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

Part 3 of The Idolatry of God concerns the Church, or what Rollins calls “the New Collective.”  This community, rather than being a religious crack house, refuses to worship the Idol which would give us certainty and satisfaction.  Instead, this community is marked by an attempt to look through the eyes of the Other in order to see ourselves.  It is by embodying this act of love that we indirectly love God.  The strategies of tribalism (consumption, vomiting, toleration, and agreement) are rejected in favor of liturgies that place ourselves (and our beliefs, practices and desires) into question.  As Rollins has noted previously, this existential embrace of the Other cannot be an intellectual exercise.  It is simply not enough to tell ourselves and others that we are open to learning, challenging and developing our ideas.  Rather, we must willingly put ourselves in places where we can encounter those who differ from us.  This is more difficult than we recognize, for we can pretend to meet the Other merely for the sake of emboldening our own ideology.  As an example of this, Rollins uses a famous story in Blue Like Jazz by Donald Miller, but I won’t spoil it for you.  While we can handle being wrong on the edges of our beliefs, we cannot handle having our foundation challenged.  Yet this is precisely what are called to do.  One might even consider this an act of discipleship, though Rollins does not use that term.

So how can this be done?  We must first begin by reflecting on “what we read, whom we engage seriously with, and who our friends are” (154).  The fact is, we have multiple mediums that we surround ourselves with in order to defend our narrative.  Rollins is especially critical of intellectual idolatry – the desire to have all the answers.  Yet the God of Christianity is precisely not one to maintain a God’s-eye-view of the world.  If we are to become like God, we must become human.  We must celebrate our finitude, our limits, and accept the mystery that we are immersed in.  This is the meaning of faith – to accept our brokenness rather than escape from it.  The “New Collective” is designed specifically to provide a space for social encounters that help us to discover where we have absolutized our selves and our opinions about the nature of reality and God, and to let those parts of ourselves die in and through the encounters.

Rollins describes a number of “Dis-Courses” that were designed by him in conjunction with his work in Belfast, Ireland through the Ikon community.  Some of the discourses are designed to help us encounter the views of others, whereas others are supposed to challenge Christianity more directly.  That is all I want to say about them, because, as one friend commented, this review has probably revealed so much as to “obviate the need to read the book.”


As a self-professed Barthian (yes, there are indeed such things, despite Barth’s supposed wishes that there should not be), Idolatry of God comes as the fourth book in a series which have led me out of Barth into the realm of postmodern philosophy and radical theology.  This began with a little-known book by Ronald Gregor Smith, entitled “Secular Christianity,” which relies on the apocalyptic theology of Rudolf Bultmann and Friedrich Gogarten to interpret Bonhoeffer’s “religionless Christianity” in his  “Papers and Letters from Prison.”  While I’m not well-versed in everything that was happening in the 60’s surrounding Bonhoeffer and secularism, I know that Smith was joined by Harvey Cox and Gibson Winter, et al,  in attempting to describe an incognito Christian existence.  What also appears to have been born alongside this movement is the Death of God theology of Gabriel Vahanian, Paul Van Buren, William Hamilton, John A.T. Robinson, Thomas J. J. Altizer, John D. Caputo, and the rabbi Richard L. Rubenstein.  I’m not aware of how much cross-pollination occurs between these two movements, but it seems that Rollins has become a contemporary voice for aspects of both these movements today.  Rollins acknowledges Jacques Lacan, Slavoj Zizek, Bruce Fink, Paul Hessert, and Frederiek Depoortere as instrumental for the Idolatry of God.  My biggest criticism of Rollins is the same one I have for Rob Bell – citations!  Rollins does not cite his sources beyond extended quotes of Bonhoeffer and Lacan.  Most of what he is writing I have later found out is an echo of what has been previously said but forgotten.  Rollins is skilled communicator and writer, but he is more than an Irish Rob Bell.  He is not a wanna-be scholar – he is a scholar!  IoG really could have benefited from the use of endnotes, if nothing more than to show his research from overwhelming the average layperson.

That said, I would not have gone google-searching all of these authors and attempting to understand the lay of the land had it not been for Rollins, and so I’m grateful for his capacity to open up new vistas of thought.  There is a bigness to his thinking that is severely needed, and the fact that he can write as a practitioner of his ideas is extremely refreshing.

What has been accomplished in this book?  I think the beginning is the true gamechanger, because the fact of the matter is that when you change the problem, you change the solution.  When you define the problem of sin as the illusion of a separation from ourselves and others, you must define salvation as the exposure/revelation of this illusion.  Despite my long-held insistence that theology must always begin axiomatically with the Gospel, this axiom itself is a foundation that has been rendered empty by my encounter with Rollins.  For while it may be true, it is a truth that is held foundationally, unquestioned.  What is the nature of this Gospel?  It seems that life experience of pain and suffering gives rise to certain problems of our existence, which are the bread and butter of our doctrines of sin.  Despite Barth’s attempt to use the Gospel as an Absolute Ideal (even if it is only revealed and not naturally evident), everybody does theology from the bottom-up.  It’s just that everyone has a different bottom.

Rollins is clear that he is working from the context of Belfast, as someone who was lured into the magic of pentecostal worship, and who even maintains an appreciation for that experience.  While owning his context, there is something in his critique that cuts against much more than his own experience – and this can be attributed to his Lacanian description of much thinking in the West.  For instance, I decided to attend an atheist gathering through in my neighborhood.  As I watched the group castigating Christianity, I smiled not only because of the whole “I don’t believe in that God either,” but because I was seeing how the Other as enemy can be such a powerful unifying force.  And yet, as a Presbyterian pastor, I was the enemy.  Later on, I shared Rollin’s point about Lacan – that we all are under the illusion that there is a void that we must fill, and so we fill it with all sorts of things – God, possessions, careers, family, etc.  This insight, which all of a sudden holds more than just religion accountable for its psychological function, had a powerful effect in the room.  Things were not as neat and tidy as previously thought.

This book is probably the most disruptive of Rollins work, precisely because its material content is exposed.  I applaud Rollins for showing us what’s under the hood.  But he hasn’t shown us everything.  The length of his book suggests very careful strategy to only reveal pieces at a time.  I imagine he lost quite a few interested readers on the fence with this one.  How could you not when you describe the God that Jesus is crying out to on the cross as the Idol itself?!  But then again, why not see where this thought takes you?  Slippery slopes are the most adventurous ones.  I’ve realized that my trepidation in writing the review of this book had to do with the fact that I take my beliefs and opinions too seriously.  It’s ok not to know what one thinks.  In fact, it would be best to admit that in order to live this life to the fullest.  And it might mean that we make some unlikely friends along the way.