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The irresistible devolution

One of the interesting things about the now old News Corp phone-hacking scandals is how evangelical and radical Christians who publish under their umbrella have gone about justifying their involvement with an entity that is demonstrably evil. For example, radical Christian and new monastic superstar Shane Claiborne is well known for his many books, including the bestselling book, The Irresistible Revolution which, as you are probably aware is published by Zondervan, a company own by News Corp.

For a radical Christian pacifist, who calls us to follow Jesus wholly, I found Claiborne’s response to questions about the approriateness of utilizing the News Corp to spread his message rather telling:

“I want to have the broadest readership possible,” Claiborne says by phone, “I don’t want to be someone who just speaks to the choir.” He says smaller publishers have their advantages but the books he has written for them cost “two or three times” more than what they would if Zondervan published them.

Claiborne, who has preached his message via Esquire, Fox News (also owned by News Corp), Al Jazeera and many others, says the key is to “protect the integrity of the message.” If he is convinced the medium won’t change the message, he will work with organizations despite not “[agreeing] with all of their approaches or decisions.”

But even if the message is protected, his work is being used to help enrich a rather well-maintained corner of empire. He feels “conflicted” about this. “I don’t think that the world exists in 100 percent pure and 100 percent impure options,” he says.

. . . . There’s good and bad in each of us, he says, “we are called to work on the log in our own eye, and I’m sure as heck trying to work on the compromises that I make so that those are minimal when it comes to integrity.”

His response, in other words is to oddly assert a sort of Niebuhrianism. Obviously in an ideal world we wouldn’t publish our radical Christian manifestos of hope with publishers who have no ethics and exist solely to produce profits, even at the cost of dehumanizing and oppressing others. But we live in the real world. In the real world sometimes we need to compromise with evil media empires in order to sell enough copies of our book. We may not feel good about this, but this abiguity is an unavoidable tension in which we must live if we wish to deal with “the real world.”

Of course this is exactly the sort of ethical logic that books like Claiborne’s constantly rail against, holding up by contrast the radical politics of Jesus. So when it comes to say, war, the answer is obvious: a complete and radical break with “the world” for the sake of faithfulness to the Gospel. But when it comes to money, and “soft violence”, the kind we don’t easily see, the kind that sustains corporate behemoths like News Corp, well then we have to learn to live in world where things aren’t so black and white. When it comes to “violence” (which always seems to mean simply an ethical disapproval of war) we must not shirk the duty of obedience and faithfulness. When it comes to money, influence, and success (even “good” influence and success in “good” ministries), well then we have to be ok with some compromises with the powers in order to get things done.

Of course one obvious difference between these two contradictory positions that folks like Claiborne tend to take is that simply saying “War is wrong” doesn’t exactly cost us anything or make us ask the hard questions about what violence really is and how it is happening all around us and in us. The reason money, influence, and success are so much harder to simply chuck under the bus of faithfulness and obedience is because we can’t do that without being self-implicating. And there’s the rub.

All of which seems to give further evidence to the fact that “war” and “violence” are not the preeminent capitulations the church has made to the powers. Indeed, arguing about why Christians must be anti-war may well distract us from the real issues, and indeed the real violence that the church consistently ignores for the sake of its own comfort and success.

Or to put an even finer point on the matter: What we really need to be able to do be honest about money. Nothing melts away faux radicalism faster than demanding the people talk about money and change how they relate to it concretely.

26 Comments

  1. dan wrote:

    I’m reminded of Frank Schaeffer’s recent article on Alternet, going after folks like Rob Bell and Rick Warren for enriching Murdoch.

    http://www.alternet.org/story/151585/why_rupert_murdoch_love%24_god%3A_world%27s_biggest_sleaze_mogul_also_getting_rich_from_christian_moralizers/?page=entire

    While reading that (pretty crappy) article, I couldn’t help thinking: “But, Frank, your books can be bought at Chapters (whose CEO annually contributes millions to the Israeli military),” not to mention all the trees he is wasting to publish his (pretty crappy) books, and so on and so forth. It’s nice (for him) that he can claim the moral high ground over authors who have been more successful than him, but I don’t think that he is being very honest. I’m not too surprised seeing that kind of hypocrisy come from him. It’s disappointing to see it come from folks like Claiborne.

    Anyway, I agree about the central importance of getting people to talk about money. I once presented at a conference and, as part of my presentation, I had people share their annual household income along with the amount of credit-debt they had accumulated. I’m not sure if that impacted how people relate to these things but, dang, if things are going to change, we gotta get this subject on the table and out of the category of taboo conversation topics.

    Thursday, August 11, 2011 at 3:24 am | Permalink
  2. phillip mutchell wrote:

    I see your position but isn’t that the whole point behind Jesus’ question ‘whose superscription see ye’ that to use such is to be complicit and just as the Roman tax supported their empire of peace and war so does ours, to follow your argument through to its conclusion shouldn’t Christians refuse to pay taxes, otherwise isn’t Claiborne right to argue from the beam and he who is without sin perspective? Seems like moral one upmanship as the previous comment showed.

    Thursday, August 11, 2011 at 4:05 am | Permalink
  3. Myles wrote:

    “Faux radicalism”? I get the accusation, but that’s a bit harsh. Can we ever get outside this ‘money’ problem? In the same vein as Evan’s comment in the previous post, can we ever get beyond culture?

    Here’s a similar story: two people go into the city, start a house for people to come into, and before long, this thing has gone crazy. People are flooding in, and the original radical vision gets harder to maintain. So, thirty years later, a bill comes: this group owes 60K in back taxes. Rather than give up their vision, other people step in to pay their taxes. This group, in other words, maintains their ethos, but only because someone else paid their tax.

    This group: The Catholic Worker. Would you levy the same accusation against Dorothy Day, who gladly accepted that she was helping create “a new world within the shell of the old”?

    Thursday, August 11, 2011 at 4:58 am | Permalink
  4. Brad E. wrote:

    I understand the broader target of your post, and agree with it, but it seems unfair to Claiborne in the extreme. Who are you actually after? You refer to pacifism being merely an abstract position against war, without consequences, yet Claiborne traveled to Baghdad as part of a CPT team during Shock and Awe. You refer to tackling the issue of money, yet here is a man who lives in a house in a poor and crime-ridden community and ministers among the homeless. Moreover, for whatever is wrong with his statements about News Corp, his point about Zondervan was that he wanted to ensure that people with less money could buy his book — not that he would earn more. (All the profits went to other organizations and charities, not to him.)

    None of this is to say that his comments are correct or critique-proof. Even then, though, I would be interested to know if the real deficit in his comments is that no publisher is perfectly pure or that he seemed to back off serious criticism of News Corp. I totally agree with the latter; the former is highly problematic, in that it can really become a game of “radical Christian purity one-upmanship.” My publisher/car/coffee/church/neighborhood/ministry is purer/radical-er/more-untouched-by-sin than yours; no, mine is. Etc.

    Anyway, I think the problem you put your finger on — the pervasive corruption and rootedness of money for Christians in America, rather than something distant and abstract called “violence” that requires no action but a position — is right on. And to be sure, no one, especially Christians with some kind of financial entanglement, should hesitate to criticize something like News Corp. I just don’t think your representation or critique of Claiborne bears up to scrutiny, much less to charity, and would be better served as a much smaller point about his comments, or by leaving him behind to make a much broader point about something else.

    Thursday, August 11, 2011 at 5:59 am | Permalink
  5. Ted Grimsrud wrote:

    Good points, Halden. However, I wouldn’t want to minimize in any way the damage done by Christianity’s capitulation to war and violence. This capitulation is linked inextricably with the one to wealth.

    Claiborne is being disingenuous when he says his books would cost “two or three times” what they cost with Zondervan should he go with a smaller publisher. I just checked and Don Kraybill’s Upside-Down Kingdom, which is similar to Jesus for President in size and content costs exactly the same ($16.99).

    But part of the reason for someone like Claiborne to publish with an independent publisher that is consistently doing good work would be to strengthen that part of the social transformation effort. The issue with money is not just to avoid enriching the bad guys,it is also to do positive work.

    There’s the same debate in progressive political publishing. Many great writers and great books are published by Metropolitan Books, for example, which is part of a big conglomerate, instead of with independent presses whose capabilities would be greatly strengthened with the opportunity to publish a few more best-sellers.

    Thursday, August 11, 2011 at 6:04 am | Permalink
  6. Marvin wrote:

    Wait. Is your point that Claiborne is a compromised hypocrite, or that Niebuhr was right? I have a feeling that you set out to prove the former, but unintentionally succeeded in proving the latter.

    Thursday, August 11, 2011 at 6:29 am | Permalink
  7. Isaiah wrote:

    I wonder if the news corp scandal is a perfect opportunity for many Christian pastors/authors to actually stand up for a higher ethic than bottom-line profit-driven corporations.. if only some did. Perhaps it could have had an effect like Goshen college’s recent decision over the American anthem.

    Also this reminded me of this article: http://www.jesusradicals.com/publishing-apostles/

    Thursday, August 11, 2011 at 7:01 am | Permalink
  8. Brad A. wrote:

    Good insights, especially the third paragraph.

    Thursday, August 11, 2011 at 7:28 am | Permalink
  9. Halden wrote:

    Ted, yeah I don’t want to minimize war either, that was not my intention.

    And good point about book prices.

    Thursday, August 11, 2011 at 9:04 am | Permalink
  10. Halden wrote:

    Yeah, I didn’t mean to say that Claiborne is a faux radical, my point was broader, and one based on experience. The fact is that there are many such faux radicals running around the intentional community circles (I’ve met dozens over the past decade), who are often reading books like Shane’s, and are super stoked about radical community and whatnot. Well in my experience nothing sends them running faster than talking about money. So its really a point about that phenomenon, not about Shane personally, I have no way of judging that, and maybe I wasn’t clear there.

    Thursday, August 11, 2011 at 9:07 am | Permalink
  11. Halden wrote:

    A couple thoughts. As Ted pointed out the pricing issue is a red herring. And Shane’s point was not so much that he wanted the book to be as cheap as possible, but that he wanted it to garner the widest readership possible, thus he wants the marketing abilities of an organization like Zondervan. And yeah, my point was not that Shane’s trying to make a bunch of money, I was pretty sure that all the money from that book goes to charities. Rather it seems to be more about how we’re willing to let big money and organizations be put to work for us to help us achieve the success and influence we’re after, even if we’re after “good” things.

    But really my fundamental point is a theological one. Shane utilizes a certain theological logic in claiming that Christians should not participate in war because it unfaithful to the gospel. However he puts a very different theological logic to work in justifying his use of a corporation based on unmitigated greed. I’m just asking why this is.

    Thursday, August 11, 2011 at 9:13 am | Permalink
  12. Mike wrote:

    It should be noted comparing Jesus for President with Upside-Down Kingdom isn’t really fair considering Jesus for President is printed in almost all color on every page and its a collaborative artistic project (whether it is a good is up to you) and not a print book.
    I thought a wiser defense of his publishing would have been being as wise as serpents and as innocent as doves. It would change the question to is it wise and what is innocence in this situation.
    The post does raise interesting questions.

    Thursday, August 11, 2011 at 9:55 am | Permalink
  13. CCP wrote:

    The real point: Better to publish with Wipf & Stock!

    (ninja marketing)

    Thursday, August 11, 2011 at 1:31 pm | Permalink
  14. Halden wrote:

    Well, not the real point. But a worthy one.

    Thursday, August 11, 2011 at 1:39 pm | Permalink
  15. Ouch!!! And welcome back Halden from your mission trip to Calcutta, it sure has sharpened your critical insights! And how are those Sisters of Charity these days? I heard there may have been some slacking off since Mother T passed (now there’s some backs aching for the lash!). Coincidentally, I was reading Mother T’s newly published “Private Writings,” while I was antiquing in Nantucket, good read, bit of a downer though, and sales, as you can imagine, have been sluggish (published by Knopf, so she dodged a bullet there! Better a leftist Jew with an affinity for existentialists than a falangist Catholic and ‘Knight Commander of St Gregory’ with a hard-on for Sarah Palin!). You reckon I should invite Shane over here to meet up with you, Dan, and the rest of the NW radical illuminati so we’all can get this thing hashed out? Oh, and Rick Warren too if you don’t mind. He had his own little dustup with Zondervan/Murdoch you know and Warren says he is pastor to RM, whose News Corp publishes “The Purpose-Driven Life.” Warren justified his dealing with the smutt pandering RM by saying: “I don’t have to agree with 100 percent of what another person does in order to work with them on the 20 percent that we do agree on.” Good common sense thinking there by the ‘Rickster,’ of course, that kind of progressive thinking will also get you goose-stepping down the Friedrichstrasse for family values, Veganism, PETA, ‘euthanizing retards,‘ and total world domination by the Aryan race! and doing it with a *PURPOSE* too mister! But seriously now, do we really think that any kind of ‘Monetizing’ Jesusness’ness, in this culture, ‘radical’ or otherwise, is not going to be problematic? “Culture,” as Adorno warned us (in “Culture and Administration”), is a “paradoxical commodity. So completely is it subject to the law of exchange that it is no longer exchanged; it is so blindly consumed in use that it can no longer be used…” I take that to mean that by wearing my ball cap backwards I will not only *not* bring this this racist culture to its knees, but that it actually becomes a sign of my subservience to it! “By the language he speaks, he makes his own contribution to culture as publicity. The more completely language is lost in the announcement, the more words are debased as substantial vehicles of meaning and become signs devoid of quality; the more purely and transparently words communicate what is intended, the more impenetrable they become.” I reckon that’s why some folks give up on preaching altogether or take up postmodern-speak to even temporarily confound the logic of the culture/market. You know, stuff like, “That seeing they may see, and not perceive; and hearing they may hear, and not understand; lest at any time they should be converted, and their sins should be forgiven them.” Not exactly mote and beam in your eye stuff there, it’s more like….Shane…”the Matrix has you”…”follow the white rabbit”….Knock knock.” Welcome back my brother and hope to see you soon, obliged, Daniel.

    Thursday, August 11, 2011 at 8:32 pm | Permalink
  16. PS. In my bedtime reading I just came upon the prayer by the Russian Orthodox Saint John of Kronstadt.

    Live as members of one body, as children of God, in love, harmony, tranquility, and above all in peace, esteeming one another, being indulgent to one another, as the Lord is indulgent to us. Do not be proud, do not envy, do not bear ill-will, do not be slothful in prayers, begin and end the day with fervent prayers to God…, and pray for all as yourself, wish well to all as yourself, and the peace that passes all understanding will live in your heart.

    All blessings sisters and brothers, obliged

    Thursday, August 11, 2011 at 9:26 pm | Permalink
  17. dan wrote:

    For the record, I’ve been doing my damnedest to distance myself from any sort of “radical” label. I’m far too compromised and far too much of a poser to lay claim to that language.

    That said, I do remain disappointed not so much in Claiborne’s choice (many people make such choices out of ignorance and it is then the future choices that matter) as I’m disappointed by his ongoing justification of that choice. It does seem quite inconsistent with his own beliefs.

    Anyway, enough of that. I’m off to continue building the “Christian Anarchist World of Tomorrow Today Theme Park”.

    (PS-I’m currently reading that Mother Teresa book. Having the opposite response: instead of finding it to be a “downer,” I’m finding it to be very encouraging.)

    Friday, August 12, 2011 at 3:42 am | Permalink
  18. Hey DanO. Yeah, of course it’s not a ‘downer,’ well, taken as a whole, ‘downer’ was just more writerly, it’s really a very fruitful book ( whole lot of hierarchy goin on though? ) but so spiritually instructive (see the letter on page 275, what do you think she means by, “He has taken you at your word?”). Also. the letter on page 255, her ministering to the guy “eaten alive by worms,” there at the end, what is “ the first article of the creed of the poor?” Anyway, ‘may the sunshine of darkness be bright’ for you today brother, obliged. (pg 200). Oh, and as for Shane C, well…I take to heart E. Levinas’s mantra, ‘we are all guilty of everything all the time and me more than most.’ Of course, that would sound stupid and trite said by anyone who didn’t survive the holocaust, and it won’t get the numbers up for all those ‘Patheos bloggers,’ (may Allah strike them all with carpel tunnel) but it just barely keeps me from being an insufferable asshole (I pray) which is not nothing these days! blessings.

    Friday, August 12, 2011 at 8:34 am | Permalink
  19. aew wrote:

    I don’t have much to say on the publishing front. I do think, Halden, that you’re on to something important when it come to how in some Christian pacifist circles “violence” has basically come to substitute for “sin.” The danger in this move is that the most obvious forms of violence are external actions that most people do not engage in (e.g. killing, participation in war, etc.). For those of us Christian pacifists in the US, not killing and not participating in war costs us very, very little. The danger is then one of self-congratulation and a blindness to how our lives are bound in idolatrous servitude to capital and to how our interior lives are marred by multiple forms of brokenness. Now, more nuanced Christian pacifist theologians try to address this by developing expansive definitions of violence: but to my mind, that’s a poor substitute for the language of sin, with violence as one species of sin (rather than with violence being defined so expansively as to mean the same as sin).

    Sunday, August 14, 2011 at 6:50 am | Permalink
  20. and may I add a quote Martin Luther (who I don’t often cite) that I need to keep in mind, “Grace is given to heal the spiritually sick, not to decorate spiritual heroes.” obliged.

    Sunday, August 14, 2011 at 9:45 am | Permalink
  21. Ted Grimsrud wrote:

    Do you have an specific examples, Alain, of Christian pacifists who have substituted the notion of “violence” for “sin”? I’m not saying this doesn’t happen, but I can’t think of examples off the top of my head.

    It seems to me that in broader Christian circles, which are of course much, much larger than Christian pacifist circles, the problem is the opposite: the concept of “sin” does not always include “violence” (at least not war or capital punishment).

    I would also tend to think that the category of “idolatry” would be more fruitful and biblical as a broad rubric than “sin.”

    Monday, August 15, 2011 at 6:32 am | Permalink
  22. aew wrote:

    Hi, Ted–Thanks for your note below. I recognize that my claim is a broad, unnuanced one: perhaps we can discuss specific examples in person. For now, I’ll simply say that I’ve had prolonged conversations with some pacifists (some professional theologians, some others) who are so determined to avoid anything that smacks of pietism or evangelicalism that they do essentially want to jettison the language of sin.

    You’re right, of course, that outside of Christian pacifist circles the main danger is one of war/capital punishment not being included under the category of sin.

    Finally, I’m not interested in making “sin” into a master concept. Biblical language about what separates us from God is rich and varied: by all means, let’s all talk extensively about idolatry. But idolatry and sin, I’d note, both have claim to being more “biblical” than the language of violence. That’s not to say, of course, that the biblical testimony is not against what we call “violence.”

    Monday, August 15, 2011 at 3:17 pm | Permalink
  23. Ted Grimsrud wrote:

    Alain, let’s do talk about this when we can (San Francisco in Nov.?). You still owe me a conversation about why you like Kathryn Tanner’s understanding of salvation, too.

    Tuesday, August 16, 2011 at 6:22 am | Permalink
  24. Bud wrote:

    “Yeah, I didn’t mean to say that Claiborne is a faux radical.” Sure sounded like you did. I think you should write posts on these people you’re bumping into in Portland instead.

    Thursday, August 18, 2011 at 8:23 pm | Permalink
  25. David wrote:

    The issue you raise regarding Claiborne is legitimate… I’ve thought the same thing myself. I love his overall message, but have to wade through his countless historical inaccuracies and out-of-context scripture quotes (sometimes complete distortions) in order to read either “Jesus for…” or “Irresistible…” I like both books, but railing against the world’s system, then joining it to promote yourself is hypocritical… even if the profits go to a good cause.

    Saturday, September 24, 2011 at 7:56 am | Permalink
  26. Scott C wrote:

    I think it’s good and important to raise these questions and discuss them with integrity.

    I don’t think anyone has raised this question yet as part of this discussion: how does the Apostle Paul’s (selective) use of his Roman citizenship and its privileges to spread the message of the gospel give us an analogue for this sort of thing–the preacher using the anti-Christ to preach Christ’s message? Not that I think Paul never made mistakes, morally or strategically — it is logically possible that Paul is as guilty as Claiborne, and that we should reject the strategies of both Paul and Claiborne.

    Wednesday, October 26, 2011 at 8:54 am | Permalink

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