I have been eager to tell you about a wonderful, fun, challenging, interesting and provocative book written by a young Christian who is getting some publicity these days; it is a guy we’ve come to know a bit, that we’ve heard of for several years, and are very encouraged to know of the release of his new book. Shane Claiborne is a hoot of a guy—radical in his commitment to evangelical social action, delightful in his lack of guile, inspiring in his show of guts and goofiness. I have a few reservations about the book, a pages-long backstory about my own journey (which I will try to tell only briefly) and more enthusiasm about selling this new book than anything that has come along in ages. It is called, if you don’t know, The Irresistible Revolution: Living as an Ordinary Radical and is published by Zondervan ($12.99.) This in itself is a story that is curious since most evangelical publishers wouldn’t risk telling the tale of a young man who lives with the poor, protesting the role of the military and who has been regularly arrested for nonviolent civil disobedience. Martin Luther King’s famous words to the more cautious status quo Reverends in his "Letter From a Birmingham Jail" are still pretty needed today, since most mainstream folks tell our idealistic social activists to cool down and go more slowly. I am overjoyed that Zondervan took a risk on this guy, and trust that the integrity and wholeness of Shane’s life, and the Biblical basis for his human rights activism, will become plain. For now, though, the release of this book is a huge thing. This is Zondervan, not Orbis Press! Shane came out of an evangelical Christian college, for crying out loud, not Oberlin or Koinonia Farms! He has spoken at Willow Creek! How did he even hear of the Berrigan Brothers at his college? That is itself quite a story. I thought we were the only bookstore in the world that carries Max Lucado and Ammon Hennacy; Chuck Colson and Howard Zinn; Rick Warren and Dorothy Day. But I’m ahead of myself.
Here’s the short, short version of this hard-to-put-down memoir (you will want to read the whole story in the book, of course, since I cannot do it justice here.) Young Shane was a Confederate flag-wavin’, football-playin’, Bible-believin’, good old Christian boy when he met Tony Campolo and other advocates for a Christ-centered, Biblically-based, evangelical radicalism. Care for the Earth, solidarity with the poor, a critique of the arrangement of power and privilege, combined with a deeper spirituality which took the Bible more seriously (he actually read the prophets and Sermon on the Mount, a rare thing in some evangelical circles) and which eschewed easy formulaic answers to tough social and theological questions. This, of course, led to an awareness of the church’s complicity in social sins of racism, classism, sexism, and consumerism. Heady and important stuff for a nice guy in his late teens.
And, so, he moves in with the poor, literally under bridges and on the back streets of Philadelphia, listened to Rage and Bob Marley, and there was no looking back. His story and understanding of how Christianity is meant to be lived is told here with great charity and clarity. It is a book that is on fire with good zeal and is wise beyond its years. The Irresistible Revolution is, in fact, pretty irresistible, and calls forth a desire to want to be more Christ-like, more prophetic, more engaged in the simple joys of trying to make the world a better place, in God’s own ways. It is, as I said, a book we are very excited about.
And–here’s the backstory for me–man-o-man, young Mr. Claiborne is a posterchild for what in the mid 70’s journalists were calling "the young evangelicals"—Jim Wallis, Ron Sider, Nancy Hardesty, Tom Skinner, Radix magazine, The Other Side community, counter-cultural evangelicals who came of age reading Jacque Ellul, William Stringfellow, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Albert Camus and Malcolm X and who insisted that the lack of a comprehensive social vision amongst soul-winning evangelicals simply wasn’t Biblical. I can’t tell you how proud I am to know of a guy like Shane, to tremble as I read his story, to laugh and shake my head, thinking this could have been me 35 years ago. I remember getting Campus Crusade for Christ classmates to read Martin Luther King, to pass out leaflets about the plight of farmworkers as we protested local grocery stores who supported agribusiness giants who wouldn’t give grape pickers a fair deal; it was a stretch to get them to even think about the aftermath of the Viet Nam war; I recall waving that first issue of The Post American with it’s controversial cover of a pieta wrapped in an American flag (Post American is now a considerably tamer mag called Sojourners.) I recall late night talks and prayer meetings–some held briefly in jail cells, I’ll admit—wondering where all this would lead. What does it mean to be one with the dispossessed, to try to build a new world, to be Christ’s agents of social transformation?
Shane has similar talks, but his are done more seriously than mine ever were: he literally has lived with the homeless (which brings to mind Brennan Manning’s stint as an anonymous prisoner in a Spanish jail so he could minister to the forgotten prisoners there.) Shane has huddled with Iraqi children as the bombs fell around them in Baghdad; he really lived in Calcutta for a while, hanging out with his new friend, who he affectionately calls "Momma T." And he still lives in an intentional community (a very important part of his story)–a good experiment for us until we moved here to open our store and adopted a more typical small-town lifestyle. You’ve got to read this book, and although it resonates deeply for me, to even suggest that this is the journey of Beth and I would be a significant overstatement. Still, we want you to know how much this means to us…if you trust our judgement about books at all, if you like our mix of flavors and perspectives here at Hearts & Minds, you should jump on this one right away. Get a few and give “Ëœem away. Beth and I are glad for witnesses like this, even it is not exactly our own. We hope God will raise up others with such energy for social change, for this particular gift into this particular lifestyle. If it inspires you even a little–to volunteer at the local battered women’s shelter, say, or to write to congress to protest social service cutbacks, to join a local group working against toxic wastes or suburban sprawl, if you talk more deeply with friends about community, if you give a bit more away and live on just a little less, then our cheerleading for this book will have been well worth it.
Happily, The Irresistible Revolution is not the kind of book that uses manipulation or guilt mongering. It is not harsh or self-righteous. It is informed by the personalism of St. Francis or the Catholic Worker founder Dorothy Day. He does tell of some pretty daring episodes of public witness, creative (and always nonviolent) civil disobedience, of actions to dramatize the call to repent. It is clear, though, that Shane is in love with Jesus, is a follower of Christ, and is generous towards His church. He is passionate about being a conduit of God’s love and is therefore gracious.
Years ago, Sojourners editor Jim Wallis–who writes a great forward to Shane’s book, where he calls it "the best evidence so far that a new generation of believers is waking up and catching fire with the gospel again"—wrote a very important piece warning of the dangers among "radical Christians" of a new legalism, a counter-cultural self-righteousness that measured faithfulness not like the old school which counted souls won or movies rejected or Bible verses memorized but a legalism nonetheless (how many protests, how many One bracelets, how much fair-trade coffee, how many anti-war bumperstickers, how much voluntary poverty…) Maybe you have not been drawn to circles where just such standards were held; maybe the More With Less Cookbook is not de rigour in your house church and ignoring the latest legislative update from Bread for the World brings you no shame.
That piece from Wallis left a major mark on my soul, remembering that we can all too often substitute one extreme for another, fall into a similar narrow-minded lifestyle and cramped imagination whether one is a rich Republican, a liberal democrat or a protesting "pox on both their houses" radical Christian. I say all this to note that Shane and his buds seem not to worry about this; his book is winsome and gracious and exciting. It is one of the most radical calls to Christian living I have read in years but it in no way made me feel inappropriately crummy. Crummy a little, maybe, but that may be called for. Apathy and distraction (Jesus called it, I believe, "the cares of this world") plagues many of our best intentions and this book’s irresistible call to a life lived with integrity and passion for justice may be just what the doctor ordered. It does not, though, intend to pound us into a new lefty legalism or shame us into giving away all our income. It is instructional and inspiring; prophetic and yet winsome.
And, The Irresistible Revolution is packed with stories. From the ways the Mafia helped them while encamped in a closed up church to his lavish Jubilee money give-away on Wall Street, Shane is a raconteur like his famous professor, Tony Campolo. Where does he get this stuff you will think as you wipe away the tears (from laughter or sentiment or both.) Preachers or campus ministers will find his illustrations custom-made for swiping (I am sure he doesn’t believe in copyrighting, so go for it!) and the story of The Simple Way is a great example to tell and point to. I recommend this book to anyone who wants to see what it might look like to live out radical discipleship in our broken world. And I recommend it to those of us who may feel stagnant in faith, perhaps on autopilot, committed yet complacent. You may not feel particularly called to resist materialism with such rigor and consistency. (I am not about to start sewing my own cloths as he does to avoid the problem of complicity in sweatshops.) We are deeply grateful to read and re-read his invitation to a genuine faith and an authentic church and pray that it creates communities who talk about this stuff, who free people up to take risks, who at least imagine that some of us are called to bold and robust and to zany efforts at protest and service. Rent the movie about Dorothy Day, Entertaining Angels (and especially enjoy Martin Sheen’s zesty portray of her mentor, Peter Maurin) and then think of Shane. I am confident that many of us will be helped to take more seriously the politics of Jesus even if we do not adopt his unconventional lifestyle.
I mentioned some reservations. After my full-tilt, utterly sincere recommendation—I really do hope this book sells well and that the publisher doesn’t regret investing in it— I wonder about the wisdom of trying to fine-tune my accolades. We want to do our part to get it out there and sell well.
(I sometimes wonder: is my column mostly a way to cheerlead for the many good books that are out there, or a space for critical discourse, like, say, Books & Culture or venues where one would just as commonly see a negative critique as a rave? I usually prefer to use my limited time and space to signal and suggest, celebrate and affirm.) Still, my respect for Shane, my appreciation for the Simple Way community, and my own somewhat similar journey to the one he tells here make me want to be fully honest in my appraisal. So, my friendly word-to-the-wise. Please buy the book, catch the irresistible call of Christ to follow with such abandon, and then think it all through with others…
My concern, for those who follow our Hearts & Minds BookNotes blog or who have read these monthly reviews, may be predictable. Shane seems to stand in the tradition of what one might call Christian anarchism. Like Dorothy Day or St. Francis, he calls for serving the poor while articulating orthodox, simple love for the gospel. He is nearly an evangelical Jerry Rubin—a Christian version of Wavy Gravy (if you don’t catch that reference, just skip it.) But that seems to me to be too simple. We need ordinary radicals, as he says. The gospel is revolutionary, this idea of a regime change on the planet. But ordinary radicals take up their subversive vocations and callings as artists and chemists, stockbrokers and storekeepers, IT techs and veterinarians, public health researchers and school administrators, stay-at-home dads and urban gardeners, farmers and poets, citizens and sports fans. They go to work in government and media and they serve God in science and schooling. Of course I am referring to those who are the likely market for this book—middle class folks who have the blessing of exploring careers and serving in various spheres in our (over?) developed Western culture, unlike subsistence farmers or refugees in the two-thirds world. And even here, nearby your home and mine, many are too poor or beaten down or confused to explore using their gifts in callings and careers.
Nonetheless, to bring true healing to our disordered society we need some of our best and brightest to not drop out and live with the homeless, but rather to infiltrate the corporations and think-tanks, research centers and engineering firms, political parties and school boards and hope to make an impact there. Like Daniel in Babylon—or like the critical letter Jeremiah sent to the first batch of exiles living in captivity there, famously recorded in Jeremiah 21—we are not called to resist our culture at every point or feel squeamish about taking up tasks within the empire. Shane would not disagree, I am sure, that we are to "seek the peace of the city" where we find ourselves. I think, though, that this means in our day, a renewed focus on the reformation teachings (nearly exquisite in Luther and Calvin) that ordinary folk serve God best in their workaday offices. We need to shout from the rooftops the mandate that Vincent Bacote has called "The Church’s First Great Commission" to steward the Earth and its possibilities. It is an emphasis that doesn’t come through in this book, rendering it, in my view, not too radical, but not radical enough.
God’s compassion for the poorest of the poor presents a moral imperative for us all. No one can claim to follow Christ and not love their needy neighbors (I still cringe and ponder how best to live out verses like I John 3:16-17 about sharing one’s assets.) Shane’s example in this is powerful and compelling. But I believe we must attend to re-thinking the foundations of our culture and strive to construe a Christian perspective across the history-forming, culture-shaping curriculum of colleges and universities. (College students are no more important to God’s heart, obviously, but there is little doubt that those preparing to enter strategic gate-keeping positions in socially-influential careers are called to broker those positions in Godly ways for the sake of justice and cultural reformation.) If we don’t raise up a generation of Christian scholars who will intentionally re-think "the social question" we will at best provide band-aids to gaping wounds.
As band-aids go, the Simple Way community, which Shane so colorfully tells of in The Irresistible Revolution, has come up with some pretty good ones. Shane’s attention to the prophetic tradition—protesting in the middle of the Republican convention, say, after sneaking in with a business suit reminds me of Jeremiah, to name just one Hebrew prophet who disrupted prestige events—has allowed him to make the move from offering safe charity to provocateur for social justice. The commitment to doing this together in concert with a community is instructive (even though I fear that monasticism–new or old–tends to pull people’s energies and visions away from the world.) Christians are called, as the Catholic Workers put it, "build a new world in the shell of the old" and young Shane would agree with Jim Wallis’ claim in the forward that faith is "always personal but never private." But what, exactly, does this radical, public discipleship have to say to the worlds of bridges and buildings, sonograms and catscans, garages and grocery stores, turnpikes and television studios, kindergartens and colleges, nursing homes and prisons, suburban sprawl or urban design…you get the picture. In such a complex world, where institutions and organizations and the built environment are shaped by philosophical (often idolatrous) ideologies, which then in turn shape the culture and those of us within it, we need a truly revolutionary revolution that encourages thinking that is, as Abraham Kuyper put it, "architectonic." The dream of God is to have Christ’s followers "in but not of" these fallen systems and committed to re-thinking things at the roots. The radix of "radical" is Latin for "roots." If we are going to be radical, we have to rethink the roots of our social structures; for instance, we must re-think the very theories of society and economics that have given rise to consumer capitalism, not just pick up the battered ones that are abused by that market-driven worldview. We need college professors and business folk re-imagining new models for economic development and how we actually do economics–from banking to business, advertising to questions of wage scales, corporate ethics and how we organize labor/management disputes, etc. etc.— all to the glory of the Christ who cares for the Earth and the poor. In every field we need vibrant Christians who have thought things through, read the literature, taken a stand and take up their role as subversives within the enterprises and institutions that form the webs of influence in the modern world.
Justice will flow down, in better streams, when everyone in the Body of Christ who is able lives with greater gusto an integrated faith that honors Christ’s way in every zone of life, connecting faith to redemptive practices in the workplace, marketplace, artistic culture and worlds of media and information and so on–obviously, also, in church and home. (In one of Ron Sider’s important books, Living Like Jesus, he says we need to think Christianly "in the bedroom and the boardroom.") What does Christian spirituality have to say to inform our use of computers? Our involvement with popular entertainment? Our relationship to political parties? Our duty to pay taxes and the privilege to help determine how they are best used, even at a local level? Our role in school districts? How ought we to think about nutrition and health-care, home building and heating, zoning laws about recycling and such? What does it mean, as one Christian book on new urbanism puts it, to build "sidewalks of the Kingdom"? When the Bible says to "take every theory captive" how does this impact our theories about work, technologies, efficiency, leisure? Could we imagine young Christian journalists making a redemptive impact at Fox news? Could evangelical leaders encourage young Christians to enter the highbrow world of contemporary art? What would it look like for a radical Christian to work to transform thinking in the science journals about genes and genomes?
Shane’s zany story about their great vehicle which runs on recycled grease that they get for free from fast food joints is a great example of how even his personalistic and anarchistic vision does lead The Simple Way to think through the vast implications of their revolutionary faith. They’ve come up with new car designs, for crying out loud, and are using even their transportation choices to illustrate a new world coming. He says, specifically, they we must "get beyond the rebellious and reactive counter-cultural paradigm." More practical stories like this, of positive initiatives and creative solutions to complex problems, are bound to be told by those who are invited to deeper discipleship by The Irresistible Revolution. This first book by young Shane Clairborne reminds me to live my all for Christ, to continue to seek God’s way in matters of relationships and community, and to always recall that the poor and oppressed are to be the first beneficiaries of our leavening influence within the institutions and bureaucracy of modern culture.
If this generous book makes anything clear to me it is that my convictions about the importance of the Christian mind, the need to attend to worldview formation, that lasting social change comes from within the structures of culture that have been disclosed in God’s world, must always be connected to those on the underside of such institutions. Marketplace ministries, academic discipleship on college campuses, Christian engagement with the arts, support for Christians in philosophy and academia as well as the move to dignify all common labor–street-sweepers doing their very best, as Martin Luther King put it—all of this must have some relationship to the call to justice, the mandate to be peacemakers, and the very overt teaching of Jesus about possessions and servanthood. And must have some relationship to joy. We want the revolution of God to be, after all, irresistible.
I thank Shane for his passion, his prayerfulness, his witness to the struggles of community and his bold willingness to get out there and do something important and joyful and hard and good with his life. I thank Zondervan for pushing out of their comfort zone within the evangelical bookselling sub-culture and publishing such a book. (I hope those of us that care buy it and tell others to buy it so it doesn’t languish unsold, making it that much harder for a shift within the evangelical publishing empires to imagine doing important and controversial books like this next time.) And I am thankful to God, that the Holy Spirit continues to draw folks into unique ministries that can inspire and motivate us all to live more faithfully. Some will–I hope!–drop out of their boring jobs or schools and form new ministries on the front lines of service. Others will read this book, disagree with much of Shane’s style and approach, but will still be inspired to give more away, to serve more caringly, to take faith more seriously. Agree with this book or not, nearly everyone who reads it will be glad they did. It will make you think, make you laugh, and, I hope, make you reflect and live differently. Shane is surely right that we need a revolutionary faith. And he is also right that this is, finally, an ordinary thing to do. Those that read this book may find the call of the Kingdom to be irresistible.
NEW IRRESISTIBLE TUNES FOR REVOLUTION
Three new albums that mean a lot to me are the perfect soundtrack to Irresistible Revolution. I have no idea if Shane likes this stuff (although I’d guess sp.) They are three releases that you really should know about and that we recommend. The first for the powerful social message, the second for the sheer artistry and excellent playing, and the third for the multi-cultural/poetic educational value.
Mockingbird Derek Webb (Provident) $13.97 This is, without a doubt, a signal sign within the sub-genre of contemporary Christian music, historic, even. There has never been a record so blunt about social justice, so passionate about God’s counter-cultural values, so clear that following Christ with integrity involves thinking about the arts, social change, contemporary issues. One song uses a recording of Martin Luther King, another asks about flags in our churches. Still another invites us not to simple or formulaic answers ("just tell me who to vote for", "just label my music") but to thoughtfulness and nuance. Acoustic singer-song writer with a bit of rootsy influence, this is a great, great disc. One customer recently told us how this one recording has driven him to explore the whole social justice tradition, and, inspired by these great tunes, bought–guess what?–Shane Claiborne. Natch.
Blues & Ballads Brooks Williams (Red Guitar Blue Music) $16.95 If you follow this column, you know that singer-songwriter Brooks is a friend of ours and a supporter of H&M. He played our "tenth anniversary gig" over a decade ago, and he’s shopped here often, when passing through this way. More importantly, he is truly the best guitar player I’ve ever seen. (His last all instrumental album, Guitar Player on Solid Air Records, is still in heavy rotation here in the shop.) Williams has gotten exceptional critical acclaim and we think he is the scene’s best kept secret. His playing is pleasant and smooth, he’s so incredibly talented that serious musicians adore him, and he is a very sweet singer making him a gracious interpreter not only of his own folksy ballads, but of traditional blues, world music, old jazz and a gumbo of fun and sometimes funny stuff. This new album is his long-awaited cover album, doing blues, jazz, bluesy Irish stuff and an interesting array of funky, archival stuff. He isn’t the kind of blues player, though, that brings you down, not gritty or gross. If it is possible, it can be said that this is an upbeat collection of blues. One highlight for me–and it should be for you—is his marvelously lovely remake of a very early Bruce Cockburn song, "One Day I Walk" where his guitar recording just pops with clarity and his bluesy vocal outdoes the original by a long shot. Support indie artists and order this today!
Out Beyond Ideas David Wilcox & Nance Pettit (What Are Records?) $17.98 We love the soft pop, James-Taylor-esque sound of this great lyricist and fine songwriter. For years we’ve been happy to stock all his stuff. This, though, is an unusual recording, a fund-raiser for the "songs for peace project" which benefits Partners in Conflict and Partners in Peacebuilding. These are acoustic-driven simple tunes that make songs out of prayers and poems, parables and stories from around the world. From Sufi prayers to Indian poems, these are rare glimpses into a common hope for faith-based peacemaking. Produced by Ric Hordinski, well-known not only for producing other Wilcox albums, but for his work with Over the Rhine. Very interesting.