Friday, May 16, 2008

Irresistible Revolution Underlines and Scribbles: Part 1 - Underlines

As a Presbyterian, I’m a member of a denomination that has a long and proud history of debate (which is kind of a nice way of saying pushing and shoving) on both theology narrowly defined and on how we are expected to live as followers of Jesus in the world. Presbyterians have been in the heat of these things from the Protestant reformation, through the English Civil War, the American Revolution, the civil rights movement, and today's "culture wars". Today, Presbyterians probably try to take positions on 19 of the 12 things in our society that they should.

In some ways, I have grown weary of this inside the Presbyterian denomination because the debates are so predictable that they simply mirror the external world’s dimension of political liberalism or conservatism: tell me how a Presbyterian believes about abortion and the War in Iraq and I can, with an economically respectable probability of about 95 percent, predict how they will come down on just about any other social issue: fast food boycotts, divestment from companies doing business in Israel, capital gains taxes, and so forth. So I find it interesting when I see Christians who seem to break out of these patterns: Rod Dreher has become famous for his program of “crunchy conservatism”. Likewise, I enjoyed reading the book The Irresistible Revolution by Shane Claiborne, an unabashedly Evangelical Christian who, as I think he would like to say, wants to turn our view of our labels of other Christians upside down. Shane lives as a part of an intentional Christian community (known as the Potter Street Community) in inner city Philadelphia.

When I read through a book, I tend to use personal coded markings that I have to explain to people. Underlines or sidelines usually means I agree with or have learned something. Notes in my personal scribbled version of an unknown tongue usually indicate where I take issue. So it is a good thing that I finished IR with both many underlines and many scribbles. By itself that is my recommendation for reading the book. This blog is not really the place for a full-fledged book review, so I will just sketch a couple of my underlines and introduce some of my scribbles.

First, I have enormous respect for advocates of social-justice, even when I disagree with some (if not many) of their economic prescriptions, when they are obviously sincere, dedicated, and attempting to live a Christian life of peace and justice far beyond what I would be comfortable doing from my middle-class lifestyle. Shane Claiborne clearly is a person whose entire life is modeled on the sacrificial life of people such as Mother Theresa. Shane and his colleagues are as far away as it is possible to get from my stereotype of the Christian liberal who opposes school choice and globalization while driving his kids to a private school in a Volvo. I can’t in a short space do credit to the wonderful work that the Potter Street folks are doing in living and working in inner-city Philadelphia.

Theologically, Shane equally and correctly critiques the emptiness of some of the mainline (less evangelical) denominations’ worship experiences while raising crucial questions to conservatives, such as “Why should any Christian church ever have a national flag (American, British, Ugandan, whatever) at the front of the sanctuary where the most holy of Christian symbols reside?” Shane challenges our current Christian safe zones on issues such as the anonymity of charity and consumerist life styles in a way that ought to make almost any modern, Western Christian uncomfortable.

On the other hand, my overall criticism of the book is that, in spite of his desire to transcend old political labels, in his political commentary (what I associate with the broader agenda organization “The Simple Way”) Shane is much more comfortable and explicit in criticizing “conservative” rather than “liberal” Christian voices. For example, although he speaks against abortion, his words don’t carry the same sense of personal passion as his criticism of, for example, U.S. foreign policy[1]. While the day to day life that Shane leads boldly mirrors that of Mother Theresa, once he starts to systematize his ideas for what amounts to a prescriptive policy of economics, it starts to sound pretty much like warmed over undergraduate utopian Marxism. He doesn’t seem to connect his reflexive faith in “progressive” economic rhetoric with the fact that “progressive” economic policies are at the root of things like the city government regulations that cause his community so much grief. If you don't understand how wealth is created, you can't really understand how poverty can be eliminated. As an economist, I found this example of the community’s attempt to swear off of “money” both funny and instructive (p. 179):

“In Philly, we have an ongoing dialogue about creating a village of communities, bartering with one another, sharing things we need --- even creating a new currency where people exchange hours of work and are valued not because they have money but because they are willing to contribute to others and offer their time to service. One community may have a plumber but need a gardener; another may have a gardener but need blankets; and yet another may have blankets but need a plumber.”

So, having cast off one of civilization’s oldest inventions, money, Shane envisions returning to a barter economy. But the problem with a barter economy is that bilateral exchange cannot address the so-called “double co-incidence of wants”: the plumber – gardener – blankets problem. So to solve this, Shane proposes creating a “new currency” … that is to say, money. Suffice it to say that I have a new story for my principles of economics lecture on why humans use money.

Finally, let me close on a bothersome point. Irresistible Revolution has the marks of being what I would call “lightly edited” by the publisher, Zondervan. Shane’s strength as an evangelist is in cutting through theological fog with simple, powerful Biblical points. But simplification requires a discipline against distortion and factoids. The Part II of this post will elaborate on this criticism (the “scribbles”).

One of the things I do as a professor is review work, so because of that I’m very used to a positive review being one that both praises and criticizes the work, so please don’t be surprised when I say this is a productive, challenging book for all Christians working out their salvation with fear and trembling. For those of you with further interest, a colleague of Shane’s e-mailed Doug and me with information on a new DVD series that they have produced:

“Hey if you're a fan of Shane Claiborne and his book, then you should really check out the Another World is Possible DVD series. It's a multimedia project by Shane Claiborne and Jamie Moffett (co-founders of the Simple Way) that emerged in response to their belief that things are not right in the world, and that they don't have to stay that way. There are three DVD's, one on war, one on poverty, and one on creation. You can find out more about them at”

[1] As someone old enough to remember the well meaning but badly mistaken Christians who misrepresented what was really going on inside of the Iron Curtain, I have many reservations about Shane’s views on foreign policy, but that’s a deeply complicated issue that I may save for another blog.

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