Peter Rollins begins the first of his parables by asking us to imagine that, ‘in a world where following Christ is decreed to be a subversive and illegal activity you have been accused of being a believer, arrested, and dragged before a court’. The judge hears evidence that you attend church regularly and go to a weekly Bible study. He reads your Christian blog and looks at the well-worn pages of your Bible, and declares you not guilty. ‘The court is indifferent towards your Bible reading and church attendance’, the judge says. ‘It has no concern for worship with words and a pen. Continue to develop your theology, and use it to paint pictures of love. We have no interest in such armchair artists who spend their time creating images of a better world. We exist only for those who would lay down that brush, and their life, in a Christlike endeavour to create a better world. So, until you live as Christ and his followers did, until you challenge this system and become a thorne in our side, until you die to yourself and offer your body to the flames, until then, my friend, you are no enemy of ours’. Ouch.
The Orthodox Heretic contains thirty-three short parables that make you think again about basic Christian truths. Some of them, like the one above, preach a rigorous, existentialist Christianity that echoes some of the finest passages in Kierkegaard’s Training in Christianity. They challenge us to reject ‘armchair religion’ that relishes comfortable truths and to throw ourselves headfirst into serving God with all that we are and all that we have. In one of these parables, a poor woman challenges Jesus when he teaches that the kingdom of God is like a pearl of great price (Matthew 13:45-46). ‘If this kingdom you speak of is like that priceless pearl’, she said, ‘then the sacrifice needed in order to grasp it will not make one rich but rather will reduce the one who has sacrificed to absolute poverty. For you are saying that one must give up everything for the pearl, yet the pearl itself is worth nothing unless you find someone to buy it. And if you do find someone to buy it then you will no longer have the pearl’. ‘Yes’, replied Jesus, ‘that is exactly what the kingdom of God is like’. Seeking God’s kingdom is like being so captivated by a pearl’s beauty that you are willing to give up life itself to have it. Rollins’ words are uncomfortable because they are true. He retells stories like the Prodigal Son and the Last Supper in ways that put us in the seat of the protagonists and help us feel the abrasive and uncompromising call that the Gospel has on our lives.
Rollins sometimes deliberately re-writes Biblical stories to challenge us to decide what we really value in the Gospel. Do we believe in the Resurrection because it promises us eternal happiness, or do we live the death and life of Christ in our day-to-day actions? What if it was the father and not the son who left home in the story of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32)? Do we yearn for God as we might long for a father who we have not seen for many years? Is our Christianity so mixed up in our lifestyles that our only hope for truly encountering God would be to lose our faith in God and in ourselves so that one day we might find it again once we have completely despaired of all else? Would you worship Lucifer if he could prove to you that he had once and for all defeated God? By posing these questions as stories, Rollins confronts us with their full force and makes me wonder what I would do in the same situation. This book should be read slowly over a period of time because Rollins’ technique feels somewhat repetitive by the time you get to the end of the book, but every now and again you encounter a story that jumps out from the rest and surprises you when you least expect it.
Despite the pithiness of Rollins’ storytelling I have to admit to initially being turned off by the fact that he follows every story with a few pages of explanation, unpacking the meaning of the stories rather than letting me sit with them in uncomfortable silence. The commentaries don’t usually tell you much that you couldn’t have worked out for yourself if you thought about it for a minute or two, and I resented being treated like a baby. I began to appreciate the commentaries more and more as the book moved on though, because I read very quickly and didn’t usually take the time to let one story sink in before starting the next. Forcing myself to read several more pages of reflection on the same topic meant that I had to take the time to think through the implications of each parable, even if I was doing so through Rollins’ words rather than my own. For someone like me, for whom reading is sometimes a substitute for thinking, commentaries can be an unexpected but valuable tool for helping me slow down and reflect. For that, as well as for the many biting lessons he packs into a remarkably short book, I am grateful.