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Peter Rollins and Non-Evangelization

With an unmistakable Irish accent and a tendency to answer a question with another question, Peter Rollins is both a preacher and a project. The first time I encountered Peter’s work was at a local collective in the south of Stockholm. Someone had bought a large number of Peter’s books—with a title now lost in memory—and gave it away to people he met. Like a sign of hope, like a gospel. While reading I was struck by an attitude of “this might sound philosophical, but at the end of the night I still want to see hands in the air.”

A couple of years later, I was attending while Peter spoke at the first Catacomb conference in Gothenburg, but the altar call I expected never came, rather we were invited to participate in a deeply personal struggle with the concepts of evangelisation and preaching, a struggle closely connected to the Ikon collective and their desire to be evangelized.

This project was intended to open up a space where the other, the stranger, was given the opportunity to speak and to evangelize the participants. It could take the form of a ritual re-enactment of the last supper, where the place of Christ was given to the stranger, thereby inverting the concept of evangelization from transforming the other to becoming transformed, while hoping that the experience would lead to new modes of existence.

Perhaps it did, because in Gothenburg, entering the stage prepared for an evangelical preacher, comes a man armed with the psychoanalytical toolbox formulated by the triad Freud, Lacan and Zizek. Like a Trojan horse constructed to enter into the known, with the message of the unknown. In the form of an evangelist—the archetypal image for the bringer of good news—stands instead: the non-evangelist. He sounds like a preacher and he looks like a preacher, but he is simply parodically playing the part.

Rather than preaching an otherworldly gospel, Peter is essentially reciting recent psychoanalytic thinking born out of the Hegelian dialectics of the Spirit, while talking about Jesus. This materialist reading of the Christian gospel, where the resurrected Christ is seen as the community itself, living around the Event of the crucified, thus opens up for Peter to mimic Alan Badiou’s search for communism before communism in Paul, at the heart of the evangelical community.

This could be the end of the story. Peter is an atheist, albeit a Christian atheist masked as a preacher, and he should therefore be labelled as a heretic and ultimately be cast out. But I am sensing that there lies a deeper importance to all this, meaning that his aim is not to deflour the bride of Christ but rather something radically different. I believe that the deeper reading of Peter’s work does not become available until one asks the Nietzschian question: why is he doing it? Is not the fact that Peter engages in this kind of work a sign of deep love for the bride of Christ? And could it not be said that we are witnessing a Hosea-like marriage?

Why did Hosea enter into a covenant with a prostitute? Was it because of unbelief in the marital covenant, or was it precisely because he believed so much in the form of the covenant that he sacrificed himself by marrying the unmarriageable and thus becoming non-married? Hosea’s non-rite of the prostitute-marriage is not meant as a simple critique of the believing community, rather his intent was to purify the community by awakening the memory of the covenant.

Maybe Peter’s infusion of the atheistic triad of Freud, Lacan and Zizek at the heart of the church can in the spirit of Hosea serve to awaken our memory of the time and place of Jesus’ cry “Eli, Eli sabachthani,” when God was dead. Peter can thus bring us back to the time after the crucifixion when Jesus’ followers found themselves in a state of uncertainty, which simultaneously was a period of resting in a promise—the promise of return, of the impossible becoming possible. Because inherited in the Christian memory lies the trauma of existence as such, and that the way we piece together our fractional impressions of reality is simply word-plays aimed to cover our naked selves with the fig leaves of certitude.

By the sound of it, some of the psychoanalytic theorists of the past decades has found themselves awfully close to this trauma, and perhaps listening to Peter creatively channelling their voices in the heart of our communities can serve as a reminder of what we often fail to acknowledge that our Christian tradition harbours within itself.

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