kester brewin's first book the complex christ is brilliant - i really enjoyed it. i thought it was one of the most creative books out of the emerging church conversation at the time and the chapters on dirt and gift still live with me. so i was looking forward to Other...
i sort of regret having labelled a previous blog post romantic tosh. off the back of a piece kester had written suggesting that the emerging church had retreated to the institution i rang him up to say i thought it was romantic tosh and went on to say why. that was a private conversation. but kester then proceeded to out that conversation on another blog post so i felt compelled to blog something possibly against my better judgement. having done that has made it difficult to know how to get into a review of other but here goes.
it's a great title - i wish i'd thought of it. as soon as i saw it i wanted to read the book because it's one of the big questions that i struggle with. how do i be a good neighbour/friend to people different than me and at the macro level how do we create a society that lives with others in peace.
it's a great cover - love it!
it's a great framework - kester takes jesus summary of the law and explores three relationships with self, god and others. the subtitle is loving self, god and neighbour in a world of fractures. what might love for the other mean in each of these dimensions? this was a framework that we used (thanks to kev and ana draper) to explore the labyrinth only we had a fourth which was the relationship with the planet. each of those three makes up a section of the book and he then concludes with some practical suggestions of what this might look like.
it's creative and provocative, both of which i hoped it would be. one of the things i like about kester's writing is that he explores a range of texts in philosophy, culture, sociology and weaves together threads and connections. he also loves hyperbole - in fact at times i suspect he has a cheeky grin on his face as he writes something that he must know is a bit of a wind up. he weaves some of his poetry in the mix. that style of writing makes you think. it raises questions as much as giving answers. it has a restless spirit to it. since reading the book i have thought about it a lot which i can't say for all the books i read. i actually found a comment kester left on a review very helpful where he says that he is writing this book because it's a question he lives with, not because he has all the answers - here's the quote:
I wrote it precisely because I KNOW that my practice is lacking, that I know I need to do better. One line that got cut from the front, which I kind of wish I'd insisted on leaving in now was 'I wrote the last book to challenge others; I've written this to challenge myself.' So no, there is no self-deprication, because there's little I can claim to be doing which deserves any great praise. But I've written the book to try to change that. We'll see how it goes.
i think it would have been good to add a bit more of that tone in the book.
the strongest section in my view is the section on self where kester shares volf's concern that we need to foster and become social agents capable of creating just and peace loving societies. who am i in a world of facebook where i present a cool pseudo self through my status updates with my real self somewhat hidden in the background? am in danger of just relating to pseudo others? as in the complex christ kester draws inspiration from the narrative of jesus' journey into the wilderness away from any connectivity to a life 'lived in the clearing'. i was surprised at points just how critical kester is of the liquid environment and technologies but it is probably time for a bit of a wake up call all round to pause and reflect on who we are becoming. the thing that really caught my imagination in this section was the call to mature and become parents - again it surprised me. it seemed to come from the leftfield. we recently did a grace on the story of the prodigal son and i realised that for me i wanted to become the father - able to reconfigure the world as an order of grace and embrace. kester connects to this story and says that every child has to face and choose whether to become father and mother for others. this to me is central to the christian narrative - the passion. to what degree can i live a passionate life in the way of jesus christ, the way of self giving love on behalf of others? i am reading this at an interesting moment - aged 45. i don't know how long i will live but i have loved life so far. but let's say i go on to 90?! then i'm half way. kester says
The second half of life is the life of the father, the parent. To the young it may seem that life is over by this point. Our parents are boring and square. They don't have the radical energy and iconoclasm of their children. It will be painful I imagine to hear my children say this. And I realise now it must have been painful for my parents to hear this from me. But I begin to see now it is only in the move towards the individuality, the security, and maturity of the second half of life that we begin to become the sort of selves that can live in harmony with others. At the same time I see that there are still many dark nights to be navigated, many hours spent awake waiting before the legal self dies and grace begins to move in me.
this section then opens up the challenge of darkness and struggle as part of the journey of the self. kester unearths a gem in the fantasy cycle from booker's book the neophiliacs. there's lots of wisdom here, lots to chew on.
dare we explore the other within god? this section ebbs and flows in a few directions including exploring how god might be close and far (immanent and transcendent). the most interesting question this section opens up is the degree to which we have domesticated god. is god bound to our agenda? what about the story of the other? i was struck by precisely this question when i visited jerusalem some years back and realised that in the narrative of joshua and the promised land the palestinians are other in the story - they identify with the canaanites. god is bound in the joshua telling rather than free. in what ways have we tied god to our story? to consumer capitalism? there is an equal danger if we make god too remote, too other. and kester says there is a balancing between binding and separation. i know that kester will get criticised by theologians. this happened in the complex christ. but i don't think he's interested in reading all the theological tomes on the trinity to locate what he's saying in that discourse. i think he's finding some different metaphors and analogies and writers to stir up a different way of seeing and thinking. it's for others to reflect on how that mixes in the discourse of theology...
in an interesting thought on leadership brewin concludes that the role of a priest is to create environments where this binding and separation can be celebrated and explored. part of that is to take people into uncomfortable dirty spaces such as jesus did time and again with the disciples to experience transformation in encounters with strangers. this is a great missional instinct. the funniest passage in the whole book - i literally laughed out loud - was when kester got on one of his hobby horses - having a pop at ordained priests. he chooses exodus 32 as a passage to discuss priesthood, conveniently overlooking any other passage he might have chosen! in this passage the first act of the levitical priests is to protect god's holiness by slaughtering 3000 of their own people. it is a shocking passage. kester then says
I am not entirely familiar with the inner workings of the selection process for ordination in the various Chrisian denominations but I'm fairly sure that a willingness to slaughter in the name of God is not tested very often.
in terms of loving our neighbour, the other within society (we're now into the third section of the book) kester says two values are important - locating what we do in the economy of gift, and that we should lean towards the temporary because it's only in the temporary that violence that is required to maintain structures of oppression is mitigated. i love the notion of gift and want to be a generous and gift giving person and think that it is something our communities should aspire to. but kester is in danger of being ungenerous himself in his example- he critiques soup runs as patronising, as a power play, hospitality on our turf and terms suggesting that a feast is a better idea as we become artists of the invisible. it sounds great but my question is a simple one. how many feasts with strangers have you had? and especially if it seems you can't be the one hosting because that's a power play so they have to spontaneously erupt?! if i buy into this notion, then it's meaningless if those ideas don't have legs - i just can't imagine what those legs are. he goes on to hold up the food pantry in section four as a shining example but that sounds like what he criticises here. i'm not trying to defend soup runs per se - this just opens up what i perceive to be a massive problem in this section of the book. it's too idealised. it may be that it's about putting the ideas out there and it's for others to do the work that gives legs to the ideas. but overall i ended up being almost entirely unconvinced by the stuff on temporality. kester draws on hakim bey's notion of the temporary autonoumus zone (TAZ) - in a regime of power people find gaps in the maps away from the authorities to create something short lived, temporary, that dissolves before the authorities can latch on to it and it dissolves to re-emerge elsewhere. the rave scene, festivals, flash mobs and so might be examples.
it's not that temporary is bad or wrong. i think that the idea is great and have enjoyed lots of these temporary type spaces and think that reflecting on how to create some is a great idea. it fits well particularly with the worlds of art and performance and celebration. my issue is that as a strategy for loving the other it's close to hopeless. the lid is lifted off this in the final section when i actually physically breathed a huge sigh of relief when kester tests this idea on esther baker (yes my younger sis) who works with prisoners. she says prisoners need permanance or at least solid ground. there you have it - the poor, the marginalized, the real other probably won't get included in our TAZ. so the suggestion of church as TAZ is naive at best. i think it's simply the hyperbole that got to me - TAZ as part of what church is about sounds great. kester holds up the death of vaux as some sort of heroic act and suggests in a comment on one of his blog posts that maybe 5 years is an ideal length of time for some communities to exist. i just can't go with this. i have no problem with things ending and clearing space for new things to emerge but thank god for communities who are faithful and offer some welcome for those who simply won't make it to church as TAZ. you get depth in relationships through commitment and longevity and even stability.
ironically i fear the world kester describes works best for the postmodern flaneur (or pirate or heretic or trickster or tactician or artist of the invisible) who has resources and a confidence about their person to tactically navigate the liquid world but in the way that they choose and here's the rub with who they choose (i.e. where's the other now?). they like to avoid fixation, keep their options open as the carnival goes by. in other words it's a world with me at the centre - indiividualism by another name. zygmunt bauman is the person who lays bare this world better than any other writer i know - he has pulled the rug from under my feet on this and held up a mirror to me as i actually like living like this and could live like this quite easily. is this our binding of god, our syncretism, our making of god and god's body in our image, the god of the postmodern consumer? in an article that simon hall pointed out to me bauman suggests that individualism has won out over community - people are simply not engaging in institutional life, in the political processes, in community, preferring instead this sort of temporality. but actually research suggests that the numbers doing anything in the way of activism a la TAZ are far less than even those in political parties - really where does it lead in effecting real transformation of an unjust society. probably nowhere near where committed engagement does. i was stung by this sentence from bauman - Such carnivals are séances during which people hold hands together calling the ghost of deceased community. Not an insignificant part of their charm is the awareness that the ghost will play but a fleeting visit and will promptly go away when the séance is over. the question kester's book raises on this for me is how does becoming the parent relate to this? isn't temporality as a tactic avoidance of taking up this call to parent? clearly kester doesn't think so. i do.
one of the pratical suggestions at the end is church as TAZ and i know kester loves hyperbole but when he says things like 'against the model of church as permanent structure offering a familiar liturgical rhythm of worship which appears to take as its inspiration the parable of the persistent widow grinding God into submission through constant nagging... i offer a vision of christian life inspired by TAZ' it's just simply a cartoon that i can't take seriously. it's ungenerous and annoys me. kester has made me sound like a defender of the realm in a number of blog articles and this and i'm really not normally honestly! i have a vision of church as a community of others - the worldwide and historic body of christ - with theologies and bindings of god that are diverse and at times problematic. but if i don't connect in to this wide community then i'm just left with what i choose and those who choose like me.
this book got me thinking as much as any other i have read in a while - that has to be good! read it and see what you think. it's asking questions we need to wrestle with - how can i love god, self and neighbour in a world of fractures? i think it does well in the first two but leaves massive gaps in the last...