how (not).

once again, not sure if anyone would like to take the time to read my fabulous book review for class, but just putting it out there. rather long, but maybe it is worth it…who knows.

Jen Blackwell
TC510: Theology, Pop Culture, and Emerging Church
Book Review: How (not) to Speak of God by Peter Rollins
20 February 2008

Peter Rollins bases How (not) to Speak of God on the premise, “that which we cannot speak of is the one thing about whom and to whom we must never stop speaking,” which is a brilliant merger of the two dichotomous ways of (not) speaking of God (xii). Rollins, though, proposes a distinctive way of speaking and thinking of God, one stemming from orthodoxy as “believing in the right way” verses ascribing to a sequence of right beliefs (3). It is not that Rollins is attempting to deconstruct the beliefs we hold as Christians, but rather, to present a new way of seeing these beliefs and the reason behind such beliefs.

This deconstruction arrives from the tenet that God cannot be understood completely, nor can God be defined completely. God exceeds our understanding and any attempts of defining God, thus limiting God, simply results in idolatry. The ideology from which this idolatry stems must be rejected as well. As idolatry is an inaccurate representation of the image of God, so these finite ideologies of defining God is, mentally an inaccurate representation of God. Rollins posits that our understanding of God, likened to our understanding of the world, cannot be separated from previous knowledge, experience, culture, and the demographic to which we belong. We must be rid of the preconceived notions that we maintain about God, being open to a God who is “bigger, better and different than our understanding of that God,” rather than the God in the box to which we often ascribe (19).

In expanding our understanding of God, we begin to see, as Rollins proposes, that apologetics must come to an end. Without a universal belief system about God, assent in such a fashion ceases to exist. Instead, we should exist as an aroma that draws people in and salt that evokes thirst. In so doing, we aim to provide a means for exploration and a conversation that poses questions and dialogue, without absolute answers. Rollins believes our calling, as Christians and the church, is to be a people wandering together, creating “space where God can give of God” (42). This space includes embracing doubt as a vital and inevitable aspect of faith. Instead of viewing doubt as a hindrance to faith, we ought to view it as a possibility—and probability—to affirm and inform faith.

Jesus posed doubt to the religious system of his day by employing a deconstructive approach to the religious beliefs many upheld. Jesus advocates a life of seeking and desiring, and hence, finding and receiving—the two occurring simultaneously. Jesus led and promotes a lifestyle of radical love—a love that requires one to walk not one mile, not even two, but three in excess of that which is expected. In opposition to the law of love, Jesus offers a love that dictates law—one that acts because it is compelled to do so—and a life transformed by such love, reconstructing the world with this same love.

Rollins’ position is often contrary to that which we are taught in classical theology classes. We are often taught of orthodoxy in the traditional sense in our churches, traditions, and seminaries, rather than the emerging context Rollins proposes. We are taught that if we ascribe to a set of beliefs, then we become a Christian. This view does not see faith as a destination, or as a process, rather, faith as intellectual assent to a set of beliefs. It is interesting to note that the first followers of Jesus (the disciples) were not distinguished from others by the beliefs they held; instead, they identified with and lived out a way of life modeled by Jesus, first being called followers of The Way. It is ironic that our definition of orthodoxy has deviated from its original intent.

The concept of defining God seems to be one most Christians are eager to embrace. The quest is made to determine exactly who God is through reading Scripture and other’s opinions of God, so as to define God by certain characteristics. Many times, certain characteristics of God are highlighted above all others, for example that of God being Father, creating a mental image of God acting as our Father, in the most positive light. This characteristic is welcomed, while others are rejected (such as God condoning war)—characteristics that seem incompatible with our mental image of God. Not only does this verge (or as Rollins proposes, engage in completely) on idolatry, it also excludes the mystery of God, leaving out the inconsistencies that glaringly appear when reading Scripture. It doesn’t seem that we as Christians, or the church, like or appreciate mystery. We want everything planned out—what our next meal will be, what our budget will be for the upcoming year and how it will be spent, how God will provide for _____ (fill-in-the-blank). This leaves no room for mystery, only room for God to act in the way in which we have already ascertained. It leaves little room because we have already defined God, understanding God in a certain way, having fashioned God into this idol we have envisioned.

Theology is traditionally understood to mean humanity’s concept of whom God is, or as Rollins’ states, “a human discourse that speaks of God” (21). Yet the emerging community deems it as God speaking into the human discourse. This places God at the center of the story and humanity in the periphery, God as the subject and humanity the object. This does not fit so well with our secular humanistic thinking—humanity is central to the story and controls his or her own life. Most Christians actually fall into secular humanistic thinking in regards to their individual story—failing to consider how their neglect affects the environment, how nations are engaging in genocide, unfair treatment of laborers in companies they support, and the debt trap of their capitalistic pursuits. Does this stream of thinking put God as subject and center of the discourse? It hardly seems so.

Jesus did church, if you can call it that, quite differently that we do today. Jesus posed questions; we provide answers. Jesus gave options; we give ultimatums. Jesus created space for exploration; we create a sense of the urgent. Jesus saw it as a process, a journey; we see it as a place of being, a permanent residence. Jesus instituted a life of love, mercy, and justice; we employ a life of law, ethics, and merit. Once again, the church engages in idolatry, only presenting few aspects of Jesus; thus, presenting an inaccurate view.

As I read Rollins’s take on salvation being a process (page 6), standing in opposition to most evangelical’s approach, it reminded me of the film Saved where Hillary Faye seeks to save as many people as she can, especially those she deems in need of it most, and Mary who thinks that her actions can provide salvation for those who are struggling. As this film highlights the struggles to find one’s faith—to believing the right way, Mary epitomizes the emerging community’s aim in her statement, “I mean really, when you think about it, what would Jesus do? I don’t know, but in the meantime I will be trying to figure it out [pause] together.” Attending numerous youth events over the years, I am weary of altar calls and saying a certain prayer as a means to salvation. It is not that these means are invalid, but the disconnect is over the follow-up, or lack of follow-through. It is almost as if these salvific experiences were not enough. I know such experiences can be the origin of one’s relationship with God, but I feel too much emphasis is put on the salvation experience, in much the same way Hillary Faye does. I resonate with Rollins’ idea of salvation being a process, a journey, and a way of life. I know he is not the only one who posits such a stance, but it simply came at a time when I was open to hear something alternative to my own reality.

Rollins’ speaks of the ideologies we surmise and the lack of objectivity implicit within, making us unable to accurately speak of something without the filter through which we view life. Our perceptions are tainted; nothing can be seen from a purely objective viewpoint. Obviously, I view the world differently than others, but I rarely question why. I rarely question whether my perception is accurate over that of another, pridefully assuming mine to be accurate. “Perception is reality” is a phrase I have often heard and I guess it is true because one’s perception defines their reality. It is hard for me to digest this because I come from a culture and region of the country that is fairly homogenous. I am not sure that makes a difference but it seems like it would. I have a difficult time living with the ambiguity this brings. As I have read Rollins’ work I know it would be easier to stand beside my faulty ideology and idolatrous view of God, but this is surely not best. It seems like I have some work to do in reconstructing both, embracing the mystery, and living with the ambiguity.

Rollins’ work was a good read for me—one that I read once, then skimmed again in order to process what I had read the first time. I immediately saw connections with what he said and my life—films I had just seen, conversations I had days prior, and situations I was living out at work. It is encouraging when I can see such revelations clearly before my eyes. It is not often that I see how my theological education immediately speaks into my work, my community, and my personal life. It is such that I have written about what I have learned from Rollins’ in my blog on the subjects mentioned above.

Some questions that I have after writing this book review and mulling over Rollins’ thoughts pertain to the concept of a lack of a “universal abstract system” in speaking of apologetics (36). Is the emerging community asserting that we, as individuals, have unique needs, that differ from person to person? I am sure this is the case, but my question follows: do we simply response to the aspect of God we need? Is this a self-satisfying attempt—one that is reminiscent of secular humanism—or is it reality? These are questions which linger still, unsure if they will be answered or left up to mystery of the unknown.

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