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The Holy No: Worship as a subversive act, by Adam Hearlson 

04 January 2019

Ann Morisy explores worship as subversion

THIS is a radical book by a minister of the United Church of Christ, in the United States, who, among other things, reflects back to us the Great Ejection of 1662 and the potency of ruses such as indirect speech and biblical stories to criticise King Charles II and the Anglican establishment. He draws on the French social theorists such as Foucault and Bourdieu and their insights into the mechanics of social control. There is a captivating section on the significance of the “flop” of a clown — “the flop is the embrace of failure as a way towards success. . . there is power in the flop.” He highlights how the narrative of the Apocalypse is the birthright of the powerless, because the simplest and most entrenched vision of change is destruction.

Following the accepted categories of preaching, festivals, communion, and music and art, Hearlson applies a bold and informed analysis of power as it plays out in relation to these categories. He really does hold firm in his determination to explore subversion. Beginning with a usefully concise summary of subversion, he notes how introductory textbooks concerned with worship and preaching rarely discuss how the worship of subordinate groups has disrupted the dominant ideology purveyed by established ecclesial institutions.

Hearlson provides varied voices, both historic and contemporary, both high-brow and lowly. It is not a cacophony, however, but a poetic and prophetic offering, and it invites our own creativity and deeper pondering. This is not a “How to book”, nor do you get models to emulate, but Hearlson does give us some clues: subversive worship is guided by commitment to difference (diversity), community, and tenderness. He prophesies that “the presence of difference will be invaluable in helping the church to survive again.”

In a beautifully written and well-researched seven chapters, this book charges the imagination and restores morale. It’s simple, really: even with just a smidgeon of confidence that worship ushers in something that better resembles God’s good future, worship becomes an expression of everyday resistance. Reading this book will change your attitude to Sunday worship for ever.

Ann Morisy is a freelance community theologian and lecturer.

The Holy No: Worship as a subversive act
Adam Hearlson
Eerdmans £19.99
Church Times Bookshop £18

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