Taking notes while Pete Rolllins talks is like trying to catch lightning in a bottle. He is fast, frenetic, and staggering in his insight and oversight. Notes could never do him justice, and yet at the same time not jotting down a few highlights leaves much to be forgotten. Truly, you had to be there.
In describing Pete’s three lectures, I like Amy’s metaphor of a painter, because Rollins is nonlinear, and is in fact adding layers of nuance as he goes. Plus, he literally looks like an intense painter as he moves forward and back, and side to side, adding elements to his canvas. So I decided to just put my notes forward with as much detail as I was able to manage, and with little explanation. This won’t be very useful to someone who missed the sessions, but it might provide some reminders to someone who was there (ie., me).
Pete has a Jesusy method to his madness, though, using lots of parables to provide humor and provoke thought. Most every one of his parables were ones I had read in his books or seen in his blog (and many of which I expect to appear in his collection of parables coming this Spring), so I just left them in shorthand below.
Session 1. The problem with how we conceptualize God.
People tend to be Xian because they want something. Something external. We have no heart for it, but are only fearful or selfish. We yearn for meaning, or a way to go to heaven, or a way to avoid hell, etc. But very few people are Xian because they want God.
This is why we need to discover the tradition of anti-evangelism. If someone comes to you and wants God, don’t give them anything, don’t try to fulfill their needs. They probably don’t really want God, but comfort, happiness, etc. Like a person after a divorce, they need to regain a sense of themselves, to become happy with who they are. God is one of those things that, when you’re looking for it, you’ll never find it, but when you’re not looking for it, it will come.
Desire is not sated when you meet your beloved. When God comes near, the mystery is not made clear. The mystery is just made close to us. When your beloved arrives, in their presence you realize that your love is only beginning. So too, when you have a child, you retroactively realize that you needed them all along. We need God more, once God arrives.
Too often, we allow God to become something that we need, something that can come in from outside. God thus becomes deus ex machina, a contrived plot device (so says Bonhoeffer). God is a force from outside. So, when Bobby Ewing was killed in Dallas, they brought him back the next season by wheeling in an implausible explanation. So if you’re just bringing in God to resolve everything that’s wrong, we end up needing God less and less. So, science starts to replace God, until all we need is for God to come in and explain why there is something rather than nothing. This God simply gives a guarantee that your life is meaningful.
Desert Island parable. We need a third— God— who observes and gives meaning to our experience. You learn to desire thru the third. B/c life is a horror at times, so we need a third to explain, or give it meaning. We want to give everything eternal meaning. Voltaire said that if God didn’t exist, we would invent God.
So we need to face the possibility of the abyss, and not have God be a crutch against the possibility of meaninglessness.
When God fulfills this role of some external reality and/or guarantor of meaning, then God is reduced to an idea. This is what Nietzsche means when he says ‘God is dead’: God no longer has any transformative power, but is only an idea or a theory. Thus, we are theoretical atheists. We rely on ourselves to provide all of our needs. There is no power in God any more.
When God becomes this inner thing, we can go to church and hear revelation and not heed that revelation. Italian officer story. We hear revelation without heeding it. Parable of landlord who asks the Pastor to help his tenants. Subjectively we are concerned, but our objective interaction with the world is unaffected. The landlord doesn’t even feel any tension. It is like the ironic gesture of the disco party, where we dress up in 80s clothes and listen to disco and in so doing, mock all of it. We laugh at the social gesture while we’re engaged in that same gesture.
We sustain it thru fetishes. A fetish is something that we know is not not magical, but we treat it as if it is. We know that money doesn’t make us happier, but we live as though the opposite is true. Like a security blanket for a child, which gives comfort without actually changing anything. Taking the child’s blanket will cause a lot of anxiety, but the child’s life situation is unchanged. It’s just that the child doesn’t have the fetish to face the reality.
So Nietzsche says that alcohol and religion are the same thing. An escape from reality.
So we can let God become a crutch, deus ex machina, keeping us from facing the possibility that it’s all nothing. This belief structure allows us to live with the problems rather than engaging them. So church activities become a fetish.
Comparison to the Matrix trilogy. In the first film, we’re rooting for the freedom fighters, until we see ironic twist in the later films and realize that Zion was created by the machines. Because the machines know that we need to be allowed transgressions, and protests. Our protests are a relief valve, allowing us to vent our dissent without changing anything.
Comparison to Batman. By day he makes billions, and by night he fights for justice. By night, he engages in subjective violence. But during the day he engages in objective violence, using industry to create the systems that he fights at night. So, too, Pete’s neighborhood in Belfast is notorious, but Pete contends that the folks in the suburbs are just a higher class of criminal. In the city, folk take your stuff. In the suburbs, folks take your stuff, and expect you to thank them for it! The act of robbing a bank vs. act of founding a bank. This violence is objectified into a structure.
So too our religious activities can be like Batman. These good activities are the air vent that allow us to not question our daily activities.
So we need to take away the fetish. Parable of a fiery preacher who could pray for people and enact all of their faith. Met a rich banker, who said that his work world is cold and harsh, and he wants to be a better Xian. So preacher prays for him, to let the banker see himself as completely cold and harsh. He is disturbed, and quits his job and volunteers and nurtures a sense of compassion. Years later, he thanks the preacher for helping him find his faith.
This is Bonhoeffer’s religionless Xianity, where God is assigned a place, on the outside. In most churches, preachers are looking for dirt/sin in the people in their flock. So faith is privatized. So let’s deny God entirely. We want a leader to tell us what to do, so we don’t have to take responsibility for ourselves. By denying God, God becomes present in everything— God is in the naked stranger, the child, etc. Prohibition is the thing that generates the interest in that which is prohibited (eg., Ted Haggard preaching against homosexuality). But Paul says that God’s revelation is written on our hearts.
Nuggets from Q & A
Anti evangelism: the band Sigur Ros invented a language, Hoplandic. Which still stirs you, though it has no obj
ective meaning. So too evangelism is a ministry of pure presence. Each of us is an instrument of each other’s conversion. So, instead of arguing toward answers and certainty, admit doubts, and the other will do the same and the two of you can dialog about those doubts and truly seek God.
Two rabbis parable: God speaks to finally resolve their long debate about a Hebrew text, and they send him away. Xianity is not about belief but about belonging. We need to dialog and debate and wrestle with God.
Ikon (Pete’s community) has five coordinates for navigation. But you never get there or find an absolute connection. Failure is one of these coordinates. ‘Failure’ is meant in two ways: Allowing ourselves to be judged by Xiantiy, to allow it to reveal our failures. Also, half of what you do is rubbish, and will be judged a failure— embrace that reality.