mile high

I’m in Denver for the Gospel Rescue Missions national conference, and last night I missed the first half of the free-throw shooting contest in Orlando to attend the plenary talk by Shane Claiborne.  Shane was in the Christian news last year when my alma mater disinvited him (not his fault), so I was interested to hear him and see if I could discern what the controversy was about. 

I liked Shane’s speech.  It was basically a series of witty and convicting vignettes about our need to care for the poor.  Good stuff.  There were only three times that my ears perked up.

1. Shane said that on Judgment Day we will not be asked whether we believe in the virgin birth but whether we cared for “the least of these.”  Fair enough.  But I am getting weary of what seems to be a constant carping on the virgin birth.  Besides being clearly taught in Scripture, the virgin birth points to the deity of Jesus, which is essential for our salvation.  We are commanded “to believe in the Son” (1 John 3:23), and it is difficult to do that if we don’t know who the Son is (for starters, he is God, which is why the church has long valued the virgin birth).  So rather than say that we will be judged only by our works and not by what we believe, why not say that both are important?

2. One of Shane’s stories was how he and his friends violated Philadelphia’s law against feeding the homeless by holding a worship service in a downtown park and then serving everyone there the Lord’s Supper, in which the bread and juice (I’m guessing he didn’t serve them wine) was followed by pizza.  It was funny and a clever way to get around the law, but I wonder how strictly Shane observed the Lord’s Supper.  Did he indiscriminately distribute it to everyone in attendance, Christian and non-Christian alike, or did he announce that this part of the worship was only for those were committed followers of Jesus?

3. Shane cited the survey (from the book, unchristian) which said that Christians are known for being anti-gay, judgmental, and hypocritical.  This is probably true, but I disagree with Shane that this is necessarily our fault.  Certainly many Christians have contributed to this perception, but even if we did everything right we would still be perceived as homophobic and judgmental.  We are responsible for what we communicate, but it isn’t fair to hold us accountable for how we are perceived.  If Paul was alive today, saying to our postmodern culture the same things he said in the New Testament, he would undoubtedly be called judgmental and anti-gay.  There is a reason why Jesus and most of his disciples were martyred.  The world has rarely had a good view of Christians, and it hasn’t always been our fault.

These are the only questions that arose as I listened to Shane.  In all it was a most enjoyable and challenging talk, one that would have been appropriate for a Cedarville chapel. 



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16 responses to “mile high”

  1. Thanks for the summary. I’ve never seen Shane in person, but I’ve appreciated his passion in the little I’ve read and some snippets from him on the net.

    One question: did he ever refer to, in any context, Christ’s death and resurrection and the necessity of faith in him? Is this an aspect of his ministry to the poor?

  2. Ron Brown

    I hope you’re not indicating that your #1 isn’t a huge problem?

  3. On Point 3:

    I find Volf’s study of 1 Peter and terminology of “Soft Difference” very helpful nuanced here.

    He writes: “The negative reactions of non-Christians do not rest on misunderstanding, but are rooted in the inner logic of the non-Christian constellation of values which seem incompatible with the values of Christians. On the other hand, one of the central passages in 1 Peter entertains a lively hope that precisely the Christian difference — outwardly visible in their good deeds — will cause non-Christians to see the truth and eventually convert (2:12,15; 3:1; 3:16). This expectation presupposes overlap between Christian and non-Christian constellations of values. The good works of Christians can be appreciated by non-Christians and look attractive to them.”

    One more quote: “The stress on Christian difference notwithstanding, the ‘world’ does not seem a monolithic place in 1 Peter. We encounter evil people who persecute Christians and who will continue to do the same, blaspheming what is most holy to Christians (4:4,12). We come across ignorant and foolish people who will be silenced by Christian good behavior (2:15). We meet people who know what is wrong and what is right and are ready to relate to Christians accordingly (2:14). Finally, we encounter people who see, appreciate, and are finally won over to the Christian faith (2:12; 3:1). Thus, the picture is more complex than just the two extreme and contrary reactions. This testifies to a sensitivity in 1 Peter for the complexity of the social environment.”

    The whole thing is here.

  4. Re #1:
    I’m nowhere near ready to agree that the “least of these” apocalyptic teaching in Matt 25 is actually Jesus teaching us that we’ll be judged by our deeds (or even by our faith AND our deeds). Not only does one have to ignore the analogia fide to come to such a conclusion, one also has to ignore genre and context!

  5. ” So rather than say that we will be judged only by our works and not by what we believe, why not say that both are important?”

    Ditto to Rev. Z.’s point that we will be judged on both counts. Jesus talked about people who did a lot of things in his name, but those same people willl be told in the judgemnet day “I never knew you…”

  6. mike


    No he didn’t mention Jesus’ death and resurrection or our need to believe in him. And actually, knowing where I think he is coming from, I would have been more surprised if he had. So while I’m guessing that I would have serious theological differences with him (I can’t say for sure because I haven’t read or heard enough of his stuff), at least the talk that I heard could pass in our churches. #1 is important, Ron, which is why I brought it up. I’m just trying to be fair to him, and not fault him for what he didn’t say.

  7. Ron Brown


    Most of the time it’s as wise to listen for what isn’t said as it is for what is. At other times it’s misdirectional statements such as “why are we constantly talking about____ when we should be doing____” that speak as if the first issue was of little or lessor importance, leading the listener towards the same conclusion. And yes, I have personally heard Shane speak.

  8. Mike,

    IF the virgin birth was somehow factually proven to be false, would it still be possible to accept Yahweh as God and Jesus Christ as the Son of God?

    Or does logic and rationalism entirely dictate our faith in a living God?

    Perhaps this is some of what Shane is getting at… and also some of what frustrated you with his comment?


  9. Ray


    Obviously our faith ought to include complementary actions that attest to our commitment to Jesus Christ but I’m not betting my salvation on my works. I like Shane’s passion and his arguments to help the poor but how much is needed to assure my salvation? I know he didn’t say that but it makes you wonder if Jesus did enough.

  10. Ray


    Why wouldn’t it matter?

  11. mikewittmer


    You wrote: “IF the virgin birth was somehow factually proven to be false, would it still be possible to accept Yahweh as God and Jesus Christ as the Son of God?”

    Sure, but it would not be possible to believe the Bible is the true revelation of God. It is the Bible (Matt. 1:18-25) which requires us to believe in the virgin birth, not rationalism. Please don’t confuse the two.

  12. mikewittmer


    I completely agree, which is why I raised the issue. But in fairness to Shane, I have heard similar statements in our churches (which is an indictment of us).

  13. Mike,

    I’m not confusing anything. I simply asked a question, and you seem to take offense at a question.


  14. To clarify my question from previously, I wasn’t being antagonistic. It seems that rationalism with a strict literal translation requires belief in the virgin birth for the biblical text to ‘work’.

    Let’s suppose the following:

    1 – I believe the Bible requires the virgin birth in order for us to believe that the Bible is also the true revelation of God.

    2 – I believe the Bible requires us to believe that that all humans are created in the image of God, that each human is our neighbor as the biblical text states.

    3 – I support policies of my nation that torture my neighbors in order to keep me safe.

    4 – I no longer believe the Bible is the true revelation of God because I support ideas that fly in the face of the biblical text.

    So we end up at the same place. Now all all people who deny the virgin birth as literal fact as well as right wing republicans deny the Bible as the true revelation of God.

    While this may seem snide, it isn’t. It’s simply taking your perspective of rationalism and playing it out. Thus, you understand how liberals within the church (i.e. Shane Claiborne and some of my other friends) equally believe much of the evangelical church in North America has denied the Bible as the inspired word of God.

  15. mikewittmer


    You are making this way too complicated. The biblical text says that Mary was a virgin when she gave birth to Jesus. A reader is not being “rationalistic” or “strictly literal” (at least in a bad way) when she believes what she reads in the biblical text. Do you really not understand this?

  16. Mike,

    I do understand this. I personally affirm the virgin birth of Jesus. I also realize that many followers of Jesus may hold it with suspicion.

    The biblical text also says the creation took place in a literal six days.
    The biblical text tells us about the four corners of the earth.
    The biblical text tells us that the earth stood still.

    In reality, do we need to believe all of these things too for us to affirm that the Bible is God’s revelation to us?

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