Some Responses to a Review

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!


11 responses to “Some Responses to a Review”

  1. Thanks for this Kester, and thanks for being open to the critique – far to many authors take it as a personal attack! I rarely blog about books, so it’s a great compliment that your book stirred my thinking enough to stimulate a blog post! I also like the comment taht the book is written in part to challenge self, that’s refreshing!

    I need to put some more thought into TAZ – I’m still slightly uncomfortable with it and am wondering if it’s an eschatological thing. I’m gonna give that a bit more thought over the next few days.

    Thanks for the HT re the policy exchange!

  2. Thanks Ben. Be good to continue to thrown the TAZ thing around – I’m not 100% comfortable with it myself, but love it as a corrective to the fetish of permanence that I think has been very destructive to people and projects. And I feel honoured now to have had you blog on it!

    Look forward to catching up at GB. Gil Scott Heron headlining? Niiiice.

  3. rodney neill

    There seems to be a dogmatic left wing/Marxist ideological commitment which often shapes the content of your writing on theology etc.. this can have the unfortunate effect that groups such as evangelicals, tory supporters, Israel become the demonised other as they are cast in the role of ‘villans’……Ben Edson hints at this ‘how does the book model a love for Israel when it is clearly pro-Palestinian’

    Virulent rejection of Christian evangelical fundamentalism is replaced by political marxist fundamentalism!

    Rodney (one nation Tory supporter who has sympathy with Israel)

  4. The Equality trust has issued a responce to report linked to in the Guardian here

    BTW thanks for keeping it a conversation guy’s, never a lecture or a fight

  5. Thanks M – I was really concerned by the Guardian piece, and am glad that Wilkinson and Pickett have come out fighting strongly. This really does get to the heart of the state of our nation’s politics at the moment, and it would be a tragedy if their very very careful work was tarnished by this shoddy report.

    Katherine – thanks for the helpful summary of the conversation on your site. I’d encourage people to go and read it. To pull one thing from your comments:

    Kester’s posts and Jonny’s reaction to his(implied if not intended) value judgements about those who make the move towards deriving a living from institutionalised religion, also made me think about another popular move that is (from a certain perspective) no less “institutional” and equally “traditional” – the move towards the Temporary Autonomous Zones that can be set up on a lecture circuit by emerging church “celebrities.”

    ABSOLUTELY. I couldn’t agree more. I’m highly highly suspicious of the EmCh lecture circuit, and the schticks that celebrities go around delivering. I’ve written here a number of times about the denominisation (?!) of the Emerging Church, and the problems that that entails. Just to reiterate: I’m not suggesting that we can move beyond institutions. This is impossible: we are corporate beings, social beings, and we live in complex societies and relational webs that require structuring. My concern is simply that too many people sleep-walk with institutional practices, without any reflection on why these practices have come about, or whether they actually serve a good purpose.

    The issue of women bishops is a good example. I know of people who would argue that women cannot be bishops – and the root of their argument actually just boils down to ‘well, the institution says it’s wrong, so…’ Jonny may not like my use of Stalin as an example – it is strong, I admit – but it’s actually a very good example. When under the power of his absolute authority it was easy for people in that regime to do terrible things. It was only when he’d gone that they realised the tyranny of their own acts.

    This is the power of the TAZ: by suspending ‘normal service’, one is then better able to reflect critically on the stuff of everyday life. By stepping out of absolutes, and allowing the marvellous to break through in new ways, we become able to see our own tyrannies better.

    In terms of how to avoid fetishing the temporary…Hmmm, I think the best answer is to to say that a proper relationship to the temporary means that it is not fetishised. That may not make much sense! But if we take the temporary to the absurd limit, then it actually reduces to something that approaches permanence. Zero and infinity are closer than one might think. In other words, the true value in the temporary only exists in its proper relation to that which remains. If one fetishises the temporary – tries to create permanent carnival – one immediately removes the ‘ordinary’ which is the ground that the TAZ serves to critique.

    Hope that helps a little… And thanks M – this has to be a conversation, as I’m absolutely sure I don’t have all the answers!

  6. And Rodney – thanks for your comment too.

    You warn that ‘virulent rejection of Christian evangelical fundamentalism is replaced by political marxist fundamentalism!’

    Firstly, as I’ve commented to Ben – I strongly believe having visited the region a number of times and spoken to people on all sides of the conflict that if one is going to have proper sympathy for Israel, if one really wants them to have a peaceful and valid state, one MUST be pro-Palestinian. Speak to Israel human-rights groups and they’ll tell you the same.

    A book I’d suggest if you really want to learn about Israel from the inside: read The Holocaust is Over, We Must Rise from Its Ashes by Avraham Burg. A crack commando, a fully-blooded Israeli who was speaker of the Knesset…. but also a man who sees how Israeli society has fetishised the holocaust and sees that this has had a terrible impact on their human rights record, especially in relation to their dealings with Palestine.

    Again, I think Rawls’ ‘original position’ is useful here: what sort of just solution would you present to the conflict if you were a person who did not know if you were Israeli or Palestinian? I’m convinced that it would have to include the removal of illegal settlements, the granting of equal rights to Arab-Israelis (currently there is a form of apartheid in Israeli law), some form of right to return or compensation for those ejected from their land, the right to a contiguous and viable Palestinian state, the cessation of all violent attacks, the removal of the separation wall and all road blocks in the West Bank, and the handing over of Jerusalem to a form of international control.

    But to get to your point in general: it’s worth noting that this is a portal into my thinking, but one that carries limited perspective. All blogs/books do this. And I do it deliberately! I suppose I’d say that in Hegel’s thesis/antithesis/synthesis I’m trying to give some voice to antithesis, in the hope for further synthesis. So what you read here will always use a little hyperbole. I believe it’s an important mode of thinking – as long as it is seen as part of a wider system. I don’t expect you to gain the whole truth here, but as you browse and read around the web, you’ll come to some synthesis. Hope that helps 😉

  7. rodney neill

    Hello Kester,

    I live in a divided society in Northern Ireland and am deeply aware of how complex, nuanced and grey any definition of the ‘truth’ of the conflict is -the sanme applies to the Israel/Palestine confict imho – I guess we would need to ‘agree to differ’ on this issue.

    I like your thesis/antithesis/synthesis point and realise I can often sound too sharp in my own blog responses!

  8. rodney neill

    hello Kester

    I did not mean to imply that your comments are too sharp (this is sometimes my failing! – you have an open and generous tone in your responses.


  9. Kester, I’m sadly (and annoyingly!) having Internet problems at the moment, but will continue the dialogue when able – promise! Katharine x