Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Contemporary Christians—Red Letter Daze

Shane Claiborne & Tony Campolo, Red Letter Revolution: What If Jesus Really Meant What He Said?

Tony Campolo and Shane Claiborne need a new name to explain what kind of Christianity they believe. “Evangelical” and “fundamentalist” have accrued political baggage outside the faith. So they’ve selected “Red Letter Christians,” to emphasize the primacy of the words Christ spoke about how to live in the world. And they back that new moniker with a manifesto which I fear will talk past those who most need their message.

Conventional churches have hemorrhaged members for two generations now, as Christians, particularly young Christians, note the gap between the gospel message and how churches run. Youth admire the church of Acts 2 and wonder why it resembles so little the way we do church today. Some have responded by organizing their own intentional communities outside the standard denominations, to live out the words of Christ they so treasure.

Throughout his career as a public Christian, Claiborne has repeatedly quoted the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard: “The Bible is very easy to understand. But we Christians... pretend to be unable to understand it because we know very well that the minute we understand, we are obliged to act accordingly.” This has been the cornerstone of his public ministry. And he doesn’t just speak the words; they define his daily living.

Campolo, a scholar, and Claiborne, a community organizer, have gained acclaim from audiences who love Jesus but are bored of church. They have both garnered recognition for living out the Gospel: Campolo has challenged his church hierarchy by taking unpopular or controversial positions, while Claiborne has been jailed for feeding the hungry in violation of the law. I expected this book to be as robust as their reputations.

Instead, this book is really, really talky. Considering that these authors are famous for bold stances and undaunted actions, bolstered by their faith in a Christ who makes all things new, their exchanges in this book come across as windy, full of circumlocutions and intellectual jargon. Their strong actions don’t suit their prolix language. (Claiborne was Campolo’s undergraduate student, and this book has a distinct student-teacher texture.)

Not that they ever say anything out-and-out wrong. Time and again, I felt the surge of recognition when they voiced a concept I’ve long nurtured but couldn’t quite enunciate. They frequently put their fingers on the pulse of some omission I often excuse, or some justification I make to vindicate my sins. In terms of what they actually say, Claiborne and Campolo are not just right, they pierce my pretensions and hold me to account.

I just wish they offered the Reader’s Digest version, then explained what that means on the street. Reading this book, compared to Claiborne’s prior titles, feels like abstract criticism instead of lived theology. Up to now, he’s been all about how we live out the principles Jesus teaches in the Gospels. This time it feels like a question of how we talk about Jesus’ teachings, and the talking never quite resolves into anything concrete.

If I had to name the problem, I suspect this book lacks unifying vision. Yes, Campolo in the introduction holds forth on the importance of living out Jesus’ words, which I appreciate. But as a thesis, it’s thin. I don’t want to know how somebody, somewhere, could live out Jesus’ words. I want to know how I could live them out, on the streets where I live, in today’s world, without compromising Christ’s mission.

Claiborne has written extensively about Christianity as a lived principle. Books like The Irresistible Revolution and Becoming the Answer to Our Prayers took me by surprise, forcing me to reevaluate dull theological precepts I’d long taken for granted, emphasizing faith as action, not intellectual precept. These books shook me to my core, which explains why he’s so popular with Christians my age and younger. (Campolo I know only by reputation.)

So imagine my frustration when I opened this book, only to find two Christians of such storied reputation engaging in “dialogues” that consist mainly of them discoursing at one another. Their long passages, barely held to any recognizable thesis, read like rough drafts for dissertations they have yet to write. Though their theology is sound, it all feels very high-minded, without the lived practicality for which both authors are known.

I like this book’s premise. But Claiborne, at least, has done much better. Christians, especially young Christians, cry out today for a bold, muscular theology. But this sprawling would-be manifesto is flabby and vague. Check out Claiborne’s prior books, which fulfill this one’s promise.

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