The Fidelity of Betrayal

The Fidelity of Betrayal: Towards a Church Beyond Belief
By Peter Rollins
Brewster, MA: Paraclete Press, 2008
Review by Carl McColman

In this book, Peter Rollins expands and deepens the apophatic/postmodern re-visioning of Christian theology/mystery that he first introduced in his first book, How (Not) to Speak of God. Rollins is a philosopher/theologian whose work appears to be all about dismantling unhelpful boundaries: between philosophy and theology, between church and culture, between liturgy and theater or liturgy and life. In The Fidelity of Betrayal he begins with a reflection on the story of Judas, and without falling into the trap of dancing with old gnostic heresies, he asks an explosive question: could it be that Judas’ betrayal of Christ was actually an act of faith and fidelity? He takes the question further by comparing the relationship of Judas and Jesus to that of Abraham and Isaac — when Abraham “betrayed” Isaac by taking him up the mountain to sacrifice him, a surprise ending to the story deposited a ram into Abraham’s hand (worse luck for the ram, I suppose, but at least it left Abraham and Isaac to work out how they could take their father-son relationship forward after that). No ram or lamb appears in the gospel narrative to spare Jesus the cross, and so Judas ends up taking the bullet that Abraham dodged. But Rollins isn’t satisfied with traditional readings of these narratives, and keeps pushing at his question: what if betrayal is really what it’s all about?

What if the way of Jesus isn’t about setting up churches and institutions and power structures, but continually betraying the human impulse to reify our beliefs, so that instead of creating cultural lines that separate the Christian insiders from the outsiders, we Christian types are just always falling in love with, and relating compassionately to, the outsiders, wherever they might be found? What if, since no language, no concept, no political or dogmatic position can ever “contain” God, our highest fidelity to God will result in continually betraying those human attempts to capture God in the gossamer webs created by our language and our thoughts?

Rollins unpacks this concept of faithful betrayal by looking at scripture, at God’s “being,” and finally at what he calls the “event” of God. Common to all three of these approaches to his question is the notion that faith emerges in our stories and our contradictions, our vulnerability and our emptiness, our woundedness and our doubt. Wisely, the author understands that the postmodern merry-go-round can be deadly if we ride it alone, and so he continually situates his stories and parables and reflections in the need for community — even if it’s a “community with/out God” or a “system against systems.” The Ikon community in Belfast which Rollins helped to create is, of course, a functioning model of this church-that-isn’t-a-church: meeting in a pub on Sunday evenings, the Ikon folks engage in what Rollins calls “transformance art” which integrates liturgy, ritual, drama, and theological exploration into a participatory event where space is created for faith to happen. Wisely, Rollins is sparing in this book with his recounting of Ikon’s innovative liturgies; instead he has sprinkled several wonderful and at times challenging “parables” throughout the text, telling stories to let the stories tell.

I heard Peter Rollins speak when he was in Atlanta recently, and he’s warm, funny, thoughtful, and clearly passionate about the possibilities afforded by a non-armored encounter between faith and philosophy. Best of all, the books he writes are intelligent yet lucid, hearty enough to be served up in a seminary classroom yet accessible for the average thoughtful reader. That in itself is a rare gift. Eighteen months ago I wrote that How (Not) to Speak of God is an “essential” book. Well, if anything, The Fidelity of Betrayal is even more essential.

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About Carl McColman

Author of Befriending Silence, The Big Book of Christian Mysticism, Answering the Contemplative Call, and other books. Retreat leader. Speaker. Professed Lay Cistercian.

  • Bob

    Thanks for the review Carl,
    It seems like churches, organizations, and institutions have to have some kind of hierarchy, structure or “trellis” in order to have an impact in the wider culture. I assume Peter isn’t anti-institutional but his thinking is more of a rebuke of the excesses

  • Carl McColman

    I think you’re right, Bob. I don’t have any sense from Rollins that he is anti-institutional just for the sake of being contrarian. But I also sense that he sees the gospel as fundamentally opposed to systems of power and privilege, wherever they might crop up — including in the church.

  • Sharon Wilson

    Peter Rollins’ Fidelity of Betrayal is a thought, provoking , insightful book that is a must read for like minds.

    Carl, a great review. Thank you.

  • zoecarnate

    I agree, ’tis an excellent and enjoyable read…

  • Steve Allison

    Good book and good review.