remaining lost...let's never lose sight of the need to be introducing people to Jesus.

4. We need to respect the political-religious-cultural context of the American church in which Claiborne is writing (not too many of those websites at the end escape the USA!) and discern the ways in which it is different from what churches in other countries confront. Claiborne is rightly pushing back at a church with power and wealth far beyond what we find in any other country in the world. That needs to impact the way we read his book sitting elsewhere in the world. And if the church is one (singular) church, I reckon there's plenty to be learned from our brothers and sisters in the Majority World of Africa, Asia, and Latin America.

That'll do. I enjoyed the book. It provoked lots of reflection. I am praying that God will keep and protect Shane Claiborne, continuing to deepen his insights into the gospel for the benefit of us all.

nice chatting



Dale Campbell said…
cheers for the review, Paul - that one's been sitting on my shelf for about a year and I've not got to it yet (though Di enjoyed it).

I've also got his 'Jesus for President', which you may like just as much or more? Perhaps more of a historical/biblical approach?
Buddy said…
What good timing! I've been reading this book for the last couple of weeks, and was planning on mentioning it to you when I was finished. Thankfully you beat me to it!
I'm going to be using this book as a required reading for my high school leadership team this fall. I'll have to update you on how they respond, and what kind of discussions the book brings up.
Rhett said…
I haven't read this book, but I feel like I've read more than enough of this KIND of book ;-). But hey, if you found it surprisingly good I may have to give it a go.

One paragraph grabbed me: "There are 'activists' among the social justice circle; there are 'believers' in the church circle - but what is needed are "lovers" of people."

... This is good stuff. Tim Keller and Matt Chandler both go on about a similar thing. More and more it seems the church divides into two camps: the Gospel-at-ground-level folk who are about repentence and propitiation and substitution, and the Gospel-at-30,000ft people who are all about the Kingdom and recreation and social justice. I think a call for these things to be preached together is awesome, and I say this as someone who naturally leans towards the Gospel-at-ground-level.

...And just as an aside, the theme I went with for integrative seminar was the tension between dignity and depravity. I'm just glad I handed it in before this blog post!
Scott said…
"For we do not preach ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord" (2 Cor 4). It's a lesson we all need to learn I think.

Ironically, we can preach against the evils of 'dualism' and 'BIG' but still fall prey to a style of ministry which isn't shaped by the cross. I mean the sort of 'super-apostle' thinking that Paul addresses in 2 Corinthians, which tends to place our confidence in personalities, and success in this age (however it is we might define success). It was confidence in the foolish gospel and the resurrection hope which sustained Paul's life of sacrificial service. The question is whether this is behind the impetus for revolution' among NZ's youth.
Paul said…
Well, Buddy - work hard to see them become disciples of Jesus first and foremost. I know that states the obvious but...

And Rhett - I heard a guy called John Stott once asked "what is the area of truth most urgently needing to be opened up today?" ('today' being about thirty years ago but still seems to strike a chord) ... and you've probably heard me tell this one before ... and Stott responded with "teaching on what it means to be human". Keeping alive the tension in dignity and depravity is at the heart of that teaching. You are onto it!

[NB almost exactly ten years later I heard Gordon Fee asked the identical question and he responded 'teaching on what it means to be the church' ... there's something in that one as well]

Long live Integrative Seminar. One of life's most worthwhile purgatories and the most exciting and innovative piece of curriculum development of which I have ever been a part. Soak it up.
Rhett said…
Paul, it may take me a few weeks before I can get to the point where I can thank you :-).
Anonymous said…
At last!
Fletcher :)

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