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

image Not long ago I received an email from Ben Aldous, a master’s student at Redcliffe College and the Reverend in charge of the Mission Portfolio at St Martin’s Church in Durban, South Africa.

Aldous asked me to respond to a few questions for the dissertation he is writing entitled, ‘Roots, Shoots and Fruits: Towards an assessment of the work of Peter Rollins.’

He asked for ‘some comments that would be used only in my paper (which is unlikely to be published)’ around four questions:

  1. What troubles you most about Rollins’ work or ideas?
  2. What do you find most liberating or freeing about his writing/thoughts?
  3. How much do you identify with his work personally?
  4. Please comment on negative or positive missiological concerns that you feel Rollins provokes. What do you make of Rollins’ typical deconstructive notion that, ‘evangelism should be a powerless approach that breaks down the them and us thus creating space to become re-evangelised.’

Having responded to Aldous’ questions, I’ve decided to post them on this blog. I hope these responses (and any comments they may generate on this blog), are of some use to Aldous as he completes his research.

Today, I post my response to the first question. I’ll post my responses to the other questions in the coming days.

What Troubles you most about Rollins’ Work or Ideas?

I see Rollins’ work as part of a broader movement (especially in the Western churches) for much-needed reform. Yes, Rollins may be a little further ‘out there’ than others in the emerging church conversation but I think that the wider church needs people to push the boundaries. If we all stay in places that are theologically and socially comfortable we don’t grow, and neither does the church.

So I am not particularly ‘troubled’ about Rollins’ work or ideas, though Rollins’ critics – those who think his work is deeply unorthodox, misleading, damaging to the church – might consider my attitude naïve.

I am from an evangelical Protestant background, and my husband is from a Catholic background. He has come to Ikon events with me on occasion, and sometimes he’ll read my blog posts about Pete’s work.

He is always fascinated that ‘Protestants’ (as a Catholic from Northern Ireland, he clearly sees Ikon as coming out of a Protestant tradition) seem so ‘angsty’ about religious ideas. Once, after I read out to him a critique of Pete’s work, he asked:

‘Why do they hate him so much? What are they afraid of?’

My husband’s questions, like Aldous’ question about what ‘troubles’ me, has forced me to think about why I am not particularly ‘troubled’ by Rollins’ work. My experience of talking about the emerging church to an audience of evangelicals at the New Horizon conference in Coleraine in 2010 also brought home to me just how much Rollins’ ideas trouble the church.

I can see how some Christians, who are trying to be faithful, are troubled by the following:

Rollins’ approach to Scripture

Rollins favours a narrative approach to Scripture and explicitly rejects the readings of Scripture that many Protestants, including most evangelicals, have held dear. The bible for Rollins is certainly not to be taken literally, nor does he favour the Reformed tradition’s theory of penal substitutionary atonement.

I am not particularly troubled by the task of questioning the way that Christians have used Scripture for the last several hundred years. I think this is a healthy process and resonates with the idea that Scripture itself is alive through the Holy Spirit. But I think Scripture only springs to life when Christians are wrestling with it and how it should be interpreted in our time and place.

Rollins’ ideas on the extent to which we can know God

Rollins is sceptical about the extent that we can really ‘know’ God. This is most obvious in his first book, How (Not) to Speak of God. Rollins has been much criticised for this approach by Kevin DeYoung and Ted Kluck (Why We’re Not Emergent, 2008). I guess I am just more comfortable than DeYoung and Kluck with the idea that there is a lot more about God that we don’t know, than we do ‘know,’ from Scripture. And I’m open to the possibility that what we think we know may in fact be wrong!

Jason Clark has offered a related critique of Rollins’ latest book Insurrection, claiming that if you follow Rollins’ approach to its logical conclusion, you need not believe in the existence of God or the historical death and resurrection of Jesus. I didn’t find Rollins’ response to Clark on this point especially clear (and Rollins, I think, tries to avoid questions about the existence of God, finding Richard Dawkins-inspired debates of this type sterile and irrelevant). But I would add that it is more than possible to read Rollins and to gain insight from his work without giving up on the existence of God or the historical death and resurrection of Jesus.

Rollins’ approach to mission

Rollins clearly doesn’t want to convert anyone, at least not in the sense that many Christians (especially evangelical Protestants) think about conversion. He won’t appeal to you to become ‘born again,’ that’s for sure, although it must be granted that anyone who is a writer and public speaker like Rollins is probably trying to ‘convert’ you to his own point of view.

I might be slightly anxious that if Rollins’ anti-conversionism (my term) is taken to its logical extreme, the church disappears. As a social scientist with experience of researching the activism of churches, especially in contexts like South Africa and Zimbabwe, I wouldn’t want to see this happen.

Social scientists like myself usually have some appreciation of institutions, even clumsy, unwieldy ones, and what they can accomplish in the ‘real world.’ Would an institutional-less Christianity have the structure and the rigour to ‘get things done’? I’m not sure.

After all that, I have to admit that there is one thing that ‘troubles’ me about Rollins’ work.

That’s the challenge that it presents to me about how I actually live my life. As I wrote in my review of Insurrection:

“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 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.”

(Image: from Peter Rollins’ Insurrection Tour)

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