WHICH WORLD do you live in? The question is sometimes asked in an accusatory way of those whose perception of reality seems far removed from everyday experience.
Not infrequently it is a politician or pundit who has just demonstrated an aloofness towards people living at the edge of a particular social or economic pressure point: one that sits outside this person’s present or likely future experience, as they pontificate from on high on how people facing vulnerability they do not comprehend should live.
In Holy Anarchy: Dismantling Domination, Embodying Community, Loving Strangeness (SCM Press, 2022), Graham Adams, tutor at the Luther King Centre for Theology and Ministry in Manchester, England, points to ‘another world’ in a quite different sense, and with an entirely different effect. Deconstructing, on well-considered biblical grounds, the potentate god who indeed pontificates, pressurises and punishes from on high, Adams instead proposes and fleshes out (with ideas for action, learning, prayer and worship, as well as theological reflection) an understanding of the Christian gospel which dismantles, turns upside-down and reverses worldly expectations of religion, power and the Christendom settlement.
Instead, he draws upon philosopher John Caputo’s notion of ‘sacred anarchy’, and theologian Andrew Shanks’s ‘holy anarchy’, to portray God’s alternative realm (rendered ‘kingdom’ in various biblical traditions) as what Walter Wink elsewhere calls “a domination-free order”. Indeed, it is not really an ‘order’ at all, since Caputo, Shanks and Adams, in slightly different ways, employ the terms ‘anarchy’ in its technical meaning. That is, a realm devoid of ‘rule’ in the commonplace sense of that term – the systemic exercise of power over and against the other(s). Instead, ‘the others’ are, in an entirely different kind of divine economy, “mysteries to be loved” (T. S. Eliot).
God’s realm, in other words, is alternative and anarchic precisely because it undermines and breaks open prevailing worldly patterns of domination. It is a new world coming, a new heaven and earth promised, a new creation groaning towards birth in the midst of earthly realities founded on Empire and exclusion. In this sense, the gospel of Jesus invites us to “live in a different world” – a commonwealth, kin-dom or Liberated Zone (Berkeley Free Church in the 1960s) which we can experience now, but whose fulfilment lies ahead, and which lures us towards personal, social, political, cultural, economic and spiritual metanoia (repentance – meaning turning around, abandoning the old order, and heading in a new direction).
Some of the way I have tried to reflect what I perceive as the core message of this book comes not from Adams directly, but from my own theological and literary inheritance and practice. Eliot and Berkeley are not mentioned in his text, for instance. This is not a criticism, and I am not saying that I or they have put it better than Adams. On the contrary, his language of passion, possibility and proposal is fresh and compelling in many aspects. But it also has a history, some of which he is well aware of, and some of which lies awaiting discovery – just as this fine book awaits discovery by many reading this review, and others who will come across the volume through its arresting title, bold cover, and richly fragmented dispersal across the print and digital universe.
Indeed, perhaps the best way to discover and uncover Holy Anarchy as a resource for changing minds and worlds would be through conversation, study, discussion and debate – both formal and (even better) informal, peer-to-peer and collective. Want a stimulating read for your book group, discipleship course, theology circle, responsive sermon or learning set? Here are 264 pages which invite consideration as a whole, in sections and in parts.
After a justifiably enthusiastic foreword by Anthony G. Reddie, a rising star of Black and decolonising/postcolonial theology in these islands and well beyond, Adams uses the first of four main parts of the book to introduce the disturbing reality of holy anarchy “close at hand” (not comfortably distant), and the Other God who demolishes the deification of imperial overlords while disavowing their weapons. On this basis, part two explores the dismantling of domination and introduces us to ‘God the child’ (remember Jesus’s famous saying), tackling such challenges as racism and destructive anthropocentrism along the way.
Then, in part three, we are invited to consider the kind(s) of community that can respond to embody this boundary-breaking God and anarchically holy Spirit, who refuses our attempts at fitting, finishing, and excluding through ‘purity’. Part four is the place where we encounter the invitation to xenophilia, the true scandal of the gospel (its refusal of our norms, boundaries and criteria), critical engagement with strangeness and ‘the Word made Strange’ (a phrase borrowed from John Milbank, who will probably hate much of this book) and the anti-imperial missional skills of discernment, embodiment and friendship.
So far so (very good). But we are not finished. The appendices contain some new and imaginative learning and worship materials condensing and opening up various themes and ideas from the book, as well as offering different gateways into received Christian festivals. The scriptural index reconnects us with the rich seams of biblical material threaded throughout the book, which also contains study questions, prayers and hymns, reading lists and references indicating a width and depth to the theological, philosophical, spiritual and socio-political streams of thought which underlie its major and minor key themes. The gospel theme of ‘gathering up the fragments’ is used for some of this material at the end. (That is the phrase which writer on prayer and communist priest Alan Ecclestone used for the profoundly life-altering material that Tim Gorringe brought together in his memory as a set of daily readings, incidentally. See Gather the Fragments: A Book of Days, Cairns Publications, 1993).
The difficulty for any reviewer of Holy Anarchy is that there is so much here. Written with clarity, insight and conviction, it is an invitation to a journey and a way of life, not a thesis to be unloaded from on high or wielded as ordnance. The theological perspective(s) it emerges from are both innovative and deeply traditioned, and thus radical (radix) in the true sense of the word. I would describe the overall tenor as “subversive orthodoxy” (Kenneth Leech and others), provided that the ‘o’ word is understood as an invitation to paradox and praise (Rowan Williams), not a weaponised dogmatism aiming to overpower and out-narrate.
Again, Leech (an articulate proponent of a certain kind of spiritually resourced Christian anarchism and leftism) and Williams happen not to be cited directly here – they are my own connections, again showing how richly Adams’ multivalent approach to avowedly nonconformist Christianity links to all kinds of voices who have come before. In 2006, my former Ekklesia colleague Jonathan Bartley published Faith and Politics After Christendom (Paternoster Press). Its subtitle is ‘the Church as a Movement for Anarchy’. The mutual resonance of Ekklesia’s founding and continuing impulses and those of this book therefore ring loudly, for me at least.
I will leave the author and his other readers to estimate whether that is true or significant for themselves. But for this particular reader, established and inventive ideas were (and are being) opened up by Holy Anarchy, for all of which I am profoundly grateful. A good number of the influences Adams cites or intimates are naturally, rightly and necessarily from the subaltern edges of theology as praxis, which is where both hope and change emerge, and where the God of Jesus is to be discovered and rediscovered – among women (Catherine Keller), people of colour and Blackness (James Cone, of course), disabled people, the deserted, disgraced and depreciated (the extraordinary Marcella Althaus-Reid), the meek and the merciful. It is through such as this that the system-cracking, present-and-future realm of divine anarché is born and carried forward.
Graham Adams, Holy Anarchy: Dismantling Dominion, Embodying Community, Loving Strangeness is published by SCM Press, 2022. See also Holy Anarchy: A Crack in the System (Ekklesia, 27 September 2022). The author of the book and this article is a Tutor in Mission Studies, World Christianity and Religious Diversity at the Luther King Centre for Mission and Ministry, Manchester, England.
© Simon Barrow is Director of Ekklesia. His next book, Against the Religion of Power: Telling a Different Christian Story will be published later in 2023. His columns can be found here (and archived ones here). Twitter: @simonbarrow.