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The Complex Christ: Signs of emergence in the urban church

by Kester Brewin. Published by SPCK 2004

First, a disclaimer. This is not a review or an evaluation, still less a critique, but an introduction. I found this book stimulating, disturbing, poetic, sad and hopeful.

I came to this book with no preconceptions or expectations of what I might find in it.

I'd never heard of Kester Brewin, nor of the Vaux Community to which he refers. He is British – I know nothing about the church scene in Britain and less about the Church of England.

So I began reading simply because I liked the title. Two words intrigued me: complex and urban. On opening the book the chapter headings further intrigued me: Advent; Incarnation; Emergence; the City; Gift; Dirt.

‘This is a book about change'. So begins the introduction. Brewin looks at the church of today and is scathing. He quotes thinkers who conclude the church is dying and doesn't refute them. At the same time he is hopeful. If the church is willing to change, to learn, to adapt, to be re-born it may emerge ´as a totally new organism, one that is adapted to the complex and evolving environment of the city; one operating with a spirituality that rejects simplistic, monochrome, flat answers and embraces the multi-dimensional full-colour complexity of our situation…' (p. 64)

Change begins with waiting. There must be a pause before the new can be born, and when it does it will be incomplete and immature. It will also be very specific to the culture and place where it is born. Brewin argues, that as God became incarnate in Christ, dependent on Mary, learning from his elders, taking his place in society, so the church must be the body of Christ incarnate in its own time and culture.

In the chapter concerning gift I was fascinated to read an extended description of Maori hunting rituals. This leads into a thoughtful exploration of the economy of gift and the 
economy of the market. How can the church become a space for people to offer their gifts?

The chapter on dirt is equally intriguing. Brewin points out that over the centuries in most societies, religion has set the boundaries for what is ‘clean' and what is ‘dirty'. Having lived in a Muslim society where ‘pollution' was a pre-eminent concern, the factor which most impacted health and well-being I've long been aware of how Jesus stepped over, disregarded, or eliminated so many of the dirt boundaries – touching the leper, taking the hand of a corpse, allowing a bleeding woman to touch him. Brewin goes further and shows how in doing this Jesus subverts all the power and authority of organised religion. The priests no longer control cleansing. Anyone can come to God. Sadly, the church has continued to label things as dirty and become a place where the dirt is excluded rather than the place where the dirty can find cleansing.

The repeated theme of the book is the city. If the city is to be the place where God will finally dwell with people, we must look now for signs of God in the city. We learn from and in cities. ‘Christ's attitude to the emerging city was not one of antagonism or annihilation. Quite the opposite. Christ approached the city in order to become part of it, to infect it, to plant some seed within it that he hoped would take root and grow, drawing the city toward its fulfilled state: that of the place of divine and human cohabitation.( p114.)

To try to summarise the book further would be to do it an injustice. Enough to say that it's rich in ideas, inviting reflection and action. This is a book that draws on the Bible, church history, philosophy, theology, fiction, poetry, art, and disciplines of science and the social sciences. If for nothing else I'd be grateful to Brewin for quoting authors and ideas new to me. I will certainly be exploring his list of books for further reading.

For reviews of this book, more information about the author, articles by him and feedback from others, visit his website: www.thecomplexchrist.com 

Introduced by Adrienne Thompson

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