This reading group guide for The Idolatry of God includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Peter Rollins. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
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Is God just another product on the market, promising the elusive happiness and satisfaction we crave? In The Idolatry of God
, theological firebrand Peter Rollins asserts that a deep existential conflict exists between people who are willing to embrace doubt and uncertainty in matters of faith, and those who cling to certainty—who make an idol of God. To close this gap, Rollins invites us all to take a hard look at our most cherished beliefs, to approach truth in bold new ways, and to embrace a faith that throws us into the world rather than shielding us from it. Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. Reflect on the book’s title, The Idolatry of God
. What thoughts and/or questions does the title raise in your mind?
2. In the Introduction the author writes that his book is about the theme of salvation, saying that this is “not the type of salvation that is preached today from the pulpit, the false salvation that promises us freedom from our unknowing and dissatisfaction, but a salvation that takes places within our unknowing and dissatisfaction. One that directly confronts them, embraces them, and says ‘amen’ to them.” Is this a new idea for you? Do you find it comforting? Disturbing? Neutral? Discuss this idea, drawing on your own experiences of faith and belief.
3. Do you sense that there is a “gap” in your being, dating back to infancy? If so, describe what that gap feels like for you. What is the source of this gap, according to the author?
4. Discuss the MacGuffin and how it is depicted in various movies and books. Do you cling to any personal MacGuffins?
5. In Chapter 1 the author defines Original Sin as the gap in the core of our being. Compare this definition to what you believe or were taught about Original Sin. Which definition seems most reasonable? Why? Also consider the author’s explanations of Total Depravity and the Law and how they fit, or don’t fit, with what you have been taught.
6. What is an Idol? What purpose does it serve? Provide a few examples of an Idol.
7. In Chapter 2 Rollins outlines three strategies used to avoid a confrontation with our pain: deferment, repression, and disavowal. Is this something you think has resonance for you? Do you typically default to one of these strategies? If so, which one and why?
8. In Chapter 3 the author reflects on four coping responses—consumption, vomiting, tolerance, and agreement—that we use to protect ourselves from the disturbing effect of encountering someone with a different worldview than our own. Have you used any of these in your own life?
9. What is “literalistic listening”? Give some examples of literalistic listening in action. Think of a conversation you’ve had (or witnessed) recently. Might the conversation have taken a different course if one or both parties had employed literalistic listening? Explain.
10. According to the author, how does modern Christianity resemble a zombie apocalypse? Do you agree or disagree with this assertion? Why?
11. What does it mean to call the Crucifixion “the sacrifice of sacrifice itself”? How might accepting this approach affect the life of the Christian, as compared to more traditional conservative or liberal approaches?
12. Explain what the author means by the Paulinian cut or Paulinian universalism. Have you experienced the Paulinian cut in your own life? If so, describe the experience. What tribes were you separated from? What tribes did you move toward?
13. In what way(s) can an “addiction to certainty” pose a problem for the Christian? Do you agree that it is a problem in the church today? Why or why not?
14. In Chapter 6, Rollins imagines God whispering to a doubting believer, “It’s okay, you don’t have to stop believing in me; I have stopped believing in myself.” What does this mean? Share your reactions. Discuss some ways in which the true God differs from the Idol introduced earlier.
15. What did you hope to learn or experience by reading this book? Were your expectations fulfilled? Enhance Your Book Club
1. Within your group, practice literalistic listening as described in Chapter 3. Imagine a few potentially heated conversations. Invite two volunteers to demonstrate this imaginary conversation using non-literalistic listening. Then do it again with one or both participants demonstrating literalistic listening. In what ways did the two conversations differ? Discuss some practical ways your group can practice literalistic listening in your daily lives.
2. Summarize each of the following “Dis-Courses” and describe the purposes of each:
• The Last Supper
• The Evangelism Project
• Atheism for Lent
• Omega Course
Why does the author emphasize that these events should be experienced in community rather than alone?
3. What do you think about introducing these or other kinds of Dis-Courses within your group or community? Discuss various “tribes” that might be involved. Choose an idea and plan some action steps for making it happen.
4. In Chapter 9 the author describes three ikon case studies: Fundamentalism, The God Delusion, and Pyro-theology. Discuss the elements included in these events and your reactions to them. Can you envision introducing similar elements into your own faith community? Why or why not?
5. What might such a collective experience look like in your community? As a group, brainstorm some possibilities. What might be the theme, and why? What impact would you hope the event would have on the community?
6. When you’ve finished brainstorming, share whatever thoughts and feelings came up during the process. Did you find the exercise easy or difficult? Did envisioning this type of collective experience make you feel optimistic? Pessimistic? Anxious? Hopeful? All of the above? Why?
7. If your group favors the idea of organizing a collective gathering, think of some practical ways that you, as an individual and as a group, could help bring it about. Where could a gathering be held? Who would attend and why? What kinds of songs would be sung or music played? Is there a specific action that you can take this month? This week? Today? A Conversation with Peter Rollins Can you discuss the title, The Idolatry of God, and how it relates to the central question of your book?
It is becoming more and more popular today for people in the church to avoid specifically theological language in their conversations and writings. You see this take place, for instance, in the ongoing creation of Bible translations that aim at a text written in “plain language.” In contrast to this trend, I am interested in returning to, rethinking, and reengaging with many of these ancient theological notions. This is because I believe that these terms possess a depth, potency, and weight which we have barely touched upon, an incendiary force that goes far beyond the facile understanding of the terms we so often find preached by religionists.
The central term that I wish to explore and open up in this book is idolatry. More specifically, I want to show how the idea of God today preached within much of the church is nothing more than an impotent Idol. Simply stated, this boils down to the claim that God is treated as nothing more than a product, a product that promises certainty and satisfaction while delivering nothing but deception and dissatisfaction.
This might be a bold claim, but it gets to the heart of my theological project. By grasping this the reader will understand what I mean when I claim that the actually existing church broadly represents the old creation, along with my argument that a new collective is possible, a collective that exists beyond idolatry. A collective that can cross tribal boundaries, teach us how to embrace the world, and fight for real emancipation. What factors inspired or compelled you to write The Idolatry of God at this time? Do you feel it contains a message of particular significance “for such a time as this” in the history of the church?
All of my books are written in an attempt to speak into and identify the core issue that we must wrestle with in order to birth a new and vibrant community grounded in the liberating message found in the event of Christ. My books and writing seek to find that Archimedean point from which we can overturn the mammoth structure that propagates a reactionary and idolatrous form of life in the false guise of Christian faith; a structure that we might mock with our minds, but which we embrace at a liturgical and material level. This latest book is my most systematic and clear presentation of the problem as I envision it. In this way I believe that it offers the interpretive key from which all my other work can be understood. It represents the enclosure within which the rest of my work rests. What specific trends or characteristics of the modern church do you seek to counteract with this book? What changes do you hope to see in areas of worship, ministry, and community?
Basically I argue that the modern church engages in a host of material practices designed to act as a security blanket for life. It does this by offering preaching, prayers and songs that solidify our tribal identities and promise fulfillment. In so doing the church becomes a type of crack house selling feel-good drugs to those who enter its doors. The problem, however, is that our attempt to avoid the inherent difficulties of life does not mean that we are free from suffering but rather that we are most oppressed by it. The truth that we suffer might be one that we can avoid much of the time, but we are always in danger of being directly confronted with it. Because of this we tend to cling to a security blanket, whether it is church, drink, or drugs.
Such acts are not in themselves a problem but rather the solution to a problem—namely, the problem of pain. Yet the limitation of this solution is exposed the next day when we experience the return of everything we had repressed. The pain is not worked through but simply avoided. As a result we are tempted to repeat the cycle.
There is, however, a different way to approach our pain. This other way involves participation in symbolic activity. For example, you might go to hear a poet who puts into music the suffering of loss, an individual who is able to speak the type of suffering you feel in lyrical form. In such a poet we encounter an individual who has demonstrated profound courage, for in being able to sing her suffering she shows that she is not overwrought by it. As we listen to the music we are invited to touch the dark core of the music so as to encounter our own dark core in a way that we can handle.
My concern is that most of the actually existing church acts as a type of drug den with the leaders being like the nicest, most sincere drug dealers. What we pay for are songs, sermons, and prayers that help us avoid our suffering rather than work through it.
In contrast I am arguing for collectives that are more like the professional mourners who cry for us in a way that confronts us with our own suffering, the stand-up comedians who talk about the pain of being human, or the poets singing about life at the local pub.
In other words, a church where the liturgical structure does not treat God as a product that would make us whole but as the mystery that enables us to live abundantly in the midst of life’s difficulties. A place where we are invited to confront the reality of our humanity, not so that we will despair, but so that we will be free of the despair that already lurks within us, the despair that enslaves us, the despair that we refuse to acknowledge. What kind of resistance have you received from the religious establishment as a result of the views expressed in The Idolatry of God, and how do you respond to these critiques?
Resistance is an interesting phenomenon, as it is different from mere disagreement. There are plenty of people who will disagree with me, many of whom I count as my closest friends. However, there are occasions in which I encounter a type of venomous disagreement that we might term “resistance.” What is interesting about this is the way that this response often signals the very opposite of genuine disagreement. Resistance arises whenever a person feels some deep inner conflict over what has been said. This conflict is often the result of some kind of internal clash in which they resonate with what they hear but are unable or unwilling to express that. Strange as it might initially sound, people who show the most resistance to what I am saying often are doing so because what I am saying makes the most sense to them.
Generally I find that people are willing to acknowledge this inner conflict and work through it as long as I approach them in a nonantagonistic, friendly way. In fact some of the people who have attacked me most vigorously in the past have subsequently become friends.
Because of the unsettling nature of my work, I often think that if you have no resistance to the ideas I explore you are not engaging with them seriously enough. I know that I still have resistance to them. Which of your ideas seem to have ignited the most controversy within Christianity? Why do you think that is?
Some people have been unnerved by the way that I bracket out certain questions, beliefs, and debates that many in the church take to be central. By “bracketing out” I am referring to the academic craft in which one places certain questions to the side in order to address more basic and potentially important ones. While the church and its most vocal opponents have tended to focus on issues to do with the existence of God, the historicity of the various doctrines, and questions related to the status of the Bible, I am primarily concerned with the meaning of the Christian event described by the apostle Paul and what mode of life it expresses. In addition to that I am concerned with how we enter into that life and express it. Have you received feedback on the ideas contained in The Idolatry of God from people outside of the Christian fold, including atheists and people of other faiths? If so, what reactions have you received from them, and how have you responded?
Yes. Indeed, my primary inspiration for writing the book came as a direct result of sharing the ideas with some people who would not describe themselves as theistic or religious. They had not known that there was such a thing as a faith that genuinely embraced unknowing, celebrated difference and encouraged a direct embrace of life. Indeed, as I speak across the country, I am discovering that more and more people from no religious background are engaging directly with this Christian vision. In addition to this I am finding myself in more conversations with people of various religious traditions (Buddhist, Jewish, Hindu, Muslim, and Christian). Ideas such as the letting go of tribal identity, embracing the world rather than running from it, and rejecting systems that make snake-oil promises of knowing and fulfillment are finding resonance in all sorts of places. Perhaps because these themes are larger than any one religion and prove important to all those interested in what it means to be human. On a personal note, did the process of writing this book uncover any surprises for you, or take you down a path you didn’t expect?
One of the reasons why I so enjoy writing is because of the way that it takes you to places you never imagined when starting off on the journey. Once a book is finished, authors often talk as if they always knew the vantage point that they would get to, but the adventure of writing is much more anarchic than that. If a writer starts with a strong idea of where he will end up and then lands there, he is likely to be engaged in mere dogmatic work rather than the perilous and exciting work of real thinking.
I didn’t initially think that I would write a book that so strongly employed theological language. This was not my original intention. I simply wanted to explore what it means to be human and how we might embrace life fully. However, as I wrote, I couldn’t get past the provocative resources of the Christian tradition, even though I needed to do a lot of work in order to rescue them from the snatches of the church. As someone who would never have had any intension of writing what academics call a systematic theology, this is what began to take shape as I explored the contours of the landscape I was traversing. What is the primary message you hope readers will take away from The Idolatry of God?
My main desire is that this work would help to agitate and disturb the reader in a positive way. Rather than simply agreeing or disagreeing with the message my hope is that those who engage with the book would find themselves reflecting upon their lives in new and beneficial ways. While there is a part of most writers that gains enjoyment from convincing people to see the world in the way that they do, my primary desire is not in getting people to agree with my vision of the world, but rather to give them a work that encourages them to ask difficult questions of themselves.
My main concern is not is changing what people believe but in asking readers to reflect upon why they believe what they believe. I am inviting people to engage in a type of archaeological dig aimed at discovering if their beliefs are protecting them from the embrace of unknowing and suffering, and if so, what ought to be done about it. Finally, for those readers who find that they are questioning some of the things that they once took for granted, I hope the book will encourage them to seek out like-minded people who are on the same journey. Individuals who might become fellow workers in the task of forging the new collectives hinted at within the Christian text. What would you say to the reader who is challenged by The Idolatry of God and wonders what is the next step in accepting uncertainty and doubt concerning matters of faith as integral to the Christian faith?
Sometimes I find myself hoping that readers will be unconvinced by what I say or treat it as relatively unimportant. For then they can engage with it in a critical way or read it in a purely recreational way. For those who think that there is something to what I’m saying will find a difficult path stretching before them. If they are a part of some faith community, they might have to ask some difficult questions, questions that will likely be perceived as a threat to the organism. Alternatively the reader might feel convinced to start one of the contemplative practices mentioned in the third section, or even to attempt the creation of a collective which helps people to embrace mystery, unknowing and dissatisfaction. None of this is easy and there are few models available to help, let alone a structure of financial support. It will take the brave, the committed, and the stupid. But the foolishness required to actually try something may just turn out to be wiser than the wisdom of the world. Do you have another book project in the works?
Yes, I actually have a few. Every time I write I think I have said all that I can, but then every book I write opens up more questions than it answers and reveals new paths that lead into strange, exotic new territories. I can’t wait to see where this next one leads.