‘The Idolatry of God’ breaks down dangerous ideas about God

Peter Rollins’ publishers have certainly found a branding image that works for them. The back of “The Idolatry of God” describes his message as “incendiary,” a plug for another book of his describes the author as a theological “firebrand” and Rollins himself co-founded a group dedicated to “pyro-theology.”

Flames seem to spring up wherever Rollins goes, and both he and those responsible for marketing him seem to want to capitalize on this image and its radical connotations.

It remains to be seen if the latest crop of radical theologians, of whom Rollins is arguably the most visible, will be able to gain a mass following in the Western Church. “The Idolatry of God,” in about 200 pages, is positioned as a salvo against religious certainties of all stripes and affiliations.

By engaging with and in some cases radically re-reading fundamental Christian doctrines, Rollins wants to expose his readers’ faith to a fire that will purge idolatry. “Idolatry” here includes any material objects, aspirations or ideas that we believe will bring us ultimate satisfaction. This, naturally, also encompasses most traditional ideas about God and Christ.

Our desire for idols, according to Rollins, comes from an essential separation — what he calls “original sin” — that we believe exists between ourselves and our environment. We perceive that we lack something we once had, i.e. a sense of peace and wholeness with our surroundings, and that things can satisfy that lack.

Out of this experience of a void, Rollins argues, the God/Idol emerges. It is only by identifying with Christ’s crucifixion, in which God gave up God’s own identity and acknowledged God’s own absence, that we can undergo a change of heart. After our conversion, instead of trying to find something to soothe our brokenness, we will instead embrace it as fundamental to our selves.

As in previous books, Rollins uses a mixture of conventional prose, including many citations from popular culture, and narrative storytelling that make him such an effective speaker. His language is conversational and persuasive, and tends to wander somewhat as he addresses a given topic. Like fellow cultural critic David Dark, his musings can take him on tangents that either fascinate or bewilder, depending on how well he can establish the connections between them and his main ideas.

The book’s argument is well-structured, though there is nothing particularly inventive about his use of language. Words come plainly and this thoroughly academic writer tries to make himself as digestible as possible. It is clear that the book is only part of a larger project, so a reader will probably find herself wanting more information at the end.

One criticism that has been levied at Rollins and many others of his ilk is that their ability to deconstruct outstrips their ability to create. These arguments do find some purchase, because although he spends a quarter of the book outlining various attempts at enacting his ideas, they all fall within a narrow band. To be more precise, they are all examples hewn from projects and communities Rollins has either founded or been a part of.

Many of them are perfect illustrations of his ideas, but I would be scratching my head if they weren’t since he himself played a hand, however distantly, in their creation. A lack of attention to the church tradition as it played out historically might work against him as well. Drawing some concrete examples of Christian social protest or alternative liturgies from longer than ten years ago would go a long way toward legitimating his project in this reviewer’s eyes.

I would still recommend the book, especially its first three-fourths, because it relentlessly breaks down some dangerous ideas about God. It also offers a way to embrace the doubts that are already a natural part of being a contingent, limited being while still drawing essential strength from Christian language and tradition. It has a provocative edge, and beyond that the power of strong ideas to back them up, meaning it should function well as a conversation-starter for Christians of all persuasions.