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Red-letter rebels of US Evangelicalism

28 March 2013

Naomi Starkey looks at a bid to recover the priorities of Jesus

Red Letter Christianity: Living the words of Jesus no matter the cost
Shane Claiborne and Tony Campolo
Hodder & Stoughton £12.99
Church Times Bookshop £11.70 (Use code CT602 )

THIS briskly paced and energetically argued book takes the form of a dialogue between two leading figures on the United States' so- called "Evangelical Left". The radical community activist Shane Claiborne is paired with the elder-statesman academic Tony Campolo to debate a broad selection of theological and social topics, including racism, liturgy, saints, politics, homosexuality, reconciliation, and Islam.

Their aim is promoting "red-letter Christianity" (www.redletter-christians.org): theologically Evangelical, but distinct from what they summarise as the "anti-gay, anti-feminist, anti-environmentalist, pro-war, pro-capital-punishment, and conservative Republican" values often associated with the label, especially in America.

Being a "red-letter Christian" means focusing on the words of Jesus, traditionally printed in red in some editions of the Bible, to try to emulate the dynamism of the Church's earliest days.

While this agenda risks sounding simplistic, the book provides sufficient anecdotal evidence to show that it can inspire younger generations in particular, bored by petty church factionalism and cultural stuffiness. The dominant concept throughout is generosity, with constant emphasis on seek- ing out what unites rather than divides groups of Christians. Impressively, the authors urge membership of existing churches rather than forming yet more separate congregations.

I found the chapter on environmentalism the most stimulating in its contrast between the bleakness of many US inner cities (neighbourhoods where it is easier to buy a gun than a salad) and the transformative projects run by groups such as Claiborne's. He shows how hope can flourish amid "post-industrial ruins . . . on the wrong side of capitalism".

While the dialogue style gets slightly wearing at times (and there are occasional howlers, such as G. K. Chesterton quoted as "Lord Chesterton"), it fits the book's overall message well by modelling discussion of - rather than dogmatic solutions to - complex questions. It is also consistently readable, with coverage of enough issues to provide points of connection or challenge for a wide audience. 

Naomi Starkey is a commissioning editor with BRF, editor of New Daylight, and a Church in Wales ordinand.


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