Book Review - Irresistible Revolution by Shane Claiborne

I picked this book up because my friend Seth asked me if I had read it, and if so what I thought. At the time I didn't really know anything about the author, Shane Claiborne. In fact I had only heard of him from a couple youth pastor friends who had seen him speak at youth ministry conferences, and they basically said he was an edgy dude who lived in some sort of inner city commune and talked about being a serious Jesus follower. Sounded like a Jesus hippie to me -- I figured he was part of the emerging church movement and didn't think much else of it, until I got Seth's e-mail.

The length of this post is due to the way the book pleasantly surprised me. My assumption when I started reading the book was that I'd like a lot of it and not like a lot of it. I figured that, like many emergent guys, he'd be asking a lot of good and needed questions about the apathy of the American church. But I also assumed he'd proffer some dubious and typically-emergent answers, such as downplaying the study of orthodox theology and questioning whether anyone could know truth. I planned on being about 50/50 on what he was saying.

Well, it turns out he does live in a commune. But to my pleasant surprise, I ended up being about 80/20 on what he says. Really. (Don't worry mom: I got through my Berkeley years without joining a hippie commune and I'm not about to move your grandchildren into one now...)

The book (in a really small nutshell) is an attempt to wake up an affluent, apathetic American church and call her to a lifestyle of serious Jesus-following. He makes several different points in support of that goal using lots of stories from his personal journey interspersed with some free-flowing pontificating-on-paper. I won't recount all of his arguments (he already wrote the book, so I don't need to do it again!) but the core principle is to call Christians to a lifestyle of "radical love" which Claiborne sees as the only Jesus-ordained way to change the world. He's real big on Tony Campolo, Ghandi, Martin Luther King Jr. and Mother Theresa, and he's real not-big on George W. Bush, Marketing-driven evangelical mega-churches and Pat Robertson. Come to think of it I'm not a big fan of the last two myself, even though I don't really go in for everyone on his list of heroes.

What I like
There's a lot of detail I could agree and disagree with, but I think the book's main strengths boil down to three major ideas.

First, unlike the worst of emerging church voices, Claiborne still takes the Bible seriously. I can't tell you how refreshing this was to see, and it allowed me to take his ideas more seriously than I would have otherwise. I could let his ideas challenge my own understanding of the gospel and agree or disagree with his perspective as with a brother in Christ, fellow truth lover and follower of Jesus. This was a way different experience than reading the postmodern nonsense that spews forth from some Emergents.

Now, his book does strike me as just a bit selective with Scripture. He's quick to quote any passage that speaks of liberating the poor and the oppressed, to the point where there wasn't much other Scripture quoted that I recall. To be fair though, that is essentially the thesis of his book and one can never say everything in a single volume. And there is a lot of scripture that speak of not befriending (or becoming) the oppressive rich & powerful. I also liked the fact that he didn't only quote from the gospels and the words of Jesus, as some Emergent guys are wont to do. Whether one arrives at all the same conclusions as Claiborne or not, one has to give him a lot credit for not losing a high view of Scripture as he re-thinks the American Christian life. I almost screamed in shock and joy when he said the way to correct bad theology isn't with no theology, but with good theology.

Second, Claiborne works hard at maintaining and conveying humility. This is no small feat in a book that aims to prophetically criticize much of church life. For instance, he admits at one point that he got caught up in the "rage against the machine" liberal activist culture which thrives on anger and hubris. He eventually recognized that arrogance can never undo arrogance and disowned his angry liberal activism for something more mature. Kudos to him for not only learning the lesson, but trying to teach it to others. He's still involved in more protesting and confronting than I personally care for, but this feels like a difference of emphasis to me rather than a completely different mentality. And while it's pretty obvious that he thinks more Christians should do what he's doing, he doesn't come out and say that we're not serious Christians if we don't.

One more thing I liked, and which I think is the most important contribution in this book, is the way he links reaching out with relationship. I think this is huge, and I've come to completely agree with him here. The idea is that our philanthropy and charitable giving are often mediated by massive public and private institutions, so when we give we often never see or know who is being helped. But when we spend time with the poor, the oppressed, and the washed-up we learn their story and come to see them as human beings made in God's image (which they are) rather than as losers and statistics (which they're not). The hooker working the corner, the addict and the abuser are the ones Jesus sent us to love and preach the gospel to. When we take the time to build relationships in this way, helping "the poor" becomes helping Joe Donatello, Mary Sanford, or her kid Jessica. Grace becomes personalized.

This is how generosity works, by which I mean it's far easier to get people to part with their money for the good of others when they know the "others" who are being helped. For example, we've sent about 10 people from our church to Boma, Sudan over the past year to help build and operate a school among other things. My good Kenyan friend Rosemary Khamati from SEA Partners recently came to Harvest and told us of some of the clothing needs for the school kids in the cool rainy weather. After her presentation I overheard one of the past team members tell Rosemary that no matter what the funds would be raised, and this lady had a determined fire in her eyes when she said it. Did this fire come from a general "bent toward philanthropy" or from being goaded to give by one of my amazing sermons on money? No way. It came because this woman has been to that school and has loved, served, and taught those kids herself. Relationship produces a Jesus-honoring desire to part with our own money for the good of others.

A Swing And A Miss
One thing I think Claiborne whiffs on is capitalism. He's not super clear on his vision for global economy, and seems to lump all economic systems together. At one point he declares he's neither capitalist or socialist, but after reading his book I have no idea how he sees the big economic picture; he doesn't explain how he thinks it should work. Now to be fair to Claiborne, many much smarter people than he (and than I) have fundamentally missed the essential genius of democratic capitalism including most of the people he's read and been mentored by. It's an easy mistake to make when so many intellectual voices shout down the perceived evils of the "greedy system." I hope some day Claiborne picks up a copy of Michael Novak's The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism which is an unfortunately difficult read that nonetheless contains a better view of reality.

Claiborne is extremely concerned about the plight of the world's poor, and rightly wants to live a life that loves them in Jesus' name. But it is too easy to decry the gap between rich & poor, as he does many times in his book. This simplistic look at the world's economy is not entirely off base, but it misses a much deeper and more important point: both the rich and the poor have been getting richer in the West because of one system: democratic capitalism. For example, Novak notes that in non-capitalist France during the 1780's, 4 out of every 5 families devoted 90% of their income to buying bread - and only bread - to stay alive. And French life expectancy in 1795 was roughly 25 years. Compare this to capitalist England which saw real wages double between 1800 and 1850 and again between 1850 and 1900, all while the population was increasing. Here's the point: anyone interested in seeing poverty driven back should be interested in capitalism, for as Novak puts it "after five millennia of blundering, human beings finally figured out how wealth may be produced in a sustained, systematic way."

The key insight is that democratic capitalism is the only political/economic system that respects the beautiful human spirit created in the Image of God - that's why democratic capitalism works. Claiborne misses this point, but again in fairness so do a lot of people. Capitalism entices creative people to create, innovative people to innovate, and as a result wealth is created and even the non-innovative and non-creative benefit. Is the world's wealth distribution sick? Of course it is. But what democratic capitalism needs is a strong moral vision for life that provides guidance and moral backbone to its wealth-creating potential. And Christians are well suited to provide such a moral vision. In fact that vision is precisely what Claiborne's book is all about, and his stories are quite effective at getting it across. This makes his predictable criticisms of wealth inequality a double shame because his vision contains the seeds that made capitalism thrive in the first place, and which can make it do so again to the benefit of all. We Christians should be urging a moral vision onto capitalism, so that more wealth can be created and better distributed to alleviate the suffering of the world's poor. Claiborne seems to get the latter point, but he misses the former point altogether. A couple examples from his book come to mind, but this post is getting long already and I don't want to risk sounding more critical of the book than I actually feel.

Concluding Thoughts
In fact I'm much more high on this book than I thought I'd be. It was useful to have read it while in the midst of Novak's book, and right after I had finished David Wells' The Courage to be Protestant. I think orthodox protestant Christianity needs a new/old vision moving forward: new in the sense that it should be different from the big-ticket, me-centered world of Marketing mega-churches, and old in the sense of being grounded in the theological orthodoxy and redemptive vision that has characterized the Christian faith for millennia. I don't personally think Claiborne has all the answers (he probably doesn't think so either) but I do think he has a different enough perspective to jolt the church into asking some big (and good) questions, yet orthodox enough to be worth listening to. He did so for me.

Good job Shane!


Anonymous said...

hey Matt! Thanks for the great review. I just re-read this book a few weeks back. I also appreciate Shane's emphasis on relationship and living out our theology. Your thoughts on how capitalism fits into that picture are helpful for me...I hadn't gotten that far in my thinking, but was applying it more to the "personal" economy of our home, which is, of course, connected to the bigger economy out there. Thanks for reviewing this book, and I'll add my recommendation to yours.

Matt Guerino said...

Thanks Karina! I really appreciate your mind and the way you've put some of this book's ideas into practice in your own home. You and Dan always make me think and I really value that.

I think you make a valid point in that Shane doesn't really address the larger issue of world economy much at all, except to throw a few critical barbs at it. The book's focus is generally much more personal and "micro-level." That's fine as far as it goes - one can't cover everything in a single book. But for someone as concerned about alleviating poverty on a vast scale as he is, I hope he thoroughly thinks through the economic systems question at the global level. He seems smart enough to do so.

Linda said...

Hi Matt,

Did you get my email replay the other day? I didn't hear back from you, so I wondered if it's floating out there in cyberspace somewhere...

Cool blog.
Linda D

Anonymous said...

Can you provide scripture that supports capitalism? Or, what a pure form of capitalism looks like? I would like to learn how to justify what i participate in because i feel guilt for what capitalism has done to the world and my own life. I have trouble believing this is what Jesus was encouraging when he said love your neighbors. I just want to know how to exploit my neighbor, but justify it through scripture.

Matt Guerino said...

Hi "Anonymous"! :)

The focus of the Bible is redemption of the entire created order, by redeeming creation from sin through Christ. The focus isn't on the details of what social structures will look like once they're redeemed (though the Bible does say some things about that, that's not the emphasis). Consequently there is no single verse or passage one can quote that says free-market capitalism is the way to organize an economy rather than European-style democratic socialism or communism.

What we DO find in the Bible however is the framework for thinking accurately about all such issues, and that framework is the Gospel itself. The important thing to note, I believe, in thinking Biblically about whether capitalism is good or bad is to listen to the Bible's explanation of where the problem lies. Scripture makes this enormously clear: the problem with the world lies in the human heart. It is sin, and specifically it is our innate bent to reject God and live for ourselves. This produces greed, narcissism, and destruction in human relationships.

To be brief I think two important lessons come from this, one negative and one positive:

1) If we're thinking biblically we will NEVER say "Capitalism caused a lot of pain in the world." We will say "SIN has cause a lot of pain in the world." You see, the Gospel tells us the problem isn't really the structure in a given economy that's to blame for pain, but rather sin and selfishness. People have a natural tendency to blame the system ("We need more laws! We need more regulators! We need a better system!") when something goes wrong. Now maybe some of these systems do need to change, but the real problem lies elsewhere. Blaming systems is an external solution to what the Bible says is a fundamentally internal problem: sin in the human heart. Consequently, all such discussions devolve into power grabs, and lead to tyranny. Which leads me to the positive...

2) Capitalism is the best economic system the world has ever seen at honoring the Image of God in every human being through the provision of opportunity, the encouragement of innovation and creativity, and the recognition of ownership of physical and intellectual property. Because of this the human spirit thrives under this system. That's why capitalism is the ONLY economic system in human history under which wealth has been created in a large, systemic way. Don't let "Western guilt" syndrome prevent you from seeing the immense good that capitalism has done for the poor - just compare the poor of today's USA with the poor from today's Nairobi.

Capitalism has been used by many sinners to wreak great havoc on other people, and this should be condemned and opposed by us all. But capitalism is not the problem, nor is socialism the solution. Sin is the problem, and Christ is the solution.

More could be said about the Biblical injunction to love thy neighbor, but this is long enough already. Maybe in another comment!

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