Back at Christmas time, I reviewed Peter Rollins’ latest book, The Orthodox Heretic and Other Impossible Tales. With the traditional Christian season of Lent nearly upon us, Rollins’ publisher Paraclete Press has released seven additional parables, available to all those who have purchased the book.
Rollins’ tales are short and sometimes cryptic. In the book, he urges readers to digest them slowly, contemplatively, rather than rushing from one story to the next. With tidy symbolism, the seven new parables plus the 33 in the book bring the total available to 40 – one for every day of Lent. That gives you an entire day to ponder a single parable, or to discuss it with others.
Several years ago, Rollins’ organised a book group in Belfast for the Lenten season, cheekily dubbed ‘Atheism for Lent.’ The reading matter was Merold Westphal’s Suspicion and Faith: The Religious Uses of Modern Atheism, and its message was that people of faith could learn a lot from atheists like Freud, Marx and Nietzsche, and their quite valid critiques of what Christianity has become. That is, Christianity is an often irrelevant faith that gives people a false hope in a heaven to come, without caring for their immediate physical and emotional needs.
In the seven new parables, God (the voice of) makes just one guest appearance (in ‘The Disabled Fox). The other six tales tell the stories of prophets, holy men, grieving mothers, kings and fishermen.
In these parables, Rollins focuses on the nitty-gritty sorrows and puzzles of everyday life, with God mostly operating on the fringes (in ‘Better to Sleep’) or seemingly absent altogether (in five of the parables). By doing this, it seems Rollins is trying to bring Christianity back to its Jesus-movement roots, and away from the other-worldly focus that has been lambasted by modern atheism. Rollins’ tales tell us that Christianity is not a Get out of Hell Free card or an anti-depressant to soothe our own anxieties; rather it is a fully incarnated faith whose people should have compassion for others in the here and now.
I was glad to see in the new parables, ‘The Debate,’ a dialogue between a rabbi and an eager young student. It is a favourite of mine which I have heard Rollins share in some public talks in Belfast.
Without giving away the story, I’ll just say that it is a bracing antidote to those who think they have the answers already. It also suggests that the big questions in life might not change – but that the answers just might.
To get a sense of what Rollins’ tales are like, you can listen to the reading of ‘The Pearl of Great Price,’ recently broadcast on BBC Radio 4’s ‘Something Understood.’