Presentation Manuscript: Shane Claiborne
This presentation was initially prepared for my course on Modern and Contemporary Theology in Winter 2012. It’s broken down into slides, which I no longer have, but the text should still make sense more often than not on its own.
By way of quick introduction relevant to this topic, my research paper that I will be doing this summer will be looking at a lot of the parallels between the Radical Reformation of the 16th century and the emerging church movement that is happening right now. From a more personal perspective, I grew up in the United Church of Canada but would theologically identify myself as an “emerging-Anabaptist,” with a hyphen, and that label for myself will be explained a bit more in a few minutes if you aren’t familiar with those words.
I thought this was an interesting quote to say before delving into the bulk of the content about Shane Claiborne: “I see a generation, rising up to take their place, with selfless faith. I see a near revival, stirring as we pray and seek, we’re on our knees.” This is from a very popular worship song called Hosanna by Hillsong United. I found it an interesting quote because it is the only worship song I can think of that actually identifies a revival in our generation in the middle of the song.
Shane Claiborne: Emerging Church?
I found it interesting that Pam included Shane Claiborne as a topic for this week on the emerging church. I say this because I am fairly certain I have heard Claiborne reject that label as applying to him. The challenge is that it is hard to get a precise definition of what “the emerging church” is. The one idea that is always in common in defining the emerging church is postmodernism. It might be hard postmodernism, which is typically a relativistic universalism, saying that even if there is such thing as absolute truth we have no way of knowing it. More often it is a soft postmodernism, which still believes in an idea of truth but acknowledges that we all have different ways of encountering that truth. I think the reason that Claiborne is uncomfortable with the term emerging church is because of the association for some with hard postmodernism. While heavily emphasizing stories, he would be in what is the majority which still has a very central unique role for the person of Jesus.
This diagram is taken from a book called The Great Emergence: A Candid Look at What’s Emerging by Phyllis Tickle. I don’t want to spend a lot of time on this because I want to get to Claiborne, but here’s the quick version. Christianity throughout history has been four basic quadrants: Liturgicals, Renewalists, Social Justice Christians, and Conservatives. Tickle defines the emerging church in an ecumenical sense primarily as the conversation happening at the middle of the four quadrants – the big mass of squiggles at the middle of the diagram. Then she points out that every movement has those who are opposing it, so she adds “Reactionaries” in each of the corners. Finally, in between those two extremes she puts four other levels: Traditionalists, Re-Traditionalists, Progressives, and Hyphenateds (which I mentioned earlier is where I’d place myself). If using ecumenical conversation as the main metric, then, Claiborne probably does qualify as part of the emerging church. In fact, I actually was trying to figure out if he had any denominational affiliation but he referenced things he’s done as part of various denominational communities and he exhibits the themes of all four quadrants.
Still, there are two other labels that Claiborne likes better for himself and so I’ll mostly stick with those. One is New Monasticism. The reason for this is pretty obvious once you start to look at his movement. He is a founding member of a community called the Simple Way which is based in Philadelphia and this community is very similar to many of the medieval monastic movements. They live extremely simply. They essentially hold their money in a common pot and use as much as they can to help those in need around them. They attempt to keep Jesus at the centre of everything they do. They act as a prophetic voice against a lot of societal problems, which I’ll get into some more in a bit.
The other common label is “ordinary radical” and this is one that I believe he started for himself. As people began to hear about his movement, they called him a radical, quite understandably. He’s ok with this label because he thinks Jesus was a radical and as a Christian he believes he should be acting like Jesus. This is a pretty common understanding of Jesus in the emerging church, although most don’t go as far in sacrificing as much in order to actually live it out as Claiborne and the Simple Way do. He doesn’t like being called a radical without qualifier, though, because that makes it sound like he is somebody special and that allows other Christians to get off the hook of being just as radical. So he adds the adjective “ordinary” because he believes that all Christians should be living out a Jesus-like life. In short, he believes that what he is doing is radical, yes, but it should also be the norm for all Christians.
Key Biographical Points
Because so much of Claiborne’s thought is more about living what he sees as the Christian life than it is about doctrine, most of his thought can actually be summarized better through biography than through any of his written works. Most of the written works are in fact autobiographical in tone, painting the picture of the Jesus-like life through his own stories – where he has both failed and succeeded – and in the lives of others. As with Pentecostalism and most of the emerging church, it is a narrative approach to theology rather than a propositional approach.
Claiborne was born and raised in East Tennessee in a big-E Evangelical church. He doesn’t talk a lot about it except in referencing the critiques that he gives American Christianity in general: too concerned with doctrine instead of action, too closely aligned with conservative politics and the American Dream, and too comfortable. These are again very common within the emerging church in general: most come from an American evangelical background and they typically share the same critiques.
This leads up to why Claiborne went to Calcutta: “to find a real Christian” as he puts it. He looked at the stories of the Bible and the teachings of Jesus and saw a far more radical life than those around him who were often only concerned with believing the right things so they could go to heaven when they die. He tells the story in The Irresistible Revolution of finding the phone number for Mother Teresa in Calcutta and calling. He left a message asking to come visit at some point and expected to get a call back from some lower-level volunteer because that is the kind of thing you would expect in an American megachurch and Mother Teresa was a far bigger figure than those pastors. Instead, Teresa herself called him back and invited him to come. This is a good chance for me to take a break from talking and let Shane tell a couple of his stories from that time.
[During the presentation I only shared part of the clip but I may as well share the whole thing here]
After this he carried out an internship at Willow Creek, a megachurch in the US. While he acknowledges that Willow Creek does a lot of good, he contrasts those two experiences because the people at Willow Creek are generally white, comfortable, middle-class Americans. For example, one controversy of that time was a new building project for the church. It was already a huge church and didn’t really need more, but within the megachurch culture that is a normal thing to do to attract people to the church. Claiborne was one of the few who protested this and thought that there were much better ways to spend their money. This is something he does regularly, acting as a prophetic voice against greed in the world in general but especially within the church.
In the early years of the Iraq War, he then went as part of a Christian peace-maker team, helping the people who were victims of the bombs that his own country was dropping. Non-violence and anti-nationalism are pretty common themes as he believes that this is a fundamental difference between the way of Jesus and the ways of Empire. Not all emergings would agree with absolute non-violence, although they would almost all agree that the church has been too violent. Most emergings would also agree with this blurring of lines of nationalities by emphasizing the common humanity even with nations that are enemies of their nations.
Most of his work otherwise is in Philadelphia with the Simple Way. The organization started when he was a student and he and a group of friends heard that a church was going to evict some homeless people in the community who had been staying there for shelter. They acted in solidarity by staying with those people. The crowd continued to grow and the church still tried a few times to evict them. One story that Claiborne tells is when other eviction attempts hadn’t worked so the church tried to use fire hazards as an excuse. But the night before the inspection which would have justified it, one of the firefighters came in the middle of the night, warned them, and installed all of the required equipment for free. The next day when the inspection came, there was no justification. Eventually because of all the media attention, people around the city stepped up and provided places to stay for all of the homeless people who had been staying there. The Simple Way continues to do a lot of this same kind of work.
Claiborne isn’t primarily a writer, and he hasn’t written very much. I include them here basically because I needed writings to use as sources. If you pick one to read, it would definitely be the first, Irresistible Revolution. It overviews a lot of his thought and a lot of his story – about 90% of this presentation came from that book. Jesus For President, written with Chris Haw, deals with the politics of Jesus, which is vastly different than any earthly political party. It repeats a lot of the same themes of nonviolence and sacrificing in order to bring the Kingdom of God instead of the Empire thought of the world. Follow Me to Freedom is a conversation with an older man named John Perkins and they discuss being a Christian leader with this ordinary radical mindset. And Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals is exactly what it sounds: an ecumenical liturgy book with his usual theme of being an ordinary radical throughout it. He also speaks regularly in a variety of contexts and writes in articles for magazines or on the Internet.
Emphases of Shane Claiborne
Because of the narrative theology approach, most of this has already been covered one way or another, but this can serve as a matter of review. Action is much more important than doctrine. In the same video clip I played from earlier, he refers to doctrine as “important but hard to love” and he promptly moves on to talking about practical issues without touching on any doctrines at all. In Irresistible Revolution at one point he points out that if you ask a stranger what a Christian believes, they can probably give you an answer, usually something like that “Jesus is the Son of God and saves us from sin.” But if you ask somebody what a Christian does differently, they would give you a blank stare, other than maybe to cite some religious rituals like going to church, taking the eucharist, or being baptized. This is a huge problem in Claiborne’s view and in the view of many emergings in general.
The Kingdom of God takes a very central role, because as he would point out that was the heart of the message of Jesus but is typically ignored in most churches. This idea of the Kingdom of God is that it has already begun since the incarnation of Jesus, and is to be continued by his followers “on earth as it is in Heaven” to quote the Lord’s Prayer. The Kingdom of God is not an eschatological idea for the distant future and it is not about leaving this earth to go to Heaven when we die. What this Kingdom looks like is vastly different than the ways of the world. Instead of hoarding wealth, it gives it away. Instead of using violence to control, it uses non-violence even to the point of sacrificing your life in order to show people a better way. Violence is not even used in defending your nation or family because in the Kingdom of God there is none more valuable than others, loving all equally including the enemies of our nation or family or ourselves. Embodied by Jesus’ actions and teachings, this is a radically upside-down Kingdom that changes everything about how we think about power.
Bringing the Kingdom of God down to Earth: Shane Claiborne. Produced by Twenty-One Hundred Productions. Performed by Shane Claiborne. 2009.
—. The Irresistible Revolution: Living as an Ordinary Radical. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2006.
Claiborne, Shane, and Chris Haw. Jesus for President. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2008.
Claiborne, Shane, and John Perkins. Follow Me to Freedom: Leading and Following as an Ordinary Radical. Ventura, CA: Regal, 2009.
Claiborne, Shane, Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, and Enuma Okoro. Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2010.
Tickle, Phyllis. The Great Emergence: How Christianity is Changing and Why. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2008.