This past Tuesday February 5th 2013, a colleague and friend John Dunne and I had the excellent opportunity to interview Shane Claiborne for our webinar conference through the University of St Andrews. It was only supposed to be a 5 minute interview for a promo video for the conference but it turned out as a 30 minute conversation which we edited down to a 15 minute vodcast. Originally, it was intended to be a video, and so we conducted the thing with webcams, but we ran into a bit of trouble on the screen recording (bogus!), and so we morphed it into a pseudo-video podcast. You can watch, listen, and/or download the video here.
I had the sense as we were conducting the interview that this really was an opportunity for much more than just a promo clip but rather an opportunity for some really deep thinking about the Church, the Universality of the Church, the Spiritual Disciplines etc with a seriously interesting character. I’ll just briefly mention some points that stuck out to me and that I found to be really profound and significant.
First, the running thought in my mind the entire time was “This guy is so down to earth.” Having inhabited the world of academia for the past six years (Seminary and now doctoral work here at St Andrews), this comes as a real breath of fresh air. I kept thinking, “more of my atheist, agnostic, or unbelieving friends need to see this picture of Christianity.” There is a sense of authenticity and respect that Shane exhibits that makes you want to listen to him. His speech is full of grace, and not scripted. His passion is real and not manipulative.
It is a reminder of what it means to “be real” with people, and to not present the faith as a door-to-door vacuum salesman, but as someone deeply invested in the core message and the active living out of the love of Christ. It was particularly powerful for me to encounter this ethos of Shane’s now, as I sense a definite partitioning, especially in UK divinity settings, of the task of scholarship from the heart of worship and the overt and contagious passion for the Gospel. This is, of course, a generalization, and there are professors, students, and all kinds of folks that thankfully break this mold. However, I have to say, on the whole, the ethos of academia tends towards a less holistic and tender embrace of the passions which flow from the greatness of the Gospel which it seeks to study. Perhaps this comes with the territory, but part of the dream for this conference is that the inhibitions of academia toward the passionate life of devotional worship, often viewed, ironically and wrongly, as inappropriate and irrelevant to the “objective” task at hand, might be shed and a better way might be embraced as the normative ethos for the Christian academy as a part of, rather than as a component above or separate from, the worshiping Church.
For me, Ph.D studies on the whole have not been an anchor for my soul, keeping me rooted in the life of faith, but more like a sinister anchor that has been constantly trying to drag me down into the abyss and to drown my faith in the depth of spiritual disillusionment. Shane’s entire attitude, his passion, his deep thought, and his active living of the Simple Way of the Christian life in the heart of the city of Philadelphia for 18 years (I had no idea they’d been in Philly that long) was really refreshing and encouraging for me to encounter again as I near the end of doctoral work here in the UK. I had read Shane’s book The Irresistible Revolution during seminary and was struck then by its authenticity and heart. This was a welcomed refresher for the soul. Long obedience in the same direction, to use Eugene Peterson’s phrase, is, I believe, central to the call to walk in the Way of the Cross, and I was inspired by Shane and his friends long obedience to the life of discipleship and service, with both head and heart through holistic Gospel-living in Philly. I was also reminded, in regard to my own life, how the general spiritual dryness of doctoral studies and academia, while assaulting my faith and the spiritual passions, paradoxically, through long obedience in prayer (particularly the daily Morning Prayer rite in the Book of Common Prayer) simultaneously strengthened my faith in and commitment to the Gospel, making it far stronger than when I began. So, I conclude, the struggle is never in vein, and in fact, mysteriously, the Scriptures are true. Through suffering comes glory. Which brings me to my second reflection from the interview with Shane, the Spiritual Disciplines.
We talked with Shane about his own Common Prayer book, and the place of the Spiritual Disciplines in the life of discipleship. I found this topic to be really honest. Shane talked about the fact that it is a discipline, and that it requires a commitment, even when one does not particularly feel like carrying out the discipline. He also talked about how he felt that liturgy can often become a place in which we hide, and how he tries to tie in liturgy, worship, and the spiritual disciplines to the living of the Gospel in the midst of the pain and struggles of the world. I found this to be so true and familiar. In earlier years as a non-denominational evangelical, I really desired a pattern of prayer that was organic but had some regularity, but every time I would attempt to create one, it eventually ran its course. I suspect that in evangelical settings, the spiritual disciplines are sometimes viewed as antithetical to Grace, and perceived as obligatory “works” that feels “religious” and are “enslaving” because they include things like formal written prayers, structure, and a set schedule of readings and liturgy. This might seem to some like it cheapens the spontaneity of the whole experience of prayer, and veers towards a religious work which we carry out for God. Spiritual disciplines could indeed become all of these things, and liturgy and the disciplines easily themselves become idols, or as Shane pointed out, “hiding places” which keep us from engaging with the world.
Now, myself, having initially grown up Roman Catholic, and then having worshiped in a more evangelical Church for nearly ten years, and now newly (for the past 3-4 years) worshiping in the Anglican Way, I really value both the evangelical Gospel and the liturgical Great Tradition of the Church. I see the Book of Common Prayer and its ancient daily liturgical, individual and group, prayer patterns and rites to be the most freeing and most Scripture-soaked approach to the life of the spiritual disciplines available. Many, and probably, most, in the broader Evangelical, Pentecostal, Non-denominational, and Roman Catholic Churches struggle with committing to disciplined, daily, time in the Scripture and in Prayer. I really think that something like Shane’s Common Prayer book, or what I use, the Book of Common Prayer Morning Prayer Service Rite II, is THE answer, and one need not be Anglican to use it, it is accessible and useful to all people in any tradition. It is by far the best way to enter into the discipline of prayer from the heart of the Church through the ages, in communion with the “cloud of witnesses” or what the Apostles’ Creed calls the “Communion of the Saints,” from a liturgical library that consists of prayers that have been prayed for thousands of years and more Scripture-verses in one day than many would normally encounter in a week or even in a month. Using the Morning Prayer rite daily, with the daily lectionary readings, has allowed me to cycle through the Psalms tons of times, and to follow the narrative of the Gospel continually through some spiritually dark and trying years of Ph.D study. It has a really formative element, and lends itself to improvisation, such as extemporaneous praying off of the Psalms and Scripture verses, lectio divina, and other practices. It can feel like a totally dependable discipline and prayer approach, but it never feels forced, if you let yourself enter into the time fully, and with a view toward how this relates to those around you and to the witness of Christ to the world, that is, if you enter into it truly prayerfully, and not just as a religious exercise. Shane hit on the fact that in writing their own Prayer Book they were, in a sense, “giving a nod to the tradition”, which is something that resonated with me as well. There is something about being part of a tradition that transcends the present and links up with real people through the ages, that fills a major void in pop evangelicalism and in my own spiritual journey.
Lastly, Shane’s comments on Incarnation were really helpful to me. I had asked him about paradigms for Christian living that he finds helpful, and essentially his answer was incarnation, or “putting meat” on the message of the Gospel in the world. Check out his full response on the video, as he really parses this out well. I think he is right on target here, and I was really moved by his response. The Cruciform, or cross-shaped life, that is, the life lived after the pursuit of the putting on of the heart of God, which is governed by a love that pours itself out for the sake of the other, must be embodied. I think, for me, and for most people, we want to pursue this embodiment, but don’t know how. We spend a great deal of time thinking about incarnation, but, for whatever reason, never truly put flesh on the skeleton of those ideas and ideals, or never put the mind that thinks about Cruciformity into a body and context in which that can translate into real action. I think with Shane and his friends we see a group just diving in, yes prayerfully, thoughtfully, and intentionally, but in the end, just diving in to see how the life of discipleship and the Cross will bear fruit and bless, and to learn from, and participate in their local community. They, like all of us, work from a vision and an understanding of the Gospel (that is, ideas), but, as Shane pointed out, and as I found really helpful, its not only or primarily the ideas, but the understanding that the entire heart and nature of God is to enter into, to embody, and to incarnate his love through Jesus, and through his people, his body, the Church It is almost as if to talk about the Gospel, Cruciformity, etc without thinking about incarnation and engagement with the world, is a functional impossibility, an exercise in missing the point, for, the Gospel is itself defined by the self-giving love, action and engagement of the world by God in Jesus Christ.
It was a vivid moment of blessing for me to learn afresh from Shane, as I exit this season of life in academia, and enter into new exciting chapters, seasons, and places of life, that the heart of the Gospel is the fully embodied engagement of the world with the self-giving love of God. Without embodiment and engagement of the other, the Gospel is a good idea and good news, even the Good News, but as an idea, it remains within the ethereal realm, floating around in academia or reverberating off of the walls of a Church building through a liturgical holy-huddle. But, when the love of Christ puts on flesh and becomes incarnate in our communities, the Gospel becomes more than an idea, but rather grace, mercy, truth, and salvation for the life of the world.