Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Peter Rollins and Getting the Joke of Christianity

Peter Rollins, January 2012

Introduced both as "unhinged" and "a prophet in his own land", Peter Rollins was back in Belfast last night speaking in the Black Box. A crowd of fifty or more squeezed into the front cafĂ©/bar to hear him talk about “Getting the Joke of Christianity”.

The Joke of Christianity by @peterrollins (part 1 of his Belfast talk) (mp3)

You can listen to Pete’s talk: it’s in two parts, followed by a brief question and answer session.

The Joke of Christianity by @peterrollins (part 2 of his Belfast talk) (mp3)The Joke of Christianity by @peterrollins (part 3, Q&A after his Belfast talk) (mp3)

It’s difficult to summarise Pete’s talk.

Therein lies a problem. No matter how good his critique of the repeating plot structure of Laurel and Hardy is (near the end of part 1 audio clip) and no matter how many broad generalisations are thrown in (“we find a way to domesticate any voice that offends us”, “my thesis is that deep down most of us know that most of it [conventional Christian belief] is a bit rubbish”, “when you love someone you experience them as a universe yet to explore”), I can’t follow the thread of his argument from one end of the talk to the other (nor from one end of a book to the other).

[The honourable exception to this rule is Pete’s book of parables – The Orthodox Heretic: And Other Impossible Tales – which are simple and superb.]

To Pete, my inability to comprehend may be failure.* To me, it’s not. Part of my problem is that single lines float out from Pete’s narrative that make my mind scuttle off to think, losing track of what he goes on to argue in the process. (*Unless he just puts it down to my stupidity.)

FUD. Fear, uncertainty and doubt.

Not much fear in the land of Rollins. But lots of uncertainty and doubt. It is liberating to be in an environment that encourages – nay celebrates – not having the whole story sewn up. And while Pete wrongly suggests that church leaders don’t express their private doubts in front of their flocks, he certainly does articulate the grey more than many clerics are yet comfortable sermonising to their congregations.

A year or so back, William Crawley spent an evening in the same Black Box venue interviewing Pete about whether he believed in God. It was a long and tortuous conversation, in which Pete perched on the arm of the sofa and looked like he might fall off, bump his head and never get to the final part of his argument!

So it was quite a surprise when Pete quite casually threw in that he still felt part of the church, still felt a Christian. Now those terms – church, Christian – need to be defined and redefined. But it’s encouraging … I think.

Pete’s own understanding of crucifixion (representing an experience of loss and separation from the idols of the world for the first time, as well as being a place where we are outside religious and tribal structures and identities) brings him to a point of unknowing where “nothing can blow my world apart any longer” and where religious structures are “drained of power”. He also talks about love bringing meaning to the world.

Strangely, there’s little talk about encountering Jesus. Other than the cross, Jesus life and example doesn’t get much of a mention.

But there are lines that sparkle and jump out. Pete’s characterisation of conflict within churches and denominations (“the war is internal to the tribe, not between tribes”) isn’t totally made up. Nor are his statements about how tightly and unhelpfully Christians hold on to their practices and rituals.

Pete’s latest book Insurrection: To Believe is Human; to Doubt, Divine has a great statement as part of its promotional material:

It is only as we submit our spiritual practices, religious rituals, and dogmatic affirmations to the flames of fearless interrogation that we come into contact with the reality that Christianity is in the business of transforming our world rather than offering a way of interpreting or escaping it. Belief in the Resurrection means but one thing: participation in an Insurrection.

Doesn’t that sound quite like Paul?

I’m not much closer to understanding the full detail of the joke that Pete Rollins sees in Christianity, However, whether it’s faith, politics, or technology, it’s worth listening to people who don’t think the same way as you. The process helps me refine what I believe, and define what I don’t yet understand. Conversion is a process. A transformational journey, not a single moment. Encounters like last night, or the challenges that Ikon events throw up, should be thoughtful rather than destructive.

If you decide to give Pete’s talk a listen, you may want to play Rollins’ Bingo , then make sure your card includes some of the following words and phrases: Nietzsche, crucifixion, hell, shit, idol, tinfoil hats, David Brent, false narrative, Wikileaks, myth and TARDIS.

Update - Gladys Ganiel has written a great post asking Do you Understand Peter Rollins? in which she examines the accessibility of his work.


Graeme said...

I watched him recently giving a talk in Fuller seminary. I accepted his premises for the most part. And I thought he was pretty coherent in these. I rejected his ultimate conclusions at about the time when he started discussing crucifixion, but I'll get to that.

He talked about how a child experiences a sense of loss concomitantly with the development of a sense of self. He then said (a little simplistically, but mostly true) that as soon as there is an "I" in the child's mind, there is also a "You". I say that' simplistic because actually this is a gradual process that occurs over roughly the first five years of life, but I think probably it could be argued that it continues well into adulthood- The deveopment of a theory of mind- That other "selves" are thinking different things and have different information than your own "self".

Anyway that's a digression- Because there is a self, or an ego, and because we experience a sense of loss we attempt to fill it in with different things- Usually beginning with the mother, so a child begins to cling to its mother. Then different stuff, different experiences and relationships. And the sense of fundamental loss, which Peter Rollins identifies with the Christian concept of "original sin" is what drives a lot of creative and economic endeavours. All of this I think I can grant; well, most of it.

Peter then goes on to say that God tends to be sold to us in the evangelical tradition as just an ultimate form of any of these things; that he calls idols, which we use to satisfy our sense of loss.

This, I think, is a profound truth and I wish more people said it. I get upset when I hear any evangelist inviting people to accept Jesus because he will "fulfil the gap in their lives" or whatever that they have tried to fill before with drugs or women or stuff. This, I think is a fundamental miscomprehension of John 10:10. And turns Jesus and God into just another idol or "superidol"- The ultimate fulfilment of these desires. He would prefer, I think, to think of him as freeing us to realise that the desires cannot be fulfilled.

However. At crucifixion, he loses me. For he misunderstands the proclamation of Jesus from the cross "My God. My God, why have you forsaken me". This is not Jesus finally rejecting God and the idols, as he claims, but rather, an allusion to Psalm 22. A thorough reading of this Messianic Psalm gives us a fuller (see what I did there) understanding of what exactly Jesus was trying to communicate. He wasn't really in any state to recite the whole Psalm at the time. I don't know if Peter Rollins has ever been challenged on this point, but somebody should..

Graeme said...

PS. You could have ound a better photo..

Alan in Belfast (Alan Meban) said...

Even worse, I could have taken a better photo! I'll blame the light in the Black Box, but that was what Pete looked like after his talk on Sunday evening!

Graeme said...

You mean he got to meet you?!

Anonymous said...

Graeme, Peter rejects the allusion to psalm 22 in his book Insurrection.

Anonymous said...

Hi, I am from Australia.
Of course the tragic joke about Christianity is that it aint true.






The Truth About Death


Graeme said...

O ThankYou anaonymous number1 that was helpful :) On what basis does he reject it..?? That's it, I'm buying the book! Haha

Graeme said...

You did that on purpose didn't you!? You're Pete Rollins aren't you?!

Alan in Belfast (Alan Meban) said...

Gladys Ganiel has written a great post asking Do you Understand Peter Rollins? in which she examines the accessibility of his work.