Read an Excerpt
RED LETTER REVOLUTIONWHAT IF JESUS REALLY MEANT WHAT HE SAID?
By SHANE CLAIBORNE TONY CAMPOLO
Thomas NelsonCopyright © 2012 Tony Campolo and The Simple Way
All right reserved.
Chapter OneDialogue on History
Very truly I tell you, whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father. JOHN 14:11–12 UPDATED NIV
SHANE: Tony, why do you think we need a new term like Red Letter Christianity? What happened to the terms fundamentalist and evangelical?
TONY: Christians with orthodox beliefs have, over the past century, adopted a couple of different names to distinguish themselves from those whom they thought had strayed from the historic teachings of the church.
During the late 1800s, scholars in Germany created a critique of the Bible that really tore traditional beliefs about the Bible to shreds. They raised questions about who the authors of Scripture were and suggested that much of the Bible was only the rehashing of ancient Babylonian myths and moral codes. In addition, theologies came out of Germany from the likes of Friedrich Schleiermacher, Albrecht Ritschl, Ernst Troeltsch, and others who raised serious doubts about such crucial doctrines as the divinity of Christ and his resurrection from the dead.
There was a reaction to all of this "modernism"—the name given to this recasting of these new Christian teachings that were attempts to be relevant to a rational and scientific age—and a collection of scholars from the United States and England got together and published a series of twelve books called the Fundamentals of the Christian Faith. These books were an intelligent defense of the traditional doctrines that we find outlined in the Apostles' Creed.
It was in reaction to those books that Harry Emerson Fosdick, a prominent liberal preacher in New York City, preached a sermon called "Shall the Fundamentalists Win?" which was printed and circulated throughout the country. Thus the term fundamentalism was born.
The label fundamentalism served us well until about 1928 or 1929. From that time on, and especially following the famous Scopes trial in which William Jennings Bryan argued against Darwin's theory of evolution, fundamentalism began to be viewed by many as being anti-intellectual and naïve. Added to this image of anti-intellectualism was a creeping tendency among fundamentalists toward a judgmentalism, by which they not only condemned those who deviated from orthodox Christian doctrine but any who did not adhere to their legalistic lifestyles, which were marked by condemnation of such things as dancing, smoking, and the consumption of alcohol.
By the time the 1950s rolled around, the word fundamentalist carried all kinds of negative baggage, and many wondered whether we could use the word anymore in a positive manner. About that time Billy Graham and Carl Henry, who was then the editor of Christianity Today magazine, began using a new name: evangelical. Again, orthodox Christians had a word that served us well, and did so right up until about the middle of the 1990s. By then, the word evangelical had lost its positive image with the general public. Evangelicals, to a large extent, had come to be viewed as married to the religious Right, and even to the right wing of the Republican Party.
When preachers like you and me go to speak at places like Harvard or duke or Stanford and are announced as evangelicals, red flags go up and people say, "Oh, you are those reactionary Christians! You're anti-woman; you're anti-gay; you're anti-environmentalist; you're pro-war; you're anti-immigrant; and you're all in favor of the NRA." defending ourselves, we say, "Wait a minute! That's not who we are!" I think evangelicalism also has been victimized by the secular media, which is largely responsible for creating the image by treating evangelicalism and the religious Right of the Republican party as synonymous.
It was in this context that a group of us, who were sometimes referred to as "progressive evangelicals," got together and tried to figure out how to come up with a new name for who and what we are. We kicked around various names and eventually came up with the name Red Letter Christians. We wanted people to know that we are Christians who make a point out of being committed to living out, as much as possible, what those red letters in the Bible—the words of Jesus—tell us to be and do. We're not into partisan politics, though we have a bias for political policies that foster justice for the poor and oppressed, regardless of which party espouses them.
Christianity today magazine published a full-page article critiquing our new name, saying, "You people act as though the red letters in the Bible are more important than the black letters." To that we responded, "exactly! Not only do we say that the red letters are superior to the black letters of the Bible, but Jesus said they were!" Jesus, over and over again in the Sermon on the Mount, declared that some of the things that Moses taught about such things as divorce, adultery, killing, getting even with those who hurt you, and the use of money had to be transcended by a higher morality.
When Jesus said he was giving us new commandments, I believe they really were new commandments. They certainly went beyond the morality prescribed in the black letters that we read in the Pentateuch. Furthermore, we don't think you can really understand what the black letters in the Bible are telling you until you first come to know the Jesus revealed in the red letters. This in no way diminishes the importance of those black letters; we believe that the Holy Spirit directed the writers of Scripture so that all of Scripture was inspired by God.
Shane, I know what you believe about those red letters in the Bible. As I have listened to you over these past few years, I've noticed that you make a big point out of the fact that the time has come for Christians to take the teachings of Jesus seriously, to take the Sermon on the Mount seriously.
SHANE: We clutter, explain away, jazz up, and water down the words of Jesus, as if they can't stand on their own. I once heard someone say, "I went to seminary to learn what Jesus meant by the things he said. And then I learned in seminary that Jesus didn't really mean the stuff he said." That's sad! Sometimes we just need to enter the kingdom as a kid, as Jesus said—with innocence and simplicity.
As theologian Søren Kierkegaard said back in the 1800s, "The matter is quite simple. The Bible is very easy to understand. But we Christians ... pretend to be unable to understand it because we know very well that the minute we understand, we are obliged to act accordingly."
There comes a moment when we return to that innocence. We read the Bible again, without all the commentaries, and ask, What if he did really mean this stuff? I'm not as concerned with figuring out every minute theological question as much as I am reading the simple words of Jesus and trying to live my life as if he meant them. If I can be a little more faithful today than yesterday to love my neighbor, pray for my enemies, and live like the lilies and the sparrows, I'm doing well.
It's important to note that Red Letter Christians are not, as someone once told me, "Christocentric," meaning we emphasize Christ so much that we are not trinitarian. I've been called worse things than "Christocentric," but that's not what we're up to.
We believe the God revealed in Jesus is the God of the Hebrew Bible. With all the ancient creeds, we know that the trinitarian God is one—Father, Spirit, Son. Nevertheless, as you read the Hebrew Scriptures, you encounter some troubling things. Just look at Judges 19 when a nameless concubine is cut into pieces and mailed to the twelve tribes of Israel. It can be confusing. And that is why Jesus is so wonderful. Jesus came to show us what God is like in a way we can touch, and follow. Jesus is the lens through which we look at the Bible and the world; everything is fulfilled in Christ. There are plenty of things I still find baffling, like the Judges 19 concubine thing, but then I look at Christ, and I get a deep assurance that God is good, and gracious, and not so far away.
TONY: There is a whole different feel about God when we move from the black letters in the Old Testament to the red letters of the New Testament. While Red Letter Christians believe that the Old Testament is also the inspired Word of God, it's hard to ignore that there is a contrast between the image of God that many people get from what they read in the Old Testament and what they find in the teachings of Jesus. Some early Christians even thought they were dealing with two different gods. Of course, they weren't, but it's easy to see why some Christians back then thought that way.
SHANE: This is precisely the beautiful thing about the incarnation. Jesus shows us what God is like with skin on—in a way we can see, touch, feel, and follow. My Latino friends have taught me that the word incarnation shares the same root as en carne or con carne, which means "with meat." We can see God in other places and at work throughout history, but the climax of all of history is Jesus, revealed in those red letters.
TONY: Again, this does not mean the black letters of Scripture are not divinely inspired—they are! Theologian G. Ernest Wright said that what we know about God is through what we discern in God's mighty acts in history. In his little monograph called The God Who Acts (1952), he says that unlike the Koran and unlike the Book of Mormon, our God does not come down and dictate word for word what's in the Bible. Instead, our God is revealed by what he does, and the Bible is the infallible record of those mighty acts. Those black letters that make up the words of the Old Testament are the record of those mighty acts in which we see God revealed.
The ancient Greeks used words like omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent to describe God, but these words just don't appear in the Old Testament. The ancient Jews never would have talked about God in those abstract Greek terms. If you had asked the ancient Jews to describe God, they would have said, "Our God is the God who created the world, who heard our cries when we were enslaved and led us out of the land of Egypt and into the promised land. Ours is the God who defeated the armies of Sennacherib. The God we worship enabled us to rise above the threatening powers of the world that would have destroyed us. We worship the God who acted in the lives of Abraham, Moses, and Jacob." What the ancient Jews knew about God, they knew through the things God did. It was the mighty acts of God in history that enabled them to begin to understand what God is like.
In the New Testament, we read that God, who in times past was revealed in diverse manners and in diverse places, has been, in these last days, fully revealed in Jesus Christ (Hebrews 11:1–2). The Bible is the account of those events in history through which we gain progressive insights into the nature of God; but in the end, it's in Jesus that we get the full story.
The Gospels are a declaration of how to live as a kingdom people, working to create the kingdom of God in this world. In the red letters of the Gospels, Jesus spells out for us specific directives for how his followers should relate to others and what sacrifices are required of them if they are to be citizens of his kingdom.
SHANE: Over the past few decades, our Christianity has become obsessed with what Christians believe rather than how Christians live. We talk a lot about doctrines but little about practice. But in Jesus we don't just see a presentation of doctrines but an invitation to join a movement that is about demonstrating God's goodness to the world.
This kind of doctrinal thinking infects our language when we say things like, "Are you a believer?" Interestingly, Jesus did not send us into the world to make believers but to make disciples. You can worship Jesus without doing the things he says. We can believe in him and still not follow him. In fact there's a passage in Corinthians that says, "If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing" (1 Corinthians 13:1–3 author's paraphrase).
At times our evangelical fervor has come at the cost of spiritual formation. For this reason we can end up with a church full of believers, but followers of Jesus can be hard to come by.
TONY: The Gospels provide us a prescription for a kingdom lifestyle, and the other books of the New Testament provide us with a solid theology. Red Letter Christians need both. We don't want to minimize the theology of justification by faith. We declare that we are saved by grace, through faith and not of works, lest any person should boast (Ephesians 2:8). We surrender our lives to Christ and don't trust in our own righteousness and good works for salvation. We trust in what Christ has done for us on the cross as a basis for salvation. But at the same time we declare that Christ has called us to live a lifestyle that is specifically defined for us in the Sermon on the Mount and in other red-letter passages of Scripture.
And just as we need to declare the doctrines of the faith, as the apostle Paul articulated with such clarity in his epistles, we also need to live out the lifestyle that Jesus modeled for us in the Gospels.
SHANE: A few years ago, Willow Creek Community Church in Chicago, one of the most influential megacongregations in the world, conducted a fascinating study. It was an attempt to measure the progress of their mission to raise up "fully devoted followers of Christ," and they surveyed their congregation to see how they were doing at that. There is no question they have been phenomenal at reaching unchurched people and leading people into new faith commitments to Jesus. Their question was, do their lives look different? Do the social networks and consumption patterns of folks change as they become believers? And what they found was heartbreaking. Willow Creek, with courage and humility, released the study called Reveal, which was almost a confession as it showed that we may be good at making believers, but we have a long way to go when it comes to forming disciples. Studies like this continue to show that our Christianity has become a mile long but an inch deep.
And I want to be clear: I have a deep respect for Willow Creek. I think they have consistently raised the bar on what membership means. I worked there for a year, and we always used to joke that if you complained about something at Willow, you had just volunteered yourself to help solve whatever was wrong. I remember hearing at Willow that "90 percent commitment still falls 10 percent short."
What Willow Creek so courageously unveils through their own confession is that we have much work to do in most of our congregations when it comes to forming fully devoted followers of Jesus, not just believers.
If our gospel is only about personal salvation, then it is incomplete. If our gospel is only about social transformation and not about a God who knows us personally and counts the hairs on our heads, then it, too, is incomplete.
TONY: Because I am not yet living up to what Jesus expects me to be in those red letters in the Bible, I always define myself as somebody who is saved by God's grace and is on his way to becoming Christian. As Philippians 3:13 to 14 says, "Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus." Being saved is trusting in what Christ did for us, but being Christian is dependent on the way we respond to what he did for us.
SHANE: As the old saying goes, "I'm not saved because I'm good, but I'm trying to be good because I'm saved." Good works do not earn our salvation. They prove and demonstrate our salvation. If we have truly tasted grace, we become more gracious people. Grace makes us gracious. If we really become a new creation in Christ, that should transform how we act, who we hang out with, how we look at money and war and politics, and why we are here on earth. Indeed, all things become new.
One of the challenges we have is the concept that where everything is Christian, nothing is Christian. By that I mean that we live in a Christianized civilization wherein God-talk is heard everywhere, but with little attention given to what we're actually saying or what's implied in what we're saying. So when our money says, "In God we trust," that's quintessentially taking the Lord's name in vain when it is used to buy heroin in my neighborhood, or guns or bombs or pornography, or whatever. It would be better if it said, "In God sometimes we trust" or "In God we hope to trust." But then, when God-talk is used thoughtlessly and carelessly, it inoculates us. It's like getting a small dose of something that's real, but not getting hit with the full force of it—you become immune to the real thing. No one wants Christianity because of the little bit they've experienced.
Excerpted from RED LETTER REVOLUTION by SHANE CLAIBORNE TONY CAMPOLO Copyright © 2012 by Tony Campolo and The Simple Way. Excerpted by permission of Thomas Nelson. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.