The Idolatry of God by Peter Rollins

IdolatryofgodI was introduced to Peter Rollin’s writing through his book of parables called Orthodox Heretic. The idea of modern parables really fascinated and excited me about the power of creative writing and made me curious of Rollin’s as an author. He certainly has a gift for wit and storytelling. Strength that no doubt draw from his Irish nationality.

While book also make heavy use of stories, rather than leaving the reader to wrestle with them Rollin’s uses them to illustrate his premise: The Christian God has become just another idol. Through the book’s three sections idolatry is identified and defined, current ways of engaging with God are called into question, and a way forward is suggested.

Section one is the foundational to the premise of the entire book. It dissects the feelings of “lack” or “something is missing” that are common to the human experience. We’ve all felt that if we could just obtain, experience, or consume one particular thing that it could bring us fulfilment. The author associates this feeling with a key moment in infant cognitive development. Certain developmental theories claim that a child’s sense of self-awareness develops around 15-24 months.

During this shift, the child begins to understand that they are a “self” separate from everything and everyone else. The psychic shock of this change, Rollin’s says, leaves us with a permanent sense of loss which we spend the rest of our life seeking to alleviate. Rollin’s calls this sense of lacking ‘original sin’ and anything we use to fulfill the sense of lack an ‘idol’. Idolatry can manifest itself in our consumerism, sexuality, drug use, work ethics, or anything else we use to fill our sense of lacking. Unfortunately, as any of us already know, the idol never makes good on it’s promises.

Section two builds on the previous section’s premise and suggests that God himself is also used as an idol. For most Christians, to consider that the Bible or the Church could be idols is serious apostasy, but the suggestion that engaging with God could be idolatrous is downright heresy. However as the book points out, the desire to use God as an idol is not some post-modern crack-pottery. It was a real and prevalent issue in the scriptural accounts of Jesus’ life.

Somewhere in the history of Judaism an idea took shape and rooted itself deep in the culture. This idea undoubtedly grew out from Israel’s captivities and it was a blend of politics and prophecies meant to give hope to the oppressed nation. Hebrew scripture foretold that God would send a king to Israel. Further, this future king would rule all the earth and bring justice, abundance, and everlasting peace to all nations. The Israelites, however, began to dream of a king that would crush their captors and establish their nation as on of power. This idea was the prevailing idolatry of Jesus’ day. Israel was looking for a warrior Messiah. A powerful politician to take up arms. Even Jesus’ closest disciples believed him to be the this kind of king.

The New Testament bears out that they were often impatient with his lack of urgency for revolution. Some disciples chided him to take up arms and bring fire and brimstone down on their enemies. Jesus was even later betrayed as a result of one followers frustration and confusion. No matter their desires for King to fill their sense of “lack” Jesus continually refused to be become Israel’s idol. Instead he died by their own hands on the cross of their oppressors.

Rollin’s proposes that Jesus crucifixion not only confronted Israel and his disciples, but also confronts us with the reality that he will not be our idol. He will not fill a void in our lives, meet our needs, or be who we want him to be. Rather Jesus’ death reveals that our belief in “lacking” or “being separate” is an illusion. To be a follower of Christ, is not to expect Christ to eliminate “lack”, but to live in the reality that there is no “lacking”. When individuals find their being in God they will perceive all of creation as arising from God (even if that creation is unaware).

The rest of the section wraps things up by discussing the importance of Paul’s words: “Christ is all, and in all.” The reader is implored to see all of creation as arising from God (or finding it’s being in God) rather than thinking of God as something separate. In doing so this one finds that they are in God and God is in everything . Conceptually this means that a person reverts back to their birth state of pre-self awareness. They understand that they are no longer separate from everything else. The “self” becomes a paradigm that those who follow Christ no longer operate in because they are “born again”.

Section three offers practical examples of liturgy, poetry, and new ways of thinking. The goal is to equip readers to live and share the truths of the first two sections. Rollin’s gives the reader imaginative ideas on how to share this idol smashing message.

Overall I enjoyed this book. There were times when I struggled to follow Rollin’s logic. Other times it was immediately clear. There was enough of each to make wrestling with the ideas feel productive and satisfying. I really enjoyed the chapter on Paul’s proclamation against tribalism (Colossians 3). It was certainly one of the best expositions I’ve heard in some time on the radical nature of some of Paul’s writings. My favorite part of the book however, was section three. The performances and liturgies really ignited my imagination for faith and art. They left me feeling refreshed, challenged, and excited and longing for me.

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