Brief Book Review: The Art of Gathering

The Art of Gathering: How We Meet and Why It Matters
By Priya Parker

Who’s it for? According to Parker, The Art of Gathering is for those who want “to take an ordinary moment with others and make it unforgettable—and meaningful” (xiii). Liturgists (and those who plan parties with the belief that such gatherings can give us a glimpse of the feast to come) will find a few treasures of wisdom amidst a numbing, repetitive pattern of here’s-a-principle followed by one or more stories from the author’s experience. Skimming the book would the most fruitful approach.

Why is this book useful? Although the author’s examples primarily relate to the business world or personal gatherings, a thoughtful reader will be able to make connections with life in the church—both liturgical gatherings and those outside the liturgy. For example, her principle (“the kindness of exclusion”) in chapter 2 is primarily for “secular” gatherings, but in the Protestant world of “y’all are welcome at the table,” Parker’s cautions against “over-including” people could give parishes and denominations wrestling with this eucharistic trend some food for thought. [Pun intended.] When making the case to exclude some, she returns to the original purpose of the gathering, pointing out ways in which inclusivity can erode that purpose.

What will get you thinking? To illustrate the principle (and title of chapter 4), “Create a temporary alternative world,” Parker describes in detail the phenomenon of Dîner en Blanc, an annual event in many major cities around the world. That the Eucharist is the Church’s way of creating a temporary alternative world will not be lost on the reader, and the author’s commentary can open up the reader’s thinking about ways in which we’ve made this holy meal into something mundane and meaningless by obsessing over efficiency, hygiene, or narrow theological thinking. Keep in mind her mantra—that gatherings ought be unforgettable and meaningful—but don’t push the Dîner en Blanc analogy too far.

Applications: Parker uses some pithy phrases that translate well into an ecclesial world. For example, in chapter 3, she encourages hosts to practice “generous authority,” that is, to “run [a gathering] with a strong, confident hand, but … [to] run [it] selflessly, for the sake of others” (81). Such language can easily be applied to presiding at worship, to organizing a funeral lunch, and to leading all types of church meetings. The author also articulates three goals of the host which are easily applicable to Christian community: “protect your guests” (from boredom and technology); “equalize your guests”; and “connect your guests.”

For readers involved in adult catechumenate ministry, Parker’s language of “ushering” and “crossing thresholds” in chapter 5 will resonate deeply. Recognizing that some religious rituals function to “transition from one state to another” (167), her interlocutor on this subject is a performance artist, and Parker considers both physical and psychological ways that a host can “usher” guests across a threshold to a new experience. The chapter’s title, “Never start a funeral with logistics,” has made me rethink those ubiquitous announcements prior to a special/occasional liturgy.

In chapter 6, “Keep your best self out of my gathering,” the author makes a case for establishing a process in groups that encourages people to be authentic, to be their “real” selves. To accomplish an authentic ethos within a group, Parker encourages structuring an initial gathering in a way that allow people to be vulnerable with one another. She writes, “the whole point of this dinner is to try out another way of being together …” (221). Her words describe what living together as the Body of Christ means, that is, showing those obsessed with worldly success (wealth, beauty, youth, perfect job, family, etc.) the grace and freedom of “another way of being together”—as flawed and sinful people, yet redeemed and forgiven by Christ, who strive to honor the dignity of every person and serve their neighbor in need.

Parker, Priya. The Art of Gathering: How We Meet and Why It Matters. New York: Riverhead Books, 2018. 304 + xvi pages. $17.00. ISBN: 9781594634920.

REVIEWER: Rhoda Schuler
Professor Emerita, Concordia University, St. Paul, Minnesota

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