"The Orthodox Heretic" – Review
Perhaps the most familiar of Jesus’ words to people today are His parables. Most people, religious or not, regularly recall many of Jesus’ characters in these tales such as “the good Samaritan” and “the prodigal son”. His parables have proved to be timeless, for sure. What makes them so evocative is their jarring nature; they tend to go against the grain of common thinking and shake things up a bit. Jesus sought to subvert the thinking of many of His listeners. He described a common situation, with common characters and places, but by the time He was finished something profound was communicated underneath the story and some way of thinking was upended within the listener.
Peter Rollins, a popular speaker on the Emerging church movement and the pastor of a church in Ireland, writes and speaks in this same creative, subversive way through which Jesus spoke His parables. Rollins’ style of communication is a fresh, modern echo of Jesus’. He combines gifted storytelling, art, and spirituality into a creative package. You can get a feel for Rollins’ style from his blog, which can be found here.
I received a copy of Rollins’ new book, “The Orthodox Heretic: And Other Impossible Tales” (Paraclete Press, hardback, 184 pages, $19.99) and was immediately pleased by the book’s cover. The cover’s pixilated, black-and-white cross sums up Rollins’ blend of traditional Christian thought with outside-the-box thinking and writing. He combines it all together into a unique expression of faith. Seeing endorsements from Rob Bell and Phyllis Tickle on the back cover, two of the best thinkers within the Emerging movement, also gave Rollin’s some clout in my book before even opening to the first page.
“The Orthodox Heretic” is a collection of 33 parables—a poignant number to say the least—along with short commentary after each parable introducing Rollins’ own thoughts on each tale. The parables cover many themes such as faith, love, doubt, and forgiveness and feature a wide range of characters. A diverse cast--from an orthodox priest to the Devil himself--find themselves as characters in Rollins’ tales along with traditional figures from the Bible and Jesus’ own parables.
Rollins’ prefers to call his own parables “impossible tales” to distinguish them from the trite folk stories that many associate with the word “parable”. These tales seek to shock and challenge rather than satisfy or present a pleasant thought. Rollins' stories are “impossible” in the sense that commonly held attitudes are undermined through inconceivable means or characters; hospitality is offered to the most unlikely of guests while grace and forgiveness are offered where neither would be at all expected.
Each story, along with its following commentary, takes only a couple of minutes to read, but the book is definitely not one that can adequately be read through quickly. I am typically a faster reader who likes to plow through books, but there was a definite force that made me put the book down regularly. These stories invite deep thought, even after reading Rollins’ commentary. In fact his commentaries often invite more questions and wonderings, so each parable requires much probing and unpacking.
One of my favorite “impossible tales” is “No Conviction”, in which a man is brought before a judge and jury in a land where Christianity is illegal. Though the man professes to be a follower of Jesus, the judge pronounces the man innocent of being Christian, thereby forcing the man to provide evidence of his professed faith. If true Christianity is illegal—which Rollins believes to in fact be the case—would there be enough evidence to convict you?
Another of my favorites is “Jesus and the Five Thousand”, which is a re-telling of Jesus’ feeding of the multitude in the Gospels. However, Rollins' version is told through the eyes of a third-world citizen gazing upon first-world Christian disciples. In Rollins’ version, Jesus and His disciples collect scraps of food from the crowds which are combined to form a large mountain of food. Jesus and the disciples then greedily scarf down the entire mound of food while the hungry followers simply watch. This parable seeks to view our Western Christianity through a much difference lens than we’re used to.
However, as is the case with many who seek relentless creativity and freshness in their spirituality, I felt that Rollins sometimes crosses the line of orthodoxy just to tell a cool story or “subvert” for the sake of it. In fact, the “impossible tale” that forms the namesake of the book, “The Orthodox Heretic”, is one of these types. In this story God audibly tells a man to turn-in a political dissident to authorities. The man instead believes deeply in the Biblical principle of radical hospitality and therefore disobeys God’s voice by protecting and harboring the refugee. In the end, God “smiles and withdraws” as a sign that the man made the right choice. This is of course, uncomfortable and subversive like all of the rest of the parables, but in this particular one I think Rollins veered off a little too far.
Overall, Rollins’ “impossible tales” are close parallels to Jesus’ original ones. We modern disciples often suffer from the “unfamiliarity of familiarity” when reading the words of Jesus; we know them so well and have heard them so many times that in the end we don’t really know them at all. We typically don’t experience the shock and the subversive nature of Jesus’ tales when we read them today. Reading Rollins’ parables, however, brings freshness back to Jesus’ own stories. While all of Rollins’ tales rattle my thinking, and while a few even over-step the bounds of my own theology and orthodox teaching, if anything I think “The Orthodox Heretic” provides a reinvigorated view of the parables that Jesus told. By reading Rollins’ words, you can’t help but experience the provocation and shock of Jesus’ original words that His original listeners first experienced. So, I wouldn’t recommend this book for anyone looking for firm, orthodox Christian teaching, but for those seeking to experience the parables of Jesus in a new way, this is one of the best choices out there.