Sunday, January 22, 2012

book review: Insurrection


Insurrection by Peter Rollins.  New York: Howard Books, 2011.  190 pages.

Before one even cracks open the cover of Peter Rollin's Insurrection, the reader is warned about the explosive nature of what is inside. Words like "incendiary," "controversial," and "radical" litter the back cover endorsements.  The front cover promises that what is inside will not only take us to the edge of the cliff but push us off (according to Rob Bell)!  Well, for all the hype, I found the book quite a bit tamer than promised, but perhaps that was the goal: to get readers to brace themselves for some strong words about Christianity and in so doing, become more receptive to what Rollins has to say. 

The stated purpose of the book is to outline what a "radical expression of a faith beyond religion might look like and how it has the power to give birth to a radically new form of church, one with the power to renew, reform or even transcend the present constellation of conservative, liberal, evangelical, fundamentalist, and orthodox communities" (xiv).  Rollins proposes what he calls "pyro-theology" which, I would venture to say, pretty much boils down to deconstruction.  The thing about deconstruction is that one can get so caught up in tearing things down that one is left with nothing but a big, empty, void.  Rollins teeters on the edge of the chasm a few times, but in the end, manages to avoid falling in.

I will be right up front by mentioning that while I liked a lot of what Rollins has to say, a few things bothered me about this book.  Rollins adopts an aggressive, provocative style of writing.  I suppose he is attempting to shake the religious reader out of their religious stupor in order that they can embrace what he calls "religionless Christianity." This is a term he borrows from Dietrich Bonhoeffer (lovely chap and I admire him deeply), but I am always wary of people borrowing expensive terms (it would eventually cost Bonhoeffer his life) for their own purposes without paying the rent.  Everyone loves to quote the saints, but who is willing to live the lives that produced these words of wisdom? 

Honestly, I do believe Rollins would be up for it, but his language mimics a "shock and awe" style which, in my humble opinion, sabotages the message to some degree.  Bonhoeffer himself admitted that his blustery early writings calling for church reform later mellowed to a certain extent when he was imprisoned.  This was evident in his gracious treatment of guards, fellow prisoners, and family members during his confinement.  To me, Rollins seems to be in his blustery stage.  One example is his redefinition of the word "religion" to mean an anti-Christian system.  I'm sorry, Peter, but that's bad etymology.  To me, he is simply erecting a target in order to knock it down (straw man fallacy).  Scriptural writers call for true or pure religion, not the eradication of religion (see 1 Timothy 5:4, James 1:27).

Anyway, enough of my complaints and on to what Rollins has done well in this book.  First, I love the easy, readable style.  He interjects pithy stories or parables into each chapter to illustrate his points.  Very nicely done.  The crucifixion and Jesus' cry of abandonment are a focal point from which he expounds his theme of giving up the "idol" of a convenient, comforting God (deus ex machina).  Rollins calls this inadequate, self-serving image of God the "God of religion," and effectively and jarringly brings the scandal of the cross in direct conflict with this cozy image.  In many places, we see hints of John of the Cross' dark night of the soul, though somewhat surprisingly, Rollins does not make reference to the reformer.   

I have to mention Chapter Three's brilliant title:  "I'm Not Religious" and Other Religious Sayings.  Made me laugh out loud.  As the book progresses, Rollins writes convincingly about embracing crucifixion, losing our religion, and rejecting the system which props up our comfortable beliefs.  He challenges the reader to approach the cross not as an objective critic, but as a participatory lover (75).  One of the most dynamic chapters is the one that addresses the gap between beliefs and actions.  Rollins states that "our practices do not fall short of our beliefs; they are our beliefs" (102).  That made me stop and think.  And think some more.  When Rollins does finally come to the subject of the resurrection, he presents it not as the answer to the crucifixion, but as a lens through which the coldness and the darkness of the cross are truly felt (112).  The resurrection lives in the midst of death (108).

This fixation on the crucifixion is reflective of Rollins' negative style (via negativa) which concentrates on describing what is not instead of what is or can be; while effective, it falters somewhat when it comes to actually telling us what "religionless Christianity" looks like.  The closest he comes is to say that we find God through turning away from self-interest and losing ourselves in love (125).  It seems that Rollins is still working out the practical implications of what it means to encounter God in this radical crucifixion way and thus has a tough time explaining it, but that's just my opinion. 

While I think Rollins' largely deconstructionist approach could use a bit more development or maturity (couldn't we all?), I appreciate that he is not playing the role of a disinterested critic.  In the "conversation" printed at the end of the book, he admits that while developing these concepts, he experienced resistance from himself.  He says: "The idea that I need to radically interrogate the things that I hold dear and encounter my own brokenness, darkness, and vulnerability is terrifying...I speak first and foremost to myself" (188).

Brave words from a brave man.  Insurrection is a book worth reading.  The ideas in it are worth grappling with.  The author, by his own admission, will be grappling right alongside you. 

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Sounds like an interesting book. Nice review!

"Rollins states that "our practices do not fall short of our beliefs; they are our beliefs" (102).

"Everyone loves to quote the saints, but who is willing to live the lives that produced these words of wisdom? "

This is absolutely true. Which is why I think it is equally true that there are few, if any, Christians.

Religionless Christianity looks like secular humanism, which is more Christian than religious Christianity, but still fails to be Christian.

After almost 4 decades of trying to resolve the internal contradictions of our cultural Christianity (the solas, the creeds, the dualism, the support of corporate tyranny), I have decided to reject it (almost completely). Nothing could feel more liberating or more human.

God is not dead. But Christ is! Thank goodness! I'll settle for the Son of Man.