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‘Emergent church’ theologian Peter Rollins brings provocative message to EMU

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There is a scene in the 1993 movie Cool Runnings in which, on the eve of the Jamaican bobsled team’s improbable shot at Winter Olympics glory, the team’s coach – a disgraced former bobsledder stripped of a gold medal for cheating – offers a bit of final advice to his unlikely protégé.

“A gold medal is a wonderful thing,” the coach says. “But if you’re not enough without one, you’ll never be enough with one.”

In church, lessons like these are often taught about all sorts of worldly accomplishments: the dream job, the big raise, the right friends. This week at EMU, an influential theological writer in the emergent church movement, Peter Rollins, delivered a similar message about God, who, Rollins argued, is too often (and falsely) imagined as an idol capable of providing true wholeness and fulfillment.

Sin – from denying pain of life?

Rollins, originally from Northern Ireland and now living in New York, argued that sin is the result of everyone’s relentless drive to escape the pain of being alive, regardless of whether relief is sought in drink, in friends or in the church. Salvation, then, doesn’t come from attaining closeness to God and relief from pain, but rather by embracing that pain of being alive and letting go of our drive to heal it.

“Religion helps us avoid facing up to our brokenness and troubles … [and] that is devastating,” said Rollins, during his chapel presentation. “We need to have spaces where we can be open about the places where we’re suffering.”

Rollins, whose most recent book is titled The Idolatry of God: Breaking Our Addiction to Certainty and Satisfaction, also hosted a “talk back” at the Common Grounds coffeehouse, spoke at the year’s first University Colloquium, visited classes and led an evening conversation hosted by EMU’s Freethought Coalition.

At the colloquium, Rollins criticized contemporary religion’s tendency to place itself right beside competing products in a “vending machine” that purports to offer people various paths to fulfill our primal desire for wholeness. What the church should be doing, he said, is taking a sledgehammer to that vending machine and disabusing us of the idea that we’ll ever be whole. (During chapel, Rollins criticized the church for getting people “drunk on sermons” and on God to distract them from the reality that everyone “will die and never be again” and everyone we love “will die a cold death.”)

Community based on love

During his coffeehouse talk, Rollins said he finds hope in building a community in the present – not in some next world or afterlife – where love exists among people who embrace their collective and individual hurts.

Rollins’ ideas have become influential in the emergent church movement, which offers critiques of religious institutions and traditions that cut across denominational and ideological lines. This criticism can be as applicable to seemingly counter-cultural religious institutions like EMU as they are to mainstream Christianity.

Christian Early, professor of philosophy and theology, noted that Rollins’ “version of being counter-cultural would be different from the ones we are most used to hearing.”

While Anabaptist traditions may emphasize alternative ways of living and thinking about God, they often still reinforce the notion of longing for wholeness.

“Rollins argues that you instead learn to live with being human, being broken, being, in a sense, unfulfilled. And in the shared humanity of that, you find true fulfillment,” said Early. “The move that needs to happen is not that you abandon being a Mennonite or being an Anabaptist, but that you hold it differently…. It’s something that’s really important for us to wrestle with.”

The value of the “light of inquiry”

Thomas Millary, a junior and co-president of the Freethought Coalition, said he admires Rollins’ call to embrace, rather than trying to escape, the brokenness that everyone experiences in life, and hopes Rollins’ visit will spark wider conversation on campus about finding joy and community in the midst of pain.

“This campus could really benefit from dialogue about faith and [Christianity] from a perspective like Peter’s,” said Millary, who founded the Freethought Coalition to provide a space for honest exploration and discussion of difficult or controversial topics.

When introducing Rollins at the University Colloquium, Provost Fred Kniss said that inviting Rollins to present his provocative ideas at EMU offered the university the opportunity for self-reflection.

“It’s important that our basic assumptions are not just taken for granted, but that they are held up to the light of inquiry, that they are examined,” Kniss said.

4 Responses to "‘Emergent church’ theologian Peter Rollins brings provocative message to EMU"

  1. Evan says:

    Yes, excellent summary of a wonderful visit. I was so glad to see Peter at EMU! I think he is a better anabaptist than most anabaptists, and I think his unique philosophy of religion, his wonderful high Christology, is exactly what the Anabaptist founders would have wanted to articulate if only they had had the language to do so.

    I know some on campus felt challenged and scared — yes, giving up the idea of heaven as “pie in the sky when you die by and by” — some eternal choir practice that drags on and on and on — can be traumatic. But we can’t even begin to actually live the life of the spirit, let alone love God, until we’ve been deprogrammed and disabused of the cult of fundamentalism. I mean, who would want to live forever? We can’t even enjoy the life we’ve got! The problem that Peter exposes is exactly this short-circuit in the psychology of fundamentalism. We need self-examination more than anything!

    Thank you Peter Rollins, Christian Early, Thomas Millary, Fred Kniss!

    • Todd W Frederick says:

      This whole emergent church thing and ”leaders”, such as Peter Rollins, is proof of what the Apostle Peter stated in II Peter 2:1 – ”But there were false prophets also among the people, even as there shall be false teachers among you, who privily shall bring in damnable heresies, even denying the Lord that bought them, and bring upon themselves swift destruction.” – KJV. Also, the Chief Apostle [Jesus Christ] had this word of prophesy, recorded in Matthew 7:15, for our Church Era: ”Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves.” – KJV.

      In all of Rollins’ Rant about ”fundamentalist Christianity” and his ideas for the Church, there was no mention [or reminders] that Jesus called for Christians to be the salt of the earth [Matthew 5:13] and said, ”Ye are the light of the world. A city that is set on an hill cannot be hid.” [Matthew 5:14] – KJV. Furthermore, Rollins’ misses the point that the LORD God requires of us to ”…be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God.” [Romans 12:2] KJV.

      The theme that Rollins kept reiterating was ”What the church should be doing, he said…” The role and purposes are already laid out in Holy Writ, which is our sole and final authority over life and godliness. Peter Rollins is setting himself up as some type of modern day apostle of God but in ”reality” he is listening to the ”angel of light” [”And no marvel; for Satan himself is transformed into an angel of light.” – II Corinthians 11:14 – KJV.

      Rollins, and all other emergent neologians, leave out the efficacy of the Lord Jesus Christ’s literal shed blood on the cross to cover and remit full payment [to God the Father] for our sins’ debt to be removed, forever! Hallelujahs be unto the God that sitteth upon the throne in heaven forever!! Selah!!

      Another way to state the importants of Christ’s shed blood is found in the quote by Spurgeon: ”The Blood of Jesus is able to save thee, because “He died, the Just for the unjust.” But some will say, “Whence has the Blood of Christ such power to save?”
      Because Christ Himself was God. If Christ were man only, there would be no efficacy in His blood to save. The Lamb was slain every year, but Christ, once for all, hath put away sin by the offering of Himself. He has said, “It is finished.” Let that ring in our ears. The Blood of Jesus Christ is Blood that hath been accepted. Christ died, He was buried; but neither Heaven nor earth could tell whether God had accepted the ransom. Until God had signed the warrant for acquittal of all His people, Christ must abide in the bonds of death. But now is Christ risen. The blood was accepted, and sin was forgiven.” Well stated by a true fundamentalist Baptist Englishman, aye?!

      As being a Baptist with Irish roots, I am disgusted with Rollins and all of these other contemporary ecumenists that are being much leaven into the Church in these last days to be sure that the lump is whole [pardon the pun!] but biblically it is so. Quoting Jesus: ”Another parable spake he unto them; The kingdom of heaven is like unto leaven, which a woman took, and hid in three measures of meal, till the whole was leavened.” [Matthew 13:33 - KJV]
      and lastly, for now, ”… he [Jesus] did not many mighty works there [applicable today in the apostate emergent church] because of their unbelief.” Matthew 13:58 – KJV.

      EMU and other Christian higher learning institutions, ”Repent therefore of this thy wickedness, and pray God, if perhaps the thought of thine heart may be forgiven thee.” [Acts 8:22 - KJV]

      In Christ,
      Todd

  2. Rick says:

    Peter Rollins is clearly a false prophet preaching to those who would rather have their ears tickled than to hear the truth of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Christ is King of Kings and Lord of Lords and EMU and Mr. Rollins will answer to Him one day!

    Isa 8:19 And when they say to you, “Inquire of the mediums and the necromancers who chirp and mutter,” should not a people inquire of their God? Should they inquire of the dead on behalf of the living?
    Isa 8:20 To the teaching and to the testimony! If they will not speak according to this word, it is because they have no dawn.

  3. Evan says:

    This just goes to show. EMU has a choice: go back to being a bible-thumping college or move into being a real university.