"The Irresistible Revolution: Living as an Ordinary Radical" by Shane Claiborne

Reviewed by Ning Wu

Fueled by intensive campaigning from the Christian right, the wedge issues of abortion and gay marriage have dominated discussions of morality in this country -- in the media, in church and in public. These issues polarize and divide the country and promote prejudice and arrogance. To hear the spokespeople of the religious right one would conclude: (1) These are the most important issues of Christianity; (2) If you are Christian these two issues are a moral values litmus test; (3) If you are not a Christian, then you have no moral values. Ironically, this kind of "Christian" propaganda has made the Christian God less accessible to people like me.

I am not a Christian but when I finished reading Shane Claiborne’s Irresistible Revolution&, my first thought was "If all Christians were like Shane Claiborne, like the people in this book, I would want to be one of them."

Irresistible Revolution: Living as an Ordinary Radical is the moving personal journey of Claiborne's search for the meaning of Christianity, and becoming a true follower of Jesus. It is thought provoking, profound, and at the same time hilarious. Once one starts to read, it is hard to put it down.

Shane Claiborne grew up in the Bible belt in East Tennessee where "Christianity was safe comfortable and trendy. And there is a church building on nearly every corner". Like many other young men he went to church regularly. "Church was a place where there were cute girls, free junk food, and cheap snowboarding trips," he recalled. He attended several youth groups, choosing whichever had the best entertainment and drew the largest crowds.

During his middle school years, he had a born-again experience every year at a large Christian festival, replete with bands, speakers and even late-night pranks. Yet he came to wonder if there wasn’t more to Christianity. "I came to realize that preachers were telling me to lay my life at the foot of the cross and were not giving me anything to pick up." "People had taught me what Christians believe, but no one had told me how Christians live," he wrote.

Shane’s path to becoming a follower of Jesus started when he enrolled in Eastern College in Philadelphia. He and his college friends joined a group of homeless mothers and children in defying an order of the Catholic archdiocese that would have evicted them from St. Edward’s church.

The homeless women and children occupying St. Edward’s church belonged to an organization called the Kensington Welfare Rights Union. They had lived in a tent city whose worsening conditions included rats and flooding. Though the number of abandoned houses in Philadelphia exceeded the number of homeless people, they were stuck on an endless waiting list for subsidized housing, while a government agency threatened to take custody of their kids. The families moved into St. Edward’s as an act of survival and a refusal to remain invisible. They put up a banner that read: "How can we worship a homeless man on Sunday and ignore one on Monday?" When the officials came to evict them, the families declared: "God says this is his house and we are welcome to stay."

Through the experiences at St. Edward’s Shane found that the body of Jesus came alive to him, "no longer trapped in stained-glass windows" of churches or "books of systematic theology." He met Jesus "in the ruins of the church and among the most impoverished people." He realized that Jesus was homeless; rejecting the Christianity "that smothered them," he found "God in the abandoned places, in the desert of the inner city." He learned more about God from the tears of homeless mothers than any systematic theology ever taught him, he wrote.

But it was as a missionary in Calcutta working in Khalighat, the Home for the Destitute and Dying, that Shane discovered the true meaning of "to live Christianity". For quite a long time, Shane had been searching. From the time of his college studies, he felt that "sometime back we had stopped living Christianity and just started studying it."

Shane had a surprising phone conversation with Mother Teresa before going to Calcutta, and then met her there. People elsewhere treated Mother Teresa as a Saint, but on the streets of Calcutta, Shane observed, she "was just 'Mother' running around on the streets, hanging out with kids, caring for the sick, going to Mass each morning." She was just another ordinary Christian devoting herself to God.

In the Home for the Destitute and Dying in Calcutta, Shane worked with Andy, a man from Germany. At one time Andy had been a wealthy businessman. After he made a decision to follow Jesus, Andy sold everything he owned, gave the proceeds to the poor, and moved to Calcutta. Andy ran the lepers hospital for quite a few years, and served longer than any of the sisters there. Shane "fell in love with the Home for the Destitute and Dying" because it was in this leper’s camp that he finally met living Christians. Every day Shane helped gravely sick people eat, massaged their muscles, gave them baths -- spoiling people who really deserved it. "Each day, folks would die and each day we would go out onto the streets and bring in new people," he wrote. They didn’t attempt to save these people but to make their life more comfortable and their death dignified.

From his experiences in Philadelphia, and Calcutta, Shane Claiborne came to understand the differences between learning the words of Jesus and truly following Jesus. In his writing, he quoted the words of 19th century Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard: "The matter is quite simple. The Bible is very easy to understand. But we Christians are 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. Take a few words in the New Testament and forget everything except pledging yourself to act accordingly." Kierkegaard referred to Christian scholarship as the church’s prodigious invention to defend itself against the Bible: "to ensure that we can continue to be good Christians without the Bible coming too close."

Shane Claiborne’s experiences at the leper colony in Calcutta demonstrate the best that the Christian religion, and Jesus have to offer: kindness, empathy, hope and love. People treated others like their brothers and sisters regardless who they were or where they came from. Shane wrote: "As I lived in the leper colony, the Bible came to life, changed from black and white to color.... I saw the gospel with new eyes." "I started to see that the miracles were an expression not so much of Jesus mighty power as of his love… The last significance was not the miracles themselves but Jesus’ love. Jesus raised his friend, Lazarus from the dead, and a few years later Lazarus died again. Jesus healed the sick but they eventually caught some other disease. He fed the thousands, and the next day they were hungry again. But we remember his love. It wasn’t that Jesus healed a leper but that he touched a leper, because no one touched lepers. And the incredible thing about that love is that it now lives inside of us."

For some time, I have been reading Bible as history and as literature. I’ve found very little evidence that abortion and gay marriage were ever discussed in the Bible, much less that they were the essential issues. To the contrary, the issues of poverty, war, homelessness, and suffering were on practically every page. In that context, it is so refreshing to read Shane Claiborne’s writing about Christianity. Through his writing, I could feel the spirit of Jesus living in Shane and his friends, in Andy, in Mother Teresa. His vivid personal stories are like New Testament parables.

Claiborne also shares with us his inner thoughts, contradictions, his uncertainties, and his critical observations of his church and society as a whole. He doesn’t lecture and he doesn’t force his views upon others. He only wants to share and to understand. Last but not least, his writings reveal a sense of humor -- a humor that I rarely find in modern religious writing. It is delightful reading.

If you’re going to read one book about modern Christianity, please pick up this book in your library or a bookstore.

If you plan to attend your church next Sunday, please you bring a copy of this book to your pastor and share with your fellow Christians this irresistible spiritual journey.