For a while now I have been hearing about Shane Claiborne and his radical, passionate call for modern Christians to get back to the root of the gospel message. I put his book on my (large) to-read list, but I was kind of afraid to start it. I knew it was going to challenge me, and I feared his reputation for a life we conservative-stoic types see as extreme, fanatical, and (frankly) nerve-wracking.
But I (eventually) dove in. I loved this book and hated it. It challenged me. I agreed with it and disagreed. I was shocked sometimes and usually came around to see Claiborne’s reasoning. I felt really conflicted, to be honest. It’s not often that I read something and feel so strongly inspired AND opposed. I came to realize by the end of the book that as this isn’t the holy scriptures I’m free to read his book and glean from it, reject it, or both. And that’s exactly what I did.
So here’s the story: After graduating from college with a degree in sociology and youth ministry, Claiborne went on to grad school, but found himself feeling disillusioned with “church as usual.” He spent some time with Mother Teresa and her co-laborers in India, and came back to intern at a well-to-do mega church in America. The whiplash made him sick as American excess and our profound blindness to it hit him right between the eyes.
I know this feeling. Sometimes I look at this country, or just at my own life, and I feel like a kid who got sick from eating too much candy. Everything is available to me, but nothing satisfies. I end up sick and obese from all the excess, yet stunted by the lack of nourishment in my life. In Claiborne’s words, “I read a study comparing the health of a society with its economics, and one of the things it revealed is that wealthy countries like ours have the highest rates of depression, suicide, and loneliness. We are the richest and most miserable people in the world.”
Claiborne and some like-minded friends began to research the gospel message, the early years of Christianity, and some of the great leaders of the past. They got involved with the homeless and other societal outsiders. They began living communally, like a big family. In this way they began to “bear one another’s burdens” (Galatians 6:2), and “love their neighbors as themselves” (Mark 12:31).
The book is full of passionate soundbites that resonate with a hungry soul:
“Rebirth means that we have a new paradigm of “us” and “them.”
“When we hear that “we” were attacked, do we think “we” the church or “we” as Americans? What is our primary identity?”
“Protesters are everywhere, but I think the world is desperately in need of prophets, those little voices that can point us toward another future. Some of us have spent so much time fighting what we are against that we can barely remember what we are for.”
I found the book inspiring, and thought-provoking. As I expected, I was challenged to evaluate my perceptions and priorities. But (don’t worry honey!) I’m not going to suggest we join a commune. Some of the practices, political and social activities, and anti-war/anti-death penalty ideas that Claiborne espouses in the book don’t sit right with me. I don’t think that the God who sent Israel into battle now thinks all warfare is sin. I don’t think that the God who declared the death penalty a fitting punishment in the Old Testament now finds it abominable. Are there unjust wars and wrongful executions? Absolutely. And we need to be active participants in the world to fight those injustices.
After finishing the book, I found that on the things that really matter – the gospel message, the commands of Jesus, and loving your neighbor, Claiborne and I are in agreement. In some of the tactical aspects, not so much. I see him like a modern John the Baptist. He’s out there in his crazy camel skin robes, eating a strange diet of locusts and honey, and crying “Prepare the way of the Lord!” I appreciate Claiborne (and John the Baptist) for their message, and if their tactics help spread it, I say go for it. But I’m called in a different way, just as Mary and Martha or the disciples helped spread the good news without the camel skins.
That’s a beautiful part of Christianity that we miss sometimes; we think there is just one right way to do things. We think we all have to meet on the same day, sing the same songs, and read from the same English translation of the scriptures. But God is not small, and He is not limited, and He is not manipulated by our human culture and tactics. As long as we are true to the scriptures and in an active, receptive relationship with Jesus, we can have different practices and politics. God doesn’t change, we do: our culture changes, our values shift, and we pick up and put down things that have very little to do with the core of who God is. The way “church” and Christianity were practiced when your grandparents were kids is different from the way we do things today, but God remains unchanged. The way they worship in faraway lands may be different from how we do it at our church, but God remains unchanged. The tactics Claiborne and his mates use to spread the gospel may be different from how I do it, but God remains unchanged.
I hope that makes sense. This post kind of strayed from a typical book review, but that’s the biggest message I got from really reading and digesting this book. God is the same yesterday, today, and forever. His word is true and it stands for all eternity.