Sunday, October 26, 2008

The Fidelity of Betrayal -- Review

THE FIDELITY OF BETRAYAL: Towards a Church Beyond Belief. By Peter Rollins. Brewster, MA: Paraclete Press, 2008. 196 pages.

We have entered a Postmodern Age, an age where conventional wisdom and rationalism no longer reign supreme. Things have been turned upside down, requiring new ways of looking at the world, including the religious world. This new age is marked by a distinct anti-institutionalism, where the usual ways of organizing life are rejected. Because churches are institutional creatures, they come under critique in post modern analysis, as do doctrinal professions. Most interesting of all is the attractiveness of such understandings among young evangelicals.

Peter Rollins is one of those young evangelicals who is questioning the received traditions. He seeks to embrace a radical Christianity, one that in this book requires a bit of betrayal of traditional faith and practice. To give the reader a taste of what will come, Rollins begins his book with a reflection on Judas. Turning on its head the phrase “What Would Jesus Do?” Rollins asks “What Would Judas Do?” Judas is infamous for his betrayal of Jesus, and so using Judas’ act of betrayal as metaphor, Rollins asks whether Jesus would betray modern Christianity.

“Rather, by asking whether Jesus would betray Christianity as Judas betrayed Christ, I am asking if Jesus would plot the downfall of Christianity in every form it takes. Or rather, to be more precise, I am asking whether Christianity in its most sublime and revolutionary state, always demands an act of betrayal from the Faithful” (p. 6)

If we are to be faithful to the Christian faith, then perhaps we must betray it.

If to be faithful is to be a betrayer, then Judas becomes a hero of sorts. The Last Temptation of Jesus portrays Judas in just this way; in turning Jesus over to the authorities, Judas fulfills his purpose. We follow Judas’ example when we betray institutional Christianity so that it might be crucified, so that something new might be born. Judas isn’t the only betrayer to be considered. Abraham proved himself faithful in betraying his own son and then later challenging God’s decision to destroy Sodom. There’s Jacob, as well, who wrestles with God, challenging God’s authority. Throughout Scripture we read of figures challenging the status quo, the way things are supposed to be. In the end, their actions prove to further story, and become examples for us.

As one who has spent considerable time in the Evangelical world, I know that questions of biblical authority are front and center. Back in the 70's and 80's, when I was a college and seminary student, there was a much publicized “Battle for the Bible.” My own seminary was caught in the crossfire – accused of betrayal of evangelical distinctives. Its crime was that it replaced an inerrancy statement with an infallibility one. What is interesting with postmodern evangelicals, is that they’re much less concerned about arguments over inerrancy. Indeed, they tend to avoid arguments over critical study of the Bible, often taking a “pre-critical” look at the text. This decision stems from a rejection of a rationalist starting point, which they believe defines both the right and the left.

Rollins feels that it is a mistake to get caught up trying to intellectually defend factual claims for the Bible.

“As such, those institutions that advocate biblical inerrancy expend a great deal of time and energy attempting to offer explanations that will effectively reconcile any problems that they are presented within the Bible. Yet it is this very process of rational justification that makes fundamentalism a very modern phenomenon, one that sets it at odds with the more ancient tradition of inerrancy found within the church” (pp. 43-44).

Rollins accepts the need for critical study of Scripture, but he doesn’t feel it is helpful in leading one to a life of faith. More important is the devotional reading, what he calls the “second naïveté.” The purpose of this reading isn’t intellectual, but transformational. That there are conflicts in the biblical accounts shouldn’t be seen as problematic or even surprising. The purpose of the text isn’t to provide information, but rather to invite a person into the life of faith.

I am sympathetic to Rollins’ claim on the Scriptures, for I too see them as an invitation to a life of faith. I am a bit concerned, however, by what I consider a premature jump to the devotional reading. The fact that so many people are biblically illiterate suggests that we might need to spend just a bit more time on the critical issues, and then move onto the event that is the Word of God. That being said, I’m with him in his definition of the Word of God being “what the believer encounters as a presence exploding from the heart of the text, a presence that can never be captured in some confession of faith or creedal formation, no matter how beautiful or profound it may be” (p. 55). That work may require of us a certain act of betrayal, even of the words themselves.

If the Bible requires a new reading, so does our understanding of God. To understand God we must move beyond our attempts at objectifying God, and begin to engage God as a subject. Indeed, this will be an encounter between subject and subject. He begins his conversation by pointing out the ancient understandings of the name(s) of God. To know the name is to have power over God. But in the Hebrew text the name is either non-revealed or revealed in such a way that it’s impossible for one to know and manipulate the name of God. He contrasts the story of Lilith, the first woman, who seduces God, and Moses who asks God’s name but isn’t told the name, at least not exactly.

If seeking to manipulate God, by naming God, another way of domesticating God is to follow Descartes and turn God into a philosophical system. God exists, because the idea requires existence. God must exist because it is impossible to dream up something that stands beyond our ability to create. Such a God is a noun, but truth is found in God the verb, God the event. When we think of God in factual terms, who can be defined and defended, then there’s always the danger of those ideas being overturned. Borrowing from Nietzsche, Rollins asks whether the old idea of God – as a noun and factual statement needs to die. The problem with the Cartesian understanding of God is that it doesn’t lead to transformation. It doesn’t lead one to love one’s enemies. It may provide a sense of meaning, but little else.

If the Cartesian understanding must be betrayed, then we enter risky territory. We must embrace what Bonhoeffer called religionless Christianity. This idea permeates the book. Christianity, in Rollins’s mind is a religion without a religion. It is a rejection of self-centered faith. It is a faith that emerges out of love and not need. The question that we should be asking is not whether Christianity is true on a factual basis, but rather true in the way in which it affects for the good the lives it touches.

What is most profound, and perhaps both disturbing and at times confusing, is the radical dismissal of religious systems. The idea that we can have faith because of our ability systemize faith is not only questioned but rejected. Faith emerges from the event that is God. Christianity is both religious and irreligious. Structures may be necessary, but they’re also unnecessary. That’s because Christianity, at its deepest, transcends systems and structures. To be a Christian requires the willingness to betray the very system that defines faith. Doctrine isn’t primary, living life with God is primary.

If living is the center of faith, then gathering communities of faith is key. It’s not in an institutional manner, but in a radically non-institutional fashion. The focus isn’t doctrines or practices, but living with God and with one another.

“Instead of forming churches that emphasize belief before behavior and behavior before belonging, there is a vast space within the tradition to form communities that celebrate belonging to one another in the undergoing and aftermath of the miracle, a belonging that manifests itself in communally agreed rituals, creeds, and activities. In the midst of all of this these communities can also encourage lively, heated, and respectful discussions concerning the nature and form of belief” (p. 161).

What Rollins envisions is a radical form of Christianity that is willing to betray its own apparent well being in order to be faithful to God. It is a Christianity that focuses less on doctrine and institution and more on the people who inhabit the faith. It is willing to question and challenge even God, if necessary. Indeed, it may require of us to stay outside heaven in order to be faithful.

This is an intriguing book. Like others of its kind that have emerged from the Emergent movement, it suggests that the old ways of doing things is not working. There is no life in doctrinal and institutional formulations, and thus to be faithful we must abandon them – even if that requires abandoning the way we have conceived of God. In part because it is postmodern this isn’t an easy book to read and comprehend. It proves itself challenging and deep. But it will be a worthwhile read. One may wish to push back at certain points. For instance, although I’m in agreement in how Scripture might be best used in the life of faith, I sense we still need to give greater attention to the critical study of Scripture, in part because that study might break us free from the doctrinal statements that keep us from living before God in a way that is transforming of our lives and of the world itself. That being said, it is an important witness to a new way of living the Christian faith.


Anonymous said...

Post modernism is an interesting movement. You quoted earlier.. its an every 500 year event to change the crux of religion. (isn't that a rational, systematic idea? but I digress)

I find the movement has some very solid offerings to the church. Its a get off your butt.. to be blunt.. and serve the world as Christ commands. Let your life show fruit for the kingdom. There is no doubt the Evangelical church has become lazy.. pray the prayer, walk the aisle, sign a card.. are ways to get "fire insurance" from Hell, rather than a relationship with God.

HOWEVER... postmodernism seems to wrap dynamite around the pillars of faith. Does Mary have to be a virgin? Is atonement necessary? The problem is when serious questions about doctrine comes up.. postmodernism at best pass.. or worse question the whole foundation. Its this issue I am most concerned about.. and the movement dances a fine line of herasy at times.

Pastor Bob Cornwall said...

One of the reasons why I think postmodernism has made such inroads into evangelicalism is that it offers a way to have it both ways. It allows one to question traditional doctrinal perspectives, even relativising them and then accepting them as part of one's faith confession. Of course this isn't a new idea. Liberal Episcopalians, for instance, have accepted the creeds, even the 39 Articles, while questioning the "factual" basis of these same doctrines.

As for heresy, that charge has been raised.

Interesting times, though!

Mike L. said...

I've really enjoyed Peter Rollins contribution to the emerging conversation.

I find it interesting that most objections to post modernism are really the same tired old fundamentalist rejections to modern scholarship. Make note of the anonymous comment above reacting to a non-literal reading of things like virgin birth, etc. He even referenced "pillars of faith" (i.e. another way to say "fundamentalism"). The thing about the emergent movement is that because it brings people from a variety of Christian backgrounds together (from left to right) many right-wingers are hearing a robust affirmation of progressive (non-literal) biblical interpretation for the first time. In some ways, the emergent conversation has served to reopen the inerrancy wars all over again for a new generation. I'm not sure where that will lead, but history does often repeat itself.