Eerdmans, 192 pages
A thought occurred to me about 30 pages into “The Holy No.” What if Jesus Christ is just waiting for all the endowment funds to dry up before coming back? What if everything we’ve done to preserve the church as we’ve known it since Constantine – as an institution instead of a movement – is keeping God’s new heaven and new earth from coming about? It’s an uncomfortable thought and one never directly raised by Adam Hearlson in his book, but a vital question for those of us out here trying to do church. Why is the institutional church still valuable and how is it doing God’s work in the world?
I wouldn’t say that inspiring questions like these is exactly Hearlson’s intention with this book, but when we’re talking about subversion, an author’s intentions are themselves an open question. The contents of this book, as the subtitle suggests, are indeed focused on worship. Preaching, performance, hospitality, music, liturgy, art: all topics you’ve likely discussed if you’ve ever been to a worship committee meeting. It’s all here, but there’s more.
Worship is the rubric for the thinking here, but Hearlson practices the subversion he preaches. His focus on worship is in itself a subversive act. Worship has always changed from place to place and age to age. So we’re used to talking about how it evolves. In this book, worship is the subversively safe vehicle through which Hearlson can write about some bigger ecclesial fish to fry.
I am left with a big question: Who is the audience for this book? In this polarized moment in our church, where even praying about a touchy subject can be divisive, any book with an extended discussion of the Catalonian tradition of including a defecating peasant in the Nativity isn’t really aiming for the tall steeple crowd. Is this book for overworked urban pastors looking for a way to instill hope in their struggling parishioners? Is this book for those on the mission committee sick of foot dragging on social justice? Is this book for the session of a politically purple church trying to rally folks to work together? It is hard to say because this book isn’t an obvious choice for anyone we might already see in our churches. Perhaps that’s the point.
Some of Hearlson’s examples are a bit out there. They have to be. Communities engaged in subversive acts, as you’ll learn in the book, rarely get to write their own history. Everything is interesting and well researched (if you get this book for no other reason than the amazing and eclectic bibliography, it will be well worth it), but if you are looking for a list of ways to make your church more subversive, you won’t find it here. The point of this book isn’t what it is about, but what it ignites and what questions it gets you asking yourself.
If you read this book and toss it aside as hack junk, you better read it again — because I hate to say it, but I will: YOU are the powerful reason Hearlson wrote this book. You better pay attention to your worship committee.
Alex Wirth is a writer and pastor in San Diego. He is always looking for what the future of the church might be and good deals on old typewriters. Follow him on Instagram and Twitter @alexjrwirth.