Reflection on Twenty-One Elephants

On the first Wednesday of each month I offer some reflections on a book I have been reading. These are not book reviews, but a reflection on how the book interacts with my story and the questions that I currently have. I share where the book takes me with my questions, whether it conjures up new ideas or questions, whether it helps me frame my experiences and gives me things to ponder.

This month I am reflecting on Twenty-One Elephants by Scottie Reeve.


At the beginning of the year I asked my faithful readers to recommend books for me to reflect on, for my blog.  More than one of you recommended Twenty-One Elephants even though it was yet to be released. Twenty-One Elephants sounded like my sort of book, it’s about community transformation, frustration with the status quo of the institutional church, about struggling through faith crisis and breaking through to find an enlarged spirituality.

Reeve’s Journey

Twenty-One Elephants is a personal account of Reeve’s journey; he writes in an authentic easy to read style and the book is engaging.  He tells of his struggle with his Christian faith and reconciling that with his youth development work. It is about him discovering as a young adult that the ‘Christian culture’ and evangelical rational package of faith that he grew up with wasn’t adequate for a life enmeshed in the pain and suffering of the world today.   The book is full of his stories of the young people that Reeve has worked with, as well as stories of the experiences that challenged him to rethink his faith along the way.  It is also full of Reeve’s ideas of what our theology should look like and the things that we have missed as a church so far.  His love and concern for those struggling infuses his stories and his theological ponderings.  He doesn’t have all the answers and poses lots of thoughtful questions that are worth spending time thinking though.  He points out our (Christians, and sometimes westerners in general) inadequacies in so many areas where we have overlooked our call to help those in need.  I particularly like this challenge to our concept of hospitality “At some stage we shifted away from seeing genuine hospitality as a simple act of treating others with welcome and respect. Instead we moved to the notion of entertaining. Rather than hoping to say something about the value of our guests and their inherent dignity, we instead use this opportunity to communicate something about our own sufficiency, status, and personality” (p.59). 

New Zealand Stories Are Important

Do you ever get that feeling of excited surprise when you see familiar New Zealand places as a backdrop in a movie or TV series – somehow it seems wrong to see what is so ordinary on the big screen.  That is the feeling you get from reading Reeve’s book.  It is firmly located in its New Zealand context.  There are familiar locales and familiar people, organisations and churches involved.   The voice of the US publishing and blogging environment is so loud that the church in New Zealand is unduly influenced by it.  Books like 21 Elephants that help a NZ voice and experience get wider exposure, and let us read stories about people like us are important.  There are not enough NZ stories being told and I think that telling NZ stories are a start in us developing and acknowledging our own ways of being as NZ Christians.  Reeve starts us down this path of exploring what it means to be a NZ Christian by introducing concepts such as mannaakitanga from Maori culture which connect with our call as Christians. 

I am not necessarily the target market for this book, and I think my expectations were too high. I did experience a sense of disappointment after reading the book, which says more about where I am in my journey than about the book.  I didn’t find anything new in the book, it is a story I have heard many times, a story I have read many times, and ideas that are familiar to me. I was hoping that there would be more answers as to how we get the church to change, but that wasn’t the focus or direction of the book. 

What Is Maturity?

When you have been through a faith crisis the result of which is a recalibration of your that your theology, it can be easy to fall into the trap of assuming that you have achieved greater maturity than those who have not been through the same process.  I have fallen into this trap myself it is easy to see others who are still accepting of the status quo as naiver and less mature. Reeve does express this tone in the book, assuming people who have processed their faith and are living in a more radical way are more mature than those who are still accepting of the status quo.  Prompted by a reader (thanks Richard) I have been thinking about how we define maturity, perhaps we need to spend some time pondering what Christian maturity is and how we talk about it.

Hope And Liberation For All

Reeve is passionate about the youth and others that he worked and still works with.  He is passionate about the call to live an integrated life that doesn’t compartmentalize and that challenges the comfort of the church and our economic system.  His passion comes through strongly so that reading the book you get the impression that he thinks everyone should live the way he does.  Some people are particularly called to work with those in pain and on the margins, and I do believe that Jesus brings hope that is particularly pertinent to those in that position.  But a holistic theology says that Jesus brought hope and liberation to everyone and just as we in the church need people who are called to living incarnationally on the margins we also need people who are bringing hope to communities like Blockhouse Bay. As well as reading about Jesus and the women at the well, we also need to read the stories of Jesus coming to Nicodemus, Joseph of Arimathea and the wealthy women from Luke 8, who supported Jesus.   Part of the hope in our message is that Jesus brings all that diversity together and makes it into a family all with different calls and gifts. 

But perhaps I am just trying to justify my lifestyle and to dodge the challenge that this book contains? 

 We All Need To Hear The Challenge More Than Once

Although there was not much new in the book, it contains a message that I need to hear over and over for each stage of my life.  Reading the book has challenged me to think afresh about how I can live a life that is more focussed on the other.  What contribution can I make as an introvert, that needs to have 9 hours sleep in a mould free environment, (for my psychological and physical health), who often feels like I am only just keeping on top of cooking, keeping house and spending time with my family?   How can I live differently in the light of the hope that Jesus brings?  How can I in middle class suburbia on the school run, or buying the groceries, live with the radicalness that I was enamoured of in my youth? I am left asking where do I fit God?  How can you use me? Good questions for a book to force me to ponder. 

As I read this book I experienced a deep sense of grief that the faith that Reeve grew up with wasn’t larger, didn’t encompass enough hope and power for his youth work, didn’t show him an image of the Kingdom of God that challenged comfort and the status quo of western suburbia.  What sort of message?  What sort of church did his generation grow up with?  Why has the church failed them so completely?  How do we who have gone before take ownership of this failure, seek and find forgiveness for it, and support the new that is coming though so strongly.  There is joy in this book that Reeve does cling onto God through all he finds himself in, and he does find a faith that can encompass the pain, that goes beyond a packaged belief into living the kingdom in all he does. 

If you have never considered how your faith interacts with the struggle of those in an urban poverty context you will find this a helpful challenge for you to step out of your comfort zone and start engaging with others. It also offers helpful insight into how younger generations feel that the church has failed them and how they envisage the kingdom of God and their role in it. 

Questions to reflect on:

When did you last step out of your comfort zone to help someone?

What stops you living a more radical or reckless life based on Kingdom values? 

How does your church encourage you to help those overlooked by society?

How do you define maturity in the Christian life?


What should I read next? please suggest more NZ authors for me to read and share about!


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