in the rushing sound – investigating failure, performing leadership, & lookout kid

"Peter Brook in his theater (Paris)" by thomas.rome is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Tug, tug, tug. Sputter, sputter, sputter. Like a lawn mower with a faulty starter, this week one morning I drove back and forth from home to the local pharmacy with my daughter, Ms M, three times in an attempt to get a passport photo taken for myself.

On the first attempt, my shirt was too white for the photo. We head back home for me to change. Second attempt, Ms M realized she left her shoes at home while I was changing my shirt. Head back home to secure shoes. Third attempt was finally successful in procuring my worst passport photo ever. What a win.

Passport renewals are one of those tasks that take a surprising amount of time between completing paperwork to send by mail and processing time that takes up to 11 weeks. It is the slowest way to get a selfie.

“In the rushing sound” is an occasional post about several things I’m listening to, reading, or watching online that I would like to recommend to you. I imagine that if surfing the web was audibly perceptible it would make a rushing sound.

A podcast. There is so much finger pointing going on in the world right now and so few people taking responsibility for ongoing and structural issues that it really stands out when you come across someone taking responsibility for something that wasn’t their fault.

Christianity Today’s The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill podcast is an example of journalism that doesn’t distance itself from its subject. It owns the problem it investigates. It is invested in a way that produces a remarkably nuanced account of what happened and the contours of what’s possible in terms of justice, restoration, and restitution. It is an approach not just relevant to understanding contemporary Christianity in America through the story of megachurch that went bust, but also gets at the problem of what kind of organizations do we want to build and how.

Mars Hill was a fast growing megachurch in Seattle that came to an end in 2014 with the failed attempt of its board to hold a founding pastor accountable for abuses of power. The podcast explores the story of this particular church, because so much of its community and what it produced was recorded and documented online. In the age of the internet, it was arguably the first church to go viral. The internet doesn’t let you go quietly.

Wherever there’s art, celebrity, and the imperative to grow, there is so often concealment and an abuse of power. I was reflecting with a neighbor, author of several cookbooks, about how feted restaurants with revelations of leadership abuse are similar to churches that have met the same fate. They’re fiercely independent places, guided by a narcissistic leader, they perform an incredible service, and have a mega-following. How much are they a reflection of who their patrons are and what they are willing to openly or secretly tolerate?

This is where I want to highlight the particular interview with Tim Keller, long time pastor of a church based in Manhattan. He co-founded The Gospel Coalition, a cross-denomination council of churches that included Mars Hill. There’s the question of how much control this council could assert over member churches such as Mars Hill. Keller seems to say that this is what is expected of denominations, not affinity networks or affiliations which he describes as rich places for creativity and ideas.

On a spectrum, the podcast host is willing to internalize responsibility significantly more than Keller. Keller emphasizes the importance of denominations for accountability, but as we’ve seen with so many churches including most recently the Southern Baptist Convention, they cannot ultimately be trusted with sole responsibility. Network affiliations and invested journalism must play a role.

Theres a lot of thoughtful ideas in the interview, especially on managing an organization’s growth from a startup to an institution. On the inevitable loss of the dynamism of the startup, I want to step a moment away to the world of theatre.

Christianity Today – The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill with Mike Cosper and Tim Keller

A newspaper column. Ann Wroe is a master obituary writer. Her recent story about Peter Brook, a theatre director, raised to me the question of how we attribute desirable outcomes with control.

“He set tasks, and then sat in silence,” Wroe says of Brook. His rehearsals were long. “The moment he was waiting for came when the actor was suddenly free, feeling the flow, imagination fully expanded, opening to life beyond life.”

Born in the 1920s, Brook became an accomplished theater director in the United Kingdom with a focus on Shakespeare. Patrick Stewart, Ben Kingsley, and Alan Rickman are some of the actors that he worked with. Rowe describes how over the decades of theater in the UK, Brook progressively stripped down the stage. The “theatre he most liked was rough and ready: done on carts, in barns, or simply in the empty space that one man crossed while another one watched.”

Brook moved to France in the 1970s which became the base for an international theater group that toured regularly in the Middle East and Africa. His work here included Orghast, a play about Prometheus using a made up language. It was performed in Persepolis, Iran at an annual festival that existed prior to the Islamic Revolution in 1978. His was an itinerant theater group that crossed a line in history to which no one can return.

In the discussion about church growth, Keller reflects on the energy and dynamism of the church plant and how as it grows it becomes institutionalized and processes formalized – losing perhaps the sense of immediacy that Brook and probably many organizational leaders want to maintain from their startup phase. “[Brook] disliked tours, even long runs, because performance settled and soon began to die.”

Theater is clearly a different kind of organization. The show it puts on is complete and has a limited run. It also generally serves a single purpose. Whereas a church service is a variety format that can be attended more regularly. It also generally has more member services. Yet given the common lineage of theater and church and shared capacity for the transcendent and holy, it is more a difference of degree than in kind.

Institutions in theater provide the platform and building for each show. While they can rely on formulas, Brook’s story shows how they can be a continuously dynamic site of production. It runs counter to the narrative of building something exciting on dynamic leadership. Brook’s story emphasizes the shared control of the ensemble. Hello, mystic leadership?

The arrangement of the actors, impressing on them the idea that they should start from nothing – the very sense that people are not pawns in your control, but agents of something beyond what any particular one of us can envision. There’s a submission here, I think, to control that’s not haphazard, or reckless. It is a control that cannot be possessed, but rather it possesses. And when it does and you accept it as a gift and not a power, it produces the very best image.

The Economist – Obituary Peter Brook – The mystic of the stage

A music video. Arcade Fire is pulling the heart strings right here with a song written as a letter from a parent to a child. “Lookout kid, trust your mind / But you can’t trust it everytime / You know it plays tricks on you / And it don’t give a damn if you are happy or you’re sad / But if you’ve lost it, don’t feel bad /’Cause it’s alright to be sad”. The video captures it well with those floppy marketing inflatables that try to stand and can’t always take what the wind gives.

Arcade Fire – Unconditional I (Lookout Kid)
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book review: the naked don’t fear the water by matthieu aikins

Outskirts of Moria camp, Lesbos, on January 15th 2017. Cathsign, CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Matthieu Aikins is a Western journalist with many years of experience reporting in Afghanistan. He assumes the guise of an Afghan migrant and takes the treacherous journey from Kabul to Berlin with Omar, an Afghan refugee.

That’s the idea, but it doesn’t work out that way, because the path of the refugee is one of many false starts. When it does finally proceed it follows lines and crosses borders impassable by others. A condition of contact intensified on the one hand by passports, customs, biometrics, and the global federation of databases.

Aikins’ work shines in the intimate portraits of Omar and the people that he meets in Afghanistan, the refugee camp on Lesbos, and at the refugee-occupied hotel in Athens. Aikins also does a great job of bringing analysis in along the way, connecting ideas about identity and belonging and reflecting on the limits of understanding the experience of refugees.

I was often reminded of Rory Stewart’s The Places In Between while reading this book. Like Stewart’s book, Aikin’s is a travelogue of Afghanistan. It’s been a while since I’ve read Stewart’s book, but I recall how he brought a deep learning of history, culture and religion to his travels which he appeals to and uses as a language to speak and find his way across an often hostile landscape. Both books are concerned with the conditions of free movement, of passage and passing, but they bring to it a significantly different philosophy.

Stewart carries an image of what people should be like and aspire to be. He describes an intensely religious landscape. Clothed with the best Western education of Afghanistan, he travels like a tourist with theology as his guidebook.

Aikins, on the other hand, navigates a far more secular society. Stewart’s book is published soon after the US invasion of Afghanistan. Aikins’ book is published shortly after the withdrawal. Is this the difference between Afghanistan in 2004 versus in 2021 or is the difference the lens with which Aikins and Stewart view their surroundings and the protocols with which we engage others?

Aikins starts with his own life experience and family history to authorize his passage. His mix of Japanese and Scottish ancestry lends him a look that allows him to pass as Afghani. What does it mean to pass as someone from another culture? For Aikins this question is related to his own experience of family negotiating what it means to pass as an American or Canadian.

In becoming the image of the Afghani, Aikins describes also the image of the refugee. Whether encoded in laws or conjured on screens, their competing ideas and sentiments about who genuinely fit the profile of a refugee. This is where we as Canadians, Americans, and Europeans more broadly participate in the racist conspiracy of replacement theory.

If refugee escapes communism, that’s okay – they are like us. But if they are from former colonies or occupied territories, then we are afraid and uncertain about the providence of their claim. Aikins describes the influence of Jean Raspail, a French thinker, that laid the ground for anti-humanitarian resistance to refugees. Raspail is also known for helping to create the idea of the great replacement theory.  For more on Jean Raspail and the European origins of replacement theory, I highly recommend this recent London Review of Books podcast titled: Great Replacement Theory.

The idea of passing that Aikins reflects poignantly on ties in some way to the improvisations at the core of life that’s between all the laws and walls that govern human bodies. What’s passable in terms of policy and practice? Or, in other words, what can we get away with? Which is a cynical way to put it, but maybe not if we’re all implicated in the act. The dreaded and dismal refugee camp of Moria on Lesbos with its rotation of non-profit staffers and holes in its fence was more of an improvisation than institution. On humanitarian principle, it really shouldn’t be passable.

Yet, in the informalities and improvisations that define the route of the refugee can be places of incomparable beauty. The City Plaza squat in Athens is described in a way that recalls Pentecost – a sublime confusion of language, love, and hospitality. Aikins is able to describe these moments without even so much as a hint of accepting that this is the way things should be. Or as he puts it: “Nothing is intolerable until an alternative exists, if only as a dream.”

The Naked Don't Fear the Water by Matheu Aikins
The Naked Don’t Fear the Water by Matthieu Aikins, 2022
[Amazon or Local Library]

Discussion questions

I used the following questions to facilitate a book club discussion. I’m interested to learn what you thin and what questions you used for your book club.

  1. When does the migrant become a refugee?
  2. How would you define a refugee? What image comes to your mind of who a refugee looks like and whether some have greater claims than others for asylum?
  3. What are some factors that create the image of the refugee? Are there any others?
  4. Describe a time when you passed as someone from another background?
  5. The book’s subtitle is “an underground journey with afghan refugees”. Was it?
  6. Aikins takes time to describe his privilege in contrast to his subject. Is there a time where you thought he misused his privilege in relation to Omar for the sake of the story? Why or why not?
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