In this book Shane Claiborne tells his story and makes a case for a different way to live as a Christian – the way of the “ordinary radical”. Whilst Claiborne has had a lot of contact with traditional evangelicalism, including an internship at Bill Hybel’s Willow Creek mega-church, he found himself disillusioned with the way that Christians have become conformed to the middle class, and wants to promote an alternative to the “religious right”, which he is strongly critical of.
His passions are obvious – he cares deeply for the poor, for social justice, for the environment and for pacifism. I felt the tone of the book was very positive – he writes with humility, and avoids sneering and hostility towards evangelicals (although I expect those who identify strongly with the “religious right” will not enjoy this book).
He tells of how as a young man he was introduced to a brand of Christianity that had plenty of “do not”s, but was left wondering what, if anything, Christians were supposed to do. A brief stint in the charismatic movement left him equally disillusioned. It was at this point that he began to get to know some homeless people, and soon befriended them. Chapter 2 tells a moving story of how he mobilised many people to prevent a group of homeless families from being evicted from a disused church building.
He then tells of his time with Mother Teresa, where he learned the importance of being faithful above being successful, and to do “small things with great love”. Most importantly, he learned to see the image of God in the poor. It was after his time with Mother Teresa that he headed back to Willow Creek, and found it hard to stomach the totally different culture. He offers a gracious yet provocative critique of the “seeker-sensitive” approach – arguing that when we remove the cross, we end up with cheap grace. He was also very concerned that our churches make it all to easy for rich Christians to not know any poor people.
The remainder of the book unpacks his vision for being an “ordinary radical”. It is not acceptable for Christians to live like everyone else. It is not acceptable for Christians to help the poor at arms length, via agencies of professionals. We need to be willing to get to know the poor, and “shout the gospel with our lives”. He makes some very good points about the significance of baptism and the nature of repentance – we have died to an old way of life – we need to continually live a new way.
He is particularly provocative concerning how churches spend their money. The early church considered their money to be primarily for the feeding of the hungry. They would even fast to enable themselves to feed the poor on occasions. He does not accept the claim that large churches are able to give more to the poor than the same number of people in smaller churches. Claiborne argues that rather than a prosperity theology on one hand or an ascetic poverty theology on the other, we should believe in abundance that is rooted in a “theology of enough”. He likes to quote the saying that God wants to meet our needs but not our greeds, and promotes living a lifestyle that is simple (though not easy).
A number of chapters touch on the subject of pacifism, and it is perhaps here that he will offend many American evangelicals. He speaks out against the “myth of redemptive violence” – the idea that we can bring peace through violent means. The gospel is something worth dying for, but nothing is worth killing for. He is respectful towards Christians in the military, but clearly would prefer them to find alternative employment. I felt that though he made many good points in favour of pacifism, I was still left wanting to know his response to some of the obvious objections that may be made. (Although to be fair, that was probably beyond the scope of this book).
He warns us against tiptoeing through life, avoiding danger and dares us to step out and take some risks on behalf of the poor and oppressed. He speaks out against being cool (which is a little ironic, since at the moment, he is the among coolest Christians out there, but he is at least aware of this irony, and clearly wishes he had fewer fans, and more people who shared his passion enough to actually do something).
I appreciated some of the insights in chapter nine – as humans we are beautiful and wretched at the same time. We cannot carry the cross and the sword. There is a tragic self-righteousness found on both liberal and conservative sides of Christianity, that must be overcome.
Chapter 10 is perhaps the most overtly critical of evangelicals, suggesting that most are following an opposite way to that of Jesus and calls us to be “extremists for love and grace”. There is a third way to approach suffering and evil in the world that is not passivity and is not violence.
He reminds us that the goal is not finding an “issue” to fight for, rather it is about connecting with, and caring for people. He regularly seems to get himself arrested for various protests and acts of civil disobedience, but he desires to be a prophet not a protestor. Like the Old Testament prophets, he certainly is provocative, shocking, controversial and more right than many of us might like to admit. I appreciated his defence of the concept of church towards the end of the book. For all its faults, it is still our family, and leaving it will not do us any good. The church is like Noah’s ark – it stinks, but if you get out you’ll drown.
So what did I make of this book? First of all, its very well written and accessible. He is humble, funny, interesting and inspiring as well as being provocative. Second, the things he is passionate about – ending poverty, social justice, peace, and care for the environment are all things that as evangelicals we should be more than happy to get excited about. In every evangelical church I have been part of, there have been many people who share these passions and are sacrificially involved in hands-on mercy ministries both locally and abroad. But the uncomfortable truth is that this is often seen as just a small part of what it means to be the church. It is far too easy to leave all that to the specialists and focus entirely on other concerns.
What about our favourite evangelical concern – good doctrine? Well Claiborne rather shrewdly avoids bringing up potentially explosive issues. He seems to take an ecumenical approach, clearly preferring orthopraxy to orthodoxy. But that is a debate for another day. The issues raised in this book are worthy of being taken seriously even if we suspect we may disagree with him on a whole host of other issues.
In a similar way to N T Wright and Rob Bell, he likes to define the gospel being a conflict between the kingdom of God and the kingdom of Caesar – Jesus versus the Empire. It does seem to me that certain anachronistic liberties are taken to squeeze modern day America (under Bush) into the image of the Roman Empire. I do agree with his critique of rampant nationalism within the church though.
I have a lot of sympathy for his criticisms of the seeker sensitive movement, and the way that our modern churches require huge sums of money to service their own running costs. Does this mean we should go back to house churches and non-salaried pastors and elders? I’m not sure it would be a bad thing. But equally, I wonder if we could find ways to spend less on ourselves and more on others (check out what Jared Wilson is doing at Element as an example).
Finally, this book cannot fail to inspire some reflection on what way you and your church can do more to advance the cause of the poor. He calls for imagination and tells many moving and powerful stories, but I suspect that many readers like myself will find themselves frustratedly wondering what the next step is. Not everyone can drop everything and head off to Calcutta on a whim. And not everyone has the infectious personality and creative imagination of Shane Claiborne. Many of us deeply want to see the poor welcomed in to our churches, but simply don’t know how or where to begin. I guess we need God to raise up prophets and creative thinkers within our local communities who will not just provoke and inspire us, but initiate and demonstrate ways of engaging with the poor and championing the cause of the oppressed.