Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Tripping, Transcendence, and Truth: A response to Kester Brewin’s 'Getting High'

I devoured Kester Brewin’s book Getting High when it was released last year, in 2016. Blending history, theology, and memoir, Brewin connects religion and outer space, drugs and hippies, all in a thorough critique of transcendence and the technologies that promote it. Although my own Gen-X rendering of religion and counterculture is different (see Banjo & Bread, my 2015 theology thesis, or see the forthcoming memoir I have been working on, if I ever finish it), the similarities between Kester Brewin’s story and mine sear my memories and spark a sense of eerie synchronicity. For those of us who entered adulthood in the late 80s and through the 90s, the late 1960s revolution was as close to us as Y2K is to the kids today.

This year’s 50th anniversary of the “Summer of Love” offers as good an excuse as any for me to finally unpack a few of my feelings about Brewin’s bold indictment of getting high. To begin, the archetypal young person’s mystical quest for God has been well-documented and the ways in which this journey intersects with pharmacology and popular culture are countless and compelling. Like our hardcore Haight-Ashbury hippie predecessors, the next wave of hippie/punk/ravers danced out the last days of the 20th century seeking truth by tripping out. Brewin’s beautiful if brutal prose slips from the “great highs” induced by substances to the “Most High” invoked by religion, in fluid and fascinating disclosures that resemble my own challenges and confessions in life’s lit cul-de-sacs.

Although I couldn’t put the book down once I started, although I don’t deny all the connections Brewin makes between the “technology of religion” and the “religion of technology,” I refuse the totality of his critique. His tragic and traumatic dismantling of transcendence left me leaning into the roots of my faith and recalling the God-intoxicated aspect of every moment of intoxication before seeking solace in sobriety in 2009. In fact, I agree with the hippie and hipster preachers that Brewin mocks, we can get high on God. Brewin and I are not the first or last spiritual writers to light up the space between Saturday night and Sunday morning with personal insight, but I cannot help myself but to believe in the closer proximity of the blues and gospel, the all-night rave and the altar call.

Brewin’s book is more personal memoir and people’s history than theological treatise. His versions of the challenges and curiosities of navigating counterculture and Christianity will resonate profoundly with readers interested in the religious meaning of the internet, space travel, drugs, and the hippy revolt. I would recommend this book to anyone interested in post-theistic Christianity, counterculture history, or radical theology. But the theological takeaway I get from Kester Brewin is a severe strike and savage stripping of the supernatural from Christianity. Brewin’s Christ never ascended into heaven and has no crown. The future of Christianity for Brewin willingly wrestles with bounded reality against boundless religiosity.

In the early 1970s, the left-wing roots of the hippy experiment within the church turned rightwards with evangelical efforts to convert the kids, the ones who barely avoided being statistical drug casualites. Around that time, paisley-and-patched-up preachers invoked psychedelic vernacular to describe Christ’s call on our lives. This was the message of Godspell and Jesus Christ Superstar taken to the next level. The rap goes something like this: don’t trip-out on drugs, get trippy on Jesus. Before his death, a progressive mystic as astute as Thomas Merton would openly discuss the likes of Leary and Ginsberg, assessing how the blurred and partial epiphanies of the drug culture come from our common impulse to encounter God.

I admit that my return in middle-age to the starry-eyed campfire faith of my youth requires me to suspend many doubts and beliefs that my progressive peers share. Even though I am neither “conservative” nor “liberal” in the sense that most people in everyday politics and religion use the term, I have started to identify as “the most conservative liberal” I know.

During the first few years of my sobriety and return to church, I immersed myself in all the contemporary Christian writers I could find. I retraced their roots to the academic theology and ecclesiological debates of the 1960s. I absolutely love the work that Kester Brewin and his conversation partner Peter Rollins are doing to revisit the “death of God” ideas first brought into religious circles by the like of Thomas Altizer. But of writers from that period that push us today, I find myself much more attracted to people like Will Campbell, William Stringfellow, and Alexander Schmemann than even Harvey Cox (whose Feast of Fools I find essential) and especially Altizer.

But Brewin puts his own spin into these conversations in a manner that keeps us all talking, which I deeply respect. In books and blogs and over generous shots of expresso, I could talk about these ideas all day long. I appreciate the humor and humility, braveness and boldness, that Brewin brings to his critique. He refuses the cynicism and irony so fashionable and ultimately utterly desperate and boring. Even though Kester Brewin talks about being drunk while discussing some of the ideas in his book with his friends, his analysis is stunning in its sobriety. Ever since I abandoned the bottle, I have sought spiritual intoxication without apology, with yoga and exercise, music and meditation. It is in the precise nature of what theological transendence might actually be that Brewin and I probably disagree, however profoudnly, however tentatively.  

I am left with questions that might not interest Brewin, or his other readers, if they are outside mainline religiou contexts. But how is this going to preach on Sunday morning? How might the conclusions of Brewin’s book form communities and spiritual practices? Over here in the Tennessee Bible Belt where I make my living as a college instructor and part-time lay pastor, I have learned why the core truths of Christianity remain so compelling to some believers, even while the prosperity gospel guts God on one side and the strident progressive politics of some others stifle ecumenical conversation. For whatever it is worth, I have gone in for transcendence and tradition, for the Trinity, and hopefully, for truth.

Last year I took my deepest detour yet into what is called “narrative theology” (sometimes called post-liberal theology) that was prompted by a dear mentor who is helping me on my pastoral journey and by a smart friend whose book manuscript I was studying. My simplistic takeaway said, sure, this Christian tradition might just be “a story,” but it is a story we might take seriously in its canonical and traditional forms. It is the covenant story in our faith tradition and the one I have lived inside. It is the story I tried to leave in my early 20s and that called me back with force in my early 40s. My takeaway from learning about “narrative theology” said: take the Bible seriously and take the Apostle’s Creed seriously. Take the confessions of my Presbyterian faith tradition seriously.

When I first read Brewin’s book, my gut reaction reminded me about how I felt as I looked deeper into the likes of authors like Marcus Borg and Dominic Crossan. They discussed a Christian faith without miracles, without a virgin birth, and without a bodily resurrection. They believed there was a “historical Jesus,” so they didn’t go all-in for a mythopoetic reading, either. I loved the spirited shamanic language Borg borrowed to replace literalism, but at the end of the day, I thought: bummer. I wanted more! Everybody loves a miracle! I want Jesus to walk on water, walk through walls, and walk out of the grave.

I don’t know if contemporary skeptics can set aside the faith versus fact or spirit versus science debates and still find hope and solace in chuch or not. I don’t know what living out the gospel in daily life looks like for you, if you believe the gospel. I do know that the space between getting high and finding a Higher Power that so many recovering addicts like myself have visited is real enough to warrant serious conversations. While Brewin has not written a recovery book per se, I find his explorations highly relevant to my life and work. I recommend his book and look forward to his “response to my response,” should he choose to write one.