Wednesday, January 20, 2010

The Orthodox Heretic – Peter Rollins

I attended the launch of Pete Rollin’s second book The Fidelity of Betrayal: Towards a Church Beyond Belief and quickly read the first handful of chapters. Eighteen months later I’ve still to finish the book!

His next book, though, is much more accessible and I completed it a matter of weeks after I got hold of a copy at an Ikon gathering.

book cover of The Orthodox Heretic by Peter Rollins

The Orthodox Heretic: And Other Impossible Tales is a collection of parables from the pen of Peter Rollins. They’re brilliant in their simplicity. As he explains in the introduction:

“Parables subvert [our] desire to make faith simple and understandable. They do not offer the reader clarity, for they refuse to be captured in the net of a single interpretation and instead demand our eternal return to their words, our wrestling with them, and our puzzling over them.

This does not mean that the words contain no message ... Parables do not substitute sense for nonsense, or order for disorder ...

A parable does not primarily provide information about our world. Rather, if we allow it to do its work within us, it will change our world – breaking it open to ever-new possibilities by refusing to be held by the categories that currently exist within that world.”

In one story – Being the Resurrection – Rollins paints a picture of a group of disciples who “packed their few belongings and left for a distant shore, for they could not bear to stay another moment in the place where their Messiah had just been crucified.” They fled and set up an isolated community far away “where they vowed to keep the memory of Christ alive and live in simplicity, love and forgiveness, just as he had taught them.”

Over a hundred years later, some missionaries arrived at the remote settlement and realised that the community “had no knowledge of the resurrection and the ascension of Christ, for they had left Jerusalem before his return from the dead on the third day.”

There is much celebration, but the members of the community are shaken. Their reason for following seems no longer about Jesus and his “radical life and supreme sacrifice”. Instead they worry that their rationale will turn inward and be selfish, “because his sacrifice will ensure their personal salvation and eternal life”.

Sometimes, rather than create an entirely new situation, Rollins borrows from an existing gospel parable, and merely changes one aspect, often the opening line or the final punch line.

In The Prodigal Father, the father steals away in the middle of the night leaving the two sons at home! This kind of adaptation throws off balance the normal dynamic of the reader’s understanding of the original parable and kicks off an explosion of ideas and questions.

In general, Rollins’ doesn’t seem to be making new radical points with the stories. Instead he is reinforcing old truths.

“The idea of the weak and oppressed having priority in the kingdom of God can be seen in the life of Jesus ... It was not that Jesus had a deep love for tax collectors or Samaritans over other careers and ethnic groups. Rather, what was important was the place that the tax collector and the Samaritan held in society. Jesus was moved by the oppressed and the excluded wherever he found them, always seeking to reach out to those who had nothing and who were considered to be nothing.”

It may not be new, but it is still radical.

Yet he returns to betrayal and freedom in the eponymous parable. In order for nurtured students to surpass their great teachers “a painful separation must take place between [them]”. The student will be asked to stop following the teacher and move beyond the lessons thus far learned.

“Of course this is a strange, almost paradoxical teaching, for it is only by following the teacher that one will heed the command not to follow. Yet these words, when truly grasped, have the potential to set the disciple free, allowing her the chance to apply her learning in ever new innovative ways. This I not a betrayal in the sense of a rejection, nor is it a blind fidelity that seeks to live by the letter of the law.”

It’s a great book: accessible, could be read in short chunks, and it started to poke holes in assumptions that I’ve carried around for a long time. Questioning is good. Perhaps the more unsure and the less arrogant your faith, the stronger it becomes?

As a bonus, I’ll post some audio in a day or two of William Crawley interviewing the author Peter Rollins (now published) at the October 2009 Ikon.


Paul Robinson said...

"Questioning is good. Perhaps the more unsure and the less arrogant your faith, the stronger it becomes?"

I worry that the above kind of consideration can only lead to what existentialists call "bad faith". It may be perceived as a reassurance that the games that Rollins would have us play lie within safe bounds. You can appear to be questioning everything, yet not really question anything at all. To my mind questioning is more akin to a duty; it is neither good nor bad. And the notion of faith coming in degrees of strength seems to be a bit of a myth that people often use to hide from themselves.

What do you think?

Alan in Belfast (Alan Meban) said...

Yes and no.

I meant that being unsure and questioning is a good trait - a duty if you want to put it that way. And being overly dogmatic and sure is most likely a weakness.

The sentence you quote was meant to a little controversial - phrased as a question!

I think I'd agree with you about "degrees of strength" - probably no more valid a measure than "degrees of sin".

For me the problem is where to stop. Are there unquestionable foundations? Are there limits? Are those limits God-defined, or just man-made to stop the counterfactual (the reverse position to our current course) changing our direction of belief.

Unknown said...

Hi Alan, was wondering if you still had the audio of that interview and if you'd be kind enough to share it?

Alan in Belfast (Alan Meban) said...

Should be up tonight.

Alan in Belfast (Alan Meban) said...

Paul - now uploaded.

Paul said...

Different Paul there, by the way. (But thanks from me all the same).

Unknown said...

Thanks so much, really looking forward to hearing this. Paul (again)