Krista's Journal: A New Generation, A Simple Revolution

May 10, 2007

In his book The Irresistible Revolution: Living as an Ordinary Radical, Shane Claiborne quotes the Danish philosopher/theologian Soren 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." The stories he tells in this program address a question I encounter everywhere in our culture. Born of longing as much as curiosity, it goes something like this: How can we possibly move beyond the rancorous divisions of our society — the predictable divides into which even religion has fallen and which religion itself has inflamed? Here's my response. There is abundant movement in this direction already, in pockets of society, in unpredictable places, and we can find immediate courage simply by opening our eyes and ears. Shane Claiborne and the people he is leaving behind doctrinal and political impasses that have alienated so many Christians — and so many non-Christians. But you do have to look for them, because you will not find them in the headline-stealing spotlight. They have found their center by moving to the margins, the "abandoned spaces" as they say, of our culture. 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. 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 them, in "the ruins of the church." The new monastics are part of larger, important, and under-reported 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. But they also shed an alternative light on the story I've been writing about in this journal for the past weeks — the cultural dialogue spurred by intellectuals who base their anti-religious stances on illustrations of nonsense and damage in the name of religion. Shane Claiborne and his kindred spirits take the reality of destructive and simplified Christianity deeply to heart. In response, they are digging out what they see as the core of Christianity in which they nevertheless experience truth, meaning and life. They are modeling their communities not on the churches they were raised in, but on role models deep within the historic tradition: St. Francis, Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King. Shane Claiborne tells a lovely story this hour about another "real Christian" he learned from, Mother Theresa, who he sought out in India in the last year of her life. Yet even as they excavate for the ancient heart of Christianity, their vision is distinctly up to date. They have a global, holistic sensibility — a pragmatic capacity to connect the dots between local need and global crises — which I see as a hallmark and gift of this generation. So, expanding on an old adage, Shane Claiborne says that his community gives people fish and also teaches them fish. But beyond that, he adds, they are compelled to ask, "Who owns the pond? And who polluted it?" And who knows. Maybe these new monastics are the great story of our time, a defining force, whether they're making contemporary headlines or not. I recall a conversation I had with a Benedictine nun (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 Sr. 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 the 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. He'll tell you that this is the only way it's ever been done.

Recommended Reading

Image of The Irresistible Revolution: Living as an Ordinary Radical
Author: Shane Claiborne
Publisher: Zondervan (2006)
Binding: Paperback, 368 pages

The Irresistible Revolution is an original, vibrant book full of wisdom, imagination, and stories of real people living in new ways both emboldening and challenging. Read it, and give it to the young people in your life.

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is a founding member of The Simple Way faith community and author of The Irresistible Revolution: Living as an Ordinary Radical.