The Challenge of Living out Pyrotheology in the Real World: Peter Rollins’ Tricks of the Light Festival

tricksoflightgladysLast week I spoke and participated at ‘Tricks of the Light,’ a festival curated by Peter Rollins in Belfast. Many readers of this blog are familiar with Rollins’ theological work, which he has characterised as ‘pyrotheology.’

One of my talks was titled ‘The Challenge of Living out Pyrotheology in the Real World, which I produce in part below. It draws heavily on the book I wrote with Gerardo Marti, The Deconstructed Church: Understanding Emerging Christianity.

I have five copies of the book available for the special festival price of £15 (it’s £23 on amazon). Email me at if you live in Ireland or the UK and would like to purchase a copy.

The Challenge of Living out Pyrotheology in the Real World

As a sociologist of religion, I’m interested in the way that religion functions in the world around us. That means asking questions like this: How does religion impact on people’s personal identities? What sort of effect does religion have on people’s social or political lives? Much of my work in the sociology of religion has been concerned with providing answers, or at least perspectives, on those questions.

I’m going to speak today about “the challenge of living out pyrotheology in the real world,” using my sociological research to provide some perspective on whether all the ideas that are floated around in the radical theology conversation, or even the emerging church conversation, actually make a difference.

Much of what I say today will draw on a book I wrote with Gerardo Marti, The Deconstructed Church: Understanding Emerging Christianity, which was published last year (2014). In particular, it draws on a chapter we titled “Following Jesus in the Real World.” That title was a direct quote from one of the people we interviewed for the book, to describe what a Christian organisation he had been involved with wanted to do. It captures the intent and earnestness of many in this wider movement or conversation. For them, what matters is the way they live their everyday lives outside of “official” church spaces. This has been identified as a shift in emphasis from “orthodoxy” (right belief) to “orthopraxis” (right practice).[1]

But before I launch in too deeply, I want to acknowledge that people like Peter Rollins or Kester Brewin aren’t located easily on the Emerging Christian spectrum. In our book, Gerardo and I include Pete and Kester in our discussion of Emerging Christianity – and I think we have good sociological reasons for doing so. But we also acknowledge that they are on the radical fringes of the emerging conversation. I think their ideas, and the full implications of them, are not always grasped by others we can identify with the emerging church, especially in North America.

So when I speak today I will be making explicit and at times implicit distinctions between the wider emerging conversation, Pete’s project of pyrotheology, and radical theology more generally. But my main point isn’t to delve too deeply into the content of the ideas, or the theories, of these particular approaches. It is to rather offer perspectives on if or how such ideas are being worked out empirically and sociologically – in the “real world,” as it were. All the Emerging Christians we spoke with in our research wanted to “make a difference.” But I remain unsure whether they are doing a “better job” at this than other religious or secular groups, no matter how earnest they may be about it.

In her forthcoming book, Radical Theology and Emerging Christianity, Katharine Sarah Moody offers a compelling philosophical and theological analysis of how John D. Caputo’s deconstructive theology and Slavoj Žižek’s materialist theology has influenced the work of Pete and Kester – in particular, how the outworking of Caputo and Žižek’s ideas in Rollins and Brewin might result in real world a/theistic or ir/religious “fighting collectives” that could have wider political impacts. My reading of Moody is that she is convinced that the theory can and should work on the ground. But she admits we are still searching for evidence. In the concluding sentence of her book, she recommends that further study “address the question of how far individuals and collectives within the emerging church conversation are willing and able to go in drawing the full implications – political as well as theological – of naming their work radical theology.”

By way of contrast, Josh Packard, whose book The Emerging Church is a sociological study, concludes that Emerging Christians just don’t seem to be making much of a difference[2]. He writes:

One measure of a movement, especially a religious one, might be in asking “If this group disappeared, would anyone outside the group care…or even notice?”  With the ECM, I think the answer is a resounding, “No,” or at best “Maybe.”  Although this disappoints the people I talk(ed) with, they don’t deny it.  If they’re doing a different kind of church than institutional church, then they feel like they need to be doing different kinds of service as well, but at the end of the day, just don’t.

In a subtle contrast to Packard, Gerardo and I wrote about how some Emerging Christians choose lifestyles that they see as inherently political, believing that this is the best way for them to live out their Christianity. For them, Jesus’ mission was a political one on behalf of the poor and marginalized, so they seek to emulate Jesus by identifying with disadvantaged communities, or working for peace and reconciliation.

We explored the different ways Emerging Christians are trying to live out their ideals. Today I want to explore four of those ways:

  • Through conventional political engagement,
  • Forming neo-monastic communities,
  • Creating Temporary Autonomous Zones (TAZs) or “suspended spaces,” and
  • Career choices.

In these ways, some Emerging or Radical (if you prefer that moniker) Christians are taking up the challenge of living out pyrotheology in the real world.

(Here I included a number of examples of these ‘four ways’ from The Deconstructed Church)

So What? In describing these three ways, I have provided some empirical evidence of how Emerging or radical Christians are living in the real world. And I have no doubt that on a small scale they are “making a difference” in some lives – both Gerardo and I saw evidence of that. But we saw less evidence that these examples could be religiously, socially and politically transformative in the ways I think many of you, of us, dream about.

Erin spoke yesterday about her experiences in what Gerardo and I might have called a neo-monastic community. She used the metaphor of being at the ocean’s edge, kneeling and planting a flower – all the while aware of the futility of it. There was a certain poignancy about the futility of the gesture, yet, she said – we do it anyway. And that’s the whisper of something beyond us

From a sociological perspective, Emerging or radical Christians are limited by their small size (both the small size of their communities and their small numbers in the wider religious landscapes of Europe and North America); and the limited resources that are part and parcel of being small in number. But their ability to discursively “frame” their critiques and ideas in relation to wider Christian traditions – thus prompting those who are open to those critiques to action; and to scale up their efforts by forming networks with each other (both electronic and geographical) are sociological strengths. If the sociology of religion can shed any light on how pyrotheology is to meet the challenge of the real world, it is to recommend focusing on those strengths.

[1] McKnight (2007).

[2] Packard, personal email communication, June 20, 2013.

Photo by Carlos Vergara — used with thanks.

One thought on “The Challenge of Living out Pyrotheology in the Real World: Peter Rollins’ Tricks of the Light Festival”

  1. In essence we need to re-inter ‘Christ’ and resurrect Jesus.

    ‘Christ’ is an Egypto-pagan concept borrowed by Paul and his associates, Mark, Matthew and Luke to invent ‘Christianity’ as a religion, if ‘Christianity’ did not already exist as a subversive anti-Roman political movement which needed a ‘messiah’ to initiate an uprising.

    The term ‘Christian’ (aspirant followers of an anticipated anointed dynast with messianic qualities) is no longer relevant in the political sense and inappropriate in any religious sense. A more appropriate label for those from the Abrahamic traditions seeking a post-religious ‘Way’ might be ‘Jesuan’ (followers or aspirant followers of the social teachings attributed to Jesus, although many of those teachings can be found in earlier religions and social codes).

    Religion contains theology and sociology. Theological speculation is surmise, unproveable and socially irrelevant. It should be kept personal and private. Sociological issues are factual, public and very relevant. Moses’ Ten Commandments were written on two separate tablets of stone. The larger one dealt with social issues. The smaller one referred to a very simple concept of ‘God’. Each of the tablets could stand alone.

    In a post-religious, post-Christian era we need a commonly agreed social code. That code can be based on the teachings attributed to Jesus and teachers from other traditions irrespective of theological preferences.

    Dennis Golden

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