An Other Kingdom:
Departing the Consumer Culture
Peter Block, Walter Brueggemann and John McKnight.
This is an abridged version of a review
that appeared in our Advent 2015 print issue.
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Several years ago, I took note for the first time of the collaborations of Walter Brueggemann, Peter Block and John McKnight. I suspect that Brueggemann’s name may be familiar to many of our readers for his work in theology and Old Testament scholarship. Block and McKnight, however, might not be as familiar. Block is renowned for his work in the world of business consulting, in which he has written a number of bestselling books. John McKnight is co-director of the Asset-Based Community Development Institute at Northwestern University, and his work over the years has focused on community-building. In many ways, it comes as a surprise that these three thinkers who have distinguished themselves in vastly different arenas should come together and collaborate on a book project.
Their collaboration, however, is fruitful in its broad imagination of a different sort of economy and culture that stands in sharp contrast to the prevailing consumerism of our day. Indeed, the great gift of this book is its capacity to articulate a different vision for the shape of society, and in doing so, I suspect that it will be one of the most important books of 2016, and especially for those who yearn deeply for another kingdom.
The other kingdom that the authors imagine is one rooted in the virtues of neighborliness, instead of those of free market consumerism. They begin by naming the ways in which we have been enslaved to the ideology of consumption. The authors describe the effects of modern free market economies:
We moved away from the neighbor as a source of culture, memory, sense of place and livelihood. We made subsistence living a problem to be solved. The casualty was the loss of a sense of the commons. What is at stake in the renewal of neighborliness is the restoration of the commons. The free market consumer ideology has produced a social disorder; people are no longer embedded in a culture that serves the common wealth, the common good.
Given their previous work, it is not surprising that the authors excel at critiquing the present free market order of things. They concisely denounce the ways in which free market ideology has produced corporatization of schools, isolation and violence. Acknowledging that hope of reform is intrinsic to the order of the free market economy, they emphasize that what we need is not reform but a total transformation, one that begins with a paradigm shift of language and narrative. An Other Kingdom is a significant work and highly recommended reading precisely because it provides the language for, and the beginnings of a different sort of narrative.
While this book is superb in its imagination of a different sort of culture, it struggles—in my estimation—to articulate clearly how we make the exodus from a culture dominated by free market ideology to one that is ordered by the virtues of neighborliness. The book’s final chapter recommends disciplines of neighborliness that reorient how we think about and utilize time, food and silence. I fully agree with the authors that these disciplines will guide us as we transition to new economies and new ways of being, but each is explored here with such brevity that the reader is left longing for deeper guidance.
Another discipline (which is not named in this book) that will orient us on our journey toward neighborliness is discernment. We are always trapped in limbo between the old culture and the new culture. In this grayscale world, discernment is the way in which our communities move forward on the journey from the old into the new. We need works like An Other Kingdom that so poignantly remind us of the ends toward which we should be moving, but we also need wisdom that guides us as our local, particular communities discern the next steps of our own journey out of the Egypt of free market consumerism and into the promised land of a truly neighborly economy.
An Other Kingdom should be widely read and appreciated for what it is: an inspiring vision of an alternative culture. This vision more than compensates for the book’s relatively small practical shortcomings. These shortcomings remind us, however, to be attentive for other guides who are also moving in the direction of a neighborly economy and can offer the wisdom we need for discerning the next steps of our community’s particular journey.
C. Christopher Smith is founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books, co-author of Slow Church, and author of the forthcoming book, Reading for the Common Good: How Books Help Our Churches and Neighborhoods Flourish (IVP, Summer 2016).