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Kester Brewin on the failed “mutiny” of the prodigal son

I’m not quite sure what I was expecting when I offered to review Kester Brewin’s [amazon 978-0955981371 inline]. Probably something that spoke rather more directly to the “emerging church” than this book does. Kester is a “teacher, popular blogger, and pioneering alt.worship fire-starter based in London, England”. He was one of the people behind the now defunct Vaux, and he has written a couple of other books—The Complex Christ, which I have somewhere, and Other, which I don’t. I sense he’s not quite my sort of “emerging church”—I imagine he would regard me as too evangelical. But I would like to meet him one day. Who knows.

But this book is not really written for the church, emerging or otherwise, though there are some strong religious themes running through it, and Kester regards it as perhaps his “most deeply theological” work. I will come in a moment to what seems to me its theological core. The book is written to a broader constituency as a modern call to piracy, because, Kester believes, “we are living in a world where the process of enclosure of the commons into private ownership is almost complete, and where separation from the essence of ourselves is marching ever onward”.

Most of the book is a historical, sociological, and cultural exploration of piracy as a classic mode of reaction against oppression, from the 18th century sailors who mutinied against their over-bearing masters to the Somali fishermen whose livelihood has been taken from them by fleets of European trawlers and the toxic waste dumped by multinationals; from the pirate printer Henry Hill to Radio Caroline; from revolts against the enclosure of common land to the Arab Spring; from Peter Pan to Luke Skywalker. The definition of piracy gets stretched considerably along the way, but the fabric just about holds together.

Piracy happens, Kester argues, when economies and cultures—and even religions—get “blocked” and oppressive, when ordinary people are denied access to the “commons” that should be theirs by natural right. Because history is written by the powerful, pirates have been vilified and “their resistance branded as common thievery and thuggery”. But they have been misrepresented. They are really high-minded utopians, abolitionists, egalitarians, libertarians, just employers, defenders of the down-trodden, anti-capitalist protesters, fun-loving adventurers, and cultural heretics. If they have sometimes done unspeakable things, they have done so “on behalf of the collective unconscious”, and their brutal punishment is “testament to just how shameful those in power found it when their unconscious desires were acted out”.

I’m not going to argue with this. It’s all rather brazen—a book about mutiny that is a little too self-consciously mutinous. At the moral level reading it is rather like watching a street conjuror shifting overturned cups around until you can’t remember which one conceals the pebble. Perhaps none of them. You’re not entirely sure. But it’s a stimulating, disorienting, rabble-rousing read, culminating in a disturbing re-interpretation of Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son, which is what I want to get to. As Kester says, the last battle which pirates have to fight is against the gods.

According to the light, happy traditional reading of the parable Jesus tells the story of the reconciliation of a wayward son to a gracious father. Kester makes reference to Henri Nouwen’s well known meditation on Rembrandt’s painting “The Return of the Prodigal Son”. The parable is about the “journey that both sons must make towards becoming fathers themselves”. Nice, but hardly the stuff of pirate legend. 

According to Kester’s dark, Jungian, piratical, mutinous reading the journey made by the younger son is a tragedy—”a failed act of piracy and an unsuccessful attempt to escape from and change the powerful draw of his father’s empire”. Kester imagines the son planning to distribute the family’s great wealth more fairly in order to correct the injustices of his father’s business model, or just of doing some useful work for a change—an “idealist wanting to step out from his privileged background, explore a wider world and do something more authentic”.

Unfortunately matters get out of hand. True to his ideals the son takes on the “honest labour” of feeding pigs, but in a time of famine he does not want to be a burden to others, so he decides to compromise. He will not live off his father’s riches again but will work as a servant. This will give him the opportunity to “show his father the error of his father’s ways, tell him about the hungry people that lay dying not so far away, and turn his father’s heart to compassion for them”.

In the meantime the father has been worrying that his son will turn up one day with dangerous ideas of redistributing what was left of the family’s wealth “in some ridiculous lefty scheme”. But as it turns out, the son is too tired and sore to resist his father’s sly blandishments and gives in, settling back into his old spoilt ways.

I was alive,’ the young man said to himself as he sat listening to his father toasting his return at the feast… ‘but now I am dead again.’

That is Kester’s proposed reading of the text, but it can be shown to mean much more than that. For example, the absence of women from the parable means that “the motifs of death… are given no balance by feminine characters, meaning that no new life is possible. The story is sterile; the sons and their father are stuck.” The parable illustrates the triumph of the “masculine conservation of empire”, on the one hand, over the feminine principle represented by Mary Magdalene, and on the other hand, over the remarkable communalism of the early Jerusalem church.

The tragedy of the prodigal son is thus the tragedy of the church: a radical departure that resolved, through an act of heresy, to bring renewal to a deadened Judaism, yet quickly lost heart and returned to the temptations of power and comfort.

But ultimately, Kester suggests, it is a parable about Jesus himself, though quite how this works is a little difficult to follow. Jesus born in the stable is the son “lying filthy among the livestock”—”Jesus surely recognised himself in the young son”. He left the comfort of heaven to experience the discomfort of life on earth, but at the same time he was born into a “religion that had a long history of divine violence, of exile and bloody wars and power abuse and petty arguments about doctrine, as well as bigotry, racism and sexism”. This religion, which worshipped his father as God, was “blocked and oppressive”, so Jesus had a difficult decision to make. He could “accept his father’s mantle with the old order intact”, or he could take the narrow path of piracy and “commit heresy against the old order”. In the end, he does what the prodigal son failed to do: he follows through on his piratic act and lives “as if everything the temple stood for was dead”.

Jesus “subverts the blocked orthodoxy of his father’s empire”. Through his suffering he “rips open the easy paradise of heaven to allow a little earthly dirt to enter and do its work of reinvigoration”. He is the heretical, prodigal son who refuses to let the religious status quo continue: in the words of Žižek he allows God “to see himself through the distorting human perspective”. Sadly, it didn’t last: “This true kernel of Christianity has been almost entirely lost, and it has become a religion just as blocked as any other….”

It’s hard to tell whether Kester really thinks that this is what the parable of the prodigal son is about—”Whether Luke meant it or not….” Jesus tells the story to the Pharisees and scribes who were complaining that “This man receives sinners ands eats with them” (Lk. 15:1-2). The question addressed is whether it is “fitting to celebrate and be glad” when that section of Israel that was lost—the “sinners”—is restored to the family. The traditional reading is not entirely right, but it is not as “wrong” as Kester’s act of hermeneutical piracy.

But does it matter? Yes and no. Kester’s theological reworking of the story of Jesus has little overlap, narratively or conceptually, with the New Testament material. But I do not think that the sort of historical reading of the New Testament that I pursue on this blog should preclude such creative—even such scandalous—attempts as this to reimagine the shocking “political” significance of Jesus’ death. On the contrary, I would say that the more clearly we determine the literal meaning of the New Testament, the more space we make for ourselves to misinterpret it for rhetorical purposes. In this respect, I think that Kester’s act of hermeneutical piracy is more “right” than the traditional readings.