Insurrection by Peter Rollins
Insurrection by Peter Rollins reads as a manifesto calling for a radical change to the Evangelical Church. It’s a call to have a “religionless Christianity” that will look very different from what has come before. Rollins states as much in his introduction:
Each epoch in the life of the Church arises from the white-hot fires of a fundamental question, a question that burns away the husk that was once thought to be essential in order to reveal once more the revolutionary event heralded… They offer us a unique opportunity to rethink what it means to be the Church, not merely critiquing the presently existing Church for failing to live up to its ideals, but rather for espousing the wrong ideals.
The “wrong ideals” for Rollins are embodied in the (in)famous Chick Tracts published by Jack T. Chick. Though he doesn’t cite them until well into the second half of Insurrection, breezing through a few of them before digging into Insurrection would not only help determine what sort of religion Rollins would have us abandon, but might also make us more sympathetic when Rollins steps beyond the bounds of Orthodoxy, as he does in several places.
Chick Tract Christianity is primarily a belief system – you enter it by intellectually ascribing to a set of ideas about a god who exists outside of the world. Chick Tract Christians believe that at some point, this god will resurrect everyone, punish the bad people, destroy the world and whisk away the good people (i.e., those who have the right beliefs) to live with him in Heaven.
Certainly, Chick Tract Christianity is an extreme form of Evangelical theology, but many of Rollins’ critiques weigh on more moderate forms as well. We should pay attention.
It is only when we are the site where Resurrection takes place that we truly affirm it. To believe in the Crucifixion and Resurrection means nothing less than enacting them.
As such, he divides Insurrection into reflections on Crucifixion and Resurrection, with attention in each on how we can live these out as realities that define our lives rather than beliefs that actually prevent us from embodying the Gospel message.
Rollins identifies Chick’s god who exists outside reality and who intervenes in our world as a deus ex machina (drawing on Bonheoffer). According to Rollins, believing in this sort of personal deity is a normal human response to the apparently meaninglessness of life. When belief in God becomes a “psychological crutch” to make us feel better about our lives and the world we live in, that belief actually becomes harmful to us.
Yes, this is essentially Marx’s critique of religion – that belief can become something that numbs us to the reality of the world around us. Belief can pacify us, inoculate us to the pain and injustice happening in the world.
For Rollins, experiencing the Crucifixion is experiencing the death of this deus ex machina. When we realize that life really is scary, that it’s not fair, that God isn’t going to pop in and pull us out of the mess we call reality, we experience “existential atheism”. As Rollins describes it:
The Crucifixion signals an experience in which all that grounds us and gives us meaning collapses. Christ experiences the loss of that which grounds each of these realms—God… To participate in the Crucifixion is to experience the breaking apart of the various mythologies we use to construct and make sense of our world… Christian belief in the Crucifixion is not about accepting some historical event; we are not invited to merely affirm or contemplate the death of Jesus on the cross, but to undergo that death in our own lives.
The problem with Church as we experience it now, Rollins argues, is that the Church actually prevents Christians from participating in the Crucifixion.
To remedy this, Rollins calls Church leaders to doubt with their congregations. To create experiences that lead individuals to encounters with real despair. This is vital if we are to become a people who lives the Resurrection. According to Rollins, until we confront the basic purposelessness of reality, we can’t discover the meaning that lies within that emptiness. This is what Rollins calls Resurrection life: the meaning that we find in the midst of chaos. Rollins would have us measure our faith not by the rightness of our beliefs but by the love of our actions. He claims:
The truth of a person is to be located, not in the story they tell about themselves, but in drives and desires that manifest themselves in material practices.
It’s in describing his vision of the Resurrection life Rollins really pushes back on Jack Chick Christianity. For Rollins, much of Christianity has been about Escapism – that at some point we’ll leave this place and all its pain. But Rollins challenges us to consider that the act of love brings meaning to meaninglessness. That loving can create purpose and beauty, and that we can therefore learn to embrace the world when we love the world. It’s created churches that are comfortable with injustice, that use ritual to escape the reality of a broken world.
Rollins would have us embrace that broken world, the same way God embraces the world through the Incarnation. Rollins sees a Resurrection Church as a community that actively resists labels that divide us. It’s a community that practices facing our despair and living fully in the present moment. To his credit, Rollins does as much as he can in this format to help us imagine what that sort of community could be – both with video links and discussion questions that help groups process Insurrection.
No book as radical as Insurrection can not pose some serious challenges to Orthodox Christianity. While he’s hard to pin down, Rollins seems to deny basic Orthodox beliefs like the personhood of God and the deity of Christ. And though I suspect Rollins would push back that he’s challenging belief itself, these are serious issues a faithful Christian community must deal with as they work through Insurrection – and the discussion guide at the end of the book is a great place to start doing just that.
Because his ideas are so revolutionary, Insurrection is hard to read. In that he’s popularizing thinkers like Caputo and Žižek, Rollins brings Post-modern philosophy to bear on Christian theology. And the Church cannot afford to ignore these ideas. We must engage them. Rollins is a philosopher first and theologian second; we need a serious theological engagement with what he presents. Rollins makes it clear in Insurrection that he welcomes this engagement, and he’s provided us with an excellent starting point.