The Orthodox Heretic and Other Impossible Tales by Peter Rollins

Peter Rollins website carries the banner ”to believe is human; to doubt, divine“. So you know doubt what territory you’re in with his books. He was the founder of Ikon, an Irish emerging/alternative church group with a creative line in blending music art and imagery in worship. I’d experienced some of their work at festivals in the UK – it was nothing if not daring. The music and the imagery and the ideas were all creative and clever, but I sometimes found it hard to work out what they were actually trying to do – and I found myself wondering if they knew themselves.

One of the features of their work was questioning an emerging Christian sub-culture of consumerism and celebrity; one of the things that I appreciated about my experiences of them was that I didn’t know who any of the people were and that didn’t matter. So it’s sightly ironic, then, that founder Peter Rollins is now living in the USA, speaking at conferences, festivals and mega-churches and describing himself on his website as ‘widely sought after’. Let the reader understand…

Such is the context for his little book ‘The Orthodox Heretic’; a collection of 33 short stories (no more than 3-5 pages in most cases) or parables attempting to explore a variety of spiritual themes. They purport to stand in the traditions of Jesus’ parables; short, punchy stories which provoke and divide an audience. In that sense, Rollins’ stories here are successful – these are bound to divide and challenge people. There are, though, a few problems.

One is that each story comes with an explanatory commentary from the author. That’s fine, but in more than a few cases the commentary is longer than the story. This suggests that the story is bearing too heavy a load of interpretation. Rollins doesn’t actually seem to trust a story to speak for itself – he wants to over-explain. Some of the commentaries are so convoluted and weighed down with philosophy and other references that you’ve forgotten what the story was actually about. A simple solution may have been to move the commentaries to a separate section at the end of the book as opposed to immediately after each story to encourage the reader to use them at her own pace; and escape the feeling which I’m sure Rollins was keen to avoid – that there’s one approved interpretation for each story.

The stories are sometimes wholly original, on occasions based on familiar texts; sometimes they invite you into Biblical passages in a new way from the point of view of a particular character. That’s helpful – it’s always good to revisit a Bible passage with fresh eyes in a new way. These often have Rollins’ trademark irreverence – some of these are daring steps, teetering deliberately on the boundary of heresy and orthodoxy to invite you into a new space. Sometimes that’s eye-opening and challenging; sometimes it’s frankly pretentious and annoying – leaving you wondring how much Rollins really loves his audience and how much he’s provoking for the sake of it.

Which leads onto another problem. Broadly the stories circle round the importance of ministry among the poor and the priority of love. Good stuff; but at no time, in the commentaries or the stories themselves, did I sense a warm, embracing heart from Rollins, inviting me on a journey with a wise guide. He wants me to think and change, yes; but to do that I need to be sure the invitation comes from a good and generous place. When one of your main points is the primacy of love in the God we serve, that’s a problem.

It’s not a bad book, but neither is it essential. It’s good to dip into and some of it will shake and challenge you. Do so, though, under the constant reminder of God’s love and gracious invitation. He, above all, IS love.

I rated this book 3/5 on goodreads.com

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