Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Book Review - The Irresistible Revolution by Shaine Claiborne

If anyone pays any attention to my reading list, they must think I am a slow reader. It takes me a long time to get through the books I list here. I read fiction now and then and actually manage to return books to the library in a reasonable amount of time, but the "morning books" are a slow go. Too many of my mornings allow no time to make progress in anything beyond the Bible.

This morning I finished a book I have been working on for several months -- The Irresistible Revolution: Living As an Ordinary Radical by Shaine Claiborne. The author is a self-described radical. He does ministry in the inner city of Philadelphia. When the U.S. declared war on Iraq, he went to Iraq to minister to the people there. He has sneaked into an event where the President of the United States was speaking, passing himself off as a journalist and then removing his outer business attire to expose a t-shirt with words of protest. He has been arrested multiple times for civil disobedience.

This book was not a waste of my time. It is readable and thought-provoking. It gave me a nudge to nurture my natural pacifism. It challenged me to find ways to minister to people living in poverty. It encouraged me by presenting a snapshot of one person's take on what it looks like to take the teachings of Jesus Christ seriously.

This is a book that makes me feel like I've been listening to the author speak of his personal experience rather than reading about it. Every word is written in the voice of the author. I can imagine myself in a crowd of people listening to him speak. And in my imagined picture, I imagine myself interacting with him. Only, that part doesn't work. When I approach him, he doesn't see me. He looks past me for someone more interesting. Ordinary, law-abiding citizens bore him. He's looking for people living more obviously radical lifestyles than mine.

Now, I may be very wrong about Mr. Claiborne. He may actually enjoy exploring ministry possibilities with ordinary people trying to invest their lives in ways that bless those around them, particularly in the needy people in their world. But his book is written in a tone that leaves me feeling hopelessly dull and lacking in spiritual fervor. I'm not ready to give up my current community to seek out a more exotic setting in the inner city. If everyone who cares about needy people went to the inner city, who would care about those trapped in destructive lifestyles in less populated areas? I'm also not quite willing to accept his underlying message that says real Christians live in ways that stir up the government to oppose them. I suppose that if I looked hard enough I could find some form of local injustice that requires fighting the government to correct. But I don't have to look nearly so hard to find ways to minister to people in ways that please governing authorities by addressing community needs that aren't easily addressed by government -- e.g., literacy, adult education, and spiritual needs.

I think I may be too old for this book. I've long outgrown any desire I might have had in my younger years to stir up trouble for myself by bringing the negative attention of authority figures my direction. Actually, I get along quite well with authority figures. Maybe I'm just fortunate to live in a place where the government is more interested in building community than in oppressing needy people. Or maybe I'm blind and my blindness survived this attempt to open my eyes.

This book wasn't a waste of my time to read. It gave me a view of an alternative approach to Christian living. It's good for me to see how other people are living out the teachings of Jesus Christ. Reading it reminded me that ministry happens outside the four walls of the church. But it gave me no ideas for law-abiding ministry in my rural community. Mr. Claiborne wouldn't find nearly enough excitement and challenge in my world. While people were struggling with drunk-driving citations and literacy and economic issues, the most likely action I can imagine for him would be to move into a tepee set up outside the gates of the local Navy base in protest against the war, inconveniencing the civilian employees there by forcing the base to go on high danger alert. (This scenario doesn't take all that much imagination on my part. It has already been done in protest of some other military action.)

In summary, I'm not unhappy about the time I invested in reading the book, but it won't get a permanent spot on my bookshelves. If someone wants to read it, I'll mail it to the first person who asks.


Scottdale Church of the Nazarene said...


First of all, thank you for reading this book. Since I put the original book review, it makes me happy to see someone else reading it.

Also, your review caught me somewhat bittersweet. I have always respected you and your thoughts, so it was inevitable that there would eventually be something that we each see in a completely different light.

When I first read the book almost a year ago, I didn't see a radical as much as I saw an ordinary person who was struggling with Jesus' words. Maybe it is because I am of the same age group, but I really do struggle whenever I preach from the Gospels because of the same things Shane brings up in this book. These are the struggles I started having when I became "sanctified". When I picked up this book, I somehow thought it was a church growth book and was pleasantly surprised when it wasn't the kind of church growth I was expecting to see.

I never saw Shane as a rebel rouser so much as one who gets noticed easily for doing odd things. Maybe it is for this reason that I am so fortunate to read your review. It helps me understand where others are... where you are. I always struggle connecting with other Christians -- for good or for bad -- because of the inconsistencies (not the hypocrisy) that I see.

I too have a hard time imagining Shane in a rural setting. I have a hard time imagining myself in a rural setting, yet that is where I am and have been for the past 8 months. I can't speak for him, but for me it is a struggle. Maybe it is because I feel like I am actually doing something when I am in the inner city than in other places. I also do not feel anywhere near the kind of pressure that I do in a small town.

One thing that you said, that I would like to hear your further thoughts... you said you may be too old for this book. Was there a time when you were the right age for this book? If so, what happened between then and now? I am asking because my whole life people have told me I will grow out of thought processes and behavior patterns (kind of a fad thing) but these things grab my heart strings strongly. I do not know whether to be frightened or happy that I may one day myself be too old for this book.

Mike McVey
P.S. I'm gonna post this to NazNet too. Don't feel the need to respond twice unless you really want to.

Marsha Lynn said...


Thanks for your interest in further dialog on this.

Mike wrote: One thing that you said, that I would like to hear your further thoughts... you said you may be too old for this book.

Ah... you zeroed in on probably the main difference between our response to this book, although it pains me to admit that I'm thinking like an old person.

Mike: Was there a time when you were the right age for this book? If so, what happened between then and now? I am asking because my whole life people have told me I will grow out of thought processes and behavior patterns (kind of a fad thing) but these things grab my heart strings strongly.

Actually, I have probably never had too much desire to do radical things like moving to the inner city in the name of Jesus. But when I was younger, I would have been more likely to respond to a book like this by thinking it's what I oughtta desire. What age does is allow me to observe the life of those who choose a radical change-the-world lifestyle over the long term. I mentioned the 'old hippie ( who set up a tepee outside the gates of our local Navy base 20-odd years ago, triggering a high alert status that inconvenienced the workforce there. Here's an article about him:"] Towards the end of it, the journalist writes: But what about everything else in his life? There are still nuclear weapons, after all; Poindexter still has a street named for him in Odon; McVeigh is dead -- the world must be a frustrating place to Breeden.

Breeden's response is: "I don't know that anything I do will actually make a difference. Faith is believing it will."

Now, I don't have a problem with someone who wants to change the world by stealing street signs or living in a tepee outside the gate of a Navy base or leading protest marches against capital punishment, although I have some empathy for those who have to scrabble for a way to respond to his actions that won't bring embarrassment to them and the local community. Still, I'm glad there are people who do passionate things. However, I'm not convinced those people are more radical about their Christianity than the person who radically loves those around them in everyday settings of everyday life and in everyday (legal) ways. I'm not sure that Bill Breeden for all his public statements has done more good in the world and is more pleasing to God than the person who follows the example of the boy throwing starfish back into the ocean -- making a difference one life at a time.

Mike: I do not know whether to be frightened or happy that I may one day myself be too old for this book.

Well, I've mentioned elsewhere that one of the turning points in my life was when I decided to ignore the voices that told me Jesus didn't really mean what it appears he was saying in the Sermon on the Mount and to try living that way for a few decades just as an experiment. (I'm still trying.) The further I go down this path the more wide open the horizon in front of me appears. I find that there's no end of adventure in spiritual living that can be explored without making the evening news.

It's not that I'm not interested in radical living. I'm just not so keen about doing it in a manner that attracts television crews.

Matt W. said...

I'll take the book if you still have it.

Thanks for your generosity with it. Please email me and I will provide you with my address.

Marsha Lynn said...

Hi, Matt. Sorry for the slow response. I don't have your e-mail address but it really doesn't matter, as the book seems to have been spirited away by one of my (adult) children. I'm thinking she probably figured out that I'm not worthy of it and won't be in any big hurry to return it.

Jono said...

The differences in opinion may be a generational thing. What I loved about the book was that it gave me hope that my Christianity still has relevance and meaning in an increasingly post-modern and ideologically divided world. I'm in my early 20's and I find it frustrating that my only options seem to be unreservedly accepting an anti-intellectual, narrow and inwards focused church or coming across as an angry, bitter cynic; in contrast I found Irresistible revolution’s message that authentic and practical alternatives exist incredibly encouraging.

I’d imagine Martha that your experience and perception of church would be quite different to mine. From your description of your ministry it appears that, unlike me and many other Christians my age, you’ve already found authentic and practical ways to live out Jesus’ command to love God and love other people. That may explain your reaction to the book. Personally I feel that rather than Claiborne only advocating a very public, dramatic Christianity, his message is that we should be doing something with our faith other than hellfire evangelism, and, astonishingly, alternatives do exist!

If this is Claiborne's argument and its implications did not come as a suprise to you i'm not surpised the book didn't end up on your bookshelf :)

Marsha Lynn said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Marsha Lynn said...

Thanks for the comments, Jono. I appreciate your perspective. I don't know that I have the "love God, love others" lifestyle completely figured out, but I certainly find no lack of opportunity to work on it. And what joy there is in the journey. I pray that you also are finding this to be the case.