Bleak Theology A post-punk counterweight to joy.

Peter Rollins, the Pentecaustic


Church fire 2.jpgToday is Pentecost, the birthday of the Church. This can often mean cake, but it always means fire. Luke’s Acts of the Apostles describes the events of Pentecost with the rushing wind, the fiery heads, and glossolalia of the Apostles, holed up in the upper room. They went out into the streets to preach the Gospel and Jerusalem said “Go home, Apostles! Ur dr0nk.” But they weren’t drunk. Such is the Spirit.

Since that story, there have been two thousand years’ worth of attempts to define, categorize, institutionalize, explain, and contain the Church. Pentecost describes something “old” becoming “new,” often described as the Christian Church becoming distinct from its Judaic roots. And here’s where the problems begin. Joel’s “fulfilled” prophecy of “Last Days” signs and visions . Peter’s unkosher vision. Acts, written by the Gentile physician Luke, lifts and separates Mother Church from her Jewishness. It is ultimately the story of convert S/Paul going to Gentile Maximus, Rome, to take the story of Jesus, Lord and Savior of the Empire and the World. Not that that’s stopped anyone seizing this idea for themselves and their own orthodoxies. Cue the Pentecostals…

L’enfant terrible theologique Peter Rollins is not Pentecostal. But he does write much about his new vision of the Church in his pyrotheology, the name inspired by Buenaventura Durruti’s quote, “the only church that illuminates is a burning one.” Fair enough. So, instead of Apostles’ heads with tongues of flame, there’s a whole church on fire. When I read Durruti’s quote in Rollins’ Insurrection, I, a fellow traveler, nodded. But I found it insufficient.

For Rollins, the Church is on fire, but it is not consumed. There is an uncontrollable energy, a cognitive dissonance, a devastation of preconceived notions. The Church as understood and used before is finished. I can’t help but wonder if this is his Burning Bush. I might be taking this too far, except that this is pyrotheology. It is all about the burning, the conflagration, the heat, the purification, the illumination.

He sets up pyrotheology against “religion,” which is what every good reformer does: sets up their own argument against poor ol’ Religion™, whose definition has been debated since before Cicero. And he is rethinking the Church, shrewdly pulling from Bonhoeffer’s religionless Christianity, offering a blueprint for how broken people can come together and mourn and lament at the foot of the Cross. And this is attractive.

Rollins advocates a kind of Pentecost: new identities in the old, new powers of understanding and praxis, the iconoclastic seizure of iconography. This is Ikon. But it bothers me that I’m reminded so readily of Plato’s Cave and Moses’ Burning Bush. There smacks a transcendence that I’m not too comfortable with – especially in light (ha.) of so much work he does to focus on our post-Kantian context.

Against the happy-clappy keeping up of appearances that so much Christianity seems to emit, Rollins works very hard to convey that the decay and sorrow in our world and in our hearts and lives is Good™. And he reworks that decay and sorrow for purposes of a participation in a new kind of community, one that he might call post-ecclesiastic, but would probably be more readily understood as Emergent. And this is why I call Rollins “Pentecaustic,” a terrible portmanteau of a pun, but I believe it suits him. He offers a very caustic critique of religious culture and facile theology. He wants to set something on fire and watch it burn. And he does.

“Pentecaust” is the event of the burning Church, where the structures and ideologies are put to the fire. The paint bubbles and burns, the steeple sags crestfallen, the stained windows shatter and melt, the carpet melts under the flames, smoke rises into the sky, as if some kind of offering to the Heavens. As if. Everyone gathers at a “safe” distance and looks in awe and sadness. Their church is burning. But a miracle takes place! The church continues to burn! And burn and burn. And it burns into the night and illuminates everyone. A pillar of fire by night, a black column of smoke by day. And a new community is formed, one where everyone is all together all too human and the tragedy of the church fire is always there. But that’s just it: the Church fire is always there. Come see the miracle. This is Rollins’ pyrotheology from my vantage point, watching his church burn and burn. This is Rollins’ Pentecaust. It looks different from Pentecost, but it sounds very, very similar.

Early on, when I was first thinking of my bleak theology, I envisioned a burned out cathedral, one that had suffered a terrible and complete fire. The roof had fallen in, the pews were charred, black, and scattered. The walls were scorched. It was like a skeletal hull of a place. Perhaps, the Christ Candle had fallen and set the place on ablaze. Ash and soot floated in a soft, wet breeze. But the cathedral was gone. It could not be rebuilt. The great cross fallen and seared.

And I imagined myself there in the middle of the blackened sanctuary, grey clouds above and thought, “What now?” And I understood that that burned-out cathedral was the locus of where bleak theology gathered. By the rivers of Babylon, we weep and console each other. Our Church is gone, savaged and destroyed. We wipe ash on our faces. Our sanctuary protects us in no way from the Wilderness. Our sanctuary is part of the Wilderness. We look to the sky of the new moon. There is no light from our burnt Church. Maybe there are coals. Maybe.

Rollins has a hope that I do not. I have a hope for hope. He has hope. His Church still burns. Everyone is sad that the church is burning. And here I would say is one of the significant differences between pyrotheology and bleak theology when it comes to the church and the Church: Rollins’ still burns. On the opposite sides of Easter, Rollins and I stand, in the midst of the liturgical year: He at Pentecaust, I at Ash Wednesday. And at our vantage points, we work together for a common cause. “What next?” we ask. “What now?”

I had not read any of Rollins’ books before this recent excursion and I’ve really been interested in his work for some time. I found Insurrection a good start, but I have to read more to understand what he’s doing and saying. I like Rollins. It is easy to see that we are operating in very similar circles, though I have not paid too much attention to what’s going on in other areas of our theological playground.



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By Burke
Bleak Theology A post-punk counterweight to joy.


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