In his book The Irresistible Revolution: Living as an Ordinary Radical, Shane Claiborne quotes the Danish philosopher and theologian Søren Kierkegaard: “The Bible is very easy to understand. But we Christians are a bunch of scheming swindlers. We pretend to be unable to understand it because we know very well that the minute we understand, we are obliged to act accordingly.” Shane Claiborne has given himself over to finding and emulating “real Christians” — past and present — who “act accordingly.”
We’ve updated and refined our show with Shane Claiborne and re-released it in our podcast and on the radio because he has continued to grow in appeal and influence, even as the politicized Evangelical voices that dominated the news when I first interviewed him in 2007 have receded. We also supplemented this interview with a written Q&A update on his work and thinking that is fascinating and inspiring. I hear echoes of Shane Claiborne’s influence — or rather, echoes of the emerging universe of which he is a charismatic exemplar — in the recent decision of the Southern Baptist Convention to take on Christian responsibility for the natural world and climate in a whole new way. I am confirmed in my sense that he represents something larger than himself and his community when I speak with Evangelical leaders and hear from them that the evolving story of younger Evangelicals is scarcely being told.
And the story Shane Claiborne has to tell addresses a question I encountered in our culture in 2007 and continue to encounter today. Born of longing as much as curiosity, it goes something like this: How can we possibly move beyond the rancorous stalemate of our culture — the culture war divides into which even religion has fallen and which religion itself has inflamed?
Shane Claiborne’s life was at one time a kind of microcosm of that stalemate and is now a tale of contrast to it and life beyond it. It also illustrates how new generations — and others in “older generations” whom they are inspiring — are pragmatically redefining the meaning of a life well lived. He puts it succinctly, I think, when he says that he and his companions are less interested in what they will do — be a doctor, a lawyer, a teacher? — than in what kind of person they will be — what kind of doctor, lawyer, or teacher.
Shane Claiborne’s theological heart and mind were first captured by 40 homeless families in north Philadelphia who moved into an abandoned Catholic cathedral and were rewarded with an eviction notice. As he tells it, he and over 100 students from his Christian college, Eastern University, put their lives alongside them and helped catalyze a minor miracle. The media of Philadelphia was galvanized. People opened their homes. Section 8 housing was made available. In the end, all 40 families had found or been given a permanent place to live. And Shane Claiborne was set on fire by this experience of resurrecting the essence of Christianity quite literally, as St. Francis of Assisi said before him, in “the ruins of the church.”
In making this kind of connection, Shane Claiborne exhibits a capacity I’ve observed in others his age and younger — an ease of movement, in thought and conversation, between what is ancient and what is modern, what is local and what is global. It is almost as though they are not constrained by space and time as previous generations have been. They draw with immediacy, even intimacy, on the words and example of St Francis, Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King Jr. And they bring a 21st-century twist to a classic adage of how to be of help to needy others. So, Shane Claiborne says, his community gives people fish and also teaches them to fish. But beyond that, he adds, they are compelled to ask, “Who owns the pond? And who polluted it?”
One could certainly make the case that the culture wars, with a strong religious component, have not ended but simply assumed new forms. And yet, and still, maybe these New Monastics are as much a great story of our time, and ultimately more defining a force, than what will dominate the headlines today and tomorrow. I recall a conversation I had with Benedictine nun Joan Chittister (I’m sure she wouldn’t want to be called an “old monastic”) a good decade ago. She told me about St. Benedict, one of the founders of the entire monastic enterprise. Benedict had his share of problems in his day, the sixth century, including being poisoned and reviled by other religious people who didn’t like what he was up to. And Sister Joan pointed out to me that if you had observed him and his followers in the midst of the great historical drama of the Roman Empire of his time — one little community here, another there — you would never have guessed that they were starting a movement that would endure into the 21st century, and along the way keep European learning and civilization alive — from the margins — during Europe’s Dark Ages.
Happily for all of us, Shane Claiborne knows his history. Ask him if he thinks that the constellation of small communities he’s a part of can really change the world, and he’ll tell you that this is the only way it’s ever been done. The New Monastics are part of larger, important, and underreported stories of religion in the present, including the evolution and diversification of Evangelical Christianity, and the way in which young people are challenging “religion as usual” with their keen insistence on authenticity and spiritual depth.