If you meet Christ on the road, kill him!

Written by Mark Van Steenwyk : May 18, 2007

There is an old Zen saying: If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him! From a Buddhist framework, this means that one shouldn’t have a master outside one’s self–a Buddha outside one’s own self. Practically, this means that the Buddhist shouldn’t believe what someone says simply because they are a holy person.

While I don’t buy into a Buddhist way of seeing the world, I think there is a lot of wisdom here for Christians. Basically, this is a warning that means one shouldn’t worship heroes, one shouldn’t look for a substitute Christ. Simply put: Christians shouldn’t have gurus. When contemporary American Christians have living saints or celebrity gurus, those gurus and saints become like a brand name. People become their fans, but fans rarely imitate the objects of their affection.

In fact, Jesus (while he certainly accepts our worship) seemed WAY more interested in having people follow him than he was in people worshiping him. I don’t think Jesus is pleased with our worship, given the atrocious state of our discipleship. And he certainly doesn’t like it when we elevate people like Shane Claiborne as exemplars, but fail to follow their example. Shane has gotten a lot of attention, and for some good reasons. He is living out a radically Christ-centered life that is worthy of imitation. But he’s gotten WAY more fans than imitators. And the way the “machine” has gotten a hold of him has saddened me, because it is turning him into a saint instead of into an “ordinary radical.” I know so many people who love what he has to say but feel like he’s in a special class of holy person. This has been building and now seems to have hit a new high with the recent broadcast by NPR.

If you meet Christ on the road, kill him.

A lot of friends have given me a hard time about my general grumpiness about the Shane Claiborne phenomenon. And rightly so. I’m sure at least SOME of my grumpiness comes from the fact that I am an unknown neomonastic and Shane is a guru among neomonastics. But my issue isn’t really with him. I wish that millions would look at Shane’s life and imitate it. But from everything I’ve seen, there hasn’t been much of that. Most neomonastics I know (me included) are inspired by what inspires Shane. People need to move from respecting Shane, to honoring Jesus. And from honoring Jesus to following Jesus.

In a way, this post has nothing to do with Shane Claiborne. It has to do with the way in which fickle Christians embrace exemplars. I have no doubt in my mind, whatsoever, that Shane’s goal is to promote Christlikeness–to challenge people into living out the Gospel. But when one becomes an unwitting brand, the figure-head of a trend, then it isn’t discipleship that’s being promoted. Instead, it is hero worship.

What is my point in saying all this? It certainly isn’t to take pot shots at Shane Claiborne. By all accounts, he is an amazing person. I’d love to know him and learn from him. His book challenged me. He’s doing great things. But he has become a guru. And this isn’t good. If you’re one of the many people that are enamored with him, or with any other living saint (take your pick), but your life hasn’t been reformed in response, then kill the Buddha. Instead of being an adorer, become an imitator. Embrace the presence of the Spirit, obey the loving commands of Jesus, and let go of those things that keep you from moving forward. Stop being that guy or gal who thinks that s/he is someone who “gets it” because of the books or sermons with which you agree. Instead, go and do likewise.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that I am doing all the “Jesus stuff” myself. I need people to imitate. I need to learn from others. I am a flawed human being struggling to live it out too. So don’t read my challenge as a “hey, I’m someone who’s really DOING it, and you aren’t. So you suck.” That’s not my intention. Instead, we should all embrace the struggle to live things out. We should all be discontent with simply reading words on pages (or blogs). We should spend less time trying to be inspired by others and more time taking the simple steps of faithfulness. We need to resist abstraction. Ideas are cheap. Behaviors are costly. Let’s work out our salvation with fear and trembling as we do the good works that God has prepare for us.

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16 Responses to “If you meet Christ on the road, kill him!”

  1. Jonas Lundström on May 18th, 2007 12:04 pm

    Brilliant. Important post. Help us, God.

  2. dlw on May 18th, 2007 1:00 pm

    Well, I think i’d share this post with Shane.

    I agree that we tend to treat the gurus like saints, we’re glad they’re there, but wouldn’t want to be one…

    I think abstraction has to be linked to renewal of practice in a different context.

    Oh and if you want to write a RIP dedication post to my blog, I, as one who is by no means close to guru status, wouldn’t mind it too much. ;)

  3. drew moser on May 18th, 2007 1:21 pm

    Great post. My thoughts exactly…For those who are hoping that a lil’ Shane will rub off on you…sorry: bad theology. See Christ in Him, and be inspired to go and do likewise. Thanks for the reminder Mark.

  4. Brother Maynard on May 18th, 2007 8:42 pm

    Uncanny. I used this example a week or so ago in a conversation, “Christianizing” the Zen saying. Well done, excellent post.

  5. Bill Kinnon on May 20th, 2007 2:00 am

    Very well said. Thanks for the challenge. Much needed.

  6. Ariah Fine on May 20th, 2007 3:03 pm

    Well said. I think you hit in on the head, and I don’t think shane would disagree with you. I was writing a post to go up on Friday linking to his NPR spot, and I’m still gonna do it, but I’m gonna include a snippet from your post too if you don’t mind.


  7. Rev. Joe on May 21st, 2007 10:26 pm

    I appreciated your message until you got lost in your opinions on Shane. I didn’t understand your defensive repetitions in this area. Did you get caught up in your own hero worship struggles?

  8. markvans on May 21st, 2007 10:39 pm

    Perhaps, but not likely. This post came out of my reflections about how folks have responded to his book and message.

    I could have written this post generically, I suppose. But it seems to me that Shane Claiborne is the perfect example of this. He is the person I am most aware of that people are exalting as a living saint, while at the same time exactly the sort of person who is encouraging folks to go and do likewise. He is the 21st century equivalent to Dorothy Day or Mother Theresa for young evangelicals. Dorothy Day and Mother Theresa were likewise often celebrated but rarely imitated.

    I’m not sure where you see much defensiveness, nor do I see much repetition. Perhaps you missed my whole point. Or perhaps I struck a nerve?

  9. Rev. Joe on May 22nd, 2007 11:05 pm

    Thanks. My perspective is among the mainliners who live for dead heroes of the 16th century…as if nothing worthwhile has been written beyond the 18th century. I seek an emergent conversation in the midst of “dead poets”. I deeply appreciate you and many others willing to speak of the new reformation…the challenge is to avoid idolatry while not throwing the baby out with the bathwater. I am new to this conversation and just discovered Shane and his writings; I haven’t arrived at that hero place…yet.

  10. Jordan on June 19th, 2007 1:56 am

    Let my little brain try and shed some sort of input.

    I want to give Shane’s book to random people. I personally do not want to be an admirer of Shane, but a follower of Jesus.

    However, I am aware that giving this book to random people could just cause them to admire Shane and The Simple Way, and not not imitate Jesus. I don’t want that.

    It’s a process though - changing lives-, right? a process I’m engaging in, and more or less beginning.

    I was thinking of how I could share this book with strangers, and although the “Sainthood” of Shane is probably inevitable for some, I think reading this post has given me a good idea of how to try and avoid the inevitable. That’s an oxymoron, huh?

    I have zero credibility. I am nothing. Maybe harsh…but I’m trying to love Jesus, let him love me, and love others.

    I quit my job; I am spoiled.

    - Jordan

  11. tatiana on June 20th, 2007 8:58 pm

    I think I would disagree with you saying that most people are spending more time admiring Shane than imitating him.

    We have had scores of visitors lately to my community, and it seems like they are doing a pretty good job of imitating Shane and the simple way (or at least what they know of it through his book and the internet) - driving around in veggie oil vehicles, growing gardens, eating organic food, making their own clothes. I don’t think these are very difficult things to imitate, so it doesn’t seem like much of a challenge.

    Some of Shane’s readers are even “imitating” him in spending time with poor people, moving into racially different and/or poverty-stricken neighborhoods, seeking social justice, etc.

    I see a lot of that happening, but all of those things can be done just as much for self-seeking reasons as for self-sacrificing ones. I’m not sure we can have any idea yet what sorts of motives are behind all of this. It might be people stirred by the Holy Spirit to life a deeper discipleship. Or it might be a bunch of people riled up about something that has become very hip.

    We will see.
    -tatiana : )

  12. amy on July 16th, 2007 4:19 pm

    i don’t know shane, but i would love to see more Christ-like people be loved and imitated. i’d love to see more Christ-like people in general.

    i understand your point about how people are too often “worshipped” though. that’s true. sometimes i think it even extends to worshipping images of Jesus and the symbol of the cross and stuff like that too. sometimes we gaze at an artist’s rendering of Jesus instead of just closing our eyes and being with our Heavenly Father himself.

    i’m curious about the “grumpy tone.” i wonder where that comes from.

    i saw a tv show today where a preacher said “frustration = works of the flesh.” reflecting on your tone reminded me of that.

    hmm.. that info comes in handy today for me… (it’s been a long frustrating day)

    neomonastic… curious term… i’ll have to look it up…

    thanks for the food for thought, mark.

  13. markvans on July 16th, 2007 4:30 pm

    I don’t remember what sparked the grumpy reasons for this post. But it probably flowed out of my frustration with the way in which people can extol certain ideas and ideals without feeling like they need to change as a result. And while frustration can sometimes be a work of the flesh, I would be careful to categorize it as such. Frustration is the first step in challenging the status quo. Without frustration there can be no change.

    I’m not frustrated with Shane, by the way. I wish everyone in the church were like him. He is an exemplar for a very good reason. My point is simply this: exemplars are to be emulated, not venerated.

  14. amy on July 16th, 2007 8:01 pm

    “my frustration with the way in which people….”
    you could fill in the blank with so many things there.

    but i hear you - if you’re plugged in to this world at all, then you’re bound to be frustrated sometimes.

    the notion of prolonged frustration being out of sync with God’s will for my life feels true to me. it helped me today in dealing with my own frustrations, so i thought i’d pass it on. your caution is duly noted, however.

    i would guess most people are trying to live up to their ideals. for the most part, people are doing the best they can.

    it’s really hard to live up to a Christ life. that’s why so many of us admire it so much when we see others able to do it. it gives us hope.

    (ps -thanks for responding to my post.)

  15. markvans on July 16th, 2007 8:04 pm

    Fair enough.

  16. amy on July 16th, 2007 8:30 pm

    pps… maybe frustration is a pre-requisite for changing ourselves.

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