What does it mean to be a Christian? That’s a question that is at once too simple and too broad. One answer that could be given is in the subtitle of Kester Brewin’s latest book, Other.
That subtitle is: Loving Self, God and Neighbour in a World of Fractures.
To me, that subtitle sums up for Christians the significant action (loving) of their life; as well as the subjects of that action (self, God and neighbour). Most Christians, I think, would agree on the importance of loving self, god and neighbour.
But what that loving looks like in the real world is not always clear. It goes without saying that disagreements about this have led to everything from church splits to support for wars, denunciations of wars, and allegiance to opposing political causes and ideologies.
What does Brewin have to say about this?
Brewin is a leading British voice in the ‘emerging church’ conversation. The emerging churches critique institutionalised Christianity in all its current forms. But it’s not always clear what those making those criticisms propose as positive alternatives.
In part of this book, Brewin provides some perspectives on this – if not definitive answers.
This goes some way towards answering a question that has exercised both proponents and critics of the varieties of emerging churches:
What does the emerging church offer in the ‘real world?’
Brewin’s most important attempt to locate the work of emerging churches in the ‘real world’ is in his adaptation of anarchist writer Hakim Bey’s Temporary Autonomous Zones (TAZ) to explain how the church could work at its best.
Brewin explains that Bey got his idea for TAZ from the ‘pirate utopias’ of the 18th century. These consisted of ‘remote hideouts’ and ‘illegal trading stations’ outside of the reach of the state: ‘whole mini societies living consciously outside the law and determined to keep it up …’ (p. 146)
There’s an underlying assumption here that the State (or perhaps in Brewin’s case, the ‘Church’) can’t be trusted to exercise power in a way that is just, fair, and life-giving. Therefore it is necessary to operate outside of those power structures. So, Brewin follows Bey’s definition of TAZ as,
‘like an uprising which does not engage directly with the State, a guerrilla operation which liberates an area (of land, of time, of imagination) and then dissolves itself to re-form elsewhere/elsewhen, before the State can crush it.’ (p. 147)
One example Brewin gives of how this might work is in his conception of the UK’s Greenbelt conference as TAZ, a ‘liberated zone’ where ordinary life is suspended.
He also sees Ikon, a Belfast-based Christian collective, as embodying key characteristics of ‘church as TAZ.’ Citing conversations with Ikon founder Peter Rollins, Brewin says that Ikon gatherings,
‘are focused on the idea of conversion, of funding and precipitating substantial change in people over and above intellectual and theological re-imagination. … As Pete has set out in his books, Ikon’s gatherings set out to mimic revelation. … Revelation is not simply about coming to deeper understanding – although this may be an end result of it – it is about opening oneself up to mystery, and to the possibility of transformation.’ (p. 194)
He adds of Ikon,
‘Given the chance to have had a bespoke building and facilities, it may be that they would have taken it, but retrospectively [Rollins] is very glad that they have never had the chance to do so. Now the fact that they remain ‘homeless’ and transient – they have used a number of different bars for their gatherings over the years – is central to their ideology.’
Brewin emphasises that,
‘This is a radically different model to that of the mega-church, which wants to create ‘facts on the ground’ with imposing physical structures and impressive facilities. Church as TAZ then is taking the model of the tabernacle rather than the temple: a temporary, portable structure that claims whatever ground it covers as holy.’ (p. 195)
In his review of the book, Jonny Baker writes almost despairingly of Brewin’s enthusiasm for TAZ, saying that it is naïve, individualistic, and elitist. Baker says on his blog,
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 – individualism by another name.
… 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.
Responses on Brewin’s and Baker’s blogs (see Brewin’s response to Baker here), and elsewhere, have also complained that despite examples like Ikon, Brewin doesn’t tell us enough about what ‘church as TAZ’ actually looks like.
So, is Baker’s critique fatal to the idea of TAZ? Do TAZ actually undermine Brewin’s earnestly-argued desire to love the other in self, God and neighbour?
These questions are urgent for all Christians – especially those involved with the emerging church – who are seeking to love in the most Christ-like way.
I don’t have easy answers to these questions, though I know from my own research on emerging churches that many of those involved think that various older, institutionalised forms of Christianity have failed so miserably to love self, God and neighbour that we desperately need to come up with new options.
Brewin’s book sheds light on some possible options, including their possibilities and limitations, in a way that is engaging and thought-provoking. He is able to translate fairly complex philosophical ideas into clear language, and intersperses it all with poetry and stories of hope.
Brewin will continue the conversation later this month at Greenbelt …