"The Idolatry of God: Breaking Our Addiction to Certainty and Satisfaction" by Peter Rollins
reviewed by Emily Dause
When friends and social media pointed me towards the book trailer for Peter Rollins' The Idolatry of God: Breaking our Addiction to Certainty and Satisfaction (Howard Books, 2013), I was intrigued. I was excited to hear about a book that addresses a reality of life that few Christians candidly confront. The trailer explains that although we look for wholeness in many places, even Christianity does not provide the security of knowing we have "the" right answer to life's questions. Pursuing God as a means to relieving our pain and confusion reduces God to nothing more than a product or an idol. Rollins asserts that Christ instead invites us to accept and embrace our unknowing and brokenness, freeing us to live within them and robbing pain of its sting and power.
As I delved into the book, my eager expectations gave way to a strange mix of agreement and disappointment. Rollins clearly and pointedly expands on the book trailer's premise that Christians often seek God as a fix-it product. However, the relationship between the premise and the remainder of the book is unclear. Some of Rollins' additional points are helpful and powerful, while others are confusing and unnecessarily redefine traditional theology.
Rollins begins by explaining that, soon after birth, we begin to experience the separation from others that constitutes being an individual. That separation creates a sense of having lost something we once had. We may attempt to fill that void through pursuing relationships, wealth, fame, a career goal, or even Christianity. When the church claims to have a way to fill the void, it "takes its place beside every other industry that is in the business of selling satisfaction. Religious hymns become little more than advertising jingles, and the clergy come to resemble slick salespeople presenting their god-product to the potential consumer."
Rollins believes there is no way to perfectly fill the void, because it is a nothingness fundamental to our being. In other words, the sense of having lost something is an illusion, because there never was a "something" to fill the void in the first place. In contrast, he asks, "What if Christ does not fill the empty cup we bring to him but rather smashes it to pieces, bringing freedom, not from our darkness and dissatisfaction, but from our felt need to escape them?"
Rollins labels our commonly felt separation as Original Sin without giving any reference to a moral right and wrong, a premise that many Christians will undoubtedly question. They may also find flaws in Rollins' confusing description of an Original Sin/Law/Idolatry matrix. In his proposed matrix, Sin separates while the Law alienates by preventing access to whatever it is that will fulfill our desire for satisfaction. Together, Sin and Law create the conditions for an Idol.
Still, Rollins' discussion reveals important points. Most notably, he emphasizes the way that Christ levels our contrived identities and invites us to a place outside of labeled groups and ideologies. He points out that Christ himself was an outcast, and he cites Paul's statement in Galatians that people from all groups are one in Christ. Since we are all, in essence, the same, Rollins encourages us to truly listen to others' perspectives and experiences, allowing them to threaten our own beliefs instead of clinging to our need for certainty. He calls this practice "literalistic listening." Rollins' premise that none of us have a genuine path to wholeness and that we should take off our masks in the knowledge that we are all broken is perhaps the most important implication of his entire work.
The final section of the book describes three of Rollins' own performance-based deconstruction rituals, which aim to promote a sense of divine mystery. Rollins purposefully delivers these examples without explanation. They involve an "eating" of doctrinal beliefs printed on rice paper, a "giant" woman clothed in a constantly unraveling knitted dress, and the burning of religious texts. His decision not to provide background or commentary on these examples is a questionable choice, as most readers may find the practices strange and even disturbing. Concluding the book in this "conclusion-less" way may be his attempt to further underline his point about none of us having complete answers. Still, readers weary of deconstructing Christian theology may wonder why it is even necessary to believe in Christ rather than participating in some other system of belief.
In sum, The Idolatry of God's unique premise is well-communicated and speaks to an issue that most churches avoid even acknowledging. However, two aspects of the book will be an obstacle to Christians considering Rollins' perspective. First, the origin of his basic theological claims is unclear, but they seem to come from a mixture of isolated Scripture references, his own ideas, and popular culture. The result is, at best, confusing and, at worst, flawed. Second, despite his premise, Rollins' focus on his own theological matrix and case studies suggests that his book ultimately represents yet another failed Christian attempt to address the same void he suggests we not fill. Ultimately, I also suspect many Christians will not have the motivation to extract Rollins' key points while wading through the parts they find disagreeable or simply difficult to understand.
The result is unfortunate, as Rollins' primary point is one we sorely need to hear—that Christianity does not provide satisfaction to our deep longing and relief from our pain and confusion; rather, it frees us from our striving to feel complete and to have a "secret answer" to life's questions. In this reviewer's opinion, Rollins' points would have been more concisely and poignantly communicated if confined to a long essay—or limited to the two-minute book trailer. While parts of the book may not be as readable as others, Rollins' main premise ultimately makes it worth the time and effort.
Emily A. Dause is a public school teacher and a freelance writer and blogs at SliversofHope.