Peter Rollins’ Insurrection: Book Review & Talk in Belfast 5 September

image Peter Rollins’ forthcoming book Insurrection is an extended meditation on how our existing churches essentially teach us to deny the Resurrection of Christ.

As such, the book is a plea to reject the religion that Christianity has become. It’s a project that Rollins admits ‘can never be described as some project in constructive theology; it is a work of pyro-theology’ (xiii).

But there is much in Rollins’ Insurrection that is constructive: his call to live intentionally outside our churches’ ailing structures, to love those who are ‘other,’ and to create liturgical spaces that help us to authentically participate in the terrifying doubt of the crucifixion.

For Rollins, that’s how to live in light of Christ’s Resurrection.

There’s a chance to hear Rollins expand upon such themes in Belfast on Monday 5 September at 7.30 pm in the Black Box Café. The title of his talk is: ‘The Apocalypse isn’t Coming, it’s already Happened.’ On his website, Rollins says the talk will outline:

‘an alternative theological vision … that turns away from the actually existing church and outlines a faith that is not concerned with the question of life after death but rather with the possibility of life before death.’

Readers should visit Rollins’ Facebook page to RSVP for the talk.

Now back to Insurrection. The book is a not-so-subtle challenge to those of us who dare to call ourselves Christians to re-examine our faith, and – in the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer which precede the introduction – to ask,

Whether Religion is a Condition of Salvation?

Rollins sees his work as an extension of Bonhoeffer’s unfinished meditations on ‘religionless Christianity.’ And indeed, Insurrection is a not-so-subtle challenge to us to ask,

Would Christians be better off without our presently existing churches?

I don’t think it’s entirely clear from Insurrection quite how far Rollins would go in dismantling our present churches, although he does say in the introduction, “we must not be afraid to burn our sacred temples in order to discover what, if anything, remains.”

Perhaps it’s just me who is not ready to strike the matches just yet.

But what I found most compelling about the book was how it forced me to think about my own life. Insurrection cannot be reduced to a tirade against our churches.

It is not a litany of complaints from a disillusioned heretic bent on destruction of the church and led astray by the siren songs of psychoanalysis and post-modern philosophy, a conclusion I anticipate from some of Rollins’ critics.

At its best, Insurrection can lead readers to terrifyingly honest examinations of how we think and how we live, raising questions about what really matters to us.

For example, Insurrection includes Rollins’ analysis of our Facebook Selves (p. 93ff), in essence an idealized image of ourselves that we wish to present to the world. (You can hear Rollins speak about this in the clip below).

[Rollins on the Insurrection]

For Rollins, our conscious selves are like our Facebook Selves. We think our beliefs are who we are, but our true selves can be discovered not in what we think, but in how we act. This should prompt us to ask questions about ourselves:

  • How do I spend my time?
  • What would other people say are the most important things in my life?

Such questions can provoke some uncomfortable answers.

Doubt is also an important theme in Insurrection, signalled by the inclusion of Rollins’ website tagline on the cover of the book: To Believe is Human, to Doubt Divine.

Rollins has been developing ideas around doubt since his first book, How (Not) to Speak of God. In the interview below with Rob Bell, Rollins says that a ‘fundamental problem with my first book,’ is that while it encouraged people to embrace doubt, it didn’t really develop what it would mean to live authentically with these doubts.

[Rob Bell interviews Peter Rollins]

As Rollins explains in the chapter of Insurrection titled ‘I don’t have to Believe, My Pastor does that for Me,’ when people affirm that it is okay to doubt, it doesn’t necessarily lead to any changes in their behaviour. People still go along to church and sing songs and hear sermons that affirm belief, providing security that everything will be okay.

Rollins sees this as people using the structures of the church – the structures of religion – to prop themselves up.

This resonates with Bonhoeffer’s thesis that Christians have a created a ‘God of religion’ who functions more like a psychological crutch (or, to borrow a phrase I once heard from the pulpit, a cosmic vending machine) to give us what we want and to make us feel good about ourselves and our lives.

Rollins provides the example of Mother Teresa as someone who was able to ‘get rid of the need to believe’ (p. 76ff) and live as a Christian even though her private writings have now revealed how she spent most of her life ‘beneath the shadow of a profound sense of God’s absence’ (p. 77). Rollins writes (p. 77-78):

She never stopped believing in God or the central tenants of Christianity. In all of her public addresses and private conversations, she made constant references to these beliefs. The profound doubt she experienced was existential in nature. She experienced being cut off from God as a living presence outside the world and guaranteeing that everything was in order. In this way her life reflected the experience of Christ on the Cross, the cry which addressed God while simultaneously testifying to experiencing the absence of God. In this way her belief was not a security blanket that helped her avoid a confrontation with the experience of unknowing.

Mother Teresa continued to affirm God at an intellectual level, but she passed through the white-hot fires of forsakenness. She is, as such, a shining example of what it means to enter into the fundamental Christian event of Crucifixion.

Rollins is reconceptualising the crucifixion as our participation in the experience of Christ’s suffering. And a huge part of our participation in Christ’s suffering is embracing the experience of the absence of God.

Rollins’ theology of crucifixion is a far cry from finding the meaning of crucifixion in theologies of the substitutionary atonement.

Neo-Calvinists will find much in Rollins’ theology to disagree with. But I think the challenge to live as a Christian in the absence of God resonates with the experience of many today in the post-Christian West, our secular, post-Holocaust and still conflict-ridden world.

So if that is the meaning of the crucifixion for Rollins, what does he mean by the resurrection?

Resurrection means participation in the ‘insurrection,’ including taking radical responsibility for our own actions, and ‘changing the system by ignoring it’ (p. 150). Here the system can be understood as the world’s unjust political and economic systems – and the structures of our churches which in part uphold them. He writes (p. 151):

Do the activities we participate in as church act as token gestures or perverse protests that end up supporting the system they supposedly oppose? Could our prayer meetings and weekly involvement with social justice programs actually operate as a means of preventing us from changing how we spend our time and energy the rest of the week, enabling us to continue in careers that contribute to the very things we are praying against and acting in ways that contradict what we express in our Bible studies?

But there’s not much in Insurrection about what ignoring the system might involve. Insurrection leaves me asking, ‘what do I do?’

I have to admit that I am pretty much trapped in the systems Rollins describes. I’m also not Mother Teresa, and I don’t think many of us can or will live like she did.

That said, Rollins does allude to Kester Brewin’s adaptation of Hakim Bey’s ‘Pirate Islands’ as a model for Christian living. Pirate Islands operate ‘in the same way the ministries set up by Mother Teresa exist within a system and yet are distinct from it, paying no regard to the sectarian values that exist all around them’ (p. 151).

Rollins also writes of creating liturgical spaces that ‘reflect the experience of loss in the structure itself’ (p. 175). This is what Ikon, the Belfast-based collective with which Rollins has been involved, attempt to do in their gatherings.

As an example, Rollins includes the lyrics of Maranatha, a song written by Ikon’s Pádraig Ó Tuama. Rollins describes it as ‘not simply a song about suffering and the sense of cosmic homelessness’ but a song that is ‘sung from that space, remains within that space, and renders that space palpable’ (p. 177). You can listen to the song, and a story by Pádraig Ó Tuama, below.

[Pádraig Ó Tuama’s Maranatha]

Insurrection is written in an accesible style and the beginning of each chapter features one of Rollins’ trademark, thought-provoking parables.

Insurrection will be published on 4 October 2011. All quotations are from an advance copy of the book and page numbers may change in the final edition.

For any readers heading to Greenbelt, there will be a chance to learn more about the ideas explored here in talks by Rollins and Ó Tuama. Ikon will also be performing on Saturday at 9 in the big top.

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