Last month, before leaving on holiday, my husband wanted to check the books I was taking to make sure that I was getting a break from my two main interests: ‘God and running,’ as he summarised it. My copy of Kester Brewin’s Mutiny: Why We Love Pirates and How They Can Save Us (self-published, 2012) had just arrived and he deemed this an acceptable choice.
Perhaps my husband would have been disappointed to know that in his postscript to the book, Brewin calls Mutiny ‘perhaps the most deeply theological work I have written.’ Had he known this, he probably would have thought that Mutiny’s theological thrust put it too close to my daily work in the sociology of religion, studying the emerging church, and the relationship between religion and conflict. I’m glad he didn’t know.
Mutiny is a stimulating, entertaining, and ultimately profound meditation on what – surprisingly – pirates can teach us about living like Christians in the real world.
So maybe it’s not your standard mind-numbing holiday fare, but it gave my mind a break from my regular reading of academic essays and journal articles and got me excited again thinking about what Christianity can offer us if we are open to thinking about it in new ways.
After all, where else would you get such an intriguing mixture of:
- the history of sea-faring pirates,
- reflections on modern piracy (ranging from Somali pirates to pirates of the music industry),
- psycho-analytical interpretations of Peter Pan and Odysseus,
- and the most thought-provoking alternative reading of the parable of the Prodigal Son that I’ve encountered (it is worth reading the book for this alone, beginning on page 114).
As many readers of this blog will know, Brewin is a prominent figure in the emerging church in the UK, and the author of Other and The Complex Christ. Mutiny picks up on some themes originally broached in Other.
For example, in my review of Other, I focused on Brewin’s use of ‘anarchist writer Hakim Bey’s Temporary Autonomous Zones (TAZ) to explain how the church could work at its best.’ Following on from that, in Mutiny Brewin argues that pirates are masterful at creating TAZs.
So if we learn to model that kind of pirate behaviour in our own context, we can contribute (at least in a small way) to challenging (and if we are fortunate changing) the economic and religious institutions that damage so many people.
In the sections of the book on the history of sea-faring pirates, Brewin argues that these men, and a few women, had seen and experienced the injustices of an imperial trading system in which a few became rich based on the toil of the many. Pirates were those who had the courage to reject that system and create their own alternative model of living, marked by a relatively egalitarian ‘pirate code’ (p. 19ff).
Pirates were (and, in the case especially of the first Somali pirates, still are) relatively powerless people who don’t have the resources to change unjust systems through gradual compromise, like William Wilberforce. Therefore, pirates have little to lose by ignoring the system, operating outside it, and creating fleeting spaces of liberation.
[For those worried that Brewin glorifies pirates, especially the cruelty and violence for which they are known, note his caveats throughout, especially on page 134.]
Further, Brewin sees our modern-day fascination with pirates, exemplified in our enthusiasm to dress our children up and let them play pirates, as a sort of longing that we too can break free from the systems and institutions that imprison us.
There are significant parallels between the messages in Mutiny and the similarly titled Insurrection, a theological book by Peter Rollins (whose work Brewin refers to both in Other and Mutiny).
The implication of these titles is that we need a rebellion (non violent, of course), if we to change the world for the better. In doing so, we will be following the example of a radical Jesus who has been either forgotten or suppressed by the modern church, which has uncritically adopted the values of power and empire.
One of Brewin’s most compelling articulations of the need for ‘mutiny’ can be seen in his identification of Christ as a pirate (p. 153):
Christianity in its most radical and true form is the pirate religion that embraces the death of all religion. It was founded by a man who stands full in the pirate tradition. Born into a poor family, he experienced first hand the oppressive violence and brutality of a political and religious regime that was designed to draw wealth to the centre and keep the powerful in power. The Pharisees and Sadducees kept an uneasy pact with their Roman occupiers: they could practice their religion freely, as long as they paid their taxes and did not criticise Roman rule. Jesus went ‘on the account’ and refused to comply by these rules. He lived life as a ‘TAZ’, knowing that violent retribution would pursue him, for those who lived freely and exposed the power of empire and religion as empty could not be allowed to live. After a piratic raid on the Temple courts, one of his number was tempted by silver and he was betrayed. His bones broken, raised on a cross at the place of the skull, he performed the ‘dance to the four winds’ alongside two other common criminals.
Brewin concludes the book by recommending ways that we can ‘play pirate’ in the domains of:
- The Media
- Our Desires
- Our Beliefs
Brewin’s examples here are more comprehensive than they were in Other, although they do not completely escape Jonny Baker’s criticism that Brewin’s enthusiasm for TAZ’s is ‘naïve, individualistic, and elitist’ and may in the end accomplish less than ‘committed engagement.’
Even so, books like Mutiny and Insurrection are nothing if they are not calls to action. Will any take up the challenge?