Review and Reflection on “The Holy No: Worship as a Subversive Act” by Adam Hearlson

I honestly can’t believe I haven’t come across this book before I did. It was published in 2018 and I loved it. I love thinking about the idea that worship is a subversive act because it opens our hearts and minds to better seeing what God is offering is far different than what our society, culture, and the world offers as good news. Worship is subversive, but in so many churches in America, you probably wouldn’t know it. That right there, is one of the best reasons to read this book.

Hearlson sets us up well in the Introduction: “To speak the Holy No is to refuse to be complicit in the oppression and violence of the ruling power…NO stokes the creative process of subversion. The Holy No is also a courageous YES to the future that God has promised…The courage to say NO comes from the abiding hope that the coming future will be better than the broken present.” (Pg. 5). Can you feel the good news coming off of this in just a few sentences? There is hope for so much. It’s the message that the best is yet to come, not that the best is somewhere in the past to be recreated. The best of what God has and is about is coming to us and we are invited to participate in what God is up to. 

And why is the Holy No so needed? Hearlson lays it all out for us – “We live in times where the Holy No is desperately needed. Where the church is conscripted to justify the violence of the government, our worship practices need to be shaped by the Holy No. Where our churches preserve and hand down visions of exclusivity, judgement, and shame, our worship practices ought to reflect a different vision of God’s coming future. Where our churches become entranced by triumphalism or mired in pessimism, our worship practices ought to call us back to a world full of both lament and celebration. Our worship is our response to the world and God’s place in it. Worship is the church’s primary creative medium where it enacts and rehearses the promises of God that are already being fulfilled. The church has the impressive faith to believe that such worship might actually change things, or, even better, is the change God is sowing in the world.” (Pg. 6). Preach it Adam! Preach it! If this doesn’t give you hope, I have to wonder why and ask this simple question – is how we experience the world today really what the Kingdom of God is about? And if not, then why wouldn’t we want what we experience to change to be more in alignment with God’s kingdom? To those who are intent on holding onto the status quo, I have to ask why? Is it because it offers something for you (maybe a sense of knowing what to expect, a sense of control or order, some kind of other benefit – material, emotional, or any other way)? What about the people who don’t experience these things? Isn’t our call to move toward shalom – which is wholeness and completeness? 

Hearlson moves into the first chapter with an important definition of what worship is. “The first end of worship is worship. Worship is its own intrinsic good. If we were to enter into worship and completely forget what happened the moment we stepped out of the sanctuary, it will have been worth it.” (Pg. 9). This is important, but not the full story of what worship is for the Christian community. And this is where it gets controversial for many Christian communities who believe that worship is about separateness. It is not.

“Worship needs to be connected to the world in order that it might change the world. This is the second end of worship: Transformation…Christian worship is not passive, it is deeply interested and because it is interested, it is political. Christian worship is the political act of initiating change. It is the act of saying NO to the current circumstances while also imagining and building a world that reflects God’s promises.” (Pg. 10). 

Unfortunately, Hearlson doesn’t define the term political. This is important though because for so many people there is confusion about what this term means. For instance, I have written about this many times before – there is a significant difference between political and partisan. The two are related of course, but they are not the same. For many Christians, they see the two terms as equivalent. They are not. Partisan has to do with political parties. Political parties exist for specific purposes – to get their candidates elected, and to promote an ideology they have adopted through policies they propose and embrace with the end goal being getting more of their candidates elected. Politics is the art of governing and it encompasses campaigning, debate of ideas, and the use of power and how decision making will happen and by who. It is far more extensive than partisanship and goes beyond the interests of political parties. Partisanship doesn’t make room for advocacy, but politics does. Advocacy is walking with someone whose voice has been silenced or ignored to make the governing body aware of their needs and how they have suffered injustice. In advocacy there is little self-interest – the focus is on expanding the community to include those on the margins. In partisanship, the only reason to expand the community is to get more votes. These are different ends and means. Back to Hearlson’s argument – worship is inherently political because it is about expanding the Kingdom of God and who is included, helping us to see the image of God in more people, helping us to act more in alignment with what it means to follow Jesus. 

So how is worship subversive? Hearlson explains what subversion is: “Subversion, then, is the art of the weak. It is an art where the oppressed and the subordinate try to disrupt the finely tuned system of the powerful. The goal of subversion is to pull back the curtain and reveal ‘the normal’ as created and maintained. Subversion shows everyone that there is no ‘proper’ way to act and that every practice and perception is historically conditioned. The goal of subversion is to change the world by exposing and disrupting the actions, practices, and symbols that are designed to reproduce the dominant culture. This is what change is: ‘Change is failed reproduction.'” (Pg. 12-3). There are many Christians who will read this and be angry at what they are reading. But again, I have to ask – what is it that you are angry about? Is the way the world is in alignment with the Kingdom of God? Or is God moving us towards a different way of being in the world? Are mass shootings that we never even pretend to do anything about in alignment with what the Kingdom of God is about? Is racism, sexism, and a plethora of other isms? How about how we care or show a lack of care about creation? How about the large existence of poverty and homelessness in the world’s richest nation in history? How about how we treat people who are on the margins because of sexuality or gender or race or nationality or religious faith, etc.? How about how we treat the stranger? Or spend untold amounts of money on weapons of mass destruction but never seem to have enough money to care for people? We seem more intent on maintaining cruelty that separates people and excludes people than we do in moving towards shalom, which is what the Kingdom of God is all about – wholeness, completeness, and peace. 

And for those Christians who are up in arms over the idea of worship being subversive, Hearlson has an important historical reminder for us: “Subversion has been a part of Christian worship since its inception. In the Roman catacombs, the earliest Christian art is full of subversive images – the underground walls are adorned with women and slaves serving communion, secret symbols of Christian fidelity, and symbols critical of the Roman Empire. Worship as a subversive art is both an act of resistance and an act of creativity.” (Pg. 13). Remember, if we are claiming that Jesus is Lord, then Caesar is not. And Caesar is anything that the world wants to claim as having primacy over others. Our claim of Jesus as Lord is subversive to a culture that wants to tell us that Money is Lord, that work is Lord, that the Democrat and Republican parties are Lord, that sex is Lord, that entertainment is Lord, that the American Dream is Lord, that violence is Lord, that the Constitution is Lord, that the military is Lord, that cruelty is Lord, and more. It’s not that all of these things are bad – although some of them are. It’s that they are not lord over us. They do not get to determine what we say and do. That’s is what our worship and proclamation is all about – saying a Holy No to all of these things. And when we say no, we are being subversive. 

And so why subversion? “Over time, the effects of everyday acts of subversion can rot the social structure from the inside. With time, it can cripple a cause, which can cripple an army.” (Pg. 17). Hearlson gives an example by way of talking about one of the reasons the Confederacy fell – it was because, “one could claim here that the Confederacy was undone by a social avalanche of petty acts of insubordination carried out by an unlikely coalition of slaves and yeoman – a coalition with no name, no organization, no leadership, and certainly no Leninist conspiracy behind it.” (Pg. 16). It was “everyday forms of resistance.” (Pg. 16). 

Hearlson sums up the idea of worship being subversive this way – “Worship is the public proclamation and praise of a community formed by God’s grace. Worship critiques our present world and reimagines what the world is going to be because this is what the divine logos did when it entered the world. Worship is subversive, ultimately, because its object is subversive. Worship finds its power not in rhetoric, but in the subversive Word that entered the world to transform the world. When the Word of God enters the world, it critiques the status quo and reimagines what the future will look like. Jesus upended the systems that sought stasis and demanded submission. So too ought the worship leader seek to upend the systems that obstruct or ignore God’s in-breaking kingdom, especially as those systems are confused for God’s kingdom by the church.” (Pg. 22-3). Those are powerful words that embody the truth. How much of the church wants to hear it though in America? That’s the real question. Are we too busy and addicted to the present order that we are ignoring and forgetting what God is really about? Jesus didn’t come into the world to maintain the status quo. If he did, then he wouldn’t have been born a poor and in some animal shelter. He would have been born in a palace in opulence, surrounded by military might meant to protect those in power. Instead, he came into the world and pitched his tent with the outcast, the marginalized, the poor. His entire message was about bringing good news to the poor. It was about expanding the image of God to those on the margins. It was about feeding the hungry, welcoming the stranger, caring for the sick, and liberating those imprisoned. It was about beating swords into plowshares. Now tell me how that matches up with the status quo? It doesn’t. And yet, far too many Christians ignore and forget what Jesus is about in order to maintain a status quo that is in direct opposition to the vision of the one they claim to follow. 

How does this even make sense? And how did we get to this in the church? “The church exists only as it participates in the trinitarian mission of God to free people from the bondage that destroys relationship and mutuality in the world.” (pg. 24). “The church is most itself when it mirrors the persons of God and fosters relationships with people who look, act, sound, and believe differently. The relational church is called to follow the relational God who fosters relationships among unlike people.” (Pg. 25). Amen!

From this foundation, Hearlson moves to specific aspects of worship as subversive. The first area is in preaching. “Today, as in Jesus’ day, many survive by being deaf to the world. The powerful are saved from facing their complicity by remaining oblivious to the overwhelming thrum of the aggrieved and brokenhearted.” (Pg. 37) And because of this, Hearlson says that indirect talk is a subversive act. “Jesus plays upon the privilege of the powerful to ignore the strange sayings of an itinerant rabbi, all the while speaking strange words of hope, rebellion, and freedom to those who have ears to hear. This type of indirect speech is a subversive act.” (Pg. 37)

And the indirect speech has a practical effect. “Indirect speech gives the hearers freedom to relax their suspicions and their defenses long enough that they might begin to see their own lives reflected in the world of the sermon.” (Pg. 40). Indirect speech has been a challenge for me. I much prefer when people just say what they mean, rather than leaving me guessing or trying to read someone’s mind, which I’m terrible about. What is it that we fear in taking on ideas head on? Maybe this is why I’m not good at poker – I don’t bluff. LOL. At any rate, Hearlson addresses this critique: “…indirect speech can make space for the congregation to enter into a new reality. The indirectness can invite people into a new way of being in the world. Yet, the ignored do not need indirect speech, they need direct speech. Those who have ears to hear have not heard a word in a long time, because those who have a place to speak have ignored them.” (Pg. 41)

Next, Hearlson moves to what he calls absurd theater. This is really about the prophets and how they act. “Their actions seem absurd when viewed from a place of comfort, and yet, those who have spent their life trying to break the spells of oppression and subjugation recognize the absurd prophets as kindred spirits.” (Pg. 58). Absurd theater has an important purpose. “Most of the dramatic prophetic action has an eschatological focus that seeks to disrupt prevailing views of the present in order to conjure a spirit of repentance in the people.” (Pg. 60). In other words, it is in absurd theater that the prophet shows how truly absurd “the normal” is in order to break a society away from it. 

Hearlson offers an example of this played out in real life. In Spain there is the caganer – a character that is added to the nativity scene who is squatting with trousers down and defecating. This is shocking to most people. But the caganer serves a purpose. “The presence of the caganer also provides a divergent depiction of time. The sanitized picture of the nativity promotes the interests of the powerful. It erases time and bodies from a central moment of theological significance. The past is almost totally absent from the nativity scene. What has just taken place has been cleaned, the remnants of a birth are absent. And yet, the caganer introduces historicity into the nativity scene. Poop is proof of a past eating. Christianity, like all pervasive ideologies, is tempted to erase history so that the historical creation of an ideology can be replaced by a feeling of normalcy and self-evidence. Without a sense of time it is easy to argue that this is the way it has always been. When the present is the only frame of reference, the past will always look like today. And yet, in the company of a defecating peasant, we see the time made present in the body of another.” (Pg. 69-70). In other words, the absurd smashes the sanitized vision of those in power. It reminds us of the reality of the messiness and complexity of life. It forces us to move past nostalgia (a preferred way of remembering the past), to see the reality of the past and the present. Jesus wasn’t born in a nice, clean setting. He was born in poverty, which is messy. 

The next chapter has us thinking about how hospitality is an act of insubordination. Hearlson quotes German theologian Johann Baptist Metz as calling “the communion table a place of ‘dangerous memory.'” (Pg. 80). It’s dangerous because, “Where the passion of Christ is remembered, the ignored, the aggrieved, the oppressed, and the downtrodden are also remembered.” (Pg. 80). And that upsets the apple cart of the status quo. When we remember people who have been shunned or ignored or silenced, we have to respond to their existence. 

Hearlson emphasizes how the hospitality of the Eucharist is subversive. “The memory invoked at the table is dangerous because it calls wrongdoers to confess and it calls the wronged to sit next to the wrongdoers, not as a torturous reenactment of the past power dynamics, but as those both reconciled by God. God’s children, in the end, will sit shoulder to should as the redeemed. The dangerous memories of God’s table produce an equally dangerous hospitality. Christ’s invitation to the table inspires a corresponding impulse to support inclusion, to see the other as neighbor, and to pursue justice for any and all who are hungry and wondering where the next meal will come from.” (Pg. 81). If that isn’t subversive to our culture and its values, I don’t know what is. 

Hearlson again gives a real-life example of this having been played out. He reaches back to the Puritan era and a conflict over who had access to the Lord’s Supper. The status quo was the concept of closed communion – only members who were in lock step with the leaders of the church could receive. So much for Jesus extending grace. “When the church claims to justify practice according to heredity, tradition, or purity, the subversive appeal to history is sure to follow. To open the gates of hospitality is dangerous. To allow Solomon Stoddard free rein to spread his open table would have jeopardized the authority of the clerical class. To give those who stand outside the gates access to the table means that we might begin to hear histories beyond the official narrative. The stories told around the dinner table might topple the finely hewn lie that nothing has changed and everything that has lasted is the product of consensus.” (Pg. 89-90). Wow. That’s powerful. That’s subversive. That’s the power of hospitality. It raises so many questions about who has access to communion – to the grace that Jesus offers all who come to the table. As someone who practices radical hospitality when it comes to communion, this makes my heart sing. 

The fifth chapter moves to genre bending. This has to do with the power of story and how stories are told. Hearlson says that “The art of subversion requires the cunning imagination to bend a genre without breaking it.” (Pg. 105). He goes on further, “…tools of subversive change typically embrace the prescribed and public values of a community. Subversion typically comes from within. The same is true for genre. Subversive work maintains a commitment to genre while also pressing the definitions of the genre to account to something more.” (Pg. 105). In other words – it’s about pushing the boundaries, but not breaking them. If the boundaries break, then it is easier to ignore and dismiss. 

Hearlson applies this idea by looking at music – specifically spirituals and their message of hope. “Announcing God’s good future creates a choice between either maintaining the status quo or following the lead of the spirit toward the fulfillment of God’s promises. Hope prevents the imaginations of the subordinate from being totally colonized by the powerful in order that a new path might be noticed. Hope stokes the subversive imaginations of the subordinate to create a path to follow the Spirit. Hope is the driver of most of the beautiful schemes, ploys, and critiques that are levied at the powerful.” (Pg. 121). And it is because of the power of these spirituals that Hearlson asks the question: “Given their creation, is it appropriate to pause as white Christians of power and ask if they are ours to sing.” (Pg. 122). After raising more similar questions, he concludes by saying, “In spite of these reservations, I remain convinced that the spirituals can still bend time, if we let them.” (Pg. 122)

Hearlson moves on to a great topic – one that truly embodies the idea of subversiveness. It is apocalypse. Apocalypse is often associated with destruction and cataclysm. “For the privileged sort in the church, the idea that chaos and cataclysms might be a source of hope is a difficult idea. Those with mobility, options, and income tend to delight in stable markets and orderly societies. The predictability of day-to-day life has inoculated parts of the church from the value of cataclysm. Yes, for those with little mobility, compromised agency, and diminishing possibility because of unjust markets and societies, what recourse is left? The powerful call for ‘Peace, Peace,’ but the disenfranchised among us know there is no peace. The oppressed know that the powerful too often confuse order for justice. Where does hope reside for those who cannot put their hope in the social systems to save them?” (Pg. 131-2). In order words, why would we be sad about the destruction, or at the very least the upsetting of the preverbal apple cart of the status quo when what God is up to is so much better? Often those on the margins are able to see this much clearer than those of us in the center of the culture with privilege. We fool ourselves with the privilege we have into thinking that everything is just great. It might be great for us, but it is not for everyone. And if it isn’t, then how truly great is it? Aren’t we just deluding ourselves because we happen to have things a bit better than the other guy? Aren’t we lying to ourselves into thinking that we are somehow better, or closer to God? How many Christians have a preference for maintaining things as they are, devoid of encountering God? Because here’s what we all know – when God encounters us, everything changes. That’s what we proclaim to desire and believe. Yet in practice, all too often we prefer to shut God out so that nothing, or very little changes, fundamentally. 

Lastly, Hearlson turns to how we can make worship more subversive. “The subversive worship leader maintains a commitment to deviousness. She is a gatherer, a stirrer, and a mixer. The subversive worship leader sees in her practices something more than what was intended.” (Pg. 151). Even in his description, using the pronoun “she” with the worship leader, he highlights the nature of subversiveness given that so many churches can’t even envision a female worship leader. 

Part of being subversive is also looking at differences and how they are a blessing. “…the disruption caused by diversity is necessary because it will open up unforeseen possibilities that will enable long-term growth. An intense focus on the short term comes at the expense of the long term. Better and longer-lasting solutions comes as a result of diversity, not in spite of diversity.” (Pg. 155). This seems like common sense. You don’t get new approaches by constantly and only looking at what you currently know. 

One of the last and most important points that Hearlson makes is this – Be careful because all of this is painful. But that’s one of the ways growth happens. “Changes to the liturgy will raise the blood pressure of members in the congregation. Initiating change will sting to those who are interested in keeping everything the same. Intentional decisions to notice the invisible will wound those used to absorbing all of the attention. These are not reasons to refrain from subversion, but invitations to postures of kindness and humility. The call of subversive worship is to paradoxically break the world tenderly.” (pg. 164). This an important message that links to everything that Hearlson has been saying. Subversiveness is about being cruel. The cruelty is the point of so many systems in the world. But it is not the point of the church or God. It is lovingkindness in action. 

Another reminder from Hearlson on this is important – “If worship leaders are interested in disrupting the stasis of the church, they must be prepared to face the pain that comes from such disruption. Truthfully, betraying the church’s past for the sake of its future ought to hurt. It not only hurts the people invested in the current structures or the powerful, but also those subverting them. Leaders ought not delight in breaking the church urns.” (Pg. 164-5). It isn’t about breaking church urns, as Hearlson describes them, for the sake of breaking them. Or changing for the sake of change. None of the subversive actions discussed in the book are about change for the sake of change. There is meaning and purpose behind all of them. And that meaning and purpose has to point to God and what God has been doing and invites us to participate in. In a Christian setting, that change is called transformation – the thing that Jesus does with his followers. Again, you can’t possibly have an encounter with the living God and not be transformed. It would be impossible. 

I’ll close with one more quote that I think is a good summary of the book. “The arc of history bends towards reproduction. This book is about those who stood in the way of that reproduction. This book cares about those who had the courage to stand up and say ‘No, there is a better way,’ confident that we need to pass this world on to our children. We need to pass this church on to our children.” (Pg. 167)

I really enjoyed this book. It was inspiring and edifying. It spoke to the core of who I am. I was encouraged by it. It is my hope that you read the book and are also inspired and encouraged. 

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