Shane Clairborne’s Irresistible Revolution is a provocative read, to say the least. Clairborne belongs to what has been called “the new monasticism.” He’s one of the founders of The Simple Way in Philadelphia, a group of “ordinary radicals” seeking to live the life of Christ in a culture that desparately needs a counter-cultural alternative to the predominate ethos of both the world and (unfortunately) the church.
Bonhoeffer once suggested that the future of Christianity will find its vitality in a new monastic expression. Flannery O’Connor onced wondered aloud whether a Protestant monasticism would be possible at all. Clairborne obviously agrees with Bonhoeffer and would answer “yes” to O’Connor.
I suppose it would be easy to write off Shane Clairborne at first glance, but I’d argue that doing so would be a naive and sad example of judging a book by its cover. He’s young and he has dreadlocks. His two books are intentionally designed to look like they were pieced together by a 1st grade class. So, as I say, it would be easy to look at these things and write Clairborne off.
If you’re tempted to do so, let me say this: don’t.
Clairborne is not, of course, without his problems. It’s one of the refreshing points of the book that he doesn’t mind saying so himself. He comes across as genuine. He’s a provocateur, to be sure, but there’s a meaning to the madness, and there’s a great deal of thought behind the shock value.
To be sure, Clairborne offers the occasional eye-rolling moment: his statement that he used to be really opposed to abortion and homosexuality…and that he’s still opposed to abortion (the silence, I suppose, is supposed to be tantalizing). He quotes Crossan’s work on empire, noting that Crossan is indeed provocative, but that he’s not personally interested in getting into those controversial points. Fair enough, I guess, except that Crossan’s theological quirks include the belief that Jesus did not rise bodily from the dead and that his body was likely eaten by dogs. (Please note that I am NOT suggesting Clairborne believes the same. In fact, I expect he does not believe the same. It’s just the tendency of guys to quote left from heretics that gets a bit…whatever.)
But Clairborne needs to be heard. I would suspect that Clairborne’s proposals of simple living, breaking free from the consumer culture, peace, and radical, literal enactments of Scripture would free my own denomination (the SBC) from the decline that it finds itself in. In fact, I think that the SBC is in prime need of a new monasticism of the type that Clairborne et al. are living out.
There are genuine moments of conviction here that need to be heard and pondered. His trip to India and time spent in the leper colony was powerful (especially his observation that many lepers don’t know the words “Thank you” because they’ve never had occasion to use them). The Jubilee on Wall Street was brilliant and genuinely prophetic, and what these guys are doing in Philadelphia and beyond is not only worthy of emulation, it’s profoundly biblical.
There’s a part of me that wants to dismiss Clairborne, but there’s a much bigger part of me that is frightened of what will happen if I do. What happens, for instance, when a person or a people scoff off the literal imitation of Christ in favor of their own middle-class churchianity? What happens, for instance, when we truly reach the point of flipping past the poor on our TV screens without seeing in them not an opportunity for philanthropy but the presence of Christ himself? What happens when we uncritically applaude the war machine without weeping over the loss of life that war brings?
Shane Clairborne has his critics. His politics have been called simplistic and his pacifism has been called naive. His theology is occasionally messy and he is in desparate need of a haircut.
But Shane Clairborne would like to follow Jesus: seriously and radically.
I’m not suggesting that the rough edges are not important. I’m just suggesting that Shane Clairborne, and what he’s doing, is.