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Where is the gospel?
on 23 February 2008
I should say at the outset, I think I'm out on a limb here. Everyone else seems to raving about this book. But I'm not so sure.
First, the good stuff. I think Shane Claiborne (SC) writes boldly and strikingly about various topics. Much of the book is a wake-up call for those who have got used to dull, timid, worldly, 'big', Christianity. He is immensely quotable: "Most of the time when I see Christian superstars like Jerry Falwell or Al Sharpton, I feel I'm watching professional wrestling. There's a lot of shouting and sweating, but the people seem too superhuman, and I'm not convinced all the moves are real." (p27)
He has some excellent material on the value of singleness. (p109-111) That's humbled me, and reminded me that I need to try to promote that in a Biblical way. Then there's some good stuff about the worthlessness of "cool": "...we must be either hot or cold, because if we are lukewarm (an old-school way of saying "cool"), we will be spit out of God's mouth"! (p230) There are lots of other helpful areas too, mostly only a few pages at a time.
He has lots of great stories, many of which would be excellent sermon-illustration material!
Now the bad stuff:
1) It's *very* Ameri-centric. Big chunks of the book are spent critiquing the Christian Right. Most of that didn't resonate with my experience of the Church in the UK. We don't do flags on the platform, singing anthems, rallying our troups into war or party politics. All that felt a bit meaningless to me as a Brit - who am I to criticise Christians living in another country and culture?
2) Because it's the experiences of a single guy, living in community, doing some wild and crazy things, I just don't see how much of what he says relates to me. I mean, I have a wife and 3 kids. I can't exactly move to Iraq for a while, or open up my house as a homeless shelter (not that I think there's nearly so much need here anyway - see point 1!). What he has effectively done is to abandon his entire culture. Now that's great for him, because he was in a position to do it. But the huge, vast, majority simply aren't. I'm not prepared to because I don't see that there's anything inherently wrong with having a house, or a car, or a job, or food. Parts of our culture are good (schools, hospitals, homes). If you want to live outside popular culture, fine. But I'd rather live out the Christ-life within it. Which is equally as difficult, and arguably more so. He's advocating a form of monastic asceticism that I'm not convinced is Biblical.
3) He redefines well-established theological terms. What he means by words like "evangelical", "conversion" and "gospel" are simply not the same as orthodox, Biblical, Christianity. For example: "Conversion is not an event but a process, a process of slowly tearing ourselves away from the clutches of the culture." No it isn't. Conversion has nothing to do with releasing oneself from the bonds of culture. It's the act of repentance and faith, when we repond to the gospel. Forgive me if I can't see the link between historic conversion and SC's. I suppose "sanctification" would be a more correct word for what he's talking about.
4) He caricatures the church.
"...if someone had a heart-attack on Sunday morning, the paramedics would have to take the pulse of half the congregation before they would find the dead person" (p43) OK, very funny. But certainly not my experience of good, Biblical, modern church. He gives the impression that churches are all navel-gazing, introverted, holy huddles with no interest or ability to communicate with the outside world. Well, again, there are loads of churches that care for the poor, the lonely, the disposessed. In Ipswich, UK, we have "Street Pastors" who are out in the clubs and pubs at the weekend, looking after the drunks and the dropouts; there is a pregnancy crisis centre, a drug rehab centre is soon to open. There's work amongst prostitutes and the homeless. We do care. Perhaps not enough, perhaps we could do with being better resourced. But we *are* trying to live out a life of faith in our culture, and it hurts a bit to be told we aren't.
5) He minimises the importance of theology:
"I learnt more about God from the tears of homeless mothers than a systematic theology ever taught me" (p51) Now, I know the guy is a firm post-modern and that post-moderns like stories more than facts etc etc. But, that kind of statement calls into question the whole value of theology. What did the tears of homeless mothers *actually* teach him? That sharing is good? That we should care for each other? Great - but not much about God. What can those things *possibly* teach us about God? We are made in his likeness, not he in ours. We don't learn about God by looking at fallen sinners (no matter how vulnerable or holy); we learn about God from the Word. SC has it the wrong way around.
Again, "When people ask me if I am Protestant or Catholic, I just answer 'yes.'. And when people ask me if we are evangelicals, I...say, 'Absolutely, we want to spread the kingdom of God like crazy.'" Well, I'm sorry, but the differences between Protestant and Catholic theology *are* important. They espouse completely different ideas about how to relate to God, the authority of the Bible, the meaning of salvation etc etc. They're not just minor tertiary issues, they affect the central tennets of the faith. Theology matters!
6) I'm not sure what his "gospel" is. Throughout the whole book, I could find barely a mention of sin, salvation, or the cross. What there was a lot of is loving our neighbours. Which of course, is good. But surely it's not the whole picture? He seems to see Jesus as an inspirational figure, who showed us how to live and love well. But that's not the gospel of Paul, or of evangelicalism. One story will serve to illustrate the point: It was the time when a bunch of his friends slept on Wall Street, New York, as an act of solidarity with the poor. (p118-119) Then at a certain time, they unfurled banners which read, "Stop terrorism", "Share", "Love", and a quote from Ghandi about greed. They drew pictures on the pavements and blew bubbles, and hugged and laughed. And SC describes it as "bringing God and Mammon together". Forgive me, but, if you look carefully, where is God in that? Where is the Biblical gospel in there? Sure, it's a worthwhile enterprise to stand in solidarity with the poor, and to stand up against corporate greed. But don't make out that this was some sort of outreach with the gospel.
If the church adopted SC's ideas, then we would probably be more happy, more loving, more radical, and probably bigger. We would be nicer people. But would those things lead to more being saved from an eternity without God? I somehow doubt it. What we really need is to be motivated by the truth of the Jesus-filled, Biblical gospel, and to reach out to people with the saving message of the cross.