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Book Review – The Irresistible Revolution

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Love him or hate him, it is tough to accuse Shane Claiborne of being an armchair quarterback. He is not a man who seeks to convince people to do something that he is unwilling to do himself. Instead he calls Christians to live as radicals while he himself lives in a radically counterculture way. Claiborne is one of the founders of The Simple Way, a small but increasingly high-profile ministry among the poor in Philadelphia. He lives here in poverty, choosing to spend his days with the poor and the destitute, serving them and sharing in their trials. The Irresistible Revolution is Claiborne’s biographical account of how he became the activist he is today and it is his cry for other Christians to become “ordinary radicals.”

Much of The Irresistible Revolution revolves around Claiborne’s journeys to India, where he spent several months working with Mother Teresa, and Iraq where he came face-to-face with the devastation caused by the war in that nation. As his story has been told, Claiborne has become a kind of folk hero and especially so among young church-goers. They see in his life a way of living out Scriptural principles; they are swept away by it. A skilled writer and storyteller, Claiborne uses the book to teach some foundational ways of living life and understanding the Bible. This book is a quick and enjoyable read. Much of his critique against the North American church is accurate and even necessary. He is right that the church has become apathetic and at times overly politicized. In many churches there is far more heat than light; in many more there is neither heat nor light. His concern for those who have little or no voice in society is much needed. But even though some of what he teaches is biblically sound, underlying the book are many foundational assumptions and doctrines that are patently unbiblical and that undermine the message he seeks to share. I would like to point out just a few examples.

Claiborne advocates a kind of spirituality that is far more Mother Teresa than Jesus Christ and as he does so reveals that he is willing to bend, break, stretch and pull the Scripture to fit what he needs it to say in order to support his desires. While idealistic and radical in his interpretation of the Christian Scriptures, he is remarkably naive (at least I hope it is naivite) about other religions. When in India he often heard the “mystical word namaste” whispered in his ear. He says the word means, “I honor the Holy One who lives in you” and then teaches a brand of pantheism that has more to do with Hinduism than with Christianity. “I could see God in their eyes. … I began to understand what it meant when the curtain of the temple was torn open as Jesus died on the cross. Not only was God redeeming that which was profane but God was settling all that was sacred free. Now God dwelled not behind the veil in the temple but in the eyes of the dying and the poor, in the ordinary and mundane, in things like bread and wine, or chai and samosas.” He says also, “As I looked into the eyes of the dying, i felt like I was meeting God. It was as if I were entering the Holy of Holies of the temple—sacred, mystical.” What word is there for this but blasphemy?

Claiborne is a pacifist, teaching in several places that there are is no such thing as just war or redemptive violence. That violence can in some instances lead to good is a myth, he insists. Though he is a pacifist, he often advocates a kind of civil disobedience that seems to be in direct contradiction to the Bible’s explicit teaching that all authority is God-given and that we are to submit to authority unless it commands us to do something explicitly forbidden by Scripture. Claiborne advocates a “greater good” philosophy of obedience that allows people to disobey the government or other authorities when they are acting in a way that seems unjust. Hence he will encourage homeless people to take over a building that is not theirs and stand with them against the authorities when they seek to remove them. Yet this raises an interesting contradiction. If in his worldview violence causes further violence, how can he permit and advocate disobedience as if this will not cause further disobedience? The book is rife with this kind of contradiction.

Not surprisingly, there are problems also with the message of this book. The message Claiborne teaches, preaches and models is not a gospel of salvation through the atoning death of Jesus Christ. It is not a gospel that saves souls as much as it is a gospel that brings wealth to the poor and sustains the health of the planet. These are good and noble ends, indeed, but they are not the gospel message; this is not the message Jesus came to proclaim and this is not the message of Jesus’ Apostles. It is not the primary message of Scripture. We may tend to the needs of the poor and join them in their suffering, but our foremost concern must be for their souls. And to care for their souls we must bring to them the good news that Jesus died for sinners just like them.

And it continues. The discerning reader will find here much cause for concern. Ultimately so much of what Claiborne teaches is utter folly, even if it does sound attractive. A review published just days before this one says it well: “His theology is an unbiblical and incoherent synthesis which might be described as popularized Christian anarchism for young, disaffected, middle-class Americans.” There is little that is radical in Claiborne’s message; we have heard it all before. Though we can appreciate his concern for the poor and for the destitute, we must insist that the gospel message—the message of Jesus’ atoning death for hopeless sinners like you and me—be the message that marks us as radicals in this world.

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