Featured Reviews, VOLUME 7

Justin McRoberts – CMYK: The Process of Life Together [Review]

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A Review of

CMYK: The Process of Life Together
Justin McRoberts

Paperback: McRoberts, 2013
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Reviewed by C. Christopher Smith
Earlier this summer, I did something that I almost never do: I picked up a book on a Sunday afternoon and read it from cover to cover. This book, I would hasten to add, was no ordinary book, it was singer/song-writer Justin McRoberts’s iconoclastic work, CMYK: The Process of Life Together.  I was struck how Justin developed key themes that were very similar to those that John Pattison and I addressed in our book Slow Church – specifically, the messiness and beauty and joy of sharing life in our church communities – and yet he did so in a way that was so vastly different from our book.  I was struck by the central image of color printing that gave the book its title and structure. Cyan, Magenta, Yellow and Key (a.k.a. Black) are the four distinct colors that when combined can produce any color as part of the traditional four-color printing process.  McRoberts writes:

The four basic colors of the CMYK print process fundamentally need one another. If there were no colors but magenta, there would no longer be “Magenta.” Magenta needs to be in relationship with colors that are not magenta in order to be Magenta. In short, Magenta is Magenta because nothing else is.  Likewise with Cyan, Yellow and Black.  In other words, each color’s identity is established in relationship with and proximity to other colors.  This inspires me. (19)

CMYK is a beautiful book, innovative in its design and – appropriately – printed throughout in full, four-color CMYK process. In each section of the book, a piece of art by a different artist is featured, and an sidebar interview with that artist is also included.  In addition to wrestling with many similar themes that John and I explored in Slow Church, the format and tone of CMYK is one of conversation, which is the key practice recommended in the Slow Church book.  The backbone of McRoberts’s book is a series of letters in which he engages friends, family and even the lauded novelist Anne Rice.  Many of those to whom these epistles were written are distinctively different than McRoberts in some way or another: their faith, their sexuality, their generation.  Yet, McRoberts’s letters engage their recipients with love and a deep-rooted desire for clarity. As he writes in his “Letter to a Queer Sister”:

We are not alike, you and I. We do not always agree. Our disagreements are often about things that can end friendships – pressing and vital issues about God and our identity. … We’ve come to see, despite our differences of opinion, that we share the same core identity: we are both Beloved.  Which means our disagreements, far from being detrimental or terminal for our friendship, can instead enrich it, adding depth to both our lives and bearing fruit between us (170).

McRoberts – speaking primarily out of a life of rootedness, with “roots that are planted in this particular place and among this particular people”(195) – has nailed what it means to live in community with others.  Our lives are made deeper, richer and more flavorful as we seek to be orchestrated in harmony with others. And speaking of music, McRoberts’s letters are interspersed with songs that he has written to accompany the letters.  Not surprisingly there are also albums that go along with the book – an EP for each of the C, M and Y sections and an LP called K that drew songs from each of the EP’s, re-recorded them and added in a few new ones (More info on these albums is available online). The book is rounded out by a number of reflections that provide some context for the letters and/or songs.
CMYK is an exquisite book, one that is meant to be savored, that rare volume where the beauty of a book’s content is paralleled by its form. I would get frustrated at points in reading the book because there was a bit of chaos to it, constantly shifting gears from one genre to another: from letter to song to interview to reflection. But as I read on, I came to realize that this chaos was itself a reflection of how vibrant communities and conversations work, there is an inherent messiness to them, there are a variety of voices and tones, all questions are not neatly resolved. And yet therein lies the beauty of communities and of CMYK as well, in the mixing up of voices, stories, and indeed in the intertwining of our very lives. As McRoberts writes in one of the book’s most compelling segments, a letter to his “oikos” (a smaller community within his church), hidden away at the heart of the book:

Let us find the value of our interpretation in relation to a long tradition of collaboration, disagreement, and conversation. It is no coincidence that the vast majority of works that we find meaningful are collaborative efforts between those who write and those who edit and those who design. Or between those who script and those who direct and those who act. Or even between those who make clay and those who form it and those who make stoves that fire it. I think it has become clear that a beautiful and meaningful life is lived and worked together (96-97).

This letter offers a brief, but poignant depiction of the church as interpretative community, in a similar vein to John Howard Yoder’s familiar essay “The Hermeneutics of Peoplehood.”
For those who have read Slow Church, and who are wondering how to help their congregations to grow deeper, I highly recommend CMYK, as a striking demonstration of the love and tenacity needed to help our communities – both churches and neighborhoods – grow and flourish.  What we find is not a how-to manual, but rather stories and art that help us focus our gaze and meditate on the sorts of virtues we need to mature in our life together. We are called to be the people of God, always interpreting, seeking and conversing together, and what Justin McRoberts offers is a tiny window into this sort of conversational life together, as it unfolds for him and for those with whom he shares life in community.  Come, sit awhile with this book, hear its stories and into enter into a conversation with it, and especially one that includes the sisters and brothers of your own church community.
C. Christopher Smith is the editor of The Englewood Review of Books and co-author (with John Pattison) of Slow Church: Cultivating Community in the Patient Way of Jesus.  He is currently writing a book with the tentative title Reading for the Common Good.


C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com

Reading for the Common Good
From ERB Editor Christopher Smith

"This book will inspire, motivate and challenge anyone who cares a whit about the written word, the world of ideas, the shape of our communities and the life of the church."
-Karen Swallow Prior

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