Book Review — Red Letter Revolution by Shane Claiborne & Tony Campolo

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When I first heard that Tony Campolo and Shane Claiborne were doing a book on Red Letter Christianity, I was pretty excited.  I have a great deal of respect for both men, and while I don’t always agree with either, I think their prophetic voice in the church is beyond any reasonable dispute.  So I actively sought a review copy of the book, and the kind folks at redletterchristians.org obliged. As a consequence, it’s with more than a little regret that I have to tell you that I found Red Letter Revolution a disappointment. Don’t get me wrong, it’s still worth reading the conversation between Shane and Tony, and there are plenty of spots to get the reader thinking. But considering the authors and the title, I frankly expected a lot more. Red Letter Revolution contains far too few of the red letters (that is, the recorded teachings of Jesus in the gospels, often printed in red), and what’s more, it’s not all that revolutionary.

Longtime readers of this blog will know that I’ve repeatedly suggested Christian theology spends too much time bringing extrabiblical questions to faith. Much of my objection to the traditional creeds is that they create a priority of emphasis that is discordant with scriptural priorities. Part of my own attraction to so-called “Red Letter Christianity” is that, if we approach the gospel accounts, not only for their raw content, but to see what Jesus did–and just as important, what he did not–emphasize, we find areas of focus that differ radically from those taught in most churches, and studied by most theologians. I had hoped Tony and Shane’s book would illustrate this approach, as I believe much of their teaching and living to date has done.

Herein lies my principal disappointment with “Revolution.” The topics chosen for Shane and Tony’s discussion seem to me to have been pulled largely from the agenda of those some might call “liberal” and others “progressive,” not from the gospels. The first eight chapter headings, under the rubric “Red Letter Theology,” illustrate my point: History, Community, the Church, Liturgy, Saints, Hell, Islam, and Economics. Each of these subjects is treated with an interesting and worthwhile perspective, but it’s often one that only tangentially references Jesus’ words–the red letters–at all. And quite frankly, I’m unconvinced that some of these topics, such as liturgy and the saints (that is, those saints recognized and canonized by an official church) would even figure at all in a gospels-sourced curriculum. Others of the eight are more vital, I think, and we certainly can find among the red letters, guidance for how to approach them. But absent the foundation of Jesus’ actual teaching on his kingdom, even these lose their context and much of their power.

The remaining major sections of the book, “Red Letter Living” and “Red Letter World,” continue the pattern established by the first, selecting topics of great interest to progressives (Christian or not) in a manner that I would have expected from Jim Wallis, but I did not anticipate from Campolo and Claiborne. As before, what the two say about the topics so selected is worth reading. But instead of walking the reader through a fresh exploration of life directed by a focus on Jesus’ priorities, I found a book that lays out a decent left-wing alternative to right-wing Evangelicalism. That’s not a bad thing…In fact it’s quite worth doing. But that is not Red-Letter Christianity…it’s Blue-State Christianity. They’re not synonymous.

So in the final analysis this book, though full of interesting insights from two godly men, fails to deliver what it’s title promises. I sincerely hope that the authors will try again.

Disclosure: I received an advance review copy of the book from the publisher; however the opinion expressed herein is my own and (obviously) not that of the publisher or the book’s authors. No consideration regarding the content of this review was asked or offered.

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