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This week’s bestselling books

Approaching JesusLent books continue to dominate the best-seller list this week (updated 25th February), along with other Bible studies such as the excellent short study Approaching Jesus by Cathy Madavan – you can read our interview with Cathy here.

The Archbishop of Canterbury continues as our number 1 with On Rock or Sand, asking hard questions about the UK. You can read interviews and articles with other bestsellers including a look at the new Readers’ Edition of C S Lewis’ A Grief Observed, and Bread Not Stones by Una Kroll

1 On Rock or on Sand edited by John Sentamu (SPCK)
2 Stations of the Cross by Timothy Radcliffe (Continuum)
3  A Grief Observed: Readers’ Edition by C S Lewis (Faber & Faber) 
4 Reflecting the Glory by Tom Wright (BRF) 
5 Bread not Stones by Una Kroll (Christian Alternative) 
6  Word in the Wilderness by Malcolm Guite (Canterbury Press)
7 A Beautiful Friendship by Paul Kerensa & Zoe Young (DLT) 
8 Fathomless Riches: Or How I Went from Pop to Pulpit by Richard Coles (W&N)
9 Approaching Jesus by Cathy Madavan (CWR)  
10 Billy Graham: Candid Conversation by Sir David Frost (David C Cook) 



“Christianity in its properly irreligious form”

Peter Rollins

Peter Rollins

Belfast-born Peter Rollins has developed a reputation as a provocative and challenging theologian and philosopher, taking an irreverent look at modern Christianity and what it means in the 21st century. With his latest book, The Divine Magician, he argues for an approach that deconstructs many of the secular and religious assumptions and practices, offering a fresh way of thinking about and living a Christianity for the 21st century.

Buy ‘The Divine Magician’ for just £9.69 (RRP £13.99)

What was your aim in writing The Divine Magician?

One thing that both the critics of religion and its defenders seem to agree on concerns what Christianity actually is. To paint with broad brushstrokes, they agree that it involves a belief in God, the idea that we can reconnect with this God, and the notion that this reconnection will re-establish a lost harmony. The former attacks these ideas, the latter defends them.

In contrast, The Divine Magician presents a radically different reading of Christianity. One unconcerned with what people believe, that is not about reconnecting with some ultimate source, and that is most certainly not caught up in re-establishing a lost harmony. What people will find within the pages of this book is an unapologetically this-worldly reading of Christianity, one that views the subversive heart of the gospels as nothing less than an insurrectionary invitation to become a cultural dissident who challenges the status-quo, embraces the world and has the audacity to embrace freedom.

To use a somewhat old-fashioned expression, it is an existentialist approach to Christianity that finds itself at odds with both the religious authorities and their cultured despisers. This book is the culmination of a project I’ve been working on for some time. It is a book that signals my clearest and most forthright attempt to articulate the good news of Christianity in its properly irreligious form.

Buy 'The Divine Magician' for just £9.69 (RRP £13.99)

Buy ‘The Divine Magician’ for just £9.69 (RRP £13.99)

Is it important, in your view, to establish the roots of Christianity as an historic event?

I approach the early writings of Christianity in much the same way as a psychoanalyst approaches a dream. The analyst takes the dream of their analysand (the one in analysis) literally; to the letter. In this way I am a type of fundamentalist.

For an analyst, the dream of the analysand is a type of portal into the Real of the dreamer, and thus offers a way of uncovering the deep, disturbing, and potentially enlightening truth of the subject. The analyst doesn’t concern herself with matching the dream with actual events, but works hard to excavate the reasons why various events impressed themselves upon the dreamer. Ascertaining whether or not something in a dream resembles an objective happening in the world isn’t important for the analyst. Indeed the analyst doesn’t even have the means to decide such things anyway. Rather the analyst is there to bear witness to what is spoken, to let the dream unearth a hidden desire, to break open dry and brittle ground. For me, the role of the theologian proper – not what passes under that name today – is to help their community encounter something of their truth through a careful analytic listening of their text.

What place is there in your proposition for the Mysterium Tremendum et Fascinans? It seems from your opening chapter that you would discount the idea of God as ineffable; is this a fair conclusion?

While I briefly wrote in the register of the apophatic, and maintain some sympathy with its more marginal figures, my work ultimately offers a critique of mysticism.

As I touched on in the first question, Christianity as we understand it today is related to the idea of re-establishing connection with a lost wholeness, an original blessing. This is either described in terms of bridging a separation (God is a being who we are distant from) or overcoming an estrangement (God as the Ground of Being which we are alienated from). But either Christianity takes the lacking, finite, desirous subject and (in this life or the next) plugs them back into an originary source of plenitude.

For me mysticism ultimately offers the vision of a return to God as the Ground of Being. While there are some notable exceptions, the theory and technology of mysticism is thus largely caught up in the idea of a sacred-object that promises wholeness. My work is purposed with the task of critiquing this sacred-object. Rather I’m arguing for a materialist reading of Christianity that invites an individual into an acceptance of lack and a warm embrace of the incomplete. This is not a solemn theology of the heavens (which, I argue, always ends up in hell); it is a celebratory theology of the earth. 

You talk of Churches needing to do more than simply accept ‘scapegoated’ groups (e.g. Women, LGBT etc), but to move beyond the idea of the ‘other’ that threatens them. How could this be achieved?

In the book I try to show how the scapegoat mechanism is inherently linked to the idea that there is something that brings wholeness and fulfillment. When these are not attained the temptation is to blame something; to make something carry the failure. The scapegoat mechanism is what results from not being able to bare our own longings, fears and anxieties.  This is the hell that sticks indissolubly to all heavenly visions.

I see the answer to this problem nestled in the insight that the poor will always be among us. There is a lack, a poverty that marks us as humans, a poverty that we either learn to own, or place on other people’s shoulders.

In The Divine Magician I paint a picture of a community living this personal/communal ownership out. A community that has forged tools that help people confront, and tarry with, their darkness. Under the banner of Transformance Art I explore how comedy, song, poetry, prayer, preaching, and parable can help in this difficult work.

Is there a place left for the creeds as a statement of faith?

Perhaps a good way to approach an answer would involve considering how we think about and enact love. Every society has different ways of expressing what love looks like. Indeed, even within a single society, there are numerous subcultures that express love in ways that diverge from the norm. Communities will collect their different ways of understanding love in forms of communication like poetry, painting and song. Yet the love itself is not captured in these concrete reflections. One can recite the poetry or sing the songs without knowing the love that conceived inspired their creation. Without the concrete expressions we would have no way of speaking the love, but the love is not spoken in the expressions.

In The Divine Magician I write about how faith represents a way of experiencing the world. One in which we feel the surface infused with infinite depth. I am careful to point out that this is an experience that does not relate to ones intellectual beliefs. Different communities will have different ways of verbalizing what living with this sense of infinite depth actually looks like, and those verbalizations could be seen as that communities creeds. But these creeds are temporary shelters, contingent resting places, not eternal citadels. The creeds of a given community are an expression of the way that that community conceptualizes a life they feel caught up in. That concrete expression is always deconstructable but, to borrow a turn of phrase from the philosopher Derrida, what inspires it is undeconstructable.

How do the ideas in the book translate into a practical approach for preachers, priests and lay-members?

While I’m deeply interested in the theory of what I call pyrotheology, my passion is in the technology that arises from it. The technology being the various practices that result. As such my primary interest is in exploring what might be called “microsocieties of resistance,” small subcultures that embody a different type of life to the one expressed by contemporary society. Microsocieties marked by the fact that they aren’t caught up in the frenetic pursuit of some sacred-object.

For me the actual existing church often resembles a type of nightclub where people go to get high, listen to escapist music and find respite from their troubles. In the same way many churches help people get high in the uplifting music, prayers and sermons. The problem however is that the problems that are briefly repressed don’t go away, they return once the high has worn off, so one has to keep going back.

In contrast I encourage church leaders to create spaces that more closely resemble the type of bar found in small Irish towns. A welcoming place where an atmosphere is created that encourages people to have a drink and actually chat with their friends about their week, with all of its joys and woes. Instead of deafening music designed to block out too much reflection, you’ll find some musicians in the corner singing beautiful traditional folk songs reflecting the full range of human emotions.

Songs about love and loss, life and death, sad endings and new beginnings.

Songs that somehow help you confront your own personal issues in a way that makes the burden lighter, easier to carry.

My point in using this analogy is to show that the opposite of creating a space that encourages you to run from your suffering isn’t the construction of some dure, melancholic cell. But rather the creation of a rich, fun, communal space where people can genuinely encounter others, feel less alone and gain strength for their trials.

What do you hope people will take away from The Divine Magician?

I believe that this is my clearest attempt yet at articulating a radically different type of Christianity to the religious one we are bombarded with today. An understanding that blurs the lines between theists and atheists, that is not concerned with the embrace of a particular worldview, and that doesn’t demand allegiance to some single cultural, political or religious identity. This is a Christianity that embraces the grit and grime of the world, that says “yes” to doubt, complexity and ambiguity, and that proclaims a loud “amen” to life.

I want this book to give words to those who are already wonderfully lost in this alternative, irreligious Christianity. I want it to encourage them that they are not alone in their pilgrimage.

The path that The Divine Magician describes is not an easy one to walk, and I’ve known many who’ve lost friends, jobs and more as a result of taking it. Hence I feel a little hesitant about recommending it. But it also attempts to reflect a path that I passionately believe is enriching, life affirming and transformative.

To finish with one last analogy, we are like haunted houses, each and every one of us, full of ghosts that we’d rather not face. Authorities in both the sacred and secular camps offer us all manner of distractions to help us avoid confronting our ghosts. But whatever we do during the day, the specters come out at night. In this book I encourage the reader to face their ghosts rather than turn from them, not so that they might die of fright, but so that they might learn from them, be transformed by them and perhaps even be freed from a few of them.

Buy ‘The Divine Magician’ for just £9.69 (RRP £13.99)

This week’s bestselling books

Introvert CharismaticAs we head towards Lent we can see a lot more books aimed at helping individuals and groups enter our bestseller charts this week (updated 9th February 2014).

The Archbishop of Canterbury is our number 1 with On Rock or Sand, asking hard questions about the UK. Number 2 is The Introvert Charismatic, a book that has been helping a lot of people. You can read our review with the author, Mark Tanner, here. Another interview featured recently was with Una Kroll, former nun, Anglican priest, missionary and pioneer of gender equality in the Church who’s book, Bread not Stones, is at number 5 this week.

1 On Rock or on Sand edited by John Sentamu (SPCK)
2 The Introvert Charismatic by Mark Tanner (Monarch Books)
3 Stations of the Cross by Timothy Radcliffe (Continuum) 
4 A Grief Observed: Readers’ Edition by C S Lewis (Faber & Faber) 
5 Bread not Stones by Una Kroll (Christian Alternative) 
6  In God’s Hands The Archbishop of Canterbury’s Lent Book 2015 by Desmond Tutu (Bloomsbury)
7 A Beautiful Friendship by Paul Kerensa & Zoe Young (DLT) 
8 Cry of Wonder by Gerard W. Hughes (Continuum)
9 Before Amen: The Power of a Simple Prayer by Max Lucado (Thomas Nelson)  
10 Fathomless Riches: Or How I Went from Pop to Pulpit by Richard Coles (W&N) 



Finding God and Beauty in Science

Ruth Bancewicz

Ruth Bancewicz

For Dr Ruth Bancewicz, scientist and senior research associate at the Faraday Institute for Science and Religion based in Cambridge, experiencing scientific research first hand brings a sense of awe that enhances faith. She has encountered many others who have similar stories. She recounts these, alongside exploring the common ground between science and faith, in her new book, ‘God in the Lab’.

Buy ‘God in the Lab’ for just £6.55 (RRP £8.99)

What was your motivation in writing God in the Lab?

I am often asked if it’s difficult to be a Christian in science, so I wanted to show what it’s really like. There were some questions to think about, and colleagues who disagreed with my views, but on the whole I found that doing science was a great experience and helped my faith to grow.

I believe that it’s so important to show the positive side of the relationship between science and faith. There is plenty of common ground for everyone to discuss. Many scientists, even if they are not people of faith, have found that science raises fascinating spiritual questions.

Buy 'God in the Lab' for just £6.55 (RRP £8.99)

Buy ‘God in the Lab’ for just £6.55 (RRP £8.99)

Why do you think that for some scientists their work leads them the conclusion that there probably isn’t a God, but others (such as those featured in God in the Lab) come to a different conclusion?

I expect that for most scientists who don’t believe in God, the reason will not be science, but a difficult question about suffering, evidence for God, a bad experience in church, the reliability of the Bible, and so on. Science doesn’t inevitably lead to conclusions about God’s existence either way. I prefer to think of it as a thought experiment – which view makes the best sense of all the available information?

How do Christian scientists counteract the damage inflicted upon Christianity by the aggressive anti-science approach of some Christians?

That aggressive stance is for a reason – some Christians believe that the opening chapters of Genesis should be interpreted in a more literalistic way, and that particular interpretation happens to conflicts with science. When I am asked what I think, I prefer to just explain my own view and point out the difference between primary and secondary issues. It’s amazing how many people outside of the church have not heard about this range of views on Genesis, so it’s fairly easy to explain the rough details and move the conversation on to more helpful topics. I find that in schools, young people often move quickly on to questions about why I am a Christian.

You write a lot in the book about the relationship between creativity, beauty and science – and how that enhances your spirituality. How can that communicated to people who see science as either a threat to their faith, or as something dry and academic?

Let me try a story. Each cell of your body contains a total of two metres of DNA. Those molecules are very tightly coiled up, but if you uncoiled them all how long would they be? How far could they stretch if you added the end to end? To the moon? The sun? The DNA molecules of an average-sized adult, end to end, would actually be a hundred billion kilometres long. Stretched out fully, they would take you all the way from Earth to the distant planet of Pluto and back at least six times. We are fearfully and wonderfully made! The universe is vast and beautiful, and so is our own planet. To explore even just one tiny part of it a scientist needs to use all of his or her creativity and imagination.

How would you counter the argument that in the midst of the beauty of the natural world there is also much violence and conflict – indeed some argue it is a necessary part of evolutionary theory – nullifying the idea of the natural world pointing to a benevolent creator?

That’s the most difficult question of all. How do we handle the fact that animals and plants seem to be trying to squeeze each other out of existence? Why do we so often do the same? I don’t know the answer any more than a pastor can say why God doesn’t protect us from suffering. I can say one thing – that cooperation is also incredibly important in the natural world. I won’t try to answer this question any more in such a small space, but I will recommend a website, biologos.org, where these sorts of questions are explored by Christian scholars in an open forum.

What do you hope people will take away from God in the Lab?

If they are Christians, I hope that science will open their eyes to the amazing world God has made. If not, I hope they will be interested in the spiritual questions that the beauty, wonder and awe of science can raise.

Buy ‘God in the Lab’ for just £6.55 (RRP £8.99)