Review: The Idolatry of God by Peter Rollins (Part 1 of 3)

by Chris TerryNelson


The Idolatry of God: Breaking Our Addiction to Satisfaction and Certainty. By Peter Rollins. New York, NY: Howard Books, 2012, 208 pages.

In his new book, The Idolatry of God, Peter Rollins unveils the positive content driving his deconstructive moves in previous books, such as Insurrection (2011), The Fidelity of Betrayal (2008), and How (Not) To Speak of God (2006).  I will focus my review on the logic of this content, and leave the juicy cultural tidbits and parables for the reader to digest on their own.  Needless to say, Rollins never disappoints in the latter department.  The former, however, does leave me with a slight (and ironic) sense of lack.

As the book’s subtitle indicates, Rollins is interested in breaking our addiction to certainty and satisfaction.  The first third of the book, entitled “The Old Creation” is all about the origins of this addiction.  In his wonderfully titled first chapter, “The Church Shouldn’t Do Worship Music, the Charts Have It Covered,” Rollins explores the source of our desire. Using Jacques Lacan’s development theory of “mirror phase,” he points to the way in which we all undergo two births: a physical birth, and the birth of our consciousness (between 6-18 months).  This second birth is where we experience a separation from our mother, developing selfhood, but also introducing our first sense of loss.  In being given an “I” (an inner world), we also experience for the first time a “Not-I” (an outer world). 

But as Rollins quickly points out, this sense of loss is an illusion.  “Why? Because there was no ‘me’ before this experience of separation … The very birth of our subjectivity then signals a sense of losing something that we never had in the first place” (13-14).  Rollins calls this illusory gap “Original Sin,” and describes how it generates many beliefs and actions that attempt to fill the gap with objects (what he calls “Idols”). The problem, as we all experience, is that this insatiable hunger is never filled by our Idolatry.  It turns out, not even God can fill it, though Christian worship bands do not want you to know this.  But the reason God can’t/won’t fill the void is because it is an illusion in the first place.  Here, it’s worth noting that Rollins is working with a significantly altered form of privation-theory.  What distinguishes Lacan from Augustine is that Lacan believes this privation is, again, an illusion.  

The Law, in turn, as a prohibition of whatever object/idol we chase, actually has the unintended affect of intensifying our desire to fill the illusory gap.  In saying “no” to the object (perhaps in deference to God as the only Object worth loving), the Law actually maintains the system of idolatry.  “While people tend to think that the Law and sin existed at opposite ends of the spectrum – the Law being the thing that defended us against sin – Paul writes of how they actually are intertwined and exist on the same side” (29).

Yet even when the object/idol is not prohibited but comes into our grasp, its impotence to fill our illusory void becomes apparent, giving the void greater power over us.  We intuitively know this, which puts us in a double-bind.  This is why many will unconsciously sabotage themselves to prevent themselves from grasping the idol once and for all, which would only reveal its impotence.  Furthermore, the ego is constructed as a self of Unbelief that will refuse to peer behind the curtain, where the real beliefs about our selves exist.  The ego focuses us on a new story, in which we are in control of our destiny.  These new mythologies spin out an identity that is political, cultural and especially religious.  The larger mythologies that we participate in become levels of ego that create our social norms, providing us a place and purpose.

However, Jesus, despite being commodified for the purpose of religious self-denial by many Christians, actually becomes most angry in the Gospels when he encounters those who present themselves as right, good and moral.  In contrast, Jesus is gentle with those who show no pretense.  In order to have our pretense broken, we must intentionally put ourselves in places where we encounter different mythologies that challenge the absoluteness of our own.  The problem is that we handle the mythologies of the others in four ways: (1) by consuming them into ourselves; (2) by vomiting them out of ourselves; (3) by tolerating their existence while denying or suppressing their differences; (4) by aiming for base agreement.  Rollins says that all of these responses assume a position of strength, and we see the church today utilizing all four of them.  What the church really needs to do, for Rollins, is to assume the posture of Christ with regard to its own mythology, so that we stop viewing the Other as strange and alien, and to begin viewing ourselves as strange and alien.  This will become an instrumental for the ecclesiology that Rollins sets up in the last third of the book (“The New Collective”).  


I will post Part 2 of my review in the next few days.