By Chris Webb. InterVarsity Press, 2017. 192 pages. $17/paperback; $16.99/eBook.
On the back cover of the book, the author, a Benedictine Anglican priest, invites us to “live in the reality of God’s presence in our everyday lives.” An admirable goal, one that few of us would disagree with, even though we are all regularly challenged by its sheer limitlessness. Webb’s experience as a priest has clearly shown him how to engage an audience. The book opens with his asking us to imagine the day after our death, waking up to a new and glorious reality. After a lengthy description of this new reality—where he slyly intends the reader to begin feeling more and more uneasy skepticism about all this bliss—he abruptly asks us to take one further step: imagine instead that it is today.
It is here that he first issues the invitation to bring this about by learning to become who we really are within community. At various later points, he lapses into stories that have a bit of the ring of sermons, and the whole last part of the book, especially the final two chapters, consists of the many active steps that we must take to reach out and help bring about the title’s “kingdom,” his alternate word for “community.”
In setting the scene, Webb starts out by focusing on the familiar first chapter of the book of Genesis. At first, the world was formless (therefore purposeless) and void (therefore lifeless). As we know, the world was then divinely endowed with purpose and life. But the culminating creative act was the creation of humankind “in his own image” and “male and female.” This establishes the foundation on which the whole book is based: “God, who exists in community, created from the beginning not isolated individuals but community.” (Can we perhaps see the word “only” inserted before “exists”? Webb comes close to this concept of God.) The world was created to be a place “drenched in God’s holy presence and a dwelling for human beings living in relationship with him and with one another.”
In the opening pages of the book, Webb announces his goal as visualizing the creation of a “community of love” or “loving community.” Friends are so familiar with this set phrase that it seems fair to ask whether he is able to add to—or hopefully deepen—these words. The “kingdom” of the title doesn’t imply power and territory but each of our communities: family, friends and neighbors, acquaintances, and the millions of fellow citizens whose lives are in more distant connection. That much-overused word “love” is defined here as not an emotionally warm feeling toward another but as “a deep cosmic power that shapes our lives and all creation with a forcefulness difficult to imagine” (emphasis mine).
In his employing of many other key words, Webb has a way of expanding and stabilizing the meaning of each, so that they resonate with his central theme. The lifeblood of the loving community is “prayer”: connecting with our source by telling the truth, an attitude of fearless honesty. “Honesty” means far more than simply remembering to tell the truth: it is nothing less than the crucial importance of finding and keeping in view the truth within, of being vigilantly honest with ourselves to discover and be “who we really are.” The most vivid display of this is what we find in the Psalms. In this “prayer book of the Bible,” honesty is everything. The poets who wrote these ancient prayers “were unafraid to expose their hearts to God . . . Nothing was held back.” One more in this key category is “slavery”: the ancient Israelites envisioned a community of transformed people set free from slavery, not only the literal slavery of their Egyptian experience but from the much more insidious internal slavery that characterizes all humans to this day—and that can always obstruct the creation of a loving community.
If we were to isolate one word to describe Webb’s definition of the world, it would have to be the word “relationship.” He answers our question about whether God exists only in community when he says, “God is essentially relational . . . relationship is what God is” (his emphasis). Once we see this as the principal act of God and all creation, everything else follows.