As I’ve always said about Shane Claiborne: I may not agree with everything he says, but I’m glad there’s someone out there saying it. And Tony Campolo’s been eminently quotable for decades now. Plus, Claiborne was Campolo’s student at Eastern University. So, all of this points to a really good book, right?
It should. To be sure, it has plenty of moments; and it’s worth it just to see Claiborne being his radically winsome self. The problem seems to be more in the “dialogue” structure of the book itself, and the underlying premises for creating the book. In the end, I walked away feeling like this book doesn’t quite know what it wants to be when it grows up.
Shane Claiborne and Tony Campolo. Red Letter Revolution: What If Jesus Really Meant What He Said? 288p., $22.99 (hardcover), Thomas Nelson.
In many ways, this is meant to be a follow-up to Campolo’s (and friends’) movement/blog/book Red Letter Christians—so named after Jesus’ words in the Bible—and intended to be a meeting-place between the evangelical and social-justice fronts. Again, a worthy endeavor. And as Campolo puts it in the intro (and in response to a Christianity Today article criticizing their focus), “Exactly! Not only do we say that the red letters are superior to the black letters of the Bible, but Jesus said they were!”
From there, the authors present their “red-letter”—or rather, their Red Letter—stances on 26 theological, lifestyle, and global issues, dedicating roughly 10 pages of “dialogue” to each. This is where it gets dicey. Sometimes the “dialogue” device works; a lot of times it doesn’t, and it’s almost always Campolo on the short end of the stick. A lot of it reads like Campolo interviewing Claiborne, then inserting his two cents after the fact. And as such, it often reads very clunky.
And depending on your current stances on the issues discussed, you’ll either be pumping a fist or throwing one. For what it’s worth, I’m already on board with most of what’s here, and interestingly (and again) the two chapters I’d have the biggest problems with are the only two where Campolo takes the lead, on homosexuality and the Middle East (read: Israel). In the former, Claiborne’s largely content on citing Andrew Marin’s Love Is an Orientation, which works for me by and large; while Campolo goes decidedly to the left. The latter is a mix: Campolo harps almost obsessively about “Evangelical Zionists,” but his more reasoned suggestions at the end are well worth considering, even if not they’re not yet in the mainstream of American evangelical thought.
Other chapters here will just make you think. The one on missions is quite helpful, as Claiborne talks about the welcome change in focus from “fixing the problem”—and thus disempowering indigenous peoples in the process—to equipping and empowering those we’re called to serve. And in a typically Claibornian spurt of imagination/creativity (or pipe-dreaming, if you’re that way inclined), he even suggests that his old economic professors reach out to local drug dealers, to help them put their spirit of enterprise to a much better use.
And the chapter on racism will likely blow you away. You can discover that one on your own, and again if you’re willing to work through the other issues here. But really, go read The Irresistible Revolution first (or even Jesus for President), because most of the thoughts in this book can be found there, and they’re so much more readable there.
In the end, this book doesn’t make me want to sign up to be a Red Letter Christian, again, even while I already agree with a lot of it. But it does remind me to take Jesus’ words more seriously—and to ask, in the words of this book’s subtitle, “What if Jesus really meant what He said?” And I think the authors would agree that’s a good thing.