First Attempt At A Book Review: How Not To Speak Of God

About three weeks ago, I participated in a contest over at Adam Walker Cleaveland's blog, pomomusings . My prize for being one of the first five people to answer Adam's question correctly was a copy of Peter Rollins book, How (Not) To Speak Of God . I hope nobody minds, but I will be referring to the author as Pete for the rest of the post, Mr. Rollins just seems too formal.


I've always been a reader. Before I started riding the bus, and could safely sit and read on the way to school, I would walk and read instead. During the twenty-one years I've had my nose stuck in a book, very few have left me feeling like I've wasted my time. Generally, I just enjoy a book for what it is and move on. However, Pete Rollins' book left a deep impression and that impression was entirely positive. (Pulled that one out like Mary Murphy...HEH HEH HEH HEH HEH!! Don't get it, watch So You Think You Can Dance?).

To begin, a little personal history - My first official encounter with "emergent" thought was less than a year ago when a friend loaned me Brian McLaren's book, A Generous Orthodoxy. I had often felt the tensions inherent within Christian thought, but had never been able to communicate my feelings as coherently as Brian did, gracefully merging seemingly opposing ideas. Next, the same friend loaned me Donald Miller's Blue Like Jazz , which I finished reading in less than two days and have purchased for several friends since; another refreshing swig of emergent causing me to long for a new way of believing and acting like a Christian. Since then, I've been reading lots of Jesus-y blogs (see blogroll at left) and struggling through some of the (non)issues that have made it difficult for me to abandon my sometimes idolatrous ideas about God. That's where I am now: journeying, struggling, tearing apart in order to build anew.

Now, let's get down to brass tacks, the book I came here to review. Pete's first section, dedicated to “theory,” consists of a mere seventy-one pages, all of which are well-thought out and well-written. The second half of the book has ten five or six-page descriptions of services that Ikon, a postmodern “congregation” in Northern Ireland, put together. This section allows the reader, who may be entirely uncomfortable with emergent thought and practice, to “observe” these services from a “safe” distance. I, for one, would be thrilled to observe from a place of less safety. Pete’s description of their service entitled “Eloi, Eloi, Lama Sabachthani,” was especially intriguing, posing the question: “Would I still be a Christian if I thought that the Easter story ended on Good Friday?”

As for the first section, instead of diving into the book and overwhelming you with an even longer post than this is already going to be, I will point out three things that really hit me (in the head. like a baseball bat.).

Strike #1: Pete discusses intellectual/ideological idolatry, in which our ideas about God become the God we worship. It is essential to know that in naming God we are really naming our understanding of God, an understanding that is profoundly affected by our context. “Yet this does not mean that our definitions of God are somehow unimportant…it is only that we must recognize the extent to which these reflections fall short of that which we attempt to define and always reflect something of the one who makes the claim.” (18) I know I’ve been in more than one heated argument about theology that went nowhere because the parties involved (invluding me) were unwilling to acknowledge the fact that they might be wrong. I no longer want to hold my ideas/beliefs in such a way that they prevent me from loving people rightly.

Pete also (re)defines theology as the place where God speaks, rather than theology as a definition of God. This particular idea strikes me as revolutionary because of my immersion in various Christian traditions which never openly state that God is currently silent, but more often than not, live as if that is the case. In the past, I have found comfort in the idea that God’s revelation was completed within a hundred years of Christ's crucifixion, but there are so many important issues that the Bible doesn’t address and God spoke for such an extended period of time prior to Jesus' death, that I am beginning to find a world in which God is giving us the silent treatment increasingly difficult to accept. The thousand or so pages of writing we Christians call Scripture are surely just a pinch of sand from a miles long beach. “If theology comes to be understood as the place where God speak, then we must seek, not to speak of God, but rather to be that place where God speaks.” (21)

Next, Pete introduced me to the concept of hypernymity. I think this might be a word he made up himself. If so, good on ya, Pete! “While anonymity offers too little information for our imagination to grasp (…), hypernymity gives us far too much information. Instead of being limited by the poverty of absence we are short-circuited by the excess of presence.” (24) Most Christians I know acknowledge that God is too big to understand, but this way of thinking about that bigness is entirely new to me. Rather than envisioning a God who is too far away to be seen clearly, I'm now in the presense of One who is closely surrounding us, penetrating our very being. This makes us like a person sitting three inches away from the screen at a movie theater and trying to figure out the whole picture from the tiny, distorted portion one can see… We lack perspective and capacity, not information.

Believe me, these three were only the tip of the iceberg as far as thought-provoking tidbits go.

I will conclude with one of my favorite quotes from the book: “In a world where people believe they are not hungry, we must not offer food but rather an aroma that helps them desire the food we cannot provide.” (37)

Go now! I’m not kidding…read it!

P.S. Have some links to other people who have already read and reviewed this amazing book: Darren over at Planet Telex, Jonny Baker, Existential Punk, Scot McKnight at Jesus Creed, and, of course, my benefactor, Adam Walker Cleaveland at pomomusings. If anyone finds some female bloggers who have given their perspective, let me know.
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