Trinity College Dublin’s Belfast campus (the Irish School of Ecumenics) will host a conference called ‘Re-emergence: The Church is Dead, Long Live the Church’, 16-18 March 2010. It will feature input by Phyllis Tickle, Dave Tomlinson and Peter Rollins. The event marks the launch of the ‘Insurrection’ tour, and is as yet its only UK/Ireland date.
Tickle, Tomlinson and Rollins have written extensively on how Christianity in the West is negotiating secular and post-modern contexts. All are popular authors on both sides of the Atlantic and spaces at the conference are filling up fast (register your interest here). A major theme of the conference is rethinking what it means to be part of the body of Christ today, or as Rollins might put it, disciples of Christ in a world after the death of God.
The conference website suggests that the questions raised may have ‘the power to spark a rupturing and re-imagining of the present configuration of Christianity…’
If these authors’ previous works are anything to go by, the conference will indeed pose questions that cast serious doubts on modern interpretations of Christianity, as well as on any preconceived ideas about the nature of God.
I found out how disconcerting some of those ideas and questions can be when I attempted to write a review of Rollins’ book, The Fidelity of Betrayal: Towards a Church Beyond Belief, for an evangelical magazine.
The review was never published. As far as I can tell, the editors disagreed with Rollins’ perspectives and wanted me – writing for an evangelical audience – to do likewise. It seemed they wanted the review to be more ‘pastoral’ – to tell its readers what people should think about Rollins’ questions, doubts and ideas.
But for me that’s not the point of Rollins’ work – the point is that people should be free to consider all the questions that he raises, and encouraged to make their minds up for themselves.
As we get closer to the Re-emergence conference, I will be reviewing some books by the featured speakers. Below is my original review of Rollins’ book.
Paraclete Press & SPCK, 2008
164 pp., $19.95
This book by Peter Rollins, founder of the Northern Ireland-based Ikon community, poses a direct challenge to evangelical beliefs and ways of engaging the world. In The Fidelity of Betrayal: Towards a Church Beyond Belief, Rollins offers up a theology that questions evangelicals’ assumptions about how the Bible should be read, how truth should be understood, and what this means for Christians.
Since the publication of Rollins’s first book, How (Not) to Speak of God (2006), Ikon has received considerable attention on both sides of the Atlantic. In his book What Would Jesus Deconstruct?, American philosopher John Caputo cites Ikon as an example of what Christianity looks like in a post-modern context. He hints that churches that refuse to understand and operate within the post-modern milieu may become increasingly irrelevant.
Evangelicals are typically sceptical of post-modernism, especially when its approach to truth or to the place of Christ in a world of many faiths seems relativistic. Some may dismiss Rollins’s work as just another example of relativism in a theological guise, designed to justify a move away from the gospel. Rollins even writes in a post-modern style consisting of short sections of parables intertwined with paradoxes, which is sometimes jarring and interrupts his overall line of thought. His interpretations of biblical narratives are provocative, if not startling. For instance, Rollins does not accept the commonly held view that Judas was greedy and evil in betraying Jesus. Rather, he considers four alternative readings of the texts, raising the possibility that Judas’ betrayal might have been an act of faith.
This discussion, coming in the first chapter, sets up the defining argument of the book: Christianity is not a set of beliefs about God, but a critique of all religion. It is especially a critique of religions that align themselves with social and political power. The central task of Christians, then, is to interrogate their own religious beliefs and institutions, with an emphasis on discerning how they exclude or oppress the poor and the outcasts.
Because biblical authority is crucial for evangelicals, Rollins’ discussion of the “Word of God” is significant (p. 41-62). Unlike many emerging church leaders, Rollins does not name evangelicalism in his critique of ‘modern’ approaches to the inerrancy of scripture. But Rollins takes issue with a common evangelical approach to apparent inconsistencies in biblical texts: explaining them away, a la Gleason Archer’s 450-page Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties. He also notes the approach of fundamentalists’ foes, the modernists, who conceded the full divinity of the Scriptures in light of criticism.
Rollins argues that there is an alternative approach. It involves accepting the ‘inconsistencies’ in the Bible as windows into the mystery of God. They are ‘holes’ that testify to events that are greater than any words on a page, words which up till now readers might have assumed were attempts at factual description. He urges Christians to reject any reading of the Bible as final, and to wrestle continually with the meaning of its texts. This is why Rollins does not advocate a single interpretation of the Judas story, saying that it is better to be open to competing interpretations of the text. The implications of this rather elastic approach to scripture are not entirely clear in Rollins’s work. His approach implies that it is difficult, if not impossible, to have confidence in what the Bible reveals about God, Christ, the Holy Spirit, and the church. Rollins does not really acknowledge this difficulty, and the reader can be left wondering if he considers the scriptures a reliable foundation for faith and action, or a collection of stories for helping people to imagine God in different ways.
Rollins takes a similar approach in his critique of the modern Western way of approaching truth–i.e truth as an object that can be discovered, analyzed and comprehended. Rollins believes this approach creates too much distance between believers and the source of their faith, gives scholars and theologians too much power to determine truth, leads to the separation of knowledge and practice, and reduces Christianity to a set of comforting claims that make us feel good about ourselves.
Rollins’ contends that truth is like the Eastern concept of Enlightenment, in which a person’s whole orientation is changed. Truth is embodied in believers and in their responses to God. Does this conception of truth give individual experience precedence over the articles of faith handed down over generations? Experience does trump doctrine in Rollins work. He does not regard many of the traditional Christian articles of faith as factual statements; rather he judges their value by how they motivate people to love one another. Rollins’s concern is that articles of faith have at times helped to create a proud caste of Christians who claim knowledge of God, but actually have limited experience of the divine. This is undoubtedly a valid observation on his part. But his view raises important questions about the nature of the relationship between human beliefs and actions. For example, does a belief that articles of faith are factually true provide a greater motivation for people to engage in social action, as seem to be the case for many who were involved in historical movements to end slavery and to extend civil rights to African Americans?
Finally, Rollins describes Christians as people who embrace uncertainty while affirming that they have experienced a divine intervention that is in the process of transforming their lives. He advocates communities that set aside differences and create space for what are often uncomfortable reflections on Scripture, on the relationship between faith and power, and on their relationships with the ‘poor’ or the ‘enemy’. This ‘space’ where people can explore their faith is where the ‘church beyond belief’ is located. In this book, Rollins does not tell us much about what he thinks that space could or should look like. His prior book, which includes descriptions of Ikon meetings, provides a better picture of that. In Ikon’s uncertain space, people draw on a wide range of artistic, philosophical, mystical and Christian influences to express their religious experience – a practice that speaks to and reflects post-modernity. There is a comfortableness with uncertainty and ambiguity here that encourages intellectual and spiritual humility. But it is hard to imagine that a church (or at least church institutions as we know them) based on uncertainty could be sustainable over time.
Critics of the emerging church claim that its theologies dodge hard questions about truth and Christ. In a sense they do, and this is precisely the point. Readers looking for Rollins to address some of these questions will be disappointed. He acknowledges such questions, but argues that they do not lead to meaningful Christian engagement within contemporary Western society. So he wants to ask different questions, hard questions about how we approach the Bible, truth, and religion. Herein we find a valuable critique of some of evangelicalism’s shortcomings and excesses. Rollins’s questions also can help us to see why people operating within a post-modern context find some of evangelicalism’s core concerns irrelevant.
It may frustrate some readers that Rollins does not provide clear answers to most of the questions he raises. He seems content with laying out competing options and inviting the reader to decide. Ultimately, The Fidelity of Betrayal asks if applying alternative approaches to the Bible, truth and religion can help people to be more Christ-like. These are important questions. We are left without a definitive answer.