Peter Rollins, Belfast native and a founding member of the Ikon Christian collective, returned to his native city last night for a talk titled ‘The Apocalypse isn’t Coming, it’s already Happened.’ Rollins has been living in the United States for the last couple of years, establishing himself as a popular author, speaker and voice in the ‘emerging church’ or ‘emergent’ Christian conversation.
Last night was a chance for Rollins to showcase some of his latest thought, much of which is elaborated in his forthcoming book Insurrection. I recently reviewed an advance copy of Insurrection, which will be published on 4 October.
In my book review, I wrote about how Rollins redefines terms like crucifixion and resurrection. Last night he was doing the same for apocalypse.
For Rollins, the four horsemen of the book of Revelation aren’t the sign that the apocalypse is upon us. Rather, the apocalypse is something that totally re-creates us, and in the process, completely transforms the actually existing church.
I attempted to video record Rollins’ talk (those of you who were there can attest to my fancy tripod). But since this was my first go with a new camera, I got the lighting all wrong and I don’t feel the quality of the image is good enough to include in this post.
I would urge those of you who are interested to get your hands on a copy of Insurrection when it’s published, because last night’s talk touched on many of the same themes as the book. Rollins even shared some of the same parables that he includes in the book.
But there were some aspects of the talk which stood out for me, either because it was new material, or because of the way Rollins put it on the night. They include:
We have made God a Product.
Rollins described church life this way: God is the latest product, church is the shop, the clergy are the salespeople, and the worship songs are the sales jingles. Rollins said that we have set God up as a type of idol, a being ‘out there’ that can be counted on to affirm us and make us feel good about ourselves. We also convince ourselves that God uniquely favours our group or ‘tribe’, providing ourselves with a master narrative that justifies our supposed supremacy or specialness over and against others.
We need to Shift our Perspective on Love.
Rollins said that the good news of the resurrection is that God is in our midst, through our love. He offered three perspectives on thinking about love:
1. It is not appropriate to say that Love exists. He said that in philosophy ‘to exist’ means to stand out or apart from. But Christian Love calls everything into existence, and allows us to see the loved one not as an instrument but as a fellow, beloved human.
2. Love is not beautiful, sublime or wonderful. Loves says that a person is beautiful, sublime and wonderful. Rollins said that Love is humble and does not draw attention to itself, rather it illuminates others.
3. Love is not meaningful, it brings meaning into the world. Rollins said that when you are in love, you can’t help but experience life as meaningful. Love, then, is what saves us from a meaningless existence.
There are of course shades of I Corinthians 13 in Rollins’ three points. But while this passage of Scripture is often read at weddings, it’s not so easily lived out day-to-day.
If You Accept your Darkness, it Begins to Dissipate.
I didn’t attend Greenbelt this year. But I asked a friend who was going, and had never been to an Ikon event, to check out their Greenbelt performance and tell me what he thought. (Last week, I wrote a blog post reconstructing Ikon’s Greenbelt performance.)
Although we haven’t had a conversation about it yet, my friend sent me a text message that said he found Ikon interesting, but he didn’t see much hope for ‘redemption’ in the performance. That made me chuckle, because that is probably a pretty fair assessment of Ikon – he is not the first to notice their ‘darkness.’
During a period of questions after Rollins’ talk, he was asked what hope there was in what could seem to be an unrelentingly dark vision. Rollins denied that his is a pessimistic position, arguing that if people accept the darkness that is in their life, it begins to dissipate. For him, this is infinitely preferable to pretending the darkness isn’t there.
A central theme of Rollins talk and of Insurrection is that churches pretend that the darkness just isn’t there, trying to cover it up through their upbeat worship songs and insisting that if people just pray hard enough and have enough faith, they will be happy.
Church Should be a Desert in the Oasis.
Rollins said he thought church should in part be a ‘desert in the oasis,’ one place where people are free to feel their brokenness and to be honest about it. He said that ideally one hour a week in church should bring to the surface the darkness that is within people. He added that this should happen with the mutual support of community — entering this dark space should not be done alone. He said that every worship band should include at least one ‘break up song,’ and that local Christian gatherings would do well to embrace the sorrow that is expressed in the mournful tunes of singer-songwriters.
But Can Our Presently Existing Church Institutions be Transformed?
This was a question that came from Gareth Higgins, another Northern Irish Christian thinker who was back in Belfast for a short visit before returning to his new home in the US. Rollins finally said that he didn’t know, and explained that he thought that one obstacle to transformation was that people got too much pleasure from tapping into the feel-good vibes that churches in their present form can produce – at least for the short term. (Rollins illustrated this through a comic story of a game played by British soldiers and Irishmen in a Northern Irish bar during the Troubles – a tale I won’t spoil for you, since it is included in Insurrection.)
That’s a huge question within the wider ‘emerging’ conversation. I don’t think there’s any one answer to it either, because clearly some expressions of the Christian church look much more like the churches Rollins critiques than others. Rollins even said that Quakers and some Christians from more liturgically minded churches (Catholic, Anglican, Orthodox) are more enthusiastic about what he’s been saying – because what he says isn’t too far from what some of their best thinkers have been saying, in different ways, for centuries.