The Christian Celebrity
I am reading a book about “ordinary radicals.”[i] Though just a bit dated, it is well written, engaging, and still quite relevant. The author Shane Claiborne advocates for Christians living ‘in community.’ Most of us live in some kind of community. It may be a community where we don’t really know our neighbors at all. It may be void of meaningful relationships. But, most people who read this do not live on farms or in the wilderness, out of eyesight of other humans. We live in communities however tight knit or internally disconnected those communities may be.
However Claiborne insists on communal living; couples, families, and singles all in the same house (or sharing row houses or in the same apartment building). He would say community is not just living in proximity, but sharing life. I think he’s basically right. But, implicit in his passionately shared story is the insistence that true Christianity is in the city, where people are gathered densely together.
I heard another “famous” Christian, Erwin McManus (author of The Barbarian Way), say in an interview that truly radical, ‘barbarian’ Christianity will not be lived out by pastors or people who live in middle class suburbs or small town. His implication was that those pastors retreated to the safety of the ‘burbs because they did not possess the fiber or robust Christianity rugged city living requires. They (we) weren’t up to it. I say ‘we’ acknowledging I am a pastor in an affluent small town/suburban community.
According McManus, pastors like me are too soft for the tough (read more Jesus-like) faith he writes about and lives. According to Claiborne, pastors like me are too isolated for the shared (read more Jesus-like) faith he lives. My backside hurts from being kicked by these fine authors.
And they are indeed, fine authors. I don’t say that with any irony or sarcasm. Erwin McManus, Shane Claiborne, Rick Warren, David Platt, Andy Stanley – these famous Christians could not pick me out of a lineup. They don’t know me and have not criticized me. When they write, they take to task a straw man: the middle-class small town pastor; the inert, affluent, insulated Christian; the suburban, safe, churchgoer whose faith involves zero risks and zero sacrifice. The works of these authors are helpful. I think every American Christian would benefit from reading Barbarian Way, The Irresistible Revolution, and Radical (Platt), to name a few. It is important to read these and other works prayerfully and personally, but it is equally important not to take them personally.
This is a mistake I tend to make. I was reading Irresistible Revolution and I was thinking “O gosh, he’s right. My faith is too safe, too suburban, and not communal enough.” By the way, where was I read this book? I was in a bus – a joining together of 21 Christians in intense community, together for 10 days in Ethiopia. I had to step out of the book and remind myself that I could be blessed by Claiborne’s good observations and at the same time I did not need to defend myself.
I had traveled across the world to extend community (from North Carolina to Kombolcha, Ethiopia). I had entered into community with people I had previously known. I had given myself to the work of God as I thought God wanted me to do so. My middle class life and how I and my wife choose to live it makes trips like that possible. We believe we are doing our best to live in obedience to God. We know we make mistakes and are not perfect. But God is our standard. Not Shane Claiborne.
He would agree. He might want me to sell my house and discover the wonders of community he has found, but not for the sake of conforming to him. Shane Claiborne is not attacking me. Neither was McManus in the interview. He stated his view and did it in a very cocky fashion. But that’s Erwin McManus. These authors may arrogantly see their discoveries as the way Americans are supposed to follow Jesus. I know that’s not right. I know there are many manifestations of the Jesus-life. The arrogance some authors project is something God will confront. God has not appointed me to do this.
Books by good Christian authors are a gift, especially critical books. They must be read critically and prayerfully and, as I said, personally. It is OK for me (or you) as a reader to be confronted. God may have put that book in my hand so God could confront me through it. The important thing is I am being confronted by God (not McManus or Stanley or Claiborne). Those authors are as I am – humans in the service of Jesus. Jesus is supposed to get the glory and honor.
My conclusion? I will continue to read and read a lot. I will thank God for books and pray that my heart and mind will be open to learning and growing every time I read. I will (try) not to get defensive or frustrated with an author. If I disagree with what I read, I will try to think critically and with sophistication so that my dissenting views make sense Biblically and logically.
And as a pastor, I urge you, my readers, to read good Christian writing, but always read critically. There is no Gospel according to Rick Warren or according to Billy Graham. Famous Christians are people through whom God speaks, but it is God that we worship. Anyone else can be questioned and argued against. Anyone else can be someone God uses to teach us. Appreciate good writing. Save the adoration for God.