After hearing so much about Peter Rollins the weekend I was at Cornerstone’s Conference, I was expecting more from reading him. I thought his book Insurrection would invigorate me like John D. Caputo’s On Religion. That his style would be equally delicious and his ideas similarly thrilling and similarly on the edge of a very dangerous line. I expected too much. As a result, I’ve been making slow work of a short book.
Stylistically, Rollins is easy to read. Not especially boring or exciting. Each section begins with an amusing religious joke he ties in (so obviously the result of cultural theorist/philosopher Slavoj Žižek’s influence upon him, by the way). Whether or not you have a background in philosophy or theology you will easily be able to follow along with his ideas (though you might miss just how much he’s sponging off of Žižek’s thought*). Though I’m obviously feeling a bit underwhelmed by this work, I have to admit that some of what he has to say is striking a cord with me.
So I’ll spare you a detailed critique, in which I would take issue with how much he’s letting Žižek color his perspective. To be honest, where I disagree with him most bores me. Instead I’ll simply urge that, if you read him, you won’t let his argument to give up God as deus ex machina (i.e. a slot machine God/God as psychological crutch) make you think God is inactive in your life or impassive.
Though I would like his view to be more nuanced and for him to understand our religious impulse a bit more positivity, I cannot deny that he’s leveling a critique that the church needs to hear. Even if I’m not in love with how he’s articulating it. In the section I just finished he even put words to my growing discomfort with church services.
Just so you know, I’m not one of those people who is turned off by the structure of contemporary church services and has gone back to more liturgical roots (though I know and respect many people like this). As I said recently, I just can’t get into liturgical services. In part because they make me so self-conscious with all the standing and sitting and kneeling. Also, because it’s too distractingly jolty for me. Once I’m allowed to sit down, I want to zone in with complete attentiveness without the fear I’ll be interrupted in another 20 minutes. (I’m the type of person who doesn’t think a two hour lecture is too long, unless it’s boring). Plus, I prefer an electric guitar and drums to an organ any day (honestly, few sounds repulses me more than that of organ music but that’s just me). It’s not the structure that’s been unsettling me, it’s the words.
There is a growing number of “worship” songs I can hardly bare to sing along with. Both at my church in New York City and my parents’ church, I’m restless and irascible during the sermon (which has always been my favorite part of church). Even helping out in children’s church there have been lessons that deeply disturb me. I simply can’t watch testimonial videos played from the stage. To keep myself from muttering critiques throughout sermons I’ve resorted to allowing most of my attention to be absorbed by reading the Bible (usually whatever passage is being preached on or tangentially mentioned, whatever the case may be).I’ve been continually trying to put words to what has becoming unsettling.
Something you should understand about these churches that I’ve been attending is that, as far as contemporary churches go, they’re pretty remarkable. They practice what they preach when it comes to engaging the community. They have services days where they go out and do gracious acts of kindness. Of course, they have regular mission trips and organizations that they partner with to serve others. Their pastors don’t deliver turn or burn messages. Nor do they try to peddle the American dream as Christian. Their pastors are good guys who I respect and have a sincere heart for God. They seem to be about as good as you can get. The best I’ve been able to do to articulate the problems that I sense has been to critique their pastors for not being Rick McKinley** and not being Narrative. ***
Though I don’t withdraw these critiques, they haven’tquite captured all of what I sense to be amiss. This is where I’ve found Rollin’s helpful. In the section I’ve been reading, he’s talking about how lots of us are like Donald Miller in Blue Like Jazz. We’ve realized that our view of God was limited and child-like. That we’ve been treating Him much like a slot machine or like Santa Claus. Like He’s just here to give us what we want, to help us out in a pinch, or to give us a sense of comfort. Most of us would say that this is an inadequate view of God. That we want a robust faith that acknowledges that God isn’t just our big virtual security blanket, that we aren’t just Christians because it makes our lives comfortable. But what Rollin’s says is: Don’t our churches still imply this? Even the best ones?
We sing about how everything is well with our souls. Pastors encourage their congregants to go to Financial Peace University classes because God is here to bring us peace and freedom, so we should have financial peace and freedom. Our sermons wrestle with our walk of faith but not with God Himself. With the God of Job who allows Job to suffer not for Job’s benefit, but for Satan’s. The jealous God of Israel who judges the world with a sword. Not Jesus saying he came to bring a sword, not peace. Not Jesus saying that to love him we must hate our fathers and mothers, our sisters and brothers, even our own life. Our sermons often challenge obvious and superficial problems from the pulpit but rarely deeply rock our bad practices or talk about more insidious and subtle thought patterns we’ve inherited from our culture that need to be transformed. We say God is not a crutch but play testimonials from the pulpit in which people in despair, in need of a crutch, have stumbled to Him and lodged Him under their arms.
Rollin’s states, “while believers may say that we turn away from the view of God that simply helps them feel secure, this idea is still enthroned in their liturgical/church practices and thus remains firmly in place…We are able to talk passionately about the dark night of the soul without feeling it as long as the worship songs are full of light, the sermons lay bare all mysteries, and the prayers treat God as an object there to tell us it’s all going to be OK.” In short, our practices and our sermons are structured so that we’ll always have a sense of security. That’s a problem because that is one thing God does not give us and in order to create this sense of security there is almost always a level of superficiality going on.
The challenging thing about this critique, what might make it frightening, is that almost all of our churches are guilty. Most times when I’ve critiqued the churches I’ve attended to my friends they’ve told me stories about why their churches are different, better. Like they don’t even have a service some Sundays but instead everyone is encouraged to go out in the community and serve. So they poured out unexpected love on a stranger. But these churches I’ve attended do the same things.
What’s ironic is that even that example illustrates the problem. Sure it is a sweet and beautiful thing to inconvenience one’s self for a day and be inordinately kind to a stranger. But it is also an easy thing to do and ultimately pretty superficial. Though it may stretch our comfort zone for a moment, it doesn’t actually break us out of it. I don’t even know if it really displays God’s love as much as it lets us feel good about ourselves. Don’t get me wrong. It’s something, it’s nice, but it’s not enough. Just like these sermons I keep hearing. It is not that they are awful (though you’d think so from how I react) it is that they aren’t enough. They’re too easy. The God articulated is…more like a stock character. We’re never left wrestling with uncertainty.
Though God will always be able to work through an imperfect Church, just as He worked through Israel despite rebellion and rejection, that doesn’t mean this isn’t problematic. The trouble is that the account of reality we are being given from the pulpit isn’t matching the one in our Scriptures and it isn’t adequately accounting for the fullness of our lived experience either. Hope has much more grit and depth to it. Faith comes with a lot more mystery and a deeper challenge to how we live and act and love. Life is just so much harder and God’s rescue sometimes doesn’t feel like rescue. The greatest problem is that it’s hard to know if what we are loving when we say we love God. It’s hard to know if what we actually love is how these sermons and songs and practices make us feel about ourselves or if it is in fact God.
For me, when I say I love God it has to be God in all of His frightening and challenging glory. What I need on Sunday is to be confronted by His face. Convicted, inspired and brought to my knees by the myriad ways in which He explodes how I try to cage Him and explain/understand reality more comfortably and simplistically. I need to be drawn in by a reminder of how He is wooing me,even if sometimes His love seems severe. I just can’t accept anything less than God. Yet, this image of God I meet in church still affects me, still influences me to hold onto my slot machine God. I wonder the impact that it would have on all of our lives if the Church embraced uncertainty, if it was more willing to allow God to be fully God.
*Obviously, I don’t really respect the thinking of Slavoj Žižek very much. Though I will say that he’s enjoyable to read, for the most part.
**Rick McKinley is a pastor out in Oregon who I’ve been listening to for years. Though this critique sounds petty, it really isn’t. What I mean is not that they don’t have the same style or tone but that, unlike him, they do not wrestle that much with who God is and how who God is challenges us and challenges so many of even our unconscious assumptions about life. Oh, they do talk about the challenge of being a Christian, they wrestle a little with Christ, but never so deeply or profoundly. Their messages are also structured in such a way that we, and our lives/struggles with faith, are at the center and then God moves into the picture. This structure is deeply problematic. Rick’s sermons are structured in such a way so that God is more central, more integrally woven into the structure from the start.
***Narrative preaching doesn’t mean just using stories as illustrations in a sermon. Practically all pastors use illustrations in sermons. It means reading the Bible narratively and structuring a message so that it deals with the narrative nature of Scripture. Here’s an example: If the sermon was on faith, instead of telling you illustrations about Joe Shmoe’s faith and stringing together excerpted verses in the Bible about faith to make a few points, the pastor would choose to say look at the faith of the apostle Peter. He would talk about stories from the Bible about Peter that have to do with his faith journey and reveal something about our faith. Coming from a background in literature, it’s hard for me to feel that interpreting/teaching the Bible any other way is anything but inappropriate and a little irresponsible.