An interview with Dr Krish Kandiah, author of God is Stranger (Hodder & Stoughton, 2017)
Why do you think people are latching on to the idea of hospitality? More and more people seem to be talking about it. Why do you think there is this interest?
I think with the changing face of European culture, particularly after the Brexit vote, but also because of the global refugee crisis and refugees coming to Europe, the whole question of what it means to be a nation – and what it means to be a church in a nation – is changing the way that we think about hospitality.
There’s a group of people that are outraged at the attempt to cut off relationships with Europe; they’re worried about xenophobia in the culture and the spike in racist attacks in the UK… I think it’s making us question who is welcome and who isn’t; who is included, who are the insiders and who are the outsiders?
It’s a political and ideological question we’re asking. And the fact that the Bible has a lot of interesting things to say about hospitality, is just good news.
Your new book touches on this theme of hospitality. How would you describe God is Stranger?
This book, God is Stranger, is as if my books Home for Good (with Miriam Kandiah; Hodder & Stoughton, 2013) and Paradoxology (Hodder & Stoughton, 2014) got married and adopted a child. It looks at some of the most challenging passages of Scripture – the times when God turns up as a stranger. So it’s a book about understanding God, it’s about intimacy with God and how we might love him better. But the Trojan Horse idea is that while you’re thinking about how you can know God better, this theme of hospitality in Scripture pops out at us because time and time again it’s as we welcome the stranger that we come into a brand new relationship with God because the stranger we invited into our lives and our home (and our tents in Abraham’s case!) is God incognito.
How has the book been received?
Really encouragingly! I was speaking to a lady last week who said the book had opened her eyes to understand her faith in a new way. Because we’re wrestling with Scripture the whole way through and making familiar stories have a new perspective, they’ve given people a new lens for understanding Scripture and God – and that’s super exciting. I met someone at an event who heard a talk based on one of the chapters, who said she’d actually changed her mind about how she thinks about refugees. And we’re hearing people making positive noises about how fostering and adoption might be a way how they can respond to worshipping God.
What would make you think, ‘Yes! People have got it!’?
You always want people to move from just trying to understand Scripture to indwelling Scripture. I’ve tried to use stories subversively to help people encounter God and have their lives changed as a result. So if I hear anything like that I’d be excited!
I’d be excited if they were engaging with the story of Abraham and his three visitors and how Abraham’s whole approach to these people who turn up unannounced in which he doesn’t see them as a burden. He doesn’t see them as a drain on his time – he goes out of his way, begging them to stay. And the lavishness of his hospitality is so amazing that when he finds out it was God incognito, he doesn’t feel ashamed because there wasn’t much more he could have done.
So were there any stories that you revisited for the book that really surprised you or struck you?
Every time I open Scripture there’s always fresh light that jumps out, just by giving it time and meditative space. I really enjoyed exploring the story of Ruth, at the same time trying to do something intertextual with the story of Breaking Bad; that was a lot of fun.
What I hadn’t noticed before when looking at the Seven sayings of Jesus on the cross was the connection with the theme of hospitality, that actually when you look at it through that lens I think you get fresh insight; whether it’s Jesus offering forgiveness to the thief on the cross dying next him and promising a good welcome that very day; or whether it’s Jesus performing (as Don Carson describes it) a kind of ‘adoption’ from the cross of John to Mary and Mary to John the disciple; or whether it’s Jesus saying he’s thirsty and asking for hospitality from those crucifying him and mocking him , I just found that really profound and I hadn’t seen it before until I reexplored those passages; so that was a joy to see.
Westerners often comment on being bowled over by the hospitality they’ve received when visiting other parts of the world. What do you think it is about Western culture that means that is such a surprise?
I’ve experienced that myself when we were cross-cultural missionaries in Albania; the generosity we received from the people there was just outstanding. But I guess we mustn’t sentimentalise that; we had a strange paradox: Albanians were incredibly generous but there was also racism within the culture. Every culture is a mixture of common grace and sin. And the UK will express that in different ways. So some parts of our culture are gracious and godly and other parts are broken; we are all a mix.
I wonder whether within Western culture we have this individual consumeristic undercurrent to our culture, that we continually reinforce to people – that they are their own worlds, that they are worth it, that they can have whatever they want if they could just buy it. We’ve boiled the family down to the nuclear family; for a lot of people that is the extent of their family connection on a daily basis; I think we have more single households so people are not as used to sharing their lives on a regular basis with other people.
I don’t think it’s just Western culture but I think we’ve also created a fear of the stranger. Whether that’s something we drill into children through ‘stranger danger,’ or through the fairy tales we teach our children about the wolf at the door or the old woman offering an apple. I just think it’s been a part of our culture for a long time and maybe, like water dripping on a stone, it has an effect that normalises keeping others at arm’s length.
In calling for the practice of hospitality, would you say that the Church is making a political statement as well as a social one?
I think it’s like a stone dropped in a pond; there are ripple effects. A lot of our obedience to Scripture has to start at the personal level – in my heart, my family, my orbit of influence, my household, my church, my neighbourhood, my nation. We lose all credibility when we ask the nation to do something we’re not practising ourselves. I think there is a seamless connectivity between the personal, the social, and the political, though we often try to atomise them.
We’ve heard of amazing families through the Home for Good work that we do. One family turned their house into an assessment centre for unaccompanied refugee children. Was that a political statement? Well that wasn’t the primary intention; it was just to show mercy to young people who were far away from their families and in danger of being trafficked or being sexually abused. But that hospitality had a knock-on effect in their local authority, who couldn’t quite compute why a family would do this. And that became for us a story that we could take to the Government and say, look there are people who are willing to go the extra mile to make sure that young people who come into this country under really difficult circumstances receive not just a cold, formal process, but receive love, kindness and hospitality. So I think there is a seamless connection between our personal, devotional, spiritual practices, and the kind of macro political statements.
How would you summarise the relationship between hospitality and the Church’s mission?
One of the problems with the word ‘mission’ is that for a lot of people it is very foreign to their lives – mission is something missionaries do, or a mission agency might do, but me as an individual, I’m just trying to live my life and obey God – I’m trying to be a disciple. So you might notice in my book, God is Stranger, mission is not an oft-used word, because in my head it is often connected with programmes. So it’s ‘mission’ when our church puts on a Teaching English as a Foreign Language course, or when we help refugees fill in forms in a formal process – that’s mission. While me offering my Muslim neighbours to come round to my house for some food, that’s hospitality. Or me helping one of the kids at school with his homework; that’s just good neighbourliness.
So in an ideal world people would understand that practices in everyday life are missional, or in an ideal world maybe we don’t need the word missional because people are seeing their basic discipleship acting out hospitable ways is just normal life. So sometimes words make things strange when they don’t need to be.
What’s the one thing you want people to take away from this book?
The big idea is in the title, God is Stranger. Imagine it as a posture towards people we don’t know. Instead of seeing them primarily as a danger we could see people we don’t yet know as an opportunity. That’s the Abraham way – three strangers on his doorstep and he’s begging them to come in. I don’t think he had a programme for that; I don’t think he said ‘I really ought to try five times a week to welcome strangers’. I just think he had a fundamentally different posture towards visitors and people he didn’t know yet. And that would be my hope: that we might have a different posture to our world.
I like the show Secret Millionaire, and whoever came up with it is a genius because I’ve got this perception that very wealthy people are more concerned about protecting their money from other people than the rest of us, but by helping a millionaire to go undercover maybe as a homeless person being helped by a homeless charity for a week or two, just trying to figure out if I had a large sum of money to give to this charity how could I best use it? That’s great for the charity who’s going to receive the money but I wonder if that’s kind of a virtue approach that also changes the posture of that millionaire, ideally for the rest of their lives. So they’re not thinking, ‘How can I store this money away?’ but ‘Where can I strategically invest it?’
I would love it if having spent time reflecting on biblical stories – about Abraham, Jacob, Ruth, Boaz, Jesus and Cleopas and all the others – some of their posture to the outsider and the stranger would rub off on us so that we’re just aware of God’s presence as we go out into the world, into work, into school, and that would give us eyes to see God as Stranger, and strangers as an opportunity to show our worship to God.