Ben Edson, who I know well and admire a great deal, posted a review of ‘Other’ on his site recently, and I wanted to take the opportunity to respond to a few of the points he makes there.
Firstly, I want to say thanks to him for taking the time to write it, and that I’m open to all sorts of reviews – good or bad – and don’t take it personally at all! It’s good that the old world has gone where a review was published and that was it; far better to open conversation and be able to respond back and forth.
So, to the review. Ben opens by talking about the opening of the book:
The title of the book opens it to critique from the start, my question throughout was: How is this modelling the love of the other? For example, how does the book model a love for Israel when it is clearly pro-Palestinian?
For those who don’t know me, I do have some experience of the region, and have visited a number of times. I’ve also spent a fair amount of time with people from all sides of the conflict, and one thing that I think Israeli peacemakers would agree on is this: you can only model a love for Israel if you are pro-Palestinian. The only way that Israel is going to experience peace within itself is if it acts justly towards Palestinians. It is a clear-cut case of justice needing to be done.
Later on, Ben mentions some of the Trinitarian thinking in the book:
He moves into an exploration of the separate and bounded trinity and I think that he is starting to develop an interesting line of thought but for me he needs to develop it further, I would at this point have liked to see him engage with Moltmann and Barth and their Trinitarian theologies, rather he moves to Zizek. I’ve not read Zizek, and I doubt many others who have read the book have, but I do know that the Trinitarian theology of Moltmann in particular is far more influential in contemporary theology and hence I feel that an engagement with Moltmann at this point would have be interesting.
Fair cop. What I would say, though, this: if Moltmann trinitarian theology is far more influential in contemporary theology, then I’m glad I’ve veered to Zizek. Sounds like there’s plenty of stuff out there using Moltmann, which is great.
Ben then moves on to a hefty critique of the TAZ thinking I do in the book – which I also temper with some thoughts about the limitations of it as a concept. Ben’s concern is that TAZ is biased away from the poor, which I tried to strongly refuted in a comment here. The key question is this: if part of Jesus’ ministry was based on TAZ, then either Jesus was also biased away from the poor, or TAZ is an important part of mission and ministry. Ben notes that:
In a blog exchange where I raise this point Kester points to Jesus’ feeding of the 5000 as a TAZ. I disagree. The feeding of the 5000 points us back to the experience of the people of Israel in the wilderness where God provides for them. Therefore this meal points toward the permanent faithfulness of God, it injects hope into the people, it says that God’s faithfulness is timeless and that Jesus is part of this plan. The moment is temporary but the narrative that it connects with is permanent.
This is the fundamental point! TAZ does connect with the permanent, but by emphasising the temporary, it avoids the violence that inevitably comes with attempting to build and defend permanent structures. He goes on to question whether Greenbelt was really a TAZ, and I’d have to argue that just because something has some organization behind it, it doesn’t mean that it cannot be a carnival space for those who experience it.
Ben then expresses concerns about the praxis parts of the book:
[The small number of examples from my own practice are] not enough to give the book the integrity and authenticity that it needs, I want to know how the author is engaging with the other in society, the broken and vulnerable, how his thinking and engagement with the other is bringing about transformation. Kester points to others who are doing this Street Pastors, Esther Baker and Sara Miles, this may be a noble piece of self-deprication or it may not…
It’s frustrating that Ben has come away with this view, and I can only blame myself as author. But I try to make it very clear at the beginning of the book that my whole motivation for writing it was precisely because I felt I wasn’t doing enough to help ‘the other.’ In the introduction I talk about a homeless guy who came to the door of my sister’s house on Christmas day evening. We fed and housed him, and I then admit that “I have only had rare experience of this… This was an uncommon experience and it troubles me that my own private practice falls so far short of the simple instruction Jesus gave (to love the other).”
When I have spoken to small groups about the process of writing, one of the maxims I use is this:
Write to discover, not to reveal.
When I write I am not writing as the expert who has all the answers, which I’m going to open up to you, the ignorant. Writing for me is a process of discovery, it’s one of the ways that I learn. So the book I have written is not ‘look at me and follow what I’m doing.’ Rather it is ‘I’m concerned that I’m not doing enough, here’s some of the thinking I’ve done around what the issues are and what I/we ought to be doing.’ It would have been dishonest of me to have pretended I was doing any great work… I’m not. But I hope that that doesn’t mean that the book lacks authenticity. In fact, I’d hope that the opposite was true. The book was written as a challenge to myself – that’s a very different way round from much writing, granted. But I don’t think it invalidates it.
Lastly, and briefly, Ben has picked up on a refutation of the findings in a book on social inequality called The Spirit Level, which I quote in Other. Having read the piece carefully, and the comments that come after it, I remain very skeptical. The author of the Guardian piece is actually the editor of the report – though she fails to mention this interest – which was commissioned by a very right-leaning think tank called The Policy Exchange. Just saying…
Thanks again to Ben though for his comments – which do cover lots of positives too, and end with an encouragement to go and buy it… so do!