Resisting the Irresistible Shane Claiborne

Featured, Social Justice — By on September 30, 2009 at 12:00 am

claiborneIn the summer of 2006 I took a copy of Shane Claiborne’s debut book, The Irresistible Revolution, on a family camping trip to the Nehalem River in northwest Oregon.  As we tented under a canopy of firs and cedars, my husband and I traded the book back and forth as we enjoyed our time in the forest.

Claiborne is an activist/writer/speaker who stumbled into the spotlight as one of the faces for what has been termed the New Monasticism. Claiborne, who lives in a community in a poor neighborhood  in Philadelphia, has become a provocative voice calling for a return to countercultural living as Christ followers.

My husband and I, who have more than 50 years of ministry and missionary experience combined between us, sliced and diced Claiborne’s book with all the gusto of elders in the know who see trouble brewing with the foolishness of youth

One of our criticisms with his book is what seemed to us the romanticizing of community life. We have both lived communally in our younger years. Jerry, my husband, became a Christ follower on the tail-end of the Jesus People movement. He lived in communes for the first five years of his faith.  He shared his paychecks with his community. He acknowledged the leadership as trusted servants and willingly lived a simple lifestyle for the greater good.

And then, one unsuspecting day, it all blew up. The leaders had been quietly helping themselves to the coffers and living a much more extravagant life than the hippie Christians in their network of communes.

Reading The Irresistible Revolution opened up my husband’s memory vault about his heyday with communal living. Either Claiborne lived in some kind of utopian community or he simply left out the hard parts of the difficulties – and even risks – of living in commonality.

Another issue we had with the book was the glare of Claiborne’s privileged lifestyle to choose where and how to live. Claiborne, who grew up a middle-class suburban kid and earned a college degree, seemed determine in his book to challenge his readers to live as he does. The problem we had with that is that he does not live as most Americans or world citizens have to live, and that is, to devote many waking hours to work so as to provide for one’s family.  It seemed ludicrous for a white educated guy to write a book about how to live among the poor and advocate for justice when his lifestyle and advantaged upbringing alienates him from the ordinary person’s reality.

What kind of book would he have written had he been working 40+ hours at a factory to provide for his family of six, one of whom is chronically ill, and oh, the car broke down last week and the roof is leaking. Again.

Where is this irresistible revolution for the common working man, we wondered?

I reviewed the book on Amazon and wrote this:

The idealism coupled with the glaring inconsistency of living the life Claiborne describes and challenges readers to consider has the potential of breeding deep frustration, or worse, condemnation, in undiscerning readers. Not everyone can afford the privilege of housing choices like communalism or a lifestyle of social activism.

Not everything in Claiborne’s book irritated us. We agreed with his overall message about love, and how love is the revolution in how we live out our lives and treat one another. Totally. I totally get that and strive to be that. But his book seemed to infer that a life of love and countercultural living for Jesus ought to look like his. And that’s just messed up.

Fast forward two and half years later:

I saw on Facebook that Shane Claiborne was coming to my city for a speaking gig at a church not too far from my neighborhood. A little networking on my part and it wasn’t hard to book him for an interview. I’m a writer, always on the prowl for interesting stories about issues of faith and Christian spirituality. I considered it a good lead to interview Claiborne.

As I began to prepare ahead of time I realized that I didn’t know that much about him. Lots of people had read his book in the circles I travel in, but one book does not reveal who a man is. I decided to call my friend Jesse.

Jesse is a total hippie. Raised on an Oregon mountain, Jesse read The Irresistible Revolution while he was a student at an affluent bible school. The contrast of his campus with the ideas of simplicity and a life devoted to serving others who are lesser than, rocked Jessie’s evangelical world. He told me, “That book changed my life.”

Jessie schooled me on all-things-Shane Claiborne. He had followed Claiborne’s ministry and was particularly influenced by his ideas of living and working intentionally in such a way so as to be able to help others. Like the idea of living simply and working part-time in order to conserve energy to serve others with your spare time. Jesse was inspired to live that out.

As I spent time talking with my friend it seemed right to invite him to the interview. I asked him to think about what he would like to ask Claiborne. “Come up with three questions and call me by 4,” I told him.

The journalist inside of me was a bit nervous. What was I doing sharing a professional interview slot with Jesse?  This is an important writing gig, not a coffee klatch.

But it seemed right to have Jesse there, and so together we went to interview Shane Claiborne before his speaking engagement that night.

I prayed it up, prayed over my notes and quotes and questions I wanted to ask this author of The Irresistible Revolution. I did not want to go into the interview with a preconceived impression of who Shane Claiborne is or what he is like. I especially did not want to pre-judge this person (based on one book) who kindly agreed to be interviewed an hour before his platform time. I was mindful of how generous this was.

Fast Forward Two Hours Later:

Our interview went well. I found Claiborne to be personable and relatable, much more so than my impression of him from reading The Irresistible Revolution. I maintained a detached-writerly-I’m-working kind of posture with him, asking questions and furiously scribbling down my notes. He thoughtfully answered my questions, and Jesse’s too, with forthrightness and at times, humor.

But he won me over when I asked him, “Who are the Pharisees of our time?”  I wasn’t asking for names (God, no!), but rather I was expecting him to point the finger at the prosperity preachers or megachurch leaders or denominational CEO fat cats. Instead, without hesitating, he replied, “Me. The Pharisees of today are people like me. White, educated males. We are the Pharisees.”

The atmosphere around our little interview huddle seemed to vaporize. Every trace of distrust and guardedness vanishing as confession and humility became center stage. It completely disarmed me.

That was the moment I found Shane, as I now like to call him, totally irresistible.

Shane went on to unpack what he meant. He talked about power and people who have it and who need to share it and give it away. He fully acknowledged the power he possessed as a white guy with a college degree. He doesn’t live in a poor neighborhood in Philly to be a hero, he said. He lives there so he’ll learn from those who are powerless. He lives there so they will rescue him.

The rest of the interview became more like a conversation between brothers and sister. I asked more questions, Jesse did, too. Shane answered and we’d respond. There we sat, listening to one another as Christ followers in how to find our way in the world we find ourselves in.

Shane is the real deal. Unscripted. He’s not the idealist I imagined from reading his book. His eyes are wide open to the disparity of power that swirls all around him, including his own white, educated life. The difference with him is that he’s devoted to laying down that power for the sake of others. For the sake of Jesus. And that, my friends, is what makes him and his message so effin’ irresistible.

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    18 Comments

  • Otha Graham says:

    I too met Shane when he came to speak at my University a few years ago, possessing the same apprehensions as you after reading his book. So I’ll just second everything you said in the last couple of paragraphs. Shane is humble and pure and true humility on the pathway of Christ is “effin’ irresistible,” as you so eloquently put it. Thanks for writing this.

  • EmilyTimbol says:

    Pam,
    I was a little defensive when I started reading this, being one of those “white middle class kids” who believes the book really did change my life (albeit I still go to Starbucks and don’t make my own clothes) so I was wary of the perception you had of Shane. One thing I will say in his defense, about not having to provide for a family, is that he chose to not have to provide for a family so he could do the ministry he does. His singleness is intentional, and he is aware that not everyone has that luxury, but he does challenge people to consider it (after all, so did Paul).
    I liked the conclusion of the article, hearing Shane’s answer to your question, and seeing the perspective of someone who was much more objective of him than I was. Great article.

  • Jim says:

    My challenge with Shane Claiborne isn’t acutally with him or his book. It’s how it seems to end up being taken out of context by so many white middle class folk. They read it, and decide “I’m going to up and move into a poor neighbourhood”, not understanding that Shane was able to do what he does from years of experience and exposure, and building relationships. They seem to miss Claiborne’s point that “we all need to find our own Calcutta”, not become cookie-cutter images of Claiborne.

    Thank you for the article. I appreciated the point of veiw regarding the man behind the myth. Is the interview posted anywhere?

  • Kate says:

    Thank you. Nice article.

  • Angela Harms says:

    Shane has been an inspiration to me, too, and I was nervous reading the beginning of your piece. But you helped me understand some of the negative reactions I’ve heard. Thanks for that. :)

    I didn’t take the book as a suggestion to try to live as he does, but to find the path of love that’s right in front of me. Hard as hell, yes, but definitely worth doing, and a real source of joy in my life.

    And today’s been a hard day, so I don’t know how my response is affected by that… I appreciate your sharing all this, and your impressions of Shane. I’d love to read the interview if it’s available.

    Love, Angela

  • Al Doyle says:

    I remember the evening of Shane’s appearance in Portland as well. I was there with my Daughter, Mary and by best friend, Ken Loyd, a Portland area pastor serving our friends without roofs. I too had read Shane’s book, was touched by it, and came loaded with my usual cynicism. The cynic within quickly disappeared as I saw the true humility of this guy shine through. I can fully support your take on him based on your question about who the Pharisees of today are. I also want to let you know that your question totally rocks. That’s the kind of penetrating encounter that can quickly get to the core of an individual or provoke a response that indicates a lot about the respondent’s character. And sometime it can just piss people off because it demands a soul searching, truthful answer. Sometime I’d like to try living like Shane, but then I realize I’ll never be that cool, and never have that much courage.

  • luke says:

    I am a young white male with a college degree living in a new monastic community in a poor area–not because of shane claiborne but indebted to the call and inspiration he and the other members of the movement have given. Yes community life is hard. Yes it has been abused in the past. So too has any expression of church. And church probably should be a little “harder” than we’ve made it out to be.

    I get the defensiveness about idealists though. When our group began pursuing living in the inner city one of the local leaders smugly asked us “So I’m guessing you all have read Irresistible Revolution?” Well yes, but that’s not the point. Unfortunately there are some young idealists who are impacted by the book and go to the urban core and are gone in a few months, probably doing more harm than good. That is unfortunate. But does it mean we write off the movement and the principles behind it?

    The problem is the American tendency toward celebrity. Shane is a remarkable person and leader from what I gather–I have not met him. And I am so glad he lives in deep humility and commitment full of awareness and wisdom. But it is about so much more than him. I’m glad you came to like him, but what about the ideals he really does put out in his book? What about living in community? What about caring for the poor and seeking reconciliation through relocation and redistribution? We all can find our own Calcutta, it’s just pretty easy to find it in the comfort of where we already are with the security and privilege we have been given.

    To me it is inspiring to give up those privileges and try to give yourself away in love. You wrote that “his lifestyle and advantaged upbringing alienates him from the ordinary person’s reality.” And that is exactly the issue. To live out incarnation of Christ is to try to somehow find solidarity with those who need Jesus. That could be anyone, but Jesus talks a lot about the poor–which is I think why Claiborne does too. And we can’t do that in our ivory tower. We have to empty ourselves too. Yes this exact expression has to be a calling from Jesus and the new monastic model is by all means not for everyone. It cannot be done trying to be a hero. But it can be done when you are a little idealistic, as long as you are prepared to question and see your preconceptions break down. We all need that.

    But we won’t get there looking down on the young for what they don’t know. Hopefully the difference isn’t that Shane is “devoted to laying down that power for the sake of others. For the sake of Jesus.” Hopefully that is what makes us all the same.

  • Thanks everyone for your responses to this article. I know how popular and well regarded Shane is so I was a bit nervy myself for putting out this story.

    I have tried to find a paying magazine for the interview, but times are very hard for freelance writers. I’ve held off on just posting it on my blog, essentially giving it away. But I’ll reconsider. Freelancing is like fishing. I’ll cast out my net again with my Shane story and if I don’t get any bites, I’ll give it away on my blog. I’ll give it a month. Check back here around Halloween and I’ll give a status report. Cool?

    Thanks, too, for all your thoughtful remarks. It makes me think, and yes, this particular article focused on my resistance to the man and to the message I perceived. Of course there is a greater story here, as Luke eloquently points out, and that is the story that really needs to be told.

    I’ve done some blogging about my interaction with a Portland street church called HOMEpdx. At the risk of sounding like I’m pimping my blog, I would like to invite you to read my stories about how HOMEpdx engages with our city’s poorest and most vulnerable through the extraordinary acts of doing nothing special. You’ll see the HOMEpdx category in my sidebar. Feel free to lurk through.

    Thanks again for this conversation.

    Is it a sin to live in an ivory tower? Are rich people less noble than poor? Does God have more affection for the downtrodden than the wealthy? These are the questions that swirl around my head when I am at a cleaning gig (my day job). What do you guys think?

  • Troy says:

    thanks for this.

    your punch line made me smile.

  • Deborah says:

    Pam…
    Thanks for this article. Great question, “Who are the Pharisees today?” Even greater answer, “Me.”

  • DonnaV says:

    Ok, now I’m going to have to read the book!!
    In my mind it’s not about wealth or poverty, people can be used and abused in & by both segments of our population. To be aware of the possibility that I am the pharisee makes my brain swim. As I sink into the depths of “loving God & loving others” the difficulty that comes with the reality of how hard that truly is, can instead of mobilizing me to action, freeze me on the spot. I love that as individuals if we do take action, that action will not look the same for us all yet the results of those actions should.

  • Whittney says:

    I appreciate your humility. It’s refreshing to see that you are open to the possibility of changing your opinions, and your intentionality on that point made this an enjoyable article to read. Thank you.

  • Love this! Love you! Love Jesse! Love Shane!

    The only time I saw Shane live was when I snuck into a National Pastors conference of some sort. Didn’t pay. Didn’t get an invite. Just wanted to hear what he would say to yes, a huge group of mostly white males… at the end of what I suppose he says to most groups he had a few bags brought out to the stage… he explained that in the bags was his wage for being at the gig and it was broken down into $1 bills… then he scattered them across the front of the stage. He asked us all to come up and take one with us to give to someone that would need it… it was the most uncomfortable moment of one of the those big events I have ever witnessed… people didn’t know if they should… some went up and got their dollar… some left without their dollar… was a very trippie night… I will not forget it!

  • Andrew says:

    thank you so much for this. I didn’t read The Irresistible Revolution, I did read Jesus for President. When I read that book, I felt like Shane existed in a completely different world. I am the epitome of middle-class white kid. The suburbs is my home. I play in a band here, I lead worship here. I have learned to love others in a different way. I feel like the people around me who live healthy, stable lives are actually quite needy in themselves. I just had a hard time leveling with Shane when it came down to following Christ. I was put off by Shane’s own brand of Christianity and His sales pitch. If I made my own clothes and wore them Id be better of naked. I recall myself thinking “this crap makes no sense, I could never apply these ideas in my culture.” For a while I held a spirit of contempt toward Shane, but to hear you share what he said, I no longer feel that way. Shane Claiborne might have a very different idea of what it means to follow Christ, but I cannot hold such a poisonous spirit for a Christian brother. Thank you.

  • Thanks for the comments, guys. Andrew, you made my day. When a reader tells me that something I wrote has impacted their point of view, this is like a paycheck for me. I am encouraged!

  • Mage Face says:

    your better off going after

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