St. Matthew's Episcopal

Guest Blog Review of Insurrection

Posted on: August 28th, 2012 by Robin Jarrell

Peter Rollins, Insurrection

Let’s face it.  Christian churches in the United States are in rough shape.  Survey after survey tells the same sad story.  One in eight adults has left Christianity.  Church members are walking away at four times the rate that new ones are coming on board.  The number of Americans who designate themselves as “nonreligious” doubled in the last two decades.

Moreover, Christianity isn’t attracting young people.  In the mid-1980s, evangelical 20-somethings outnumbered their unchurched peers by 2 to 1.  Today, the ratio has nearly flip-flopped.  Overwhelmingly, members of the Millennial Generation claim that they’re turned off by Christianity.  Over 70% of them keep their distance from it by insisting that they’re “spiritual but not religious.” (So do a growing number of their parents, by the way.)  A full sixty-five percent of the young people who do call themselves “Christian” admit that they’re pretty indifferent about the whole thing.

“Indifference” is the key word here.  The shrinkage of American churches isn’t because of a concerted secular humanist conspiracy, as some zealots like to think.  It’s because the Church is seen as increasingly irrelevant in today’s world.  The problem isn’t that the Church scandalizes the modern sensibility (except, alas, when it comes to sexual impropriety or the outrageous pronouncements of televangelists).  It’s that it no longer scandalizes.

In Insurrection, the bad boy of theology Peter Rollins tries to battle churchly respectability by defending what he calls a “pyro-theology” that he hopes will “overturn the Church as it presently stands” and make Christianity a living option once more.  The way to do this, he believes, is to start dismantling the corporate practices, programs, and institutions that we call “religious.”  Invoking Bonhoeffer’s prison speculations about a future “religionless Christianity,” Rollins writes that “the question for us today is whether or not religion is necessary in order to participate fully in the life testified to by Christ.”

His conclusion is that religion is not only not necessary, but an actual handicap.  Religion over the centuries has turned the living God into a conveniently distant deus ex machina that has little relevance to believers until they find themselves in a jam.  But this institutional domestication of the Burning Bush into a Santa God is exactly, Rollins argues, what Christ protested against.  Before the Resurrection, there was Insurrection.

It’s time, Rollins believes, for another Insurrection.  To be loyal to Christ’s revolutionary message, to rediscover the dangerous but enlivening presence of God, the Christian religion as we know it—its theology, style of worship, pious platitudes, hierarchy, and social conventionality—needs to be left behind.  In place of the smug feel-goodism served up by religioned Christianity, Rollins pleads for a return to a religionless Christianity which goes beyond safe comfort zones to stress the doubt and despair of the Cross as well as the demanding kind of love it demonstrates.  We need to wean ourselves of the cheap grace that turns off so many good people and begin to take Christ seriously.  Religionless Christianity removes Christ from the icons and altars on which he’s been imprisoned and puts him back where he belongs:  in our midst.  It liberates Christ from the Church that’s taken him hostage.

Rollins’ insistence that religioned Christianity is not only dying but deserves to die will, I’m sure, upset many.  But as that pyro-theologian Jesus knew, the task of the Holy Spirit is to light fires.  And if the data that testify to the decline of American Christianity are correct, the Church is dry, dusty, and abandoned—in other words, a firetrap ripe for a bit of theological arson.


Deacon Kerry Walters’ latest book, The Art of Dying and Living (Orbis), recently received a 2012 Nautilus Gold Award.  He is the author of over twenty-five books, many of them on theology and spirituality.

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