Do You Understand Peter Rollins? Responding to Monty and the Talk in the Black Box

Over the past few weeks, I’ve written a series of posts in response to Monty. He had commented on one of my posts about the work of Peter Rollins. You can check out the various issues covered in previous posts here, but today I deal with his final concern: that Peter Rollins is just too difficult to understand. Monty wrote:

Rollins’s stiff sounds clever in the academy, but surely the real test is how it washes with the common woman or man. This was the genius of Christ and his ability to communicate with a Doctor of Divinity Nicodemus and an outcast woman in close succession. I don’t think I would be able to represent Rollins accurately to most of my congregation, but then again, I’m not sure I would want to. He may offer some tasty bites to a certain subgroup of disillusioned and cynical cognoscenti, but I don’t see him offering any “real food”- or hope- to the vast majority of hungry souls we deal with every day.

I can see where Monty is coming from on this point, because I’ve heard others say they found it difficult to grasp his ideas. Once, after Rollins had delivered a public lecture where I work – the Irish School of Ecumenics – one of my master’s students said to me:

‘that was great, but I’m not sure I understood what he said!’

Rollins is a charismatic speaker and enthusiastic about his topics, so I think my student’s comment that the talk was ‘great’, was in some way a response to Rollins’ enthusiasm. I also think it was a response to the many thought-provoking gems that Rollins scatters throughout his talks.

But if you are looking for a three-point sermon, or a set of power point slides that delivers an argument in a sequential, step-by-step format, you won’t get it from Rollins.

And if master’s students, who are relatively firmly embedded in the ‘academy,’ have some difficulty with Rollins, what hope for the rest of us?

In his review of Rollins’ talk at the Black Box in Belfast on Sunday evening, blogger Alan in Belfast (his post includes audio of the talk) makes his lack of understanding a major theme of his post:

It’s difficult to summarise Pete’s talk.

Therein lies a problem. No matter how good his critique of the repeating plot structure of Laurel and Hardy is … and no matter how many broad generalisations are thrown in (“we find a way to domesticate any voice that offends us”, “my thesis is that deep down most of us know that most of it [conventional Christian belief] is a bit rubbish”, “when you love someone you experience them as a universe yet to explore”), I can’t follow the thread of his argument from one end of the talk to the other (nor from one end of a book to the other).

[The honourable exception to this rule is Pete’s book of parables –The Orthodox Heretic: And Other Impossible Tales – which are simple and superb.]

To Pete, my inability to comprehend may be failure.* To me, it’s not. Part of my problem is that single lines float out from Pete’s narrative that make my mind scuttle off to think, losing track of what he goes on to argue in the process. (*Unless he just puts it down to my stupidity.)

Alan in Belfast is of course neither a failure nor stupid – he’s one of the more intelligent bloggers on this island on a range of social, political and religious issues. Alan goes on to write that having your own views challenged, and being forced to think in a different way, are some of the main benefits of trying to engage with Rollins’ work.

I’m an academic social scientist, not a philosopher or a theologian, and I also find Rollins’ work challenging – but in a good way. My series of posts over the last month or so has been my attempt to work out my understanding of what Rollins is saying.

I think I can follow the arguments in Rollins books, though they do vary in their accessibility. Not counting Rollins’ book of parables, which is very accessible, I think his latest, Insurrection, is the most accessible, followed by How (Not) to Speak of God and finally, The Fidelity of Betrayal.

But Rollins’ arguments, both in books and in lectures, are delivered in what might be called a post-modern style – through stories and examples and reflections on philosophical or psycho-analytical ideas. This is not the so-called ‘rational’ step-by-step argumentation that many students or people in the pews listening to sermons, have come to expect.

I think there is a reason behind this, and that is that Rollins’ doesn’t think the world works in such a rational, step-by-step way. His more impressionistic, circular, and perhaps roundabout way of making his points reflects that.

I have a hunch that Rollins doesn’t want us to leave a lecture or finish a book thinking that we have understood everything. He wants us to go away and start thinking more for ourselves.

For me the more serious points raised by Monty and by Alan in Belfast are:

For Monty – whether Rollins’ ideas can give people hope:

He may offer some tasty bites to a certain subgroup of disillusioned and cynical cognoscenti, but I don’t see him offering any “real food”- or hope- to the vast majority of hungry souls we deal with every day.

and for Alan – whether Rollins’ neglects the life and example of Jesus:

Strangely, there’s little talk about encountering Jesus. Other than the cross, Jesus life and example doesn’t get much of a mention.

I can only speak for myself when I say that Rollins’ wider body of work has been helpful for me as a Christian. It’s comforting to know that you are not alone in your critiques of the contemporary churches, including their sins and failures. I think it is inherently hopeful to identify the weaknesses of Christian institutions, as that is the first step in addressing them and changing them for the better.

Rollins’ work has also encouraged me to take more personal responsibility for how I live, as he sees this as more important than working out exactly what you believe.

I would link Rollins’ emphasis in his wider work on how to live, to ‘Jesus’ life and example’. Rollins may not have spoken a lot about ‘Jesus’ life and example’ in his recent talk.

But now that I am pushed to think about it, how to live like Jesus – religion-less Christianity, in the Bonheoffer-inspired term Rollins often uses – seems to me to be one of the major themes of Rollins’ work.

Posts in the Series

The Series that Started the Series

What Troubles you about Peter Rollins? Towards an Assessment Part I

What’s Liberating about Peter Rollins? Towards an Assessment Part II

Do you Identify with Peter Rollins? Towards an Assessment Part III

Is Peter Rollins on a Mission? Towards an Assessment Part IV

The Second Series

Is Peter Rollins a Universalist? – Responding to Monty Part I

Peter Rollins and Being ‘In Christ’ – Responding to Monty Part II

Peter Rollins and the Holy Spirit – Responding to Monty Part III

2 Responses to Do You Understand Peter Rollins? Responding to Monty and the Talk in the Black Box

  1. Lyle Taffs January 12, 2012 at 10:48 am #

    Well done Gladys. I think it is fair to say that Pete is walking new territory and in a sense is himself in a perpetual state of ‘surprise’ with the things he articulates. This is certainly not to suggest that he is making it up as he goes. To me, Pete’s greatest value comes from his preparedness to deconstruct the ‘religion of empire’ that we have been born into and go on to ask the question ‘what will faith look like in a pomo world in which the church has a major image and credibility problem?’ In this prophetic role he has much to offer. My belief is that he also has the ability to synthesize new directions. In this regard, I have asked him on Facebook to give some thoughts about what he feels his proposed New York ‘community’ will ‘look’ like – and I won’t be happy with any trite or predictable answers. I would love to write more but I am still ‘lost at sea’ and restricted to my phone.

    All the best for 2012.

    Lyle

  2. Alan in Belfast January 18, 2012 at 12:24 pm #

    Gladys – good post.

    > I have a hunch that Rollins doesn’t want us to leave a lecture or finish a book thinking that we have understood everything. He wants us to go away and start thinking more for ourselves.

    I share your hunch. I think he deliberately avoids simplifying the message in order to make people have to intellectually engage with it, and to prevent the ideas being subject to lazy critique and being batted away with cheap arguments.

    But there must be a Master’s dissertation for someone in picking apart the progression of the Rollins’ arguments in his talks and books over the years.

    PS: We forgot to reference the very accessible tract he produced a year or two ago. I still have a couple somewhere. Should really leave them on the leaflet table in church for badness!!

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