Book Review: Red Letter Revolution by Shane Claiborne and Tony Campolo

If I were to sum up this dialogue between Tony Campolo and Shane Claiborne it would be; dangerous. Tony and Shane have written a dialogue which at many times strays from Biblical truths, which in the end, does nothing but harm the church and confuse faithful followers of Christ. This books starts right off with a statement which I believe can be a slippery slope and certainly contrary to what Scripture says of itself. Tony says, and Shane agrees, “Not only do we say that the red letters are superior to the black letters of the Bible, but Jesus said they were! Jesus over and over again in the Sermon on the Mount, declared that some of the things that Moses taught about such things as divorce, adultery, killing, getting even with those who hurt you and the use of money had to be transcended by a higher morality”. What they fail to mention is the New Testament teachings from the Apostles which aid our study of Christ are every bit important as the red letters in the Bible. They almost go so far as to ignore the rest of the Bible in order to solely focus on the words of Jesus. Please don’t misunderstand me, I wholly rely on the words of Christ for life and godliness but I also need the doctrine and orthodoxy contained in the epistles, the wisdom of Solomon, the triumph of Christ in Revelation and the grand narrative of the Old Testament in order to understand those red letters. Jesus himself drew upon the message of the Old Testament when teaching the people of his day. Not only does Jesus teach from the Old Testament, He exhorts his followers to do the same. In his letter to Timothy, Paul tells us that all Scripture is breathed out by God and is useful for teaching, rebuking and exhorting.

Apart from the blatant disregard for the black letters in the Bible, Tony and Shane are in constant contrast and even in opposition to its teachings. This is no where more clear when I read this statement; ” It’s important to note that Red Letter Christians are not, as someone once told me, ‘Christocentric’. Are you kidding me, not Christocentric? If not Jesus then who? It seems to me that Shane, and the Simple Way Movement, emphasizes saints and men more than they do the risen messiah. They constantly refer to the way men of old used to live and preach, not that I am against that, but they seem to raise saints above others who are preaching the gospel in the trenches and who do not understand the gospel the way they do. They emphasize over and again that they learn from Buddhists, Catholics, Mystics, Muslims and similar religions. I guess my question for them is, how can we learn from those whose doctrine is not centered on Christ and his righteousness for us? I am all for loving on other religions and even those who do not view Christ as ultimate but I don’t feel that I should learn about how to live life and have solid doctrine from them.

Another area which I found very troubling was a portion of the conversation that centered on Homosexuality. “Homosexual couples and heterosexual couples should be able to go down to the city hall and register as couples who want to be legally recognized as belonging to each other, and receive the same civil rights available for all citizens who want to be in committed relationships. Then, if a couple wants to call the relationship a marriage, that couple should go down to a church, and let the church perform the ceremony”. Please don’t get caught up on the civil rights equality for all people and miss out that Tony just said we should let the ordained church of God go against biblical beliefs and conduct marriage services for Homosexual and Heterosexual couples alike. This is a dangerous straying from the Bible in order to make all people feel like they are not under the condemnation of God. How far will we depart from Scripture until we see that the offense of the Cross is no longer valid for this culture we live in? How much farther are we going to let books like this, which defy God, make its way into the hands of the Bride of Christ?

Not everything I have to say about this book is terrible, there is only one good thing I found in this conversation that was somewhat helpful. Shane has a large heart for the poor and broken. Even if his theology is missing in action, which is a travesty, his heart is large and open for those who are less in this world. We do need more people who are geared for social justice, but it must not come at the expense of solid doctrine. We must not let our ignorance of the black letters of the Bible interpret the way we see the red letters of the Bible. If you do pick up this book I pray that you would do so with a solid understanding of all of Scripture and not just the red letters. Learn from the whole canon of scripture and apply it with wisdom and insight. Let that application of Scripture move you beyond knowledge and into action for the glory of God.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from Thomas Nelson Publishers as part of their Book Review Blogger program. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

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16 Replies to “Book Review: Red Letter Revolution by Shane Claiborne and Tony Campolo”

  1. I was actually going to get around to reading this book so I definitely appreciate the perspective. Although I do find troubling theology and opinions among Shane and his contingents, I think it is necessary to recognize that they are a product of the Social Gospel and Liberation Theology. That being said I think elements on their take in regards to social activism should be considered, yet challenged and understood through a more orthodox lens (as you seem think as well). No disagreement with your article, rather I think Christians need figure out a balance of perspectives between the reformation of communities and how that correlates with orthodoxy; orthodox theology being our foundation of course.

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    1. Hey NATO thanks for replying. I definitely think there should be a balance of social activism and gospel mission but it shouldn’t be one or the other. If you want a more gospel centered approach I would check out generous justice by Tim Keller. His books always spur me on to godliness that leads to application.

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  2. You have lots of straw men in your review. Its apparent you dont know either men. You assume they don’t have doctrine, but you are wrong.

    Have you ever lived overseas? Or know what it is like to minister to Muslims, Hindus, etc.? I am an overseas missionary and I can tell you that there is nothing wrong with “learning” from other peoples, cultures, and religions. As a wise man once said, “all truth is God’s truth.” Whatever “truth” is found in other religions still points to God (i.e. love, peace, etc.). There is plenty about God I have learned from the people I am trying to reach for Jesus – and it actually builds bridges.

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  3. You’re absolutely right G Dub I don’t know the authors of whom I speak of and that’s why it’s so tough for me to write honest reviews. i have to base my opinions from what I read in their books and sometimes it does not do any justice to the actual authors represented. I have never lived overseas but I have been on missions trips. I will say that I am a big believer in contextualizing the gospel message to fit into any culture and religion but I am not a fan of changing what the bible says to make it’s hearers more comfortable. I do commend Shane Claiborne and the Simple Way for the work they are doing every day in the trenches that many other Christians are simply afraid to do. I myself was challenged, as far as the social justice side of things go. But like I said I have to base my opinions from the text and when Campolo says the church should perform marriage rights for gay couples that just doesn’t sit well with me. Jesus, I don’t think, would have married gay couples. While I do have gay friends that I love dearly I never give them confirmation that what they are doing is alright, nor am I condemning them all the time. I have to contextualize the message of the gospel to fit into their understanding but it’s message stays the same.

    When I say we must not “learn” from other cultures, I do not mean that their traditions and taboos should not inform us, I am saying that we should not let them interpret the meaning of scripture for us.I do not mean to erase the offense of the cross in order to convert my readers to Christ. I will not allow myself, nor does scripture say I should, to sit under someone of another religion and let them speak to what they “think” the bible says instead of what the authority of scripture teaches. I am under no authority but that of my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ and trust that you also are in agreement with that statement. We can’t let culture be our mode of scriptural translation.

    On a more positive note, I am encouraged by your website and the work you are doing among the unreached peoples of the nations. I would like to pray for you and Team 6:8 as you do the work for which Christ has called you. I read this quote and am spurred on to mercy by it.

    “When I stumble across the men and women on my personal Jericho road – I hope and pray that I would be a person moved by mercy to love dangerously. I hope and pray that you would too on your own road God has you on. The world needs more people of mercy”

    I don’t mean to sound closed off to the message of Shane Claiborne and Tony Campolo but I do want to caution readers and other Christians alike that we must hold to the authority of the scriptures and the action it calls us to in a very delicate balance. We must take 1 Corinthians 13 and live it out in a very real way but we must also note that we must take the severity and the kindness of Christ together. We can’t only preach mercy and forgiveness, we must also preach justice and wrath. From the looks of your website, you are doing exactly that, and I praise God for it.

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  4. First off, Don, I want to thank you for your considerate and respectful response to my original comments. I hear humility and grace in your speech – and that means a lot to me. Sometimes words on a page can lose the spirit or tone they are said in – but your response to me sounds very Christ-like. So thanks for that!

    A couple of things that concerned me specifically about your review, if I may (unpacking my broad “straw man” statement I made).

    You pulled one quote out of the entire book to try to show that Tony and Shane aren’t really embracing 1 Timothy 3:16 for the entirety of the Bible. This simply isnt the case. The context of that quote, which you posted in your review, is talking about when Jesus changes or trumps OT teachings (or Scripture) with His new plan or way for the world. So, in the Sermon on the Mount, we find many teachings in which Jesus says, “You have heard it said….but now I tell you…” When He does these things, He brings a new understanding or emphasis to an OT teaching that now is the new proper understanding of God’s plan. Therefore, these teachings do “trump” or transcend any OT understandings on the topic. For instance, in the OT we find animal sacrifices for propitiation. Then when Jesus shows up He becomes the sacrificial Lamb and we no longer need to sacrifice animals. This doesn’t mean that those animal sacrifices in OT teachings arent inspired – but that a new way has been forged that replaces the old. Therefore, those old ways don’t need to be followed, even though at points in time in history they were. This is what Shane and Tony are saying.

    To further drive home the point, they acknowledge orthodox teaching when Tony says early on in the book (page 5), “We believe that the Holy Spirit directed the writers of Scripture so that all of Scripture was inspired by God.” Also, they don’t minimize the epistles at all. Nothing in this book is found in contrary to what Paul, Peter, or John teaches. But this is a book about what Jesus taught – just like other authors write books about what Paul teaches. I think you saying things like that Tony and Shane have a “blatant disregard” for the rest of the Bible is unhelpful and simply false. Make sense?

    Next you say this: This is no where more clear when I read this statement; ” It’s important to note that Red Letter Christians are not, as someone once told me, ‘Christocentric’. Are you kidding me, not Christocentric? If not Jesus then who?” But again, you leave out context that is important here. They were saying this is the context of the doctrine of the Trinity – saying they fully view all three persons equally. Again, this is another unhelpful comment plucked out of context.

    Next, you turn to homosexual marriage. And once again you interpret the quote to fit your needs. Tony never said that churches should be forced to marry gay couples, he goes onto say he believes in a strong separation of church vs. state (which is the thrust of the conversation in this part of the book). The whole point in his writing is that the government shouldn’t be able to force the church to marry anyone, gay or hetero – it should be the choice of the church (i.e. autonomy). That is a good thing. He then said that these homosexual couples should find a church that will marry them and then do it if they should so feel led. Tony and Shane are not forcing “liberal” churches to marry people, that is the choice of the church. There are, unfortunately, churches out there doing that. Tony and Shane are not advocating for that– they are solely fighting for a separation of church vs, state in the book. Therefore, your real fight isn’t with Tony and Shane, but rather with churches that are allowing this to happen. For you to spend an entire paragraph of your review to this misrepresentation is unfortunate….and saying things like this book is “defying God” is another unhelpful comment. You are saying that the authors are saying things that just aren’t in the book. (Note: they seem believe in civil unions though, highlighting the separation of church vs state issues and for gay couples to be able to have similar rights in a pluralistic country (i.e. not theocracy) – but many Christians are OK with this, just as long as a church is not forced to marry gay couples).

    In your defense of learning from other religions or cultures, you say: “I am saying that we should not let them interpret the meaning of scripture for us.” (in your comment back to me). Who said that they are “interpreting Scripture” for us? Shane and Tony didn’t say that. I didn’t. What I am saying, being a seasoned missionary, is that there is a lot we can learn from people of other cultures and peoples of other religions and those things build bridges. We never said we let other people interpret Scripture for us. You comments there are kind of out of left field here. No one ever said that.

    Just some thoughts. Finally, thanks for your encouraging words towards me and my ministry – I appreciate them very much and would covet your prayers! Thanks, brother!

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    1. I did not like Don’s book review. Thanks for the chance to say so. Don’s “reasoning” feels more like slander. It felt like he was overstating differences to try and make it look like the authors were entering the dark side. This tactic was acceptable to me being raised in fundamentalism, but I finally learned the difference and don’t want any more of it.

      If Evangelical Christianity will not evolve to see their neighbor as God’s child too, I will seek more enlightened versions of Christianity. Actually, many of us already are.

      I watched the Evangelical Church evolve into a political organization, which endorsed the Vietnam war, and the Iraqi War. Our nations leaders have all recognized that the wars were mistakes. The Evangelical Christians launched the missles with their votes, yet I have not met one who repented. And they expcet to lead us to heaven? I will not participate in this any longer, because I am concerned about my salvation. Jesus said that many would use his name but few would know him. I’m ready to give Tony and Shane’s book a try.

      I liked the discussion above by G Dub. He explained everything very thoughtfully. So I will just say “ditto”.
      God bless everyone.

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      1. hey Dave, Thanks for the “ditto” and I think you should give the book a try (I would recommend Irresistible Revolution and Jesus for President as well…both best sellers by Shane). The Spirit of God seems to be doing a new work in the world, and in particular America, in trying to get us Christians away from a faith that is drawing narrower and narrower circles around the “elect” to a broad faith firmed up in love of God and neighbor through Jesus Christ. The people God calls friends are protestant, catholic, white, black, male, female, new reformed, progressive, rich, poor, old, and young. Let’s reclaim this truth. Much love, brother.

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  5. this was a pretty disappointing post, my friend. But I thank you for your words and that we can both strongly disagree about the message and implications of this book and still be faithful brothers in Christ!

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    1. Thank you arealrattlesnake for taking the time to check this post out. Can you elaborate about our differing views about the message and implications of this book, I would love to hear your thoughts on it.

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  6. I apologize for the snark in my earlier comment, man, I really do respect that you are just defending what you think is right. I think my grievances with this post is mainly that I felt you very unfairly dismissed many of Shane and Tony’s points (I’m making my own way through the book myself). Fortunately, many of these things were addressed just above by G Dub, and hopefully this helped give you an idea of our perspective. Sorry again for my dismissiveness.

    Blessings!

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  7. Many people are uncomfortable with the idea that we can learn from “Buddhists, Catholics, Mystics, Muslims and similar religions”. But we are all God’s children, and I have seen God speak to the hearts of all kinds of people. The Holy Spirit, mankind’s Advocate, enlarges us to be able to see what is of God beyond the barriers of language, metaphors and cultures of other peoples. Nobody owns God. I suggest that it is not really loving our neighbors if we cannot find beauty, wisdom and inspiration in them.

    Jesus is my model. In the Gospel of John Jesus first goes to the Samaritan woman at the well. He asks her to give him water to drink. He shows her that she has something to give to the Son of God, that she is useful, that this immoral woman’s gift to God is acceptable. Then he tells the Roman Centurion, an officer in the army of the conquering enemy, “I have found no greater faith in all of Israel”. Then he says that the Good Samaritan has the heart of God more than all the priests and rabbis of Israel. This made them mad at him, like people are mad at Tony and Shane. But perhaps it was the ethno-elitism that was holding the Jews back, and Jesus shot it all to pieces.

    Jesus did not send us out to conquer people; that is left-over from Constantine. Jesus sent us out to proclaim the God that “IS”, and the kingdom of heaven on earth.

    I was asked to pray for a young mother who was on her way into brain surgery to have a brain tumor removed. She was not a Christian. But I listened to her, drawing out the beauty in her heart, and then her faith. The more I received, the more she found she had to give. I felt the power of Almighty Father God present in her life, and then present in that room, coming through her. I brought nothing. I just acknowledged God’s presence in her. The doctors gave her the final X-ray before operating, and the tumor had completely disappeared. The astounded doctors sent her home perfect.

    It is the love that finds beauty where “unwashed” eyes cannot see it, that opens the door for the kingdom of heaven to come on earth. Praise God for the Red Letter Words of Jesus.

    “Love your neighbor as yourself”.

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    1. Dave,
      I believe you are right in saying that many are afraid to learn from those of other religions. I understand the error of my review of this book and have written an apology of sorts which you can read at http://byfaithinchrist.wordpress.com/2012/11/28/a-quick-note-on-the-red-letter-revolution/. I have considered my unintelligible review and have wanted to keep it up to remind me to slow down in my reading of texts like these. I still hold to the position that other religions should not be allowed to interpret the Scriptures, however, I do believe that contextualization is of utmost importance in the landscape of evangelicalism. I don’t think it’s fair to lump all Evangelicals into the same boat. That would mean that Mark Driscoll would be in the same category as Joel Osteen and I don’t think that’s a safe assumption to make. I also agree with you that Evangelicalism needs to go in a new direction and that’s exactly what this ministry is moving towards, I am currently in progress of putting together a unified statement that would span the landscape of Evangelicalism without straying from Biblical truths. I read and learn from a wide variety of authors. I have learned a great deal from Anglicans and Catholics alike. Each brings it’s own distinct nuance of theology to the table even though I think some of their interpretations of Scripture are errant.
      If I have misspoken than I do apologize for those errors on my part but I never want to be accused of straying from the heart of the gospel and the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. I would love to continue this discussion with you and GDub regarding the intricacies of how to live out this Christian life as the salt and light of the earth. I hope to learn much from you and Gdub, as I already have. Thanks for the comments and challenging my words so that in the future I may be more careful in my reviews.

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      1. Don – wow. Count me as one who is greatly impressed and equally humbled by your response. Your ability to show grace and acknowledge where you erred is so refreshing in our current evangelical climate. Love your spirit, brother and so thankful for you. Much love and much fruit in your calling to spread the gospel and build up the body of Christ. I will definitely be keeping up with you on this site!

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  8. Dear Brother Don,
    I am happy that some of the things I said were useful to you. Thank you for saying so. I was worried that I was taking-up too much space on your site.
    I also interperet the scriptures through Jesus, as you do. And with Jesus for my model of all that is from God, I find things to connect with in other religions. As a result of just receiving and affirming people’s truest selves, many have found their religions to be insufficient and have sought Christ-centered churches.

    Jesus died to forgive and liberate all of mankind. I emphasize “all mankind”. And he defeated death and hell. My job is to view other people as God does and to forsee their liberation. If we do not see it in them, how can they see it in themselves? I leave all the obstacles to God, and just proclaim His reign, the kingdom of heaven on earth. Man was born to be free!

    I do not know anything about G Dub. I liked his thoughts also. I just live in a little cow town in Montana and am not part of any big movenent. But the Holy Spirit has a wide reach!
    I will be happy to talk with either of you. You have my email. Then we can talk on the phone.
    Keep loving people! It’s the greatest power on earth! Dave

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