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Monday, October 8, 2018

"The Holy No" (Adam Hearlson)

TITLE: The Holy No: Worship as a Subversive Act
AUTHOR: Adam Hearlson
PUBLISHER: Grand Rapids, MI: William B Eerdmans, 2018, (192 pages).

When it comes to worship, most people would have thought it to be something relatively passive and restricted to halls of religious singing, preaching, or praying. They might even say that it is an act solely between the divine and the person. Christians in general see worship as music and singing. Those more theologically astute would venture to include the essence of worship being in Christ and letting Christ demonstrate His presence wherever we go. Author Adam Hearlson takes it even farther by pushing forth the idea of subversion. This intriguing idea should make most readers sit up and ponder about the purposes of worship. As we read on, we will get a clearer idea of where the author is going and what he is trying to do. The first goal of worship is worship. The second is transformation, both ours and the world. In a book about worship, author Adam Hearlson has brought in the theme of change through subversion. He points out the three main ways in which social change can be made. The first is conservation, done usually by people in significant positions of power and influence. Such a strategy requires great resources and access to capital to support the strategy of "no change." The second is succession, which is partly conservation with some levels of access to power. The third is the one that Hearlson is concerned with: those without any power and "upward mobility." This latter group would likely use the strategy of subversion in order to instigate change. The poor, the marginalized, the minority, and those who are pushed to the edges of main society have no other choice but to adopt subversive acts. It is the strategy of the weak. Theologically, it has three characteristics: "relationality, movement, and provisionality." In "relationality," we are reminded that we are accountable to both God and our fellow human beings. In "movement," we learn that the identity of a Church is not about doctrinal statements or traditions but about where the church is. In "provisionality," we are reminded that the mission of Christ defines the Church, and not the other way around. While it is true that the Church exists to fulfill the mission of Christ, it is the mission of Christ that gives the Church her identity. With politics as a cultural backdrop, Hearlson gives us several examples in history with regard to subversion as a way of life. The early Christians in Rome created subversive images even when they were persecuted by the Romans. The Greensboro Woolworth sit-ins are acts against racial discrimination. Students in the 1968 Paris riots resemble the French Revolution.

On preaching, we are reminded of Jesus' constant refrain about the importance of an open heart, to have ears that will listen. His stories are opportunities to protect the weak by subverting the powerful and the bullies in society. Thus, Jesus cuts both ways tactically. Another example is Fred Craddock who uses the power of indirect speech to preach the Word of God, using it to subvert listeners' suspicions so that over time, one can reflect on oneself. However, this may not apply to those who lack the perceptiveness. Thus, subversive techniques must address both the contexts and the ignorant hearers. Hearlson also points out the risk of subversion: becoming a prophet of absurdity. In trying to balance between two loves, faithful to God and loving to people, one tries hard to embrace both without compromising any of them. Regarding "Christian Festivals," it is interesting to see how events like Christmas and Easter overturn social norms. In the days of old, such festivals are used to push back against the powerful and arrogant while putting the limelight on the weak and the powerless. In modern days, these festivals are ways to pull ourselves back from the cultural climate of materialism and consumerism. A key observation about such "theater of fools" is how it rebukes the artificiality of the world. Hearlson creatively uses words like "theater of laughter and rebellion," "deodorized worlds," "serious play," and "failures as another means of success." On hospitality, the reader is reminded of Christ's passion for the poor, the ignored, and the neglected in society. He shares with us the example of the YMCA which sought to provide a safe place for all people, regardless of race or sexual orientation. Yet, this "for all" is more an ideal rather than reality. For every support of any one group in the name of inclusivity, there is a push back from opponents, who also happens to be within the "for all" umbrella. From open public spaces to the communion meal, we see how subversion plays out in terms of "specific welcome" particularly of those the world rejected. Soon, Hearlson comes back to storytelling once again, this time incorporating time, genre, music, and a "third thing" that are uncategorized at every age. This third place is where subversives find comfort and take refuge. It is a genre blending that does not take any of the extremities but struggle to find a middle ground. Then there is the work of art and hope in apocalyptic images. Two images are key in the understanding of hope. The first is the image of beauty and fulfillment at the end. The second is the journey toward the end. This requires the presence of the celebrants and the "faithful dreamers" respectively. Putting all of these together, we arrive at the way subversives view worship as. It is a space of contact of diverse people and varying classes. Whether we are using stories or music, ideas or illustrations, language or art, we are called to be the change God has called us to be. Some tips include:

  • Make space for differences;
  • Embrace, not just tolerate diversity;
  • Disruption via diversity is a more important necessity over efficiency;
  • Community building through Worship as Invitations, not instructions;
  • Look within community first before going outside;
  • not to look for books claiming to give strategies about subversion.
My Thoughts
This book is deep. It took me a while to get through the first few pages before realizing that it is more about facilitating change rather than worship. Creatively, the author has brought in the notion of worship being a quiet but firm response against the norm. I like the title, "Holy No," which reverberates against a climate of yes as a way to submit to political pressure or worldly power. For saying YES to God is often another way of saying NO to the world. We are called to please God first. We are tasked with the need to change the world, not according to the terms of the world, but according to the Word of God. The gospel of Christ is in itself very subversive. He speaks against the Pharisees and the religious leaders of the day, for their blatant hypocrisy. He defends the poor, the weak, and the outcasts of society instead of pandering to the wishes of the elite and the forces of the establishment. He speaks boldly against the false promises of the devil and points us toward the hope of glory. Let me offer three thoughts about this book.

First, it is a "dangerous" book to read. This is because it challenges the conventional and the norms of everyday living so that we can learn to see things from another angle, in particular, the perspective of the small, the impoverished, and the ones on the edges of society.  It is dangerous because subversion and subversiveness are not very pleasing to the ones in authority. In authoritarian societies, people in power who are able to sniff out any subversion would be quick to snuff them out. In Western liberal societies, subversiveness occurs throughout media and public dissent. They are able to speak out freely and openly. Yet, their exercise of freedom can also be curtailed because power often controls every channel of communication. For just having a right enshrined in the constitution does not necessarily mean they are automatically enforced. When the powers do not stand on the side of the weak, what then could they do? Hearlson is spot on when he says: "those with no chance for upward mobility and little expectations to gain anything by playing the game of the dominant are likely to favor tactics of subversion." It is dangerous not only to the oppressor but also the oppressed. It is dangerous in a good way.

Second, I appreciate the depth of reflection by the author on how to look at change from a theological standpoint. He employs a wide variety of applications. Using the familiar Christian images of worship, preaching, hospitality, welcome, blending of cultures, and the eschatological hope, he sheds light on what it takes to bring about the kingdom of God in a world dominated by the forces of evil and principalities. For the uninitiated, he patiently supplies some tips for "curating subversive worship." Not only did he cover the area of political engagement, he looks at diversity and true inclusive communities. He deals with the arts, theatre, and musical scene. He observes the cultural trends of today and brings in a theological perspective that avoids the closed-ended positions of the conservative or liberal. Having this perspective of subversive strategies helps us think of other areas not covered in the book. 

Finally, I feel that Hearlson is pointing out the increasingly limited ways in which the Church can maintain her Christian witness. He puts it well by describing the three strategic actions behind any change effort. The conservative association would invoke primarily political power in order to keep things as they are. The actions of succession are only possible for those with some access to power and influence. What about the rest, the minority? They would then have to use subversive techniques in order to make their stand known, such as the prophets of old against the majority of godless people in Israel. Like it or not, the Church is fast becoming a minority whose voice will be increasingly challenged and muted. This third group is where the Church is going to be in. The Church has been plagued with all kinds of persecution since the founding of the Church in the book of Acts. In closed access countries like North Korea, parts of Africa, the Middle East, and increasingly China, it can be very dangerous to call oneself a Christian. In more liberal communities, secularism, atheism, and materialism are occupying the mindshare of society. They are mostly anti-Christ and often deny the Church any voice at all. As a result, the Church can only openly practice their faith within the confines of their Church walls. Any attempt to share (or even talk about) our faith outside will mostly be met with fierce opponents who scream out: "Don't force your religion down our throats." The way forward will not be confrontational but subversive. 

Originally from California, Adam Hearlson is associate pastor of education, fellowship, and discipleship in Wayne Presbyterian Church at Wayne, Pennsylvania. He has also served as Professor of preaching and worship at Andover Newton Theological School.

Rating: 4.75 stars of 5.


This book has been provided courtesy of William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company and NetGalley without requiring a positive review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.

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