Peter Rollins’ The Idolatry of God: Book Review – An Antidote for Black Friday?

idolatry“You can’t be satisfied, life is difficult, and you don’t know the secret.”

This quote is taken from the back cover of Peter Rollins’ latest book, The Idolatry of God: Breaking the Addiction to Certainty and Satisfaction (Hodder and Stoughton 2012). It’s a punchier summary of what he calls “the good news of Christianity”: “you cannot be fulfilled; you cannot be made whole; you cannot find satisfaction” (page 79).

At first glance, the quote seems to be a corrective to a rather common critique of contemporary Western Christianity, which is:

The churches have made God a commodity, attempting to “sell” him as an answer to all of life’s problems and anxieties. In a capitalistic, market-driven world, God is just one more product to satisfy our needs.

(This seems an appropriate message for today, the unofficial American holiday of “Black Friday,” during which retailers tempt people into their shops to consume even more “stuff” than usual.)

The Idolatry of God attempts to subvert the view of God as an object to be consumed, a kind of high-end Human Needs Fulfilling Product (my term).

As such, the argument at the heart of the book is that certainty and satisfaction are not what God promises and they are not what we should seek. Rollins puts it this way (page 4):

“For in the figure of Christ we are confronted with an atomic event that does not destroy the world, but rather one that obliterates the way in which we exist within the world. In concrete terms, this means that the darkness and dissatisfaction that make their presence felt in our lives are not finally answered by certainty and satisfaction, but are rather stripped of their weight and robbed of their sting.

Christianity, then, should release us from the chains we are in when relentlessly seek certainty and satisfaction – even (especially?) when we look for them in God. For Rollins, when we seek certainty and satisfaction in God we are in fact turning him into an “idol”, completely missing the point of Christianity.

The Idolatry of God can thus be considered a philosophical/theological guidebook on changing the way we live as Christians by redefining the ways we think about original sin, idolatry, sin, depravity, sacrifice and Christian universalism.

I think The Idolatry of God is significant in two main ways:

First, The Idolatry of God is a further contribution to the conversation – particularly within the Emerging Church Movement (ECM) – of what living out what Brian McLaren would call A New Kind of Christianity could look like.

As in his previous book, Insurrection, Rollins’ diagnosis of the inadequacies of contemporary church life is compelling. Especially within evangelicalism, the “seeker” or “attractional” models of church are not working, and (within almost all denominations) too much energy is spent trying to get people inside church buildings, warming the pews.

Once again, Rollins is saying that it is a mistake for churches to present themselves (and their God) as having pat answers to our problems or easy explanations for life’s difficult questions.

This is simply false advertising, and churches would be better owning up to that and guiding people through a process in which they can face these difficulties together, with a God that answers prayer not like a cosmic vending machine, but through demonstrating to us how to live through the example of Jesus’ life on earth.

As in his first book, How (Not) to Speak of God (SPCK 2006), Rollins outlines practical suggestions for what acting this out within a Christian community might look like. Likewise, the final section of The Idolatry of God, “The Enactment,” fleshes out his theoretical ideas with concrete examples from the Ikon collective in Belfast, including initiatives like The Last Supper, The Evangelism Project, Atheism for Lent, The Omega Course, and the “transformative art” practiced in regular Ikon gatherings.

(While this doesn’t address the observation that re-creating Ikon-like events might not be welcomed or considered possible by many Christians who share Rollins’ critique of modern churches, it is at least an attempt to offer some perspective on how some Christians might create “spaces” that nourish them in the midst of difficulties and doubt.)

Second, The Idolatry of God reveals the distance that Rollins (and others) within the ECM have travelled from theological concepts traditionally championed by modern evangelicalism and Reformed Protestantism.

Of course, Rollins’ thought could never have been mistaken for that of a modern evangelical or Reformed Protestant. But Rollins’ redefinitions of core theological concepts – original sin, idolatry, sin, depravity, sacrifice and Christian universalism – are an ever-clearer articulation of alternative ways for Christians to think about these ideas in an increasingly post-modern West.

Rollins’ redefinitions are influenced by postmodern philosophy and psycho-analysis, as well as by what Rollins understands as pre-modern Christian interpretations of these concepts. Brandan Robertson’s advance review of the book expounds on some of Rollins’ redefinitions, which I will not belabour here (indeed, that is what you should read the book yourself for!). Suffice to say that I anticipate that the most critical reviews of The Idolatry of God, from evangelicals and Reformed Protestants, will focus on pointing out why they think Rollins’ redefinitions are simply wrong.

Indeed, this could lead to a debate about The Idolatry of God similar to the debates about Rob Bell’s Love Wins, where evangelical and Reformed critics focused on his conceptualization of hell and branded him a universalist.

But the more meaningful debate should, I think, focus on whether or not Rollins’ articulation of what it could mean to live authentically as Christians in a world where most of us are addicted to consuming products (and more insidiously, other people and our God) offers a helpful – even hopeful – vision for our time.

While I find hope in the book, I don’t find easy answers. In this I concur with Brandan Robertson, who says:

This book, while deconstructing a lot of your faith, will likewise give new life to it. Peter Rollins is crazy. You cannot nail the guy down. But that is just what makes his works so effective and profound.

In writing The Idolatry of God, Rollins doesn’t want you to come away from it certain and satisfied, armed with pat answers about your faith. That, after all, would be missing the point of the book – and of Christianity.

2 Responses to Peter Rollins’ The Idolatry of God: Book Review – An Antidote for Black Friday?

  1. MM November 23, 2012 at 12:42 pm #

    “You can’t be satisfied, life is difficult, and you don’t know the secret.”

    “The churches have made God a commodity, attempting to “sell” him as an answer to all of life’s problems and anxieties. In a capitalistic, market-driven world, God is just one more product to satisfy our needs.”

    These quotes reminded me of the opening words of the best selling book “The Road Less Travelled” written almost 25 years ago by Scott Peck which I recently pulled off the shelf again. “Life is difficult. This is a great truth, one of the greatest truths. It is a great truth because once we truly see this truth, we transcend it. Once we truly know that life is difficult – once we truly understand and accept it – then life is no longer difficult. Because once it is accepted, the fact that life is difficult no longer matters.”

    As you comment, “Once again, Rollins is saying that it is a mistake for churches to present themselves (and their God) as having pat answers to our problems or easy explanations for life’s difficult questions.”

    People aren’t buying that any more. But we need to present an alternative. We need to provide the inspiration, the tools and the security of an accepting and inclusive community, that will equip people to live with difficulty and unanswerable questions (rather than easy and ultimately unsatisfactory wrong answers) . To say that life is difficult and for the most part a mystery, is not to say it does not have meaning, but it requires living it with courage, perseverance and faith.
    MM

  2. Sean Witty November 23, 2012 at 2:59 pm #

    Very well done, Gladys. Thank you.

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