Recovering from Bad Religion: Rollins Summary 1

I recently started a new community discussion group, “Recovering from Bad Religion.” Here’s the Facebook event description:

Mahatma Gandhi once said, “I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.” Have you experienced toxic or abusive religion? Many in America grow-up in churches that preach “fire and brimstone.” They tell us that a wrathful God watches our every move, and if we fail to live according to a strict moral code then God will punish us with eternal torment. The church derives this moral code, along with a list of required doctrines, from a literal reading of the Bible that is often anti-intellectual, anti-science, and anti-gay. This leaves many feeling like they must disavow everything they learned in college to be a Christian. Many cannot stomach this authoritarianism, so they leave the church and become agnostic, atheist, or “spiritual but not religious.” However, there is a different way of being Christian. This discussion group will provide a safe space to explore more loving and thoughtful alternatives.


After our meet and greet on 1/17, we held our first discussion this past Tuesday on the Introduction and Chapter One of The Idolatry of God by Peter Rollins. In order to help those in the discussion group, I will be posting chapter summaries. By doing this on my blog, I hope to extend the conversation beyond Cocoa Beach. Feel free to jump in with comments, but please keep them thoughtful, polite, and kind. If you feel a compulsive need to correct perceived heresy or save the souls of participants with whom you don’t agree, this is probably not the right place for you. Comments that are not respectful, kind, and genuinely open to dialogue will be deleted.

Without further adieu, here is the first summary.

The Thesis of the Book

The main argument in The Idolatry of God is that most mainstream Christianity has turned God into an idol. Instead of admitting the truth of our human condition—that life is difficult and that satisfaction and certainty will always elude us—we turn God into a product that promises to satisfy all our longing, render us complete, remove our suffering, and give us the answers to all life’s problems. Like all idolatry, this leads to slavery and misery. In contrast, if we can get honest about what it means to be a human being in this world and let go of idols that promise certainty and satisfaction, then we can develop an authentic faith that empowers us to “joyfully embrace our brokenness, resolutely face our unknowing, and courageously accept the difficulties of existence.” Only then, can we enter the fullness of life and be a more loving, active manifestation of Christ’s love in this world. In other words, we don’t seek salvation from uncertainty and satisfaction, we find it amid these things.

Introduction: The Apocalypse Isn’t Coming, It Has Already Arrived

In the Introduction, Rollins argues that mainstream Christianity has become another false (idolatrous) promise: if you accept Jesus as your personal savior then he will remove all doubt and replace it with certainty, and he will remove all brokenness and replace it with wholeness. Salvation is construed as an escape from uncertainty and dissatisfaction and the promise to fulfill our deepest longings. While this logic is most clearly seen in the so-called “prosperity gospel,” which overtly promises believers health, wealth, and worldly success, Rollins argues that it’s much more widespread, but in subtler forms.

According to Rollins, this is a false form of religion, what Karl Marx called “the opiate of the masses,” that functions as a carrot on a stick (a promise perpetually deferred) and drives us through life without ever really changing anything. In contrast, he asks, what if salvation is not about fulfilling the desires that we take for granted, but changing what we desire and how we desire? Instead of fulfilling our hopes and dreams, what if Jesus is trying to change what we hope for and what we dream about? Rollins says:

For what if we cannot grasp the manner in which Christ is the solution to the problem of our darkness and dissatisfaction precisely because he isn’t the solution? What if, instead of being the solution (i.e., the one who offers a way for us to gain certainty and satisfaction), he actually confronts us as a problem, a problem that places every attempt to find a solution for these ailments into question . . . . what is Christ does not fill the empty cup we bring to him but rather smashes it to pieces, bringing freedom, not from our darkness and dissatisfaction, but freedom from our felt need to escape them? (4)

So instead of saving us from uncertainty and dissatisfaction, maybe we are saved within our ongoing experience of these things. In a way reminiscent of Paul Tillich, Rollins envisions salvation as the cultivation of a courageous faith capable of confronting, embracing, and saying ‘amen’ to uncertainty and dissatisfaction (5). Instead of finding salvation by escaping our humanity, we find salvation amid our humanity.

Chapter 1: The Church Shouldn’t Do Worship Music, the Charts Have It Covered

The main purpose of this chapter is to describe “a lack” (emptiness, discontent, unfulfilled longing, sense of loss or separation) at the heart of human existence, which originates in the process of coming to self-awareness. It also describes the feeling that there is something just beyond our reach that might help fill this void.

We tend to think that our discontent is the result of something that we don’t currently have, but if we had “it” then the void would be filled and we would finally be happy. The “it” could be just about anything: money, possessions, power, fame, admiration, a better job, a thinner body, a whiter smile, a more passionate sex life, etc.

The problem, however, is that we know people who have what we think we need to be happy, and they still experience the lack. Even more troubling, when we actually get what we hope will remove our discontent, we soon discover that it’s still there! This leads us to imagine that while our newest acquisition didn’t fill the void, there is still something else just beyond our grasp that will. More grasping results in more disappointment, which results in more grasping. A self-perpetuating vicious cycle ensues that renders even the most well-meaning person a slave. As we feed our appetite for satisfaction, it gets stronger and more destructive. (Think of the dynamics of addiction.)

At the end of the day, “this belief in something that would finally bring satisfaction is nothing more than a fantasy we create, a fantasy that fuels the obsessive drive . . .” to acquire and consume more objects and experiences that we think will fix us. But it’s like playing a rigged casino game—it never really works, and the more we try to make it work the more attached, enslaved, and miserable we become.

Rollins goes on to make the radical claim that almost the entire existing church has been co-opted and corrupted by the same logic: (1) You are separated from God by sin. (2) This is the cause of a deep sense of dissatisfaction and uncertainty, (3) If you accept Jesus as your personal Lord and Savior and lead a life of spiritual discipline, then God will permanently remove the void, utterly satisfy your deepest desires, and give you absolute certainty.

According to Rollins, this is how God is transformed into another product to be sold that promises to take away all your pain and make you whole. This is how God is turned into an idol and sold in a flourishing Christian industry of books, worship music, conferences, church services, etc. What we desire stays the same, how we desire stays the same, the promise of satisfaction and certainty stays the same, we just switch-out the terms. So instead of trusting more money, a better looking spouse, or a more attractive body to remove the void and give us a sense of total satisfaction, preachers hold out the same promise with more faithful church attendance, increased tithing, and a more disciplined devotional life (which, of course, requires the newest book or latest worship album).

In contrast, what is needed is not another recapitulation of the same old story, which reinforces a false (idolatrous) narrative and keeps us stuck in self-destructive consumption. Rather, we need a genuine alternative to this way of seeing the world, a more authentic way of developing a life of meaning and value. We need a radically different way of understanding Christianity that will enable us to be a more loving, active manifestation of Christ’s love in this world. As we will see, this alternative vision can be found in the New Testament, if we have eyes to see.


It’s Dangerous to Read the Bible Too Literally: The Seeds of Religious Extremism

Civilization is being challenged by religious extremists around the world: violent invasions, the seizing of land and property, public executions, taking women captive as sex slaves, tearing down sacred places of worship, and destroying irreplaceable cultural artifacts. We read reports of public floggings, the imprisonment of women who are the victims of rape, the abuse of the heterodox, and the cutting off of people’s hands for petty crimes like stealing. Most of us in the West become indignant, protest the uncivilized nature of these practices, and even sign online petitions to make our voice heard. As Christian communities in the West get news about other Christians being intentionally targeted and slaughtered in the most barbaric ways, we feel a special connection that generates empathy for the victims and rage against the perpetrators. We are tempted to think that Christianity is a religion of love and peace that serves as a civilizing force in society, while Islam is a religion of terrorism, hatred, and violence. Armed with the conviction that we are good and they are bad, our hatred is emboldened and we become blind to the seeds of the same kind of extremism and violence in our own sacred texts.

Almost every single abhorrent practice that we condemn in Islamic extremism is found in the Jewish and Christian scriptures. There are too many examples to cite in a short blog post, but I implore you to actually read your Bible. It is astonishing to me how so many people claim to argue a “biblical perspective” who have never actually done a careful reading of the Old and New Testaments (and according to orthodox Christianity, both testaments are constitutive of Christian scripture). In fact, it is my humble opinion that the idea of a “biblical view” has almost entirely been coopted by the religious right to perpetuate positions that are anything but biblical. As one small example in support of my claim, I would invite you to read Deuteronomy 20-21 (and if you have time, go ahead and read through chapter 26). Here we read about brutal behavior that is not only considered permissible but commanded by God. By combining a sense of manifest destiny as God’s chosen people with a strict application of lex talionis and a worldview shaped by a system of purity that requires the purging of all that is “unclean,” the author paints a picture of merciless conquest. We see the total annihilation of holy war: “[regarding the people in the land] that the LORD your God is giving you as an inheritance, you must not let anything that breathes remain alive. You shall annihilate them . . .” (Deut. 20:16-17). This supposed divine command includes the murder of women and children! Regarding other neighboring nations, we see violent invasion and conquest, along with practices such as seizing property, forced slave labor of occupied people, taking women as captives and raping them to make them unwilling wives, tearing down places of worship, and destroying religious artifacts. As we continue reading in Deuteronomy we find other barbaric practices commanded by God such as the public execution by stoning of rebellious children (21:18-21), women who have sex before marriage (22:20-21), and anyone caught in adultery (22:22). We see racism in the exclusion of some people from worship (and presumably salvation?)(23:1ff), divine sanction for public floggings, and dismemberment as a punishment for petty crimes. Again, almost everything that we condemn as barbaric and hateful in our protests against Islamic extremism is found in our own scared texts if we read them too literally!

And this is exactly what I want to focus on: One of the primary drivers of religious extremism is the reading of sacred texts too literally. This has been pointed-out repeatedly by scholarly assessments of ISIS. For example, in the article written by Bernard Haykel in the Princeton Alumni Weekly (see link below) we are reminded that “The Islamic State is a Jihadi-Salafi movement, which means that its members adhere to a strict literalist interpretation of the texts of the Quran and the sayings of the Prophet Muhammad.” Wherever you find religious extremism that uses exclusion, violence, and fear to accomplish its purposes you will almost always find a literalist reading of sacred texts. While this is not the only cause of violent extremism, it is an important one.

While condemning Islamic extremism, certain fundamentalist Christians in America are stealing from their playbook to establish a kind of Christian extremism (although in most [but not all] cases it looks different from ISIS because it is tempered by Western values so as to be “respectable”).  Most Christians in America, want to ignore almost all of the Old Testament laws until an ideological bear is poked! For example, people that are already abhorred by certain sexual practices (e.g. homosexuality or cross-dressing) will slog through a forest of divine commands and prohibitions in the OT that they quickly dismiss as outdated, barbaric, disagreeable, or impractical in contemporary society to find the one or two verses (a splinter in the forest!) that supports their preconceived judgement. They bypass a litany of laws (especially things that question our financial systems, like the prohibition of charging interest on loans [23:19ff]), to hone in on the one or two verses that will give their position divine support. Why completely ignore the exclusion of men with crushed testicles from worshipping in the temple (23:1), but elevate as an immutable and context-invariant holy law the prohibition of cross dressing (22:5)? My main objective here is not to make arguments for or against cross-dressing (or any other behavior you might dislike), so please do not respond with straw man or red herring fallacies. Rather, my objective is to point out that a ferocious insistence on a literal reading of scripture is almost always in defensive of moral judgements and ideologies that have been developed quite independently of the Bible. In this way, carefully selected parts of scripture (not the full tenor of scripture) are elevated as the literal, infallible, immutable word of God insofar as these parts can be used to support my view of morality and the world. There are serious dangers in reading the Bible too literally no matter what religion we are talking about.

To make matters worse, most of our laity don’t know any other way to read scripture! Most interpret the Bible the same way they did in their sixth grade Sunday school class. Their bodies and minds mature as they get older, but they remain a child in their faith because no one was brave enough to stretch them. Pastors in my tradition (UMC) who attend one of our reputable seminaries are trained in biblical and theological hermeneutics.  All who are ordained as Elder or Deacon (or appointed as a Local Pastor) must take theology exams, and one of the questions is about the authority and interpretation of scripture. I would propose to all those on the Boards of Ordained Ministry that this is perhaps the most important question candidates will answer, and is a significant indicator of the kinds of ministries they will lead. But despite their training, many pastors will not teach alternative interpretive methods because this is almost always met with staunch resistance and takes an enormous amount of wisdom and patience. As a result, most give up trying and simply capitulate to a populist interpretation of scripture that is heavily weighted toward a literal reading in service to eisegesis (instead of exegesis). Too many of our pastors fail the laity in this regard. It is true that some people will have a vile reaction when you try to lead them in a new interpretive direction. Some of those people will personally reject you and leave your church. But many are emotionally and spiritually mature enough to sit with the discomfort of change and challenge and to learn a different way of reading. Think about your response to the seminary professor who called your beliefs into question and the freedom that you felt when alternative views became live options and real possibilities.

Pastor, are you courageous enough to take a stand against dangerous readings of scripture, no matter how popular they might be and no matter how risky taking such a stand might be to your career? Are you loving enough to patiently lead laity out of the desert of an overly literal reading of scripture, even if it takes forty years, even if these ideas don’t click until the next generation? Don’t abdicate your responsibilities to teach people that you don’t have to read scripture literally in order to take it seriously.