Red Letter Revolution, Book Review

Red Letter Revolution: What If Jesus Really Meant What He Said?
by Shane Claiborne and Tony Campolo

I liked Red Letter Revolution: What If Jesus Really Meant What He Said? and I didn’t like it.  While some people might hate or love this book, I think many readers who stick with it to the end will end up somewhere in the middle.

For me, the format was appealing.  Written as a dialogue between Christian leaders who were born decades apart, I was intrigued by inter-generational conversation and perspective.  Both authors, Tony Campolo and Shane Claiborne, seem honest, genuine, and passionate about their faith.

I believe there’s benefit for us when we listen to people with whom we disagree, and that’s mostly where I sat on the sidelines of this book, so I was willing to keep reading even though there was little I agreed with—despite the fact that the authors themselves seemed happily in agreement about everything.

It’s certainly a book of socially liberal politics couched in Scripture—that if we really believed what Jesus said, we’d abandon the “religious right wing of the Republican party.”  We can’t possibly want less government programs, stricter control over government funding, and enforcement of immigration and still believe in Jesus.  And since Jesus didn’t talk about homosexuality (although it is discussed in the New Testament), best just to accept that He didn’t care about it that much and we shouldn’t either.

While I had an endless number of political and ideological disagreements with the writers, more importantly I question their theological premises.  For one thing, I believe in the inerrancy and importance of Scripture–all Scripture.  Taking clips of Jesus’ dialogue out of context, saying it’s more important to study His Words than that ogre of a deity, the God of the Old Testament, and assuming that if Jesus didn’t talk about it than it didn’t matter all essentially distort the message of the Bible as a whole.  No, we absolutely can’t set up Jesus as a leader who promotes radical social programs just because a few of His sound-bites can be used that way.

It’s also troubling to me how much of the religious experience as described in this book depends on outward acts.  We have grace for the poor, for the mom who feels like she has to choose abortion, and the church girl turned youth-leader who comes out of the closet as a lesbian.  But, where’s the grace for the folks who work middle class jobs, drive their kids to school and ballet, go to church, rock babies in the nursery and sponsor a World Vision child?  It seemed like these families were on the receiving end of condescension and judgment—like grace was for everyone on the outer edges of the spectrum and that it is protests on behalf of the poor, living in a commune, and giving all of our income away that define our faith or lack of it.

Finally, while I absolutely see the benefit in studying the New Testament church, it’s important to remember that these initial leaders were not God Himself.  They made mistakes.  They had troubling problems with false-teachers, jealousy, attention-seeking, mismanagement of money, dissension, favoritism, legalism and the desire to exclude Gentiles.  It’s great to have small groups in our churches.  Encouraging fellowship with each other is just fine.

But we absolutely cannot argue that our churches MUST follow the New Testament model in order to be Biblical.  The New Testament church in Acts is more descriptive than prescriptive.  In this book, Claiborne argues that it’s the fact that Annanias and Sapphira withheld money from the sale of their property from the church that is their primary flaw.  That’s not true at all.  It was utterly secondary to their sin of lying to the Holy Spirit.  They could have kept their property instead of selling it, thereby not donating any of the money to the church, and they wouldn’t have ended up dead at the feet of Peter.  But when they faked good works and generosity in order to garner attention from church leaders and to look more holy–and when they blatantly lied to the Holy Spirit about it—they dropped to the ground.

Maybe what would have really sold this book for me is if two Christian leaders with opposing viewpoints dialoged about the 27 issues they tackled—from women in church leadership to war to the national debt, to racism, immigration, liturgy, Islam, economics and more. That would indeed have been an interesting–albeit occasionally tense– conversation!

As it is, this book served as an opportunity for me to see the opinions of people with whom I mostly disagree and a view into why they believe what they believe.  That’s healthy and helpful.  I believe in their passion and commitment to their perspective, while remaining unconvinced by their arguments.

I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review and 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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