05/26/2007 04:35 pm ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

The New Evangelical Revolutionaries

In his book The Irresistible Revolution: Living as an Ordinary Radical, Shane Claiborne quotes the Danish philosopher/theologian Soren Kierkegaard: "The Bible is very easy to understand. But we Christians are a bunch of scheming swindlers. We pretend to be unable to understand it because we know very well that the minute we understand, we are obliged to act accordingly." Claiborne has given himself over to finding and emulating "real Christians," past and present, who "act accordingly." At 31 he is a leading voice, a creative spirit, in a gathering movement of young people known as the "new monastics."

I interviewed Shane Claiborne recently for my public radio program and podcast, Speaking of Faith. I follow what I like to think of as the whole story of religion in the world, within and beyond the competing stridencies that have narrowed our public discourse. I like to find people whose lives and ideas address a question I encounter everywhere in our culture. Born of longing as much as curiosity, it goes something like this: How can we possibly move beyond the rancorous stalemate of our culture, the predictable divides into which even religion has fallen and which religion itself has inflamed?

Shane Claiborne and the people he is attracting are leaving behind doctrinal and political impasses that have alienated so many Christians and so many non-Christians. But you do have to look for them, because you will not find them in the headline-stealing spotlight. They have found their center by moving to the margins, the "abandoned spaces" as they say, of our culture. With virtues like simplicity and imagination, they are engaging great contradictions of our time, beginning with the gap between the churches they were raised in, the needs of the poor, and the "loneliness" they find in our culture's vision of adulthood. The intentional community Shane Claiborne co-founded in North Philadelphia a decade ago, The Simple Way, has inspired and been joined by kindred communities across the U.S.

Claiborne's theological heart and mind were first captured by 40 homeless families in North Philadelphia, who moved into an abandoned Catholic cathedral and were rewarded with an eviction notice. He and over 100 students from his Christian college, Eastern University, put their lives alongside them and helped catalyze a minor miracle. The media of Philadelphia were galvanized, people opened their homes, Section 8 housing was made available. In the end, all 40 families had found or been given a permanent place to live. And Shane Claiborne was set on fire by this experience of resurrecting the essence of Christianity quite literally, as St. Francis of Assisi said before him, in "the ruins of the church."

The new monastics are part of larger, important, and under-reported stories of religion in the present, including the evolution and diversification of Evangelical Christianity, and the way in which young people are challenging "religion as usual" with their keen insistence on authenticity and spiritual depth.

But they also shed an alternative light on another story I'm watching, the cultural dialogue spurred by intellectuals who base their anti-religious stances on illustrations of nonsense and damage in the name of religion. Shane Claiborne and his kindred spirits take the reality of destructive and simplified Christianity deeply to heart. In response, they are digging out what they see as the core of Christianity in which they nevertheless experience truth, meaning, and life. They are modeling their communities not on the churches they were raised in but on role models deep within the historic tradition: St. Francis, Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King, and Mother Teresa, whom Shane Claiborne joined to work in a leper colony in India in the last year of her life.

Yet even as they excavate the ancient heart of Christianity, their vision is distinctly up to date. They have a global, holistic sensibility, a pragmatic capacity to connect the dots between local needs and global crises, which I see as a hallmark and gift of this generation. So, expanding on an old adage, Shane Claiborne says that his community gives people fish and also teaches them to fish. But beyond that, he adds, they are compelled to ask, "Who owns the pond? And who polluted it?"

And who knows. Maybe these new monastics are the great story of our time, a defining force, whether they're making contemporary headlines or not. I recall a conversation I had with Benedictine nun Joan Chittister (I'm sure she wouldn't want to be called an "old monastic") a good decade ago. She told me about St. Benedict, one of the founders of the entire monastic enterprise. Benedict had his share of problems in his day, the sixth century, including being poisoned and reviled by other religious people who didn't like what he was up to. And Sr. Joan pointed out to me that if you had observed him and his followers in the midst of the great historical drama of the Roman Empire of his time, one little community here, another there, you would never have guessed that they were starting a movement that would endure into the 21st century, and along the way keep European learning and civilization alive, from the margins, during the Dark Ages.

Happily for all of us, perhaps, Shane Claiborne knows his history. Ask him if he thinks that the constellation of small communities he's a part of can really change the world. He'll tell you that this is the only way it's ever been done.