The Orthodox Heretic by Peter Rollins

Like so many conservatives, I was initially very hostile to post-modern thinking and its impact on everything from the study of history, contemporary culture and faith to politics and the arts. But as I have read more and come to understand the wide implications of some (and I stress some) of its insights, I have developed a more nuanced view.

And I think reading and interacting with different points of view is important.  And one of the authors who has stretched my views and offered a different perspective is Peter Rollins.  His book How (Not) To Speak of God was an interesting and though provoking work that was probably dismissed by too many because of its style and perspective.

Rollins has a new book out (Insurrection: To Believe Is Human To Doubt, Divine) which prompted me to read an older book The Orthodox Heretic: And Other Impossible Tales.  Here is the publisher’s blurb:

‘This book should be banned! It’s DANGEROUS!’

So might any Christian say for whom faith functions like a comfortable chair and a lot of good will. If you are comfy and satisfied, then what you have might not be faith after all, explains Peter Rollins.

Christian faith only has meaning if it affects the ways that people live their lives. For many who are not Christians, critiquing Christianity from the outside, this sort of ‘faith’ appears all-too common and is an easy target. Perhaps Christians are simply those possessed of an ideology that keeps them passive, childlike, and ineffectual, they seem to think.
Rollins has crafted a series of parables that shatter these realities and popular perceptions. Parables that demonstrate how genuine faith is radical—and has never been concerned with escaping the world we inhabit, but rather, with engaging in it more fully. That genuine Christian faith has never capitulated to injustice but rather fought against it at every turn. In opposition to those who would claim that Christian faith embraces God at the expense of the suffering world, Peter shows how the true believer embraces God only inasmuch as he fully embraces a needy world.

Let me repeat a cliché I use often here: your reaction to this book will depend a great deal on what you bring to it (in terms of attitude, your spiritual and philosophical perspective, etc.). I come from a very different background and worldview than Rollins but I find it worthwhile to read him nonetheless. Others mileage may vary.

As the author says in the introduction, these stories are best read one at a time in a quite moment when you have some time to think. If used in the right way and with the right attitude they can help the reader to think differently about faith and belief; to focus more on living out their faith in the here and now rather than dreaming of heavenly rewards or being obsessed with correct doctrine.

Rollins goal in writing these stories is not to offer simple answers or construct a systematic theology. Instead, he seeks to break up the belief that systematic theology is faith; that simple answers are the key. Allow me a long quote that I think gets to the heart of Rollins way of thinking:

Our religious world today is awash with a vast sea of writing and talks designed to make the truth of faith clear, concise, and palatable. For example, one might encounter a talk comprised of three points, all beginning with the letter “p,” and all so clear that by the time you leave the room, you will know exactly what to think.

Parables subvert this 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, or that they mock us as some insoluble puzzle (and thus not really a puzzle at all).  Parables do not substitute sense of nonsense, or order for disorder. Rather, they point beyond these distinctions, inviting us to engage in a mode of reflection that has less to do with fixed meaning than rendering meaning fluid and effective.

I think this is an insightful understanding of parables and a lot of fiction in fact.  And many of the stories in this volume will challenge the reader in that way.

But I wonder if those most in need of a shake-up to their worldview and a challenge to their comfortable faith will read a book like this. Rollins would find a melancholy irony in the fact that his book might make those comfortable with his style and approach self-satisfied and be ignored by the audience most in need of the message.

Another drawback is that the message is almost always the same: love of God and our fellow-man is the foundation of Christian faith and too often other things and attitudes dominate; we live in an age of incredible affluence and yet incredible poverty and suffering exists right alongside and the church seems unwilling to choose sides as it were. I also think there is a bit too much commentary in places – rather than letting the reader work harder at the message of the parables.

That said, I believe these stories would be a great tool for a Sunday School class, book club or small group. Reading a story each week would generate discussion and allow readers to further explore the ideas. Some of the stories seem provocative for the sake of it and others might find Rollins ideas a little too heavy on the post-modern philosophy and language (he doesn’t use academic terms and language per se but his perspective is infused with the mindset and viewpoint). But again, I think there is value in getting outside your comfort zone and exploring the ideas presented.

Of course, those more in tune with the emerging and post-modern aspects of Rollins writing and thinking will likely enjoy this “storified” version.

Bottom line, I enjoyed the book but recognize it is definitely not for everyone.

Kevin Holtsberry
I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season).

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