Dear Shane Claiborne, Thank You For Saving Us from Ourselves!

Shane Claiborne has a letter to nonbelievers in Esquire, in which he reinvents the liberal Protestant wheel, heroically distancing himself from street preachers, televangelists, and all other Christian meanies and then articulating a gospel of love and social justice to replace it.

Now I’m not trying to provide a rebuttal to his message by showing how classically “liberal” it is—that he’s unwilling to speak clearly about judgment or hell (though he is) and that he puts social justice at the heart of the gospel (though he does)—but rather that his letter deploys a certain cultural strategy of Christian engagement with the world. First, he shows an astonishing willingness to throw all of Christian history—and many of his contemporary brothers and sisters in Christ, while he’s at it—under the bus, in order to prove his own authenticity. (It’s amazing that after all these years, Shane Claiborne is the only one who’s gotten it!) And second, he interprets, and presents, the gospel in such a way that his unbelieving, secular readers will find nothing scandalous about Christianity. In other words, he wants to make Christianity relevant, a word he probably thinks is pretty good, and I think is very bad.

Take this for instance:

I feel like I should begin with a confession. I am sorry that so often the biggest obstacle to God has been Christians. Christians who have had so much to say with our mouths and so little to show with our lives. I am sorry that so often we have forgotten the Christ of our Christianity.

Forgive us. Forgive us for the embarrassing things we have done in the name of God.

This echoes Donald Miller’s now somewhat-famous stunt he pulled on a secular college campus, where he set up a confessional and, to the students’ surprise, the Christians confessed the sins of the church to their non-Christian peers.

Oh, but he’s reaching the heart of secular America! Maybe. I don’t think this is a strategy that’s going to stand the test of time, however, or even win Christians any long-term intellectual respect, which seems to be his primary goal to begin with. I don’t mean all this as a complete defense of the status quo. I don’t have much patience for televangelists or belligerent street preachers either, but could you choose a much easier target? Who, especially among the readership of Esquire, likes these people?! There should be a Christian equivalent to Godwin’s law of Nazi analogies (whoever draws a comparison to Hitler first loses the argument), except that in the place of Hitler you put televangelists. Also, and more importantly, the idea that religion-qua-Christianity is historically at the heart of the world’s ills, and consequently that we need to apologize for adhering to any form of historically grounded Christianity, is a pretty significantly flawed thesis, one generated from the heart of Modernity, and there are writers out there combating it. (For a relatively short and extremely clear treatment of this, see this article, by William Cavanaugh.) Furthermore, Claiborne often takes a lot of his cultural cues from the likes of Stanley Hauerwas and John Howard Yoder (generally, Christendom bad, alternative pacifist ecclesial enclaves good) but seems to have missed the fact that these thinkers offer trenchant and inextricable critiques of modern liberal democracies in general, not just of American Christianity’s capitulation to it. In other words, the people Claiborne’s appealing to in Esquire are just the other side of the same coin. A more consistent critique for Claiborne to make would not be that Christians in America have corrupted the gospel and that he’s found the answer by being the first person to read the parable of the Good Samaritan but that Christians in America are actually unwittingly in league with the very people he’s trying to get to take him seriously. Because in the end, his message sounds like a public service announcement. Be loving! Be Nice to poor people! Be tolerant! In the end, Claiborne’s critique is not radical enough. It sounds like civil religion.

The whole thing comes off, on one hand, as a smug dismissal of his own tribe and, on the other, as a plea for religion’s cultured despisers to take Christianity seriously. The nerdy kid on the playground disavowing all of his nerdy friends in order to hang out with the popular kids.


9 comments so far

  1. Josh on

    Yes. He signs it “Your Brother”, which seems to be true in this letter. I would love to hear Mr Claiborne take a prophetic stand to a sick and dying culture, but he sounds like he’d rather be a brother to that culture. While selling out the rest of us – his adopted sisters and brothers, children of a holy and loving God. Thanks for pointing to this, hadn’t seen it yet.

    By the way, the video of you and Charlie singing is excellent. Love watching him grow up from here.

  2. David Congdon on

    Maybe I’m missing your point, but are you finally just upset that Claiborne doesn’t preach a message of heaven and hell? Are you really saying that the message of “be loving” and “be kind to others” is a distortion of the gospel?

    There are moments where I thought you might have a substantive argument against Claiborne, but in the end it just seems like you don’t like his message of social justice. In which case, I have to wonder: aren’t you just falling into the opposite error of what you accuse Claiborne of doing? That is, Claiborne makes the gospel relevant to American Christians, you make the gospel irrelevant, but neither offer a more complex and nuanced account of what Christian faith entails.

  3. David Congdon on

    Just to be clear, I have sympathy for your critique, but I’m unclear about what you are actually critiquing. I was looking for a coherent claim, but I couldn’t find one.

    It seems like you want to say that Claiborne’s error is making the gospel relevant to American society. Is that right? Now, you cite Miller’s stunt at Reed College and Claiborne’s confession as proof of this. I’m not entirely sure your interpretation is actually correct, but we can leave that aside for the moment.

    What I’m trying to pin down is your positive claim. That is, if making Christianity relevant is a problem (and just to be clear, I agree that it is a problem), the question becomes: what needs to replace it? And this is where I fail to see a cogent response to Claiborne. You talk about judgment and hell, but then you just us hanging. You talk about how attacking televangelists is like attacking Nazis, but then you don’t really clarify what ought to be attacked, other than an implicit reference to the Yoderian critique of modern political liberalism. You critique Claiborne’s smugness, but you don’t seem to see how this conflicts with your claim that he is trying to make Christianity palatable to American society (i.e., Claiborne’s claim is that Christianity has to be difficult and requires action, things which modern Americans don’t want). You criticize him for not being radical enough, but then don’t give a clear idea of what this “being more radical” looks like.

    In the end, I think you’ve wrongly pegged Claiborne as a modern liberal, in the sense that he is trying to make Christianity respectable and civilized for the contemporary world. It seems to me that he is more rightly pegged as part of the anti-religious Anabaptist-separatist crowd. Now these two groups might share the disdain for dogma and emphasize praxis, but they embody this with very different positive visions of how to relate to God. The modern liberal does so by entering into a universal community of spirituality and good will, whereas the Anabaptist enters into a separatist enclave of inner-city activism. The one moves into a broader “ecumenical” body in which one can join simply by adjusting one’s concepts, whereas the other moves into a narrower community in which one joins only by actively participating in social work.
    So I think you’re right about the smugness, but wrong about the relevance. Claiborne’s not confessing because he wants to make Christianity relevant to modern Americans; he’s confessing purely as a word of judgment against those Christians who fail to live up to his standard of true Christianity. And this has always been the mark of Anabaptism since its origin: its confusion of its own community with the kingdom of God. That is finally Claiborne’s error, and once we’re clear on that point, we can see that it’s not the case that he lacks a notion of judgment. Rather, his error is ecclesiological and eschatological. He makes judgment immanent within our present temporal horizon, such that those who join in his work are “in” while those who don’t are “out.” In a sense, he has immanentized the parable of Matthew 25.

    For what it’s worth, I don’t think relevancy is really the problem here. In fact, some version of relevance is essential to the notion of Christian mission. The problem is eschatological in nature. And since I like to be an equal-opportunity offender, this is a problem for many other groups besides the Anabaptists. Here I’m thinking of Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, certain fundie evangelical groups, Pentecostalism, and every cultish group, including Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses.

    At the end of the day, the eschatological problem for these groups is really christological – the blurring of the distinction between Christ and the church.

  4. jeffreimer on

    Hi David,

    I had composed a response and was finishing up when your second comment popped up. More anon.

  5. Greg on

    “What I’m trying to pin down is your positive claim.”

    I’m not nearly as well-versed in this stuff as you or my brother are, but what I took from it is that Christianity ought not be considered apart from its roots. By redefining Christianity to make it “relevant,” one runs the risk of turning it into yet another fad, and by extension, making it easily dismissible, as fads tend to be. That’s what I perceive as being the core tension here. I could be wrong though.

    • Kurt D on

      “By redefining Christianity to make it “relevant,” one runs the risk of turning it into yet another fad, and by extension, making it easily dismissible, as fads tend to be.”

      I agree we need to be careful of not turning it into a fad… but didn’t jesus come to earth and make the age old jewish faith more relevant to the day.
      The church hierarchy had distorted it and made it about rules… all rules. He came and said, your missing the point. “The point is faith, but faith without works is dead.” works usually means, at least in almost all jesus cases, touching the lives of people.

      Touching or connecting with people is about becoming someone that they trust and wants to try to understand them. Jesus met people on their ground. If they wanted to talk love and be touched, he loved and touched them. If they wanted to trap him and talk law, he talked law.

      Jesus knew what teachers all throughout america knew. positive reinforcement. connect with that person and encourage them in what they are doing, it causes them to want to be better.

      I appreciate your thoughts a comments… but I think he nailed the ending when he said this: ” I was recently asked by a non-Christian friend if I thought he was going to hell. I said, ‘I hope not. It will be hard to enjoy heaven without you.’ ”

      what a great response to a friend who asks you about this.
      I think it works better than replying: yep! you are. it’s gonna suck.

      Love God, Love your neighbor. These are the two big ones.

      • Greg on

        I see what you’re saying, but I think we’re all dancing around the core issue of, on the one hand, a desire to distill Christianity down to something that seems relevant today, and on the other hand, a desire to hold fast to the historical bedrock of the faith. The two are somewhat in conflict.

        For example, as controversial as it sounds, Christianity isn’t just the words and actions of Jesus. It also includes large swaths of history, theology and philosophy that happened after his day. For example, the writings of Paul, the Apostle’s Creed, the canonization of Scripture, the philosophy of Aquinas. If you just boil it down to the words and deeds of Christ, you throw a lot out the window.

        I think it’s cool in pop culture nowadays to “get back to Jesus,” or to say “Love God, Love your neighbor.” You can say this stuff and it’s hard to argue. But it’s not quite so cool to “get back to Paul,” or “get back to the Council of Nicaea.” I think that’s what the tension here really is because these other things are also intrinsically part of what Christianity is and they seemed to get pushed to the side in the quest for relevance.

        (Disclaimer: I myself come from more of a secular/non-religious POV, but I think these issues are nevertheless interesting and descriptive of more general tensions within culture.)

  6. jeffreimer on

    Hi David,

    Sorry it’s taken so long to get back on this. It was getting late that night, and then it was Thanksgiving weekend, and life is too short to spend the holidays arguing online with people you don’t know.

    I certainly apologize if it even appeared that I was trying to offer anything faintly resembling coherence or cogency. Perhaps the severest criticism of what I wrote is just that it’s pure muckrakery. But to offer a response . . .

    “You critique Claiborne’s smugness, but you don’t seem to see how this conflicts with your claim that he is trying to make Christianity palatable to American society.”

    I guess my claim here is that he’s being smug toward his fellow Christians and as such trying to make Christianity palatable to non-Christians. I don’t see how those two need to conflict. In fact, among emergent church types, the former seems to be a prerequisite for the latter.

    “You criticize him for not being radical enough, but then don’t give a clear idea of what this ‘being more radical’ looks like.”

    I just think he needs to read his Hauerwas more closely. The heart of Hauerwas’s critique is not so much a compromised Christianity but the extent to which Christianity has capitulated to modern political liberalism. So fine, speak words of judgment against American Christianity, but don’t turn around and act all buddy buddy with the modern liberal culture that sprouted everything you despise about evangelicalism now that you’ve just flushed all the cultural trappings of Christianity, present and past, down the toilet. I get the impression that, in his transition from criticizing Christianity to presenting the gospel, there’s a sense of, “now that the embarrassing interloper has been neatly excused from the room, we can have a real conversation.” To the extent that this is the case, there is at least an analogy between Claiborne’s Anabaptism and modern political and cultural liberalism in the sense that the historical messiness of Christianity has been excised and we can reify Christianity in its pristine state—i.e., with Jesus, without the church. I honestly don’t mean this as a defense of the evangelical status quo. And I guess I don’t technically quibble with the concept of relevance as such, except that the term relevant has been co-opted by media-savvy evangelicals who think that relevant means cool. (See magazine of same name.) It’s been drained of most of it’s content, and it lacks any kind of cultural teeth. While the gospel is of course completely and centrally love and peace, it also, to a certain extent, makes culture relevant to itself. When grace interrupts nature, and nature rebels, friction results, and violence. It’s all there in Flannery O’Connor.

    “So I think you’re right about the smugness, but wrong about the relevance. Claiborne’s not confessing because he wants to make Christianity relevant to modern Americans; he’s confessing purely as a word of judgment against those Christians who fail to live up to his standard of true Christianity.”

    So perhaps I’ve muddied the concepts of modern political liberalism, modern theological liberalism, and contemporary Anabaptism (though I should point out that, as I live in a Mennonite community, political and theological liberalism and contemporary Anabaptism are by no means mutually exclusive. These are already muddy waters).

    This gets to the heart of my frustration with Claiborne, and in a different way, with Hauerwas. Whereas Claiborne’s experiments with monastic community immanentize the eschaton, in certain ways, Hauerwas seems to underrealize it by failing to provide a fleshed-out account of the church. (Yoder doesn’t have this problem inasmuch as he is tied to the Mennonite community. Perhaps Hauerwas is connected by proxy, as he calls himself a Mennonite camp follower, though I think much of his project is better supplemented by emphasizing his debt to Alasdair MacIntyre and supplementing his ecclesiology with Catholic, specifically Thomistic, thought a la Tracey Rowland, but here even I’m probably conflating Hauerwas too much with RO. Claiborne, however, takes it in the opposite direction, away from a more tradition-bound, high-church setting.) Claiborne, writing in Esquire, thinks he can clear the ground of all the embarrassing elements of Christianity by trying to make his vision look appealing, but he cuts himself off from the church—or at least, as you point out, those who don’t fit his particular ecclesial/eschatological vision. While I don’t criticize Claiborne to defend the status quo or bash social justice (although I admit that, reading back over my post, it came across that way), I think he lacks any participation in a coherent ecclesial tradition, a problem he shares with most other evangelicals and that ultimately goes back to the Reformation, or at least the Radical Reformation. At least with the faintest notion of apostolic succession, there’s a sense of historical continuity that ensures some kind of fidelity to the truth through an authoritative reading of Scripture. I’m not a Catholic, though, partly for the very reasons you articulate: while evangelicals suffer from a lack of any authoritative structure at all, I can’t reconcile myself to the level of authority, the side of the eschaton, that the pope holds. So I remain in protest. Nevertheless, a sense of tradition that passes down the truth from generation to generation prevents the abuses and extremes to which Claiborne’s kind of enclaves have historically been susceptible. Monastic revivals within the Catholic and Anglican traditions have the resources of their tradition at their back; sectarian communities fizzle out with founding personalities or implode or turn real heretical real fast. While I don’t think what Claiborne’s doing is wrongheaded—it’s pretty interesting, actually—I think that the extent to which he succeeds is the extent to which he wittingly or unwittingly participates in the tradition of the church. I think the church in America needs to do a lot of the things he emphasizes: combat our addiction to consumerism, criticize our massive standing military and its attendant foreign policy, create local and potent forms of culture that can sustain traditionally orthodox forms of the faith. I just think it would have more of a chance at longterm survival if he were interested in fortifying and unifying already-existing traditions rather than selling them out.

  7. lucashannon on

    Well said, Jeff. I think you have come to the core of the issue in the final words of this last reply and I think your critique is fair. Likewise, I hope we get to see (and participate in) some of this fortifying and unifying work!

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