Red Letters and Matching Eyes

The Red Letter Christian movement is something that is starting to gain momentum in the Western Church, so when the opportunity arose to read the manifesto (so to speak) of said movement, I was excited. While I knew going into Shane Claiborne and Tony Campolo’s “dialogue” that I would have areas of contention, I enjoy reading perspectives that differ from my own. After all, I’ve been wrong before. Undoubtedly, Claiborne and Campolo did what they do best: in this easy to read conversation; they put on quite a show. Unfortunately, its a show that is riddled with problems in logic, a false sense of openness and historical misinformation.

I realize that sounds harsh, so I want to clarify. I love Shane. I’ve never met him, and I disagree with his writings frequently, but he loves Jesus (often better than I do). When two people have deep disagreements, but can agree on Christ then the disagreements seem much less important. I don’t have to have the same politics as Shane in order for me to see that his heart is fixed on God. He’s a guy who truly gets the red letter expression, “love God with all your…body and spirit.” Not to mention he shares a passion with me: ecumenical dialogue. Shane understands that Christian includes Catholics, Seventh Day Adventists, Baptists, Pentecostals, Anglicans and every one else who holds to the orthodoxy of the Church. I can’t help but love a fellow brother who loves God’s people.

All that being said, I was disappointed in some of the points in Red Letter Revolution. For starters, it doesn’t seem to promote much of a revolution. To revolve is to return to a starting point, and this book deviates from much of the early Christians perspectives on issues that face the Church today. What are we getting back to? I know the book promotes ideas like the “New Testament Church,” but that’s impossible. We cannot recreate Pentecost, nor any other factor that contributed to the Acts 2 description of God’s body. We draw principles from it (like selling our possessions to care for one another), but we don’t try to imitate that moment. We absorb it and move forward. God’s kingdom isn’t stagnant, so I’ve never understood the argument of “returning to the way Church was.”

I also felt throughout that Shane and Tony took many liberties with folks like Saint Francis of Assisi. As a Franciscan friend of mine put it, “people like to remake Saint Francis in the image of their own ideologies; he’s easier to digest that way.” Insinuating that Francis was an “environmentalist,” for instance, is so anachronistic that its kind of silly. The book muses about whether or not Francis would have been part of the Occupy movement (and suggests he would have), despite the fact that Francis wouldn’t even stand up to the people corrupting the monastic order he started. I dig Francis, but I don’t idealize him. He wasn’t perfect. And you feel like he’s this giant when you read Shane write about him, but that is the result of selectively telling stories about him. That kind of stuff bothers me, as a Church History teacher particularly, because we have to recognize that God uses crooked sticks to draw straight lines. And we’re all crooked sticks.

Not only do I have historical issues with the work, but philosophic ones too. The book is clearly modeled on the Socratic dialogues, but it is missing the driving force behind such conversational pieces: there’s nothing to dialogue about. Dialogue comes from the Greek word meaning to dispute. But there are certainly no disagreements going on in Red Letter Revolution. Tony and Shane see eye to eye on pretty much everything they discuss. Why would I want to listen in on that conversation? It’s not challenging, nor is it encouraging. I need two sides; I need to hear and understand the other side. Otherwise I’m stuck speculating how John Piper might respond to Tony or Owen Strachan to Shane. It’s just not enough to have a one-sided conversation.

There are other issues I have with the book, but as I think on them I don’t know if they’re worth sharing. At what point do I stop, out of love, critiquing my brothers in Christ? I know that for all we disagree on, there are far more eternal matters on which we agree wholeheartedly. While I didn’t find much in this book to challenge me to live differently, I certainly respect the effort. In truth, this book probably wasn’t written for me. So does my opinion even really matter? Maybe. Either way, I want to encourage everyone, whether you pick this book up or not, to love Shane and Tony. They are men who desire God. And that’s a movement we can all take part in.

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