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

imageToday I continue my series on the work of Peter Rollins, in which I respond to some questions raised by a commentator called Monty on one of my earlier posts.

The post Monty was responding to was called ‘Is Peter Rollins on a Mission?’ I had characterised Rollins’ approach to mission as ‘anti-conversionism’ and said that I thought some Christians find this approach refreshing, a necessary corrective to the overbearing way in which some Western missionaries spread the faith.

I also noted that Rollins has argued that Christians themselves should be open to being ‘re-evangelised.’ For me the concept of re-evangelisation:

captures the idea that every cross-religious/cultural/ethnic/political/etc encounter can involve an exchange of gifts, rather than an assimilation of one into the other.

Finally, I wrote that Rollins’ vision of the church seems to be one in which “traditional ‘mission’ is rendered superfluous.” Citing Stanley Hauerwas, I said that this is a vision of the church ‘being the church.’

For me, ‘being the church’ is most immediately obvious in actions like caring for the needy and welcoming the stranger. The logic for me is if Christians really live out their faith in this way, Christianity itself becomes so attractive that others will want to be a part of it.

This approach is reminiscent of the quote usually attributed to St Francis:

‘Preach the gospel at all times. If necessary, use words.’

The part of Monty’s comment that responded to this most directly is:

By seeing mission purely as sociological and as an exchange of cultural / religious views, [Rollins] ignores the theological (pneumatological) dimension. Could traditional biblical mission not just be seen as the offering of the spiritual gift of life through Christ by one person to another in the power of the Spirit of grace and love? Why do we always have to imply that the cultural imperialistic interpretation is the right one?

I don’t think Rollins’ wider body of work sees mission as purely sociological or as an exchange of views. But the wider emerging church’s emphasis on ‘conversation’ can give the impression that the movement is endlessly and hopelessly dialogical.

Given the brevity of Monty’s post – which he says that he wrote quickly so it would be unfair to criticise him for this – it is not possible to know exactly what he means by ‘traditional biblical mission.’

There are a number of methods or approaches that could be considered traditional biblical mission, such as:

  • Preaching in the streets – Jesus’ disciples got this honoured method going, and it has a long tradition in church history, including 18th century evangelists such as John Wesley and George Whitefield and later outdoor stadium-fillers like Billy Graham
  • The preaching done in gospel halls and tent missions, so familiar in Protestant parts of Northern Ireland and in the American South, that emphasises the need to be ‘saved’ or ‘born again’
  • Traditional catechismal approaches to religious education, as practiced by the Roman Catholic Church and some Protestant denominations

I think it’s safe to say that Rollins (and others within the emerging church movement) are reacting against a brand of ‘conversionism’ (if I can call it that) which is prominent in both Northern Irish and American evangelicalism.

This ‘brand’ is a threatening, fire-brand type of conversionism that declares ‘ye must be born again’, urging sinners to repent or face hell-fire. The way that many in the emerging church movement see this type of conversionism is exemplified in Rob Bell’s Love Wins, in which he describes himself as appalled by a Christian’s proclamation that Gandhi was at that moment in hell (p. 2-3), and chilled by the photograph of a painting hanging in his grandmother’s house (p. 20-21). Bell’s description of the painting is:

… in the center of the picture is a massive cross, big enough for people to walk on. It hangs suspended in space, floating above an ominous red and black realm that threatens to swallow up whoever takes a wrong step. The people in the picture walking on the cross are clearly headed somewhere – and that somewhere is a city. A gleaming, bright city with a wall around it and lots of sunshine.

Rollins’ satirical Chick tract, ‘The Rapture,’ also critiques this type of conversionism. You can watch a video version of  ‘The Rapture’ here.

Indeed, there are good reasons for the emerging church movement to react against this form of conversionism. For instance, its proponents tend to focus on ‘getting people saved’ at the expense of helping them to live as Christ after this happens. I’m not saying Monty would fall into this category.

Rather, my point is that I don’t think you can understand Rollins, or the wider emerging church movement, without grasping that most people involved in it are almost always at some level critiquing this type of evangelism.

They think that it does not really work, and in its worst forms they see it as inhumane, psychological manipulation.

But Monty raises another interesting point in this comment – about the role of the Spirit (or its lack of a role) in Rollins’ work.

He asks:

    • Could traditional biblical mission not just be seen as the offering of the spiritual gift of life through Christ by one person to another in the power of the Spirit of grace and love?
    • Why do we always have to imply that the cultural imperialistic interpretation is the right one?

There are of course historical examples of people and communities converting to Christianity, even in the face of the cruellest treatment by those ‘preaching the gospel.’

American historian Mark Noll, writing about the conversion of African slaves in the American colonies, unapologetically says the Holy Spirit must have played a role in this. Noll sees the Holy Spirit at work despite the actions of missionaries – hardly a ringing endorsement – and a warning to Christians today.

But we also have to consider the more positive spin that is implied by Monty’s question – that some, indeed many missionaries, offer ‘the spiritual gift of life through Christ by one person to another in the power of the Spirit of grace and love’ – without any cultural imperialism thrown in.

Monty’s questions have clarified for me that Rollins is indeed fairly ‘light’ on the Holy Spirit. From my reading of his wider body of work there is not much (obvious) place for the Holy Spirit in it at all – save perhaps in his earlier work (such as How (Not) to Speak of God, where God at times seems hyper-present in a mystical, spiritual way). I am willing to be corrected on this by other readers who have a different take.

In fact in his later work I think Rollins is more influenced by psychoanalysis, raising questions about how we can fool or delude ourselves in our so-called experiences of or encounters with God.

I don’t think an examination of psychoanalysis necessarily has to ‘push out’ the Holy Spirit, but it means a lot of questions about the Holy Spirit just don’t get raised.

And given that in our day the fastest-growing expression of Christianity is the ‘Spirit-filled’ Pentecostal and charismatic forms dominant in the global south, Monty’s point about the lack of a role for the Holy Spirit (in mission and more widely) is an interesting observation. It raises questions about how the emerging church movement might fit into this wider context.

My own hunch, based on my observations and reading, is that there are connections between the development of charismatic Christianity and the emerging church. These just needed to be teased out further.

I close with a few quick examples which point me in the direction of connection:

  • In my own research on Northern Irish evangelicalism, I vividly remember interviewing a person involved with Ikon who had come from a charismatic background. He said that for him, in this form of Christianity you were expected to ‘experience God by falling over on the ground, and if you didn’t do this, something was wrong with you.’ His participation in Ikon was away to experience God without that pressure.
  • In Gibbs and Bolger’s book, Emerging Churches: Creating Christian Communities in Postmodern Cultures, Rollins is interviewed about his Christian journey. He relates how he also was previously involved in a charismatic church, sharing a story about how his own conversion (if we may call it that!) was linked to the prayers of people in the church.
  • In his new book, Naked Spirituality, Brian McLaren also shares his own charismatic experiences of the Holy Spirit – which he often seems to remember fondly and in a positive light.

(Image from Peter Rollins’ ‘The Rapture’)

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