Book Symposium: Peter Rollins’s Insurrection

Over the next two weeks, we’re hosting two reviews of Peter Rollins’s newest book, Insurrection. Many of you may be familiar with Pete. His work closely interacts and engages with contemporary Continental Philosophy in order to interrogate various forms of the modern church and its practices. Pete first began his work with the UK emerging church collective known as Ikon. You can read Pete’s bio and follow his work at his website. Later this week, we’ll post Pete’s response to the first review. Next week, look for an interaction between Pete and our own contributor, Jason Clark.

Our first reviewer is Dr. Katharine Moody. Katharine Sarah Moody (PhD Lancaster University, UK) is an unemployed *ahem* independent scholar, with research interests in European philosophy of religion and emerging Christianity. Her forthcoming article in Political Theology examines the generative relationship between Slavoj Zizek’s atheology, John D. Caputo’s a/theism, and emerging Christian discourse and practice. She is co-editor (with Steven Shakespeare) of Intensities: Philosophy, Religion and the Affirmation of Life (Ashgate, forthcoming) and blogs here (http://katharinesarahmoody.tumblr.com/).

Becoming Church Mice:
From Refusing to Lead to Refusing to be Led

Kester Brewin has already noted that Peter Rollins’ Insurrection: To Believe is Human; To Doubt, Divine is in many respects deeply ‘pastoral’ (http://www.kesterbrewin.com/2011/10/03/review-of-pete-rollins-new-book-insurrection/). In Chapter Four, “I Don’t Have to Believe; My Pastor Does That for Me,” Rollins observes the ways in which church leaders often ‘believe on behalf of the community,’ ostensibly freeing the community to doubt and disbelieve but actually serving to shelter the community from what he calls the true ‘trauma of the Crucifixion’ (Insurrection, 65) – the loss of ‘all the supports that would protect us from a direct confrontation with the world and with ourselves’ (110). This means that, when a pastor confesses doubts and disbelief, a crisis often ensues; ‘Not because the congregation now doubts, but because the pastor’s belief provided a protective psychological dam that held back their doubt’ (66).

Rollins therefore proposes that the Church needs ‘leaders who openly experience doubt, unknowing, and a deep mystery’ (65), since, he argues,

it is not the job [of] the community of faith to offer ways of escaping the suffering that is part of being human (namely the anxiety brought about by the sense of death, meaninglessness, and guilt), but rather to form spaces in which it can be acknowledged and worked through. (179)

To illustrate how such spaces might operate, he uses Søren Kierkegaard’s characterisation of the poet:

What is a poet? An unhappy man who hides deep anguish in his heart, but whose lips are so formed that when the sigh and cry pass through them, it sounds like lovely music… And people flock around the poet and say: ‘Sing again soon’ – that is, ‘May new sufferings torment your soul but your lips be fashioned as before, for the cry would only frighten us, but the music, that is blissful.’ And the critics come forward and say, “That’s the way, that’s how the rules of aesthetics say it should be done.” Of course a critic resembles a poet to a hair, except he has no anguish in his heart, no music on his lips. (Kierkegaard, Either/Or, 1992, 43; cited 73)

Rollins suggests that the poet, as ‘one who suffers on our behalf,’ produces work that enables us to ‘participate directly in the suffering and pain’ reflected in it, allowing us to confront our own suffering ‘in a ritualistic manner,’ such that we can ‘work through it in a healthy way rather than repressing it or being overcome by it’ (74). Elsewhere in the book, he quotes the lyrics of Pádraig Ô Tuama’s “Maranatha” (cited 176-177) – anyone who has experienced Pádraig perform will understand why “Maranatha” is a fantastic example of this process – and, in an interview at the back, he says that,

[T]he church should be like the singer-songwriter we might listen to when we are working through a difficult situation. They sing their sorrowful song, and, in doing so, we confront our own suffering in a way that is painful without being overpowering. As we sit there and listen to the music, we are invited to work through our pain, engage in the act of mourning, and find strength in the midst of our weakness. Then when we leave, we are in a better state than when we arrived. (no pagination)

These passages from Insurrection invite reflection on Rollins’ own role as a poet/church leader.

Speaking about leadership, Rollins has suggested that ‘[t]he Christian priest is the one who refuses priesthood, therefore pushing back on everybody in the congregation and forcing a priesthood of all believers.’ This ‘leader who refuses to lead’ is someone who ‘every time people say, “we want you to tell us what we want to hear,”… says, “no, you have to think for yourself, you have to take responsibility for yourself”’ (“The Leader who Doesn’t Lead,” http://vimeo.com/18881568). Whilst reflecting his own doubts and disbeliefs, as a poet/church leader, then, Rollins’ work also calls us to participate in it and he pushes back on us, helping us to confront life in its fullness and to cultivate a psychologically healthy relationship with our own doubts and disbeliefs.

But Rollins’ work also invites reflection on our role in the relationship between the poet-singer-songwriter/church leader and his/her audience or congregation, his/her people. However, whilst Rollins writes of leaders who refuse to lead, one of his guides, Slavoj Žižek, writes of collectives who refuse to be led or, rather, who refuse to fetishize leadership.

In Living in the End Times, Žižek reflects on Franz Kafka’s “Josephine the Singer, or the Mouse People,” a short story about the relationship between Josephine, a singing mouse, and her public, her people. The narrating mouse considers Josephine’s singing, whistling or piping to be ‘a characteristic expression of our lives,’ something that all the mice do, and yet the ‘riddle of her great effect’ lies in the ‘peculiarity of someone standing there formally, to do nothing but the ordinary’ (in Metamorphosis and Other Stories, 2007, 264-283).

Žižek notes that the Mice People recognise that Josephine does not ‘establish and guarantee the equality of her subjects’ by an equality gained through a ‘shared identification with their Leader.’ Rather, Josephine ‘herself has to dissolve her special position into this equality’ (Living in the End Times, 2010, 368-369), has to, as Rollins himself recognises, refuse to be a Leader.

But the collective must also refuse to be led. Therefore, while the mice gather to hear Josephine sing, she is treated with ‘egalitarian indifference,’ the Mice People refusing to reward her with special privileges such as reduced toil or increased rations. She is, Žižek writes, ‘treated as a celebrity, but not fetishized – her admirers are well aware that there is nothing special about her, that she is just one of them’ (369-370). Her singing does not grant her a distinct status within the collective but, rather, functions as a reflection and affirmation of the collective itself:

[T]he mice people lead harsh and tense lives, difficult to bear, their existence is always precarious and threatened, and the very precarious character of Josephine’s piping functions as a stand-in for the precarious existence of the mice people. (368)

Like the Mice People, ‘[o]ur lives are restless, every new day brings surprises with it, shock, hopes, and terrors’ (“Josephine the Singer,” 268), and, like Josephine’s whistling, Rollins’ work is extraordinary in its embodiment and reflection of the ordinary – of the doubts and disbeliefs, prayers and tears, of us all.

To be clear, I am not suggesting that Rollins is demanding special treatment as Josephine the singer does! Rather, I am asking whether the Church should perhaps more closely resemble the Mice People and refuse to fetishize its leaders, including Rollins. Do we flock around him and say, “Write another book,” “Tell another story,” “Sing again soon” – that is, “May new doubts torment your soul”? And, if so, might these very questions function to disavow the doubts that torment our own souls?

Rollins’ online seminar series at the beginning of the year presented Ikon-run courses like Atheism for Lent and The Omega Course as “dis-courses,” courses designed to send people off course. They were not so much offered as courses to be faithfully replicated than as inspiration for seminar participants to go “off course,” to depart from Rollins’ courses and create their own. In refusing to lead, Rollins pushes back to force full participation. His work tries to recall us to the fact that we are all poets, all singer-songwriters and story-tellers. For all the mice work and toil, pipe and sing. We all weep and pray, all doubt and disbelieve, are all a/theistic. The community of faith is called to be a community of Poets and Mice People, rather than of Critics. We are to all enter into this Crucifixion experience fully ourselves.

But might our failure to refuse to be led obscure us from our own suffering? In a reversal of the function of many other church leaders who believe on behalf of the community, are we letting Rollins disbelieve on behalf of the community?