When many people become Christians, they feel a sense of euphoria, a hope that their problems will now be solved because God is with them and they know it. That was certainly the way I felt when I started to take my Christian faith seriously. I knew that with perseverance and prayer (and perseverance in prayer), I could find the answers to all my questions and the solutions to all my problems. I just had to pray right and do right and everything would fall into place. If it didn’t, God was no doubt trying to teach me something. And if my problems persisted, I’d still have the next world to look forward to.
But like a lot of people, I eventually learned that life, even (especially?) the Christian life doesn’t operate by tidy and easy-to-follow rules. Life is more complicated than that, and God is even bigger and more complex than life is! I had turned my idea of God into an idol. And I’m not the first—or the last—Christian to do that. It’s a common phenomenon.
Theologian Peter Rollins explores this kind of journey in his new book The Idolatry of God: Breaking Our Addiction to Certainty and Satisfaction. Rollins says that, starting in infancy, we all develop mythologies about the way the world works:
Mythologies are overarching stories that tell us why we are here, where we are going, and what we are supposed to do. The problem arises when we fully identify with these mythologies, viewing them as a complete and accurate description of who are are and how the world works—in other words, when it becomes a mask that covers the truth of our anxiety and unknowing. Instead of facing up to the reality that we are fragile human beings who are faced with mystery and suffering, these narratives help us prop up the fantasy that we are in control of our destinies and are masters of our actions.
Many people find ways to deny the flaws in their mythologies—or they come to rebel against those mythologies, a tactic that doesn’t reduce the influence of those mythologies because, as Rollins notes, “that which we oppose is that which we define ourselves against.” Rollins says that a better approach is to embrace the questions and the challenges, to realize that there’s much we cannot understand.
In this book, Rollins attempts to reframe the traditional Christian understanding of Original Sin, Law, and Idolatry. He also explores different understandings of universalism and salvation. (You can see a sample of this latter discussion at his blog.) His ideas go against the grain of a lot of traditional Christian thinking, but it struck me as I was reading is that not a lot of it is totally new—most of the originality comes in the way he redefines various Christian terms whose meaning has become distorted over the years to the point of being useless. (I know what I mean when I talk about sin, but not everyone means what I mean, which makes the term nearly useless.)
Because Rollins is doing so much reimagining, his arguments do not always make obvious and intuitive sense. He helps readers along by offering parables, pop culture references, and stories to illustrate his point. And the pop culture references cover lots of ground. You’ve got Miami Vice, Austin Powers, and The Bridges of Madison County all in the space of a few pages. He finds lessons in the popular fascination with zombies—a zombie “expresses pure human drive without the social and psychological constraints that keep it in check.” And he draws from Karl Marx, John Stuart Mill, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer.
One of the things I appreciated about this book is that it didn’t keep me nodding in agreement (though I agreed with a lot of it), nor did it put me into an argumentative mode (though I question bits and pieces of his argument). Instead, it made me think about old ideas in new ways. I’ve only touched on a handful of those ideas here.