‘Red-letter Christians‘ is a movement or network started in the States, but now coming to the UK, (primarily) initiated by Tony Campolo with the support of Jim Wallis. Alongside Campolo, another main contributor is Shane Claiborne, a leader in the New Monasticism movement. The name of the movement comes from the practice in some Bibles of printing the words of Jesus in red, as Campolo explains:
During a radio interview with Jim Wallis, the DJ happened to say, “So, you’re one of those Red-Letter Christians–you know–who’s really into those verses in the New Testament that are in red letters!” Jim answered, “That’s right!” And with that answer, he spoke for all of us. … In adopting this name, we are saying that we are committed to living out the things that He said. Of course, the message in those red-lettered verses is radical, to say the least. If you don’t believe me, read Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7).
This commitment is a response to two issues: the social reality of life in contemporary America; and the way that evangelical Christians there are all too often aligned with the political right. Campolo hopes that this new movement will not simply take a position within these politico-religious culture wars, but offer a non-partisan approach that transcends the divide:
The purpose of this gathering was not to create a religious left movement to challenge the religious right, but to jump-start a religious movement that will transcend partisan politics. Believing that Jesus is neither a Republican nor a Democrat, we want to unite Christians who are concerned about what is happening in America.
He then lists the social issues that are of concern—inequality, the environment, education, overseas development aid, and discrimination. I don’t think I would disagree with any of these issues, as you could see from wandering around this blog. It is worth noting, however, that Campolo’s proposal of transcending the right/left divide looks somewhat disingenuous here, as these are all ‘left’-type issues. Where is the mention of parenting and the scandal of a fatherless generation? Where the need for a sense of personal moral responsibility? These classically ‘right’ issues also have a good claim to be rooted in Christian values.
More importantly, I think focussing on the ‘red letter’ words of Jesus is the wrong way to address these problems. In fact, this approach offers considerable problems of its own.
The first danger is that it detaches Jesus from his Jewish context by failing to read his words in the context of the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) that Jesus himself read. One of the refrains on the website is ‘If Jesus didn’t talk about it, why is it so important?’ But, as Wes Hill points out, this has never been the main way Christians engage with ethics, and it is potentially highly misleading.
Contrary to the “red-letter Christians” experiment, it is simply not a classic Christian practice—among Catholics, Orthodox, or Protestants—to pit the words (or silence) of Jesus over against other portions of Scripture.
And if we do, this very quickly leads to a neo-Marcionite position, where we contrast the (rather nasty and obsessive) god of the Old Testament with the radical and inspiring message of Jesus. Apart from anything else, this is incoherent and unnecessary. If you want to look for resources for a radical alternative to consumerism, you can do no better than turn to Lev 25 and read the teaching on the Jubilee—as many other Christians have in fact done. Here we find a radically communitarian vision of life under the reign of God where we do not own our possessions but are merely stewards of them. And in the gospels, Jesus is mostly presented as a fulfilment of such a vision, not a contradiction to it.
The second danger is that this approach dehistoricises Jesus. In removing him from his Jewish theological context, we also remove him from his historical context and treat what he says as though they were timeless statements of truth which need no interpretation. Ironically, this has a similar effect to the one imposed by the Jesus Seminar, a group of historically sceptical scholars who believe we need to recover the historically authentic words of Jesus from the layers of later theological additions. To do this, one criterion apply is the ‘criterion of dissimilarity‘; we can be confident that something is from Jesus if it is untypical of both his Jewish context and the later teaching of the church. But this is not a way to find the authentic Jesus; it is a way to find the eccentric Jesus. And by focussing on his radical sayings, the RLC movement does the same.
One consequence of this is a common but bizarre assertion that Jesus was not particularly religious—or that the main people he had a problem with were the religious people. Andrew Wilson deals with this deftly:
“The only time Jesus drew a line, it was religious people who were on the other side.” Well, since pretty much everyone in the Mediterranean world in the first century was religious, including a certain circumcised, Torah-observant, festival-keeping Jewish Messiah, that’s not a particularly striking claim. Everyone in that scene (John 8:1-11) was religious. So what?
This has immediate implications for our approach to discipleship. I am the last person to defend the idea that truth is to be found in a religious institution rather than relationship with Jesus. But in fact we all need ‘religion’, if by this we mean a tradition and pattern of devotion into which we are inducted with others. That is why the disciples saw no need to end their regular visits to the temple (Acts 2.46, Acts 3.1) even after Jesus was raised and the Spirit poured out. If we are not shaped by these habits, it all becomes a matter of individual effort, and we end up with what Richard Foster in Celebration of Discipline called ‘will worship.’
The third danger is that the RLC approach emasculates our theology. It is very clear from even a cursory reading of the NT that the first disciples, whilst they attended very carefully to the teaching of Jesus, proclaimed a good deal more than that. Jesus was not just someone who told us things we did not know; in his resurrection God had done something we could not do. That is the centre of Peter’s teaching in Acts 2; that is clearly the message of Paul in Acts 17. Even in the gospels themselves, Jesus’ teaching can never be separated from his miracles. In fact, the later apostolic teaching about Jesus is presented very strongly in continuity with the teaching of Jesus. Wes Hill again:
The unfolding of the New Testament canon presents itself as the continuation of Jesus’ speech, so much so that Paul’s words in Romans 1 and 1 Corinthians 6 and elsewhere about sexual behavior are to be read as having the authority of the same Jesus who allegedly said nothing about homosexuality during his earthly life. Notice how Paul describes his identity: “Paul, an apostle—not from men nor through man, but through Jesus Christ and God the Father, who raised him from the dead…” (Galatians 1:1).
If we focus only on the teaching of Jesus, we are aligning ourselves with the Gnostics; the so-called ‘gospel’ of Thomas, which contains 114 sayings of Jesus, is no gospel at all, since a ‘gospel’ announces good news about what God has done.
My friend John Allister commented (on a previous edition of this post):
Added to which, it presupposes a crazy notion of translation. We’ve only got a handful of ipsissima verba – talitha koum, etc. The rest are already in translation (albeit divinely inspired translation, often by those who knew Jesus well), which necessarily changes the shades of meaning. Given that we trust John’s translation of Jesus’ words, which can probably be fairly free at times, why shouldn’t we trust his teaching about the consequences of Jesus’ words?
The irony of all this is that focussing on the ‘red letters’ is not what is need, nor does it deliver what is necessary. One of the ‘trending’ articles on the website explores the idea that ‘Being born again is not about Going to Heaven‘. The articles draws on the writings of Tom Wright—hardly a ‘red letter Christian’ but in fact a renowned Pauline scholar. Another related articles loudly proclaims ‘The Bible Isn’t Perfect And It Says So Itself.’ It is arguing against the notion of biblical ‘inerrancy’, but is probably one of the worst examples of engaging with this issue I can think of. It suggests that, because 2 Tim 3.16 says that Scripture is ‘God-breathed’ then it is not God. And only God is perfect. So Scripture is not perfect.
My mom isn’t perfect. She would be the first one to tell you so. She has several degrees and a lifetime of experience, but she would also tell you she’s not inerrant.
And the Bible is like that. We go to it for wise advice, but it is not perfect. This is the most appalling logic—and quite the opposite of what Paul intended in 2 Tim 3.16! The reason for the problem is that the writer of this is locked into the same assumptions as the people he is criticising—that the opposite of ‘inerrant’ is ‘errant’ and so the Bible must be one of these two. But in fact the real problem that needs to be tackled is the background of nineteenth-century rationalism which is framing this whole discussion.
What is actually needed here is not to read less of the Bible, Jesus’ words alone, but to read more of it. If Campolo and others are concerned that abortion and homosexuality are taking up too much of evangelicals’ attention, then the answer to that is to locate these issues in the whole of the Scriptural witness, and give them due weight—no more, and no less. Campolo is wrong that the main issue for Christians in America is inequality, or poverty, or discrimination. The main problem there, as here, and in every place, is that all have sinned; that the kingdom of God is at hand but we need to repent. If some Christians twist this into a right-wing, moralistic, individualised message, then the solution is not to try and ‘transcend’ these issues, but to engage with them in a better reading of the whole Bible that we all share.
(A version of this article was first posted in 2014—but since the RLC movement has now announced it is coming to the UK, it felt appropriate to post this again.)
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