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Ordinary Radicals sheds light on emerging evangelical reform

Coming off the heels of The Irresistible Revolution, author Shane Claiborne teams up with director Jamie Moffett for a full-length documentary on their cross-country tour in support of Claiborne’s newest book, Jesus For President, which he co-authored with Chris Haw. The film attempts to examine and promote Claiborne’s movement of “ordinary radicals” – a new monastic order of non-partisan, communal living Christians rooted in the beliefs of social justice and care for the poor.

The film follows Moffett, Haw and company as they speak in churches and cafés across the country. Interviewing figures such as Tony Campolo and Ron Sider, the film traces the history of Christian social justice back to the “social gospel” that originated in the African-American community during the Civil Rights movement of the ’60s and ’70s.

The documentary is enlightening, although at times Moffett and company fail to delve deeper into their somewhat broad brushed assumptions about issues such as military service and consumerism in relation to American Christianity. At times this ends pretentiously, especially with a title like Ordinary Radicals: A Conspiracy of Faith on the Margins of Empire.

If the success is based solely on the quality of the film, many viewers may find themselves disappointed. Fortunately for Moffett, the greatest contribution of the film does not come from its existence as a work of art. The purpose of the film extends beyond artistic expression into the realm of publicity. But unlike many documentaries of its kind, the publicity of Ordinary Radicals is not limited to issues of social justice. The film goes beyond this in an attempt to draw attention to a whole new breed of Christianity. This description is the most valuable contribution of the film because it puts into words what many young Christians have been feeling for a long time: dissatisfaction with an aging church.

As described in the film, this new community of Christians is evolving out of the typical disillusions many of today’s youth are feeling. Many are questioning the traditionalist views of the church in regard to issues such as environmentalism, consumerism and even nationalism. Moffett and Claiborne make no statements on the issue of homosexuality, but the prevalence of open dialogue on the issue within the film is itself a measure of change.

Meanwhile, the secular community is taking notice. The members of the Philadelphia-native band Mewithoutyou recently graced the cover of Philadelphia Weekly – dumpster-diving frontman Aaron Weiss was once a member of Claiborne’s Simple Way community in Kensington. Author Steven Wells also interviews notable figures such as Joshua Grace, pastor of Circle of Hope Church on Broad Street, and Scott Krueger of the multi-ethnic band The Psalters. Such a movement has particular significance for Eastern, as Moffett, Claiborne and Krueger are all Eastern graduates. Given the influence of these individuals and our close proximity to the city of Philadelphia, it is not a stretch to identify Eastern as being at the heart of this new movement.

One thing is clear: Ordinary Radicals is most certainly fueling a national buzz of a new breed of Christianity. It is for this reason that Wells, an outsider to Christian culture, triumphantly exclaims Philadelphia as “home to either the most genuinely Christian movement in America … or a festering spiritual slum. All depends on how you look at it.”

*Quote taken from “Oh, Sweet Jesus” by Steven Wells, Philadelphia Weekly, September 24, 2008.

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