Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Reinventing the Wheel

A few weeks ago this blog post came my way. It's a brief plug for the latest book in the publishing empire of Shane Claiborne, which, at last count, consisted of eight books (either individually authored or coauthored with others) and four DVDs. Claiborne is a Christian activist, a key player in the New Monasticism movement and a self-proclaimed Christian radical. As you might have guessed from the tone, I'm not much of a fan.

But before I get off criticizing Claiborne, let me say this: I have no reason to doubt his sincerity or his personal holiness. Claiborne says he is striving to follow Jesus, a claim I do not dispute. Indeed, if the world had more people like Shane Claiborne, it would be a better place.

But...? you ask. But in spite of his sincerity, I think there are problems with some of Claiborne's writings. Mostly they are faults of omission, emphasizing one part of Scripture or one kind of vocation, but downplaying another. We can't all talk about everything all the time, so this is not a damning criticism of his work, but I would caution readers to remember that he describes some ways of living out the Christian life, but not all.

My other major criticism of Claiborne is his unhistorical approach. For example, Claiborne likes to contrast the generosity and nonviolence of early Christians with the greed and violence of the Roman Empire. His conclusion? The Church is at odds with political power. This view, however compelling, is unhistorical. A quick look at some primary documents like those found in Hugo Rahner's Church and State in Early Christianity, reveal that early Christians, though skeptical of the Empire's abuses and pagan practices, were not categorically opposed to it. In fact, Christians prayed for the emperor and fought in his armies. This should not come as a surprise; the Gospels themselves do not preach the kind of political radicalism that Claiborne suggests. In fact, they seem rather ambivalent about politics. When asked by some soldiers what they ought to do, John the Baptist replied, "Do not practice extortion, do not falsely accuse anyone, and be satisfied with your wages" (Luke 3:14). Nothing about laying down one's arms or rejecting the emperor's authority.

But one also finds yet another kind of unhistorical approach in Claiborne's writings, the kind that struck me in the above-mentioned blog post: a general neglect of Christian tradition. Perhaps it is the product of a Protestant background which looks only to Scripture and tends to ignore the interpretation of Christians through the ages. Below you'll find the bit of video that post included, where Claiborne explains the importance of leadership and followership:

What I found rather amusing was the fact that Claiborne ever had the hope of building a leaderless community. I don't mean to make light of his idealism or naivete, but even a cursory reading of the literature of Christian communities - notably the "old monasticism" which he seeks to revive in a new way - would reveal the importance of leaders and followers in fruitful relationship with one another. Ever taken a gander at St. Benedict's Rule? The person of the abbot comes up all the time. Having studied other communities and lived community life himself, Benedict knew what he was talking about. Moreover, the fact that his Rule continues to bear fruit in monasteries around the world today is a tribute to its wisdom.

I am glad to see that Claiborne has moved beyond the failed experiment of a leaderless community, and I hope his latest book - which I have not read - is full of wisdom and insight and will be a blessing to Christians who read it. But one might ask: why reinvent the wheel, when 2,000 years of Christian history already hold these same insights?
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