There’s a book on my shelf called The God That Failed. It’s filled with dense, barely-readable essays by European scholars who grew disillusioned with Communism and left it for greener free markets. There’s a book right next to it that might as well be called The Church That Failed. But it isn’t. It’s Shane Claiborne’s latest, The Irresistible Revolution: Living as an Ordinary Radical.
Shane Claiborne lives in community at the Simple Way in Philadelphia. It is an experimental community in the most impoverished area of town. They serve food, give clothes, send out newsletters, and get arrested; but they mostly love people and try to follow Jesus.
Shane seeks to take Christianity back to its root, a word he is quick to say is a definition of â€œradical.â€ He searches his way back towards Jesus and the early Church, back towards Scripture itself. But, unlike so many other books, this is not a quest through words, where definitions and contrasting views guide the reader, with just enough cute stories to prop up the lifeless pauses in between. This is a journey illustrated by the experiences of Claiborne himself, from his college days up to his latest adventure in poverty. And his stories aren’t cute. They make you laugh, make you think, make you hurt, make you cry, but they certainly aren’t something you can dismiss by calling â€œcute.â€
This is not a book, but rather a light which shines from the parts of life we have forgotten and left behind. Claiborne reports from where he lives, worlds away from where most of us have ever been, even if we live only blocks away. He humbly presents every reader with a tale easy to read only in its diction, never its content.
More importantly, this is not only a book of personal experiences. Shane Claiborne is not seeking to be a spiritualized Dave Sedaris. He is not even keeping the profits from his book, choosing to give them away instead. The point of this book, the desire of this book, is that we would read it and think. That we would change the way we live our lives. That we would join in the life of Christ, not simply sit on the sidelines and wait for some piety in the sky.
Reading The Irresistible Revolution, it is tempting and all too convenient to write Claiborne off as little more than an angry liberal. He’s someone who loves a simple Jesus and crudely pastes a social agenda on top of the Kingdom of God. Unfortunately, he actually lives the Jesus so many of us do little more than spit out cute phrases about. That twinge we feel when we read about how our fixation on â€œcontextâ€ effectively emasculates every hard saying of Jesus or that we must be involved in social work is not our conservative radar going off and warning us of impending heresy. Far more often than not, it is nothing more than our own selfishness dressing up in the clothes of God.
Claiborne overflows with an evangelical obsession with Christ and the things of God along with the ethical conscience and socially broken heart of Che Guevara. He straddles both worlds efficiently, but stops short of going too far in either direction and ending up with a â€œnice manâ€ Jesus or a fundamentalist Christ. And it is precisely this balance which is the least appealing to us. We want to hear what makes us feel good, what lets us know that we have supported the right side all of our lives. We don’t want to know that most of the world lives on the equivalent of $.36 a day. We don’t want to hear about the rich American segment of the body of Christ gorging itself on materialism and money while the rest looks on from the brink of starvation. We don’t want the hard sayings. But that’s what the middle is . . . hard. And Shane Claiborne tells it from pretty close to dead center.
In one of the most compelling chapters, Claiborne speaks of how he went to Iraq on his own personal mission of peacekeeping. He visited churches in Baghdad, played soccer with neighborhood children, prayed with far too many grieving mothers of other children. He speaks about how, time after time, he was asked why the American church so strongly supported a war that has had such a damaging effect on civilian life with the death toll approaching 10 civilians to every 1 armed death, soldier or civil warrior. Regardless of our own personal opinions of the legality of the war, the efficacy of the troop surge, or the importance of freedom, Claiborne brings up an issue most of us seldom take the time to think of. And in doing so, he makes his most powerful point of the book without having to say another word. An American Jesus is no Jesus at all. An American Saviour can’t save a thing.
Some will see this book as fresh air in the failing lungs of American Evangelicalism. Some will see it as liberal trash, saying we need more of the world in our faith and more of Marx in our government. And so, at it’s very worst, this book leaves the Church waving Communism’s red flag, but any color is better than the white flag we’re showing now.