>"The Radical Fringe" of Christianity


Jarrod McKenna in the Australian FriendImage by C. Wess Daniels via Flickr

Ron Cole, who writes “The Weary Pilgrim” describes the work of Jarrod McKenna as the “Australian version of Shane Claiborne.”  “The Weary Pilgrim” highlights a podcast of Jarrod’s.

What I wanted to quote, however, is how he describes Jarrod and this “radical fringe” of Christianity.

He is part of a radical element on the the fringe of the church that sees faith and works, the practice and action of faith as being critical. The teachings of Jesus put into practice must be lived out, as radically today… to dilute them, co-modify and embed them in western church culture is not the redemptive vision and imagination of Jesus. This radical fringe believes Christianity is in trouble because it has become to passive and culturally accommodating. They are stirring the luke-warm pot of status quo Christianity.

That’s some powerful language there. 

And I am left with the struggle of determining how I should live this out when I have bills to pay, kids to pick up, a church to fund, construction workers to check in on, and a stewardship campaign to close out.

Sometimes I seem and feel so far from this “radical fringe.”  I feel so…established…so diluted…so co-modified…so embedded.


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>Stewart, Colbert, and Changing Public Discourse

>colbert and stewartImage by PinkMoose via Flickr
This may be more revealing than it should be.  I normally play my political cards pretty close to my chest.  I find it’s best not to be pinned down, politically, so that I’m able to have intelligent conversations with those to the left of me and those to the right of me without being pigeonholed. 

My own children have noted that I seem to be able to talk respectfully and discerningly with person with whom I disagree, even passionately.  I try to be open to their perspectives and try to see what life experiences and history and theology have shaped their beliefs.  I also don’t want anyone to have preconceived notions about what I believe — which I know they already do.  I don’t want anyone to prejudge me for that they assume will be my opinion — which I know they already do.  I don’t want to miss a chance to be able to really hear the heartfelt opinions of others as I try to know them better.

Now, I like to think this makes me a pretty rare species in today’s world.  In the world today, as I look at it, we have some very strict boundaries around our political groups.  And, while we may have politicians who claim they “reach across the aisle,” we really know that this phenomena of “aisle reaching” doesn’t happen much at all.  Take a look at all the votes in the Senate and Congress that fell right down along party lines.  Those aisle are made for walking, not crossing.

Furthermore, it seems that our American political groups are so entrenched that they are forced to demonize those on the other side.  Republicans feel a need to characterized Barack Obama as a Muslim and a Socialist and draw him with a Hitler moustache…which, unless you’re the real Hitler, is just an unnecessary hyperbole.  Democrats feel a need to characterize their opponents as “fascists” and “pro-business” when, let’s face it, there are some businesses that have been pretty good to Democrats.

This is not helpful.

And the media plays into all of this.  What sells as “news” these days is most often commentary disguised as news.  A typical “news” story will essentially be two persons yelling across their ideological differences and trying to paint the “other” into a caricature of who they really are.  Therefore the one who wants to raise taxes to make sure Social Security is fully funded and to provide unemployment insurance in these economic times is called a “socialist” who believes in “spreading the wealth” just like Karl Marx did.   And the person who ideologically believes in a smaller government with more privatized social services “hates poor people” and is a “friend to the rich.”  And so we watch our pundits yell at each other, take quotes out of context, and use “slippery slope logic.”  We’re told “if they pass this bill requiring children under the age of 18 to get parental consent for an abortion, the next thing you know all abortion will be illegal and young women will be dying because of back-alley abortions.”  Really?   We’re told that if we pass this bill requiring a 10-day waiting period to buy a gun the next thing you know all our guns will be taken away and American won’t be able to defend themselves or even hunt.  Really?

And, I have to admit, it’s not just political discourse that’s fallen on hard times. Religious discourse is right there with it.  We’re real good at demonizing those persons who disagree with us theologically. 

It’s not helpful.

It’s not civil.

And, I would say, it’s not Christian.

So, it is with some interest that I’ve paid attention to the Jon Stewart and Steven Colbert’s dueling rallies, “The Rally to Restore Sanity” and “The Rally to Keep Fear Alive.”  I know a lot of persons just think of these guys as “liberal comedians.”  I endured a Sunday School class once, as an outsider, that spent a great deal of time talking about how un-American and “evil” Jon Stewart and his Daily Show were because he was speaking out against the War in Iraq.  But both of these guys are more like the court jesters of our day, speaking truth to power, poking fun at the inconsistencies of who we are.

And Stewart, for whatever liberal leanings he may seem to have, seems to honestly respect the persons who come on his show, even if he passionately disagrees with him.  I’ve seen him with conservative commentator Bill O’Reilly a few times but I find it interesting that, even though these two aren’t going to come out on the same side of many issues, it seems that each of them honestly wants to know what it is that has shaped the others’ perspectives and beliefs.  I think they both appreciate that the other is not just going to put out sound bites or yell.  Neither is coming to the “gunfight” with just a “knife” but has a carefully reasoned approach and, in kind, is able to hear the reasoning of their opponent, even if they come to different conclusions.  To be honest, this is done for and with “entertainment” and “humor” but it feels different.

So, where is this going?  I think we need to change the tone of our public discourse in this country.  I think we need to be careful how we characterize and mis-characterize those with whom we disagree because we’ll make the divide between us so great that, not only will we not be able to talk together, but we’ll also be unable to work together on the issues we all think are important. I think our inability to hear perspectives other than our own stunts our growth, intellectually and politically and socially. 

Not all Democratic or Liberal ideas are bad.  Not all Republican or Conservative ideas are bad.  We need both, working together to make any kind of progress.

Religiously, I’m reminded of Shane Claiborne saying that he has a hard time defining himself “denominationally” because he wants the fire of the Pentecostals, he wants the rituals of the Catholics, he wants the faith in action of the Methodists, he wants the emphasis upon God’s Word of the Fundamentalist, and he wants the theology of the Lutherans and Calvinists.  And he thinks he’s better for each of them.

Perhaps we can have more of that in our country as well.

Today I’m going to have a few follow up posts from these dueling rallies of Steven Colbert and Jon Stewart from Saturday.  I was gone all day Saturday and most of Sunday and have only seen a portion of the rallies on the internet so far.  But there’s some stuff in there I really like and I think it’s helpful to the conversations I have on a regular basis with persons in life, in community, and in ministry.

And it all spring from my deep-rooted belief that we need to change the way we talk to each other and relate to each other…particularly when we disagree.

I hope, when all is said and done, persons will still find my political beliefs somewhat of an enigma.  I truly want to be open to hearing what all persons have to say…if what they say is more than a bumper sticker and is said quietly.  Then I’ll listen and, hopefully, be open to being transformed as their perspective meets/confronts mine.

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>Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes. NO. — New Monasticism and Me

>Shane Claiborne speaking in 2007Image via Wikipedia

I can’t help but wonder if my life would have been different if I had really been exposed to the “New Monasticism” at an earlier age–when I was young and carefree, when I didn’t have kids.

It seems like my life, over the past few years, but really in the last 6 months, has been been bombarded by images of these new monastics in the world.  Well, I’m sure I haven’t been bombarded, but that’s kind of the way it feels.

In seminary, back in the early 90s I had a friend who, with his wife, purposely chose to live in a more dangerous, poorer section of the Durham area than a lot of us other students.  I don’t think you’d say it was a slum, but it was clearly living in a rougher part of town.  And, even if I wasn’t sure I had the guts (faithfulness) to do that myself, I admired this.  This, I thought, was really taking the call of Jesus seriously.

Then, of course, we had Shane Claiborne come to Girdwood Chapel this summer and I could sit and listen to him for days and never grow tired of it.  Here is someone who, living in community in Philadelphia is really initiating change in the roughest section of that city.  I was taken aback when Shane even offered for me and the whole family to come and live in community with them.

Recently, I’ve been sitting on a news story by the Religion News Service of an account of persons making a difference in Gresham, Oregon.  There is a “romantic” and “adventurous” feel to this account.  It all seems so simple, yet so very challenging.  The story is by Steven Beaven and includes the following:

In the two years since David Knepprath and Josh Guisinger moved into the rough-and-tumble Barberry Village complex, roughly a dozen young Christian men and women have made Barberry Village their home.

Their goal: Create a sense of community in a chaotic neighborhood overrun with drugs, prostitution and gangs.

Their work mirrors, in some ways, the “new monasticism” movement, in which Christians move into urban or rural areas to work with the poor.

It’s not an easy way to live. Some neighbors have been suspicious. Safety is an ongoing concern. And some of these urban missionaries have burned out on a project that can be a 24-hour-a-day burden.

Yet they’ve been so successful that other complex owners have asked them to replicate their efforts. Congregations have volunteered their services. A woman from Virginia is moving to the Portland area so she can do similar work in another neighborhood.

With guidance from a nonprofit called Compassion Connect, they moved with friends into an apartment, putting two sets of bunk beds in one room and using the other two bedrooms as an office and a closet.

Still, they remained outsiders who could live in almost any neighborhood they chose. They had to strike a delicate balance; they didn’t want to come on too strong and alienate their neighbors.

So while they were open about their Christianity, they didn’t plunge into conversations about their faith. Nor did they move in acting as if they could solve the social ills at Barberry Village.

“We were very conscious of that,” said Knepprath, who has since moved out but remains active in the ministry. “Our perspective from the start was that we’re not here with all the solutions, or even thinking we know all the problems.”
So they walked door to door, handing out chocolate-chip cookies. A letter explained their purpose and faith. They invited residents to the first community meal.

This fascinates me and I feel a calling to something like this, but I’m just not sure I’m up to it to this extent.  I’m not sure I’m that faithful yet.  In particular, I’m not sure I’m that faithful on behalf of my children.  What would moving into a setting like do for them.  I’m sure it’s many positive things.  But when I try to reconcile the lack of neighborhood amenities or the safety of the area or the ability to be with my “usual” friends.

So I say, yes, yes, yes, and finally a no to monastic living.

But, all is not lost here.  I think I’m left with the challenge of trying to interpret this new monastic living with the church structure I’m already in.  I might not be living among the poorest of the poor in our area, but how can the church do that?  How can it give up some of its status and make a home among the poor and forgotten.

Also, on of the things I really like here is the assumption that this all takes some time.  Evangelism, at heart, is about building relationships over time and working, systematically, to alleviate the problems of a neighborhood or community.  Whether that’s the family in apartment next to a new monastic order or if it’s a community half-way around the world, the church can still reach out in concern and service to those around it.

I don’t think I’ll ever find myself in a “new monastic” community.  But I can still learn from them and try to be a monastic in my own community…even here up in Alaska.
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>Going To Live With Shane Claiborne in Philadelphia? Not that faithful


KensingtonImage by cmaio via Flickr

Last Monday, as I drove Shane Claiborne into Anchorage for a meeting with some fellow clergy, he told how hard it is to keep families in his community in Philadelphia.  It’s a rough place. There’s gunfire most nights.  There’s a constant battle with heroin in the neighborhood.   He recounted how a young man had died of gunshot wounds on his front steps earlier this year.  Oftentimes families come to his community and stick it out for a while…and then they decide to move…maybe a mile away…maybe two…maybe more.  But they move someplace a little safer, not quite so challenging.

But it’s a place that healthy, wholesome families are needed.

I told Shane that our family has struggled with living in the privileged areas we’ve been able to live and that there’s a part of myself that would find that wonderfully freeing…recognizing that it would be a challenge for myself and would involve sacrifice.  But, more difficult, it would be “forcing” a sacrifice on the part of my kids — their scholastic education, their friendships, and perhaps their safety.  It would be asking a lot.  And while it may require faithfulness to make sacrifices in your own life, I think it requires a different level of faithfulness to require sacrifices by your children or your spouse.

Shane said, “Jim, if you and your family would like to come to Philadelphia to be part of what we have going on there, we’d love to have you.  We could always use some families who are willing to stay.”

My answer was:  “That’s an interesting offer, but I’m not that faithful yet.”

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>Thinking Small


THE GOD OF SMALL THINGSImage by Niffty.. via Flickr

We are in a world that likes to think BIG to dream BIG to act BIG.  We like our plans to be all-encompassing.  We like our leaders to cast broad visions.  And, in the life of the church, we’re happy when the numbers are good, when our pews are full, and membership classes are busting at the seams.  I’ve served three smaller churches (although one could argue that Girdwood Chapel is not “small” in Alaska standards) and at each one we’ve struggled with some identity issues as we’ve seen all the great and BIG ministries that occur in larger churches.  “Why can’t we be like them?” we’ve asked.  And sometimes we’ve tried to take on their programing as our own…even though we really could never have pulled it off.

And, as pastor, I have to say that occasionally my heart still sinks when some event is planned or some worship service begins or some schedule is set and I look out on those gathered round and see that it is far fewer than I had hoped for…far fewer than I had expected.  It still happens.

But a couple of things have helped…

First, when I was in Kenai, Alaska, I was trying to work with the church to do some visioning for where it is that God wanted them to be over the next several years.  We talked about it for a month or so.  I had preached on “vision” and we had flyers posted around the church.  We were going to make it into a big deal.  The pastor of Soldotna United Methodist Church was going to be leading the event.  Saturday came.  The coffee was brewed.  The table was set.  Candles were lit.  And we waited.  A lot of time has gone by since then and I really don’t remember how many people were there, but it was bad.  There were, maybe, 3 or 4.    I was disappointed.  I was very disappointed.  But that pastor started us off in a prayer and then said, “God has gathered those of us who are ordained to be here today.  He has called us to this place, around this table, to do his work.”

And we did it.  We did his work.  And it was good.  Perhaps it could have been more satisfying if 30 people had shown up.  But that’s not what happened. And, I pray, that is just how God wanted it.

Secondly, I’ve been thinking (a lot) about all that Shane Claiborne said during his time in Alaska a week or so ago.  One of the things he said, and it comes through in his writings, is that ministry happens through relationships…and, particularly, through intimate relationships.  Small is good.  That’s why those giant churches our smaller churches are so desperately trying to be like are focusing on small group ministries.  That’s where ministry really happens.

I’m reminded of this again this morning.  A couple of nights ago we didn’t have the number of kids we’d like to see at Vacation Bible School.  We were far from it.  One adult asked me, “Is it worth it?”   It’s a good question.  It really is.   It’s a good VBS program.  I like the material.  I think our staffing is good.  The music and dancing is great.  I had fun.  I think my kids had fun.  But is it worth it for so few kids?  It’s a question that’s been asked in previous years as well.

Well, here’s how I look at it.  Games may be a little harder in smaller groups, but the crafts are awesome.  The singing may not be as loud but each kid was able to get a little more personal attention.  And, if one kid comes out of it with a greater sense of who God is and how God loves them, then it’s worth it.  And if I get to have fun with the whole process as well, why do we need to ask the question.

Maybe we just need to think small.

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>What Shane Claiborne Told Me To Read When I Said I Covet an IPhone


Image representing iPhone 3G as depicted in Cr...Image via CrunchBase
After Shane’s (very well-received) talk at Girdwood Chapel tonight, I asked him about the use of technology and, specifically, the iPhone…which I am tempted to purchase and which my wife (who keeps bringing up Claiborne’s book The Irresistible Revolution) says I really don’t need.  He told me I should come up with better reasons than “It’s Shiny” — which is my favorite reason — but then directed me to an article by the co-writer of Jesus For President, Chris Haw.  You can find the link here.

Haw’s reasoning for thinking he really shouldn’t get an iPhone boils down to these main points:

  • He can’t afford one
  • We should question what some have called a “messiah phone” and about which the advertising says, “Everything will change”
  • We should question what problems this iPhone is really going to solve, regardless of our claims.
  • It probably won’t really save time and any time it does save is probably not worth all of the hidden social or ecological costs of production.
  • How does this help us remember the poor?
  • The Amish seem a lot more grounded in the sacredness of life.  Perhaps we need less, not more electric gadgets in our lives.
  • Advertising is all about seductively lying to us to tell us what we need.  By buying an iPhone, I’d only be buying into the lies.

Referencing poet Wendell Berry, Haw writes:

We might stop to ask with Berry: Am I happy? For my lapses in happiness, do I need more frequent access to music or 2×3 movies? Am I troubled by my lack of immediate knowledge of world affairs? Am I troubled by my distance from email, and should this distance be closed? Will I be closer to my friends if Facebook is in my pocket? Will the iPhone bridge the distance between the current me and that better me?

I think I have an answer to some of these questions, but not from my own witness. I have spent time with a community of Anabaptists that rarely use the internet. They read their local newspapers and scour the Economist magazines. They are demonstrably more aware of world events than I. And they are also markedly calmer, more productive and skilled, more caring for our society’s children, and more capable of producing practical solutions in their lives to serious questions about the water, food, and energy crises in which we now live.

Oh well, I guess I won’t get one this year.

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Shane ClaiborneImage by echobase_2000 via Flickr
“You can have a lot of ideologies and very little to show from it.  Folks like Mother Theresa, we try to allow our lives to preach the message along with our words. I think that’s really where a lot of leadership has fallen short as it’s been built around really strategic goals and books people have read.”

“Too many people try to lead just with writing books or preaching sermons, but they don’t realize that’s the easy part. anybody can write a book.  But words on paper … only come to life when they get lived out – when the word becomes flesh. We lead out of who we are.”

Shane Claiborne

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