Last night Fran and Rhiannon and I drove up to Berry College outside of Rome, GA to hear Shane Claiborne speak. Shane is the author of a wonderful book called The Irresistible Revolution: Living as an Ordinary Radical (I’ve been meaning to write a review of it and just haven’t gotten to it yet; for now let’s just say it’s a book that belongs on your “must read” list). A leading figure in the neo-monastic movement, Shane is a co-founder of a small intentional community in Philadelphia, where he lives the gospel in the tradition of the Catholic Worker movement and the ministry of Mother Teresa (with whom we spent a summer). His book combines his life story with an insightful and accessible presentation of the gospel mandate for sharing and hospitality as core Christian virtues, with some plain old fashioned storytelling thrown in just to keep it interesting.
Shane is as fun and warm in person as he comes across on the pages of his book. With the physique of a preying mantis, horn-rimmed glasses, dreadlocks, and a goatee, he is hardly the image of a nice young white middle class evangelical. But as we discovered in his talk, his goal in life is to be — and to encourage all Christians to join him in being — the “spit’n image” of Christ. Shane explained that spit’n image is a corruption of “spirit and image,” suggesting that when one is the spit’n image of someone, they carry that person’s likeness inside as well as out.
His message basically covered the same ground as the book, keeping the audience’s attention with a down-home Tennesee accent (Shane hails from east Tennessee, not far from where we were last night) and plenty of humor. Particularly memorable is the story of his grandfather’s truck that caught fire when hauling hay one time (the story’s also in the book, so I won’t attempt to recount it here. Go buy the book!)
As someone who’s closing in on my half-century mark, it was a treat for me to hear a young man who must be barely over thirty share the gospel imperative for hospitality and restructuring our society to a chapel full of college students, here in the heart of a “red state.” It gives me hope. And part of Claiborne’s charm is that he never resorts to guilt-tripping or attacking in his efforts to get the message across. Even when, as he recounts in one memorable story (also in the book), he was arrested for distributing Holy Communion in a public park (at the time Philadelphia had an ordinance against distributing food in public), he notes how he was able to forge friends with both the police officers and the judge who presided over the case (he didn’t quite win over the prosecuting attorney; the fact that he accidentally called her the “persecutor” probably didn’t help matters).
Over the course of a sixty-minute talk and a q&a afterwards, Shane realizes he’s not going to change lives, so he kept his message upbeat and gentle. With a bible in his hand, he asks of his Christian-college audience, “What would happen if we really lived by this book?” But for me, the most brilliant moment of the evening came during the q&a, when one student asked him to comment on how Christians should approach the question of homosexuality. Here, Shane proved himself a brilliant tactician (and/or a true prophet). He never directly answered the question, knowing that to do so would mean — no matter what he said — an instant loss of credibility with a huge portion of the audience. Instead, he admits that different members of his own community hold divergent perspectives on this question. “As Christians we need to learn to disagree well,” he said. He also noted that it was important to put a human face on issues like “the gay question,” and finally that, as Billy Graham once said, it was the Holy Spirit’s job to convict, God’s job to judge, and so our job is simply to love. “We need to remember not to overstep our job description.”
Sure, I would have loved a more definitive answer from him. But to what end: so I could either applaud him or condemn him? By refusing to give me such an answer, he gave me (and everyone else there) the gift of not having to judge him — and also a glimpse of how the larger community of faith might learn to work through this and other polarizing issues.
So if Shane Claiborne comes to your home town, go hear him speak. And in the meantime, get the book, and read it. Through it, the Holy Spirit will convict you. But in a good way.