Erik Strandness reflects on an Unbelievable? discussion between punk singer-turned-pastor Josh Porter and former-Christian Jon Steingard, exploring why numerous young American evangelicals lose their faith and whether they’re ever able to get it back
In February, Unbelievable? featured punk singer-turned-pastor Josh Porter, whose recent book, Death to Deconstruction: Reclaiming faithfulness as an act of rebellion, chronicled his journey of deconstruction and subsequent return to faith. He was joined in conversation by Jon Steingard, former lead singer of Hawk Nelson, who similarly deconstructed but ended up rejecting the Christianity of his youth. You can watch that show here.
Both Josh and Jon were raised in religious communities that held to a fairly strict literal reading of scripture, where questions were discouraged, and doubt was viewed as an indicator of a weak faith. Unfortunately, their beliefs were forged in youth groups thin on theology and heavy on emotion, where religious experiences were conjured up by the house music of the Christian music scene.
Inspired by the power of music to validate their Christian experience and their fondness for the musical artists who had composed the soundtrack of their youth, they formed their own bands hoping to bring Jesus to the rest of the world:
“We came of age in Christian culture, especially in American evangelicalism Christian culture, and a lot of bands were born out of a youth group kind of mentality, where we’re reaching for and finding credible indie music for the first time and realising that the kinds of bands that we liked to listen to were people who claimed to follow Jesus…and so we were inspired by these bands to do the same thing.” (Josh Porter)
While well-intentioned, they began to realise that all they were doing was bringing a youth group vibe to the pagan masses, a religious rave to the unchurched, or as Jon noted on a previous podcast, they were creating an experience not unlike a Coldplay concert. In addition, life on the road took them out of their Christian bubble and they soon discovered that the world wasn’t exactly as advertised by their church.
Sensing a disconnect between the Church’s teachings and a musical world they now called home, they began to ask serious questions, which were met with vague encouragements to have more faith and warnings to not let the devil get into the details of their Christianity. Happy times on tour became road rage directed at a church that hadn’t been straight with them.
“The spirit of deconstruction is often born from healthy and reasonable questions and doubt, but piloted by frustration and hurt. It roves the endless chambers of existential angst, gobbling up anything to relieve the pain and to hurt the people who hurt it.” (Josh Porter, The Death of Deconstruction)
As it turned out, the emotional highs of the youth group were no match for the emotional lows brought on by serious existential questions, and like many of their bandmates, both men deconstructed. Josh, in his book, described it like this:
“But behind the veil of sideshow lunacy, other things were collapsing. Everyone was leaving home as a Christian, but fewer and fewer people were coming back that way.” (Josh Porter, The Death of Deconstruction)
Josh ultimately found his way back to an orthodox faith, while Jon continues to diligently explore alternative religious ideas.
Sightseeing with Siddhartha
The stories of these deconstructed Christian musicians remind me of the religious journey of Prince Siddhartha Gautama, later known as the Buddha. As a young man, Siddhartha was sheltered from the harsh realities of the world in his father’s palace until one day he hit the road with his charioteer where he encountered illness, old-age and death. Devastated by what he saw, he concluded that life was suffering and set out on a spiritual journey to achieve enlightenment.
Christian musicians similarly leave the safety of their well-feathered Christian nest, hop into a van bereft of wisdom (or a Bodhi tree) and encounter a world they are theologically unprepared to understand.
“And without any kind of theological education…and certainly no communal backing because you live in a van and drive around as a micro-community and that’s often a place where emotional unhealthness thrives…and there’s no one to ask…and so a lot of the things you take for granted either wither from atrophy or they just don’t hold up against the big backdrop of the world.” (Josh Porter)
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One of the factors Josh believes is responsible for the deconstruction of many young Christians is biblical illiteracy. Young people are told that all the answers they need are found in the Bible, but instead of reading it, they treat it like a flotation device under the seat of their high-flying youth group. The problem is that once their faith begins to lose altitude over an ocean of doubt, they panic because they remember how they had tuned out the Stewardess’ instructions of what to do “in the event of an emergency landing” and now, without time to “read the instruction card in the seat pocket in front of them”, their faith crashes and they end up drowning.
“I’ve been watching a similar turn of events for most of my life: Jesus as fad diet. Really important until it isn’t. I have beheld legions of fevered converts brought up in Christian households and churned out by youth cultures and camps. Stirred to frenzy by what may have been genuine encounters with God, they ran, and they ambled along the road of discipleship until they fell prey to the Great Predators that stalk the dark ravines lining the narrow way—shadowy brutes that prey on pain and confusion, making meals of once-eager Christians.” (Josh Porter, The Death of Deconstruction)
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Scripture as art
Josh contends that the Bible is arguably “one of the most sophisticated works of literary genius ever committed to paper”, yet he notes that we either treat it like a coffee table book, which gives our home a lovely Christian Feng Shui or keep it out of the sight of our guests for fear they may get offended by some of its difficult passages. The problem is that what we often call biblical literacy is nothing more than literal biblicity, where scripture is reduced to a religious manual and its artistic power is ignored.
“The Bible cares less about its own clarity than legions of Bible legalists.” (Josh Porter, The Death of Deconstruction)
Josh believes that many of those problems can be avoided if we view scripture as art:
“And it’s all the things that I love about a work of art. It’s outrageous, it’s offensive, it’s ambiguous, it’s shocking, its provocative. It’s also uplifting and encouraging and beautiful and there’s poetry, there’s narrative, there’s discourse, there’s…deliberately unresolved tensions and then there’s questions that don’t get answered and questions that do get answered…It’s everything that I love about a dense sophisticated work of art. But I was never taught to understand the Bible as a work of art because in my upbringing, if you used that kind of language to describe the scriptures that was synonymous with saying ‘it’s not true’.” (Josh Porter)
Josh learned to see the Bible as more than pop music encouraging us to clap along “because happiness is the truth”, but to see it as grungy songs of lament that call us to bang our heads. As a former blood spitting rocker, he embraced the edginess:
“The things that bother me are things like imprecatory psalms. They bother me less now because they just sound like metal lyrics.” (Josh Porter)
He pointed out that the excessive language, especially around theophanies, convinced him that something artsy was going on with the Bible.
“It sounds to me so bizarre and so hopelessly unnecessary unless God is an eccentric artist.” (Josh Porter)
In the end, Josh recognised that the Bible’s eccentricity not only verified its supernatural origins but made the Christian walk exciting. In a world bereft of purpose and meaning, what could be more exhilarating than working out one’s faith “with fear and trembling” by following a Jesus who “isn’t safe, but is good”?
“I didn’t really want an accommodating Christianity; I doubt anyone really does. When we sanitise the Bible, reducing it to mystic spiritual bedtime stories, our effort to create an inoffensive Christianity, ironically, creates a Jesus no one really cares about following.” (Josh Porter, The Death of Deconstruction)
I find it interesting that people get so apoplectic over God’s anger. It appears that it’s OK for image-bearers to get angry at God, but heaven forbid the God who created the Universe get upset with the very people who screwed it up. Who has a greater right to get angry – an employee who finds his fellow worker making defective widgets or the CEO of Widgets Are Us? You can rat out your fellow worker for doing a terrible job, but it is the owner of the company that feels the financial pain. God didn’t just give us religious busy-work but wanted us to help build his kingdom, so he has every right to get angry with us if all we do is just punch the religious clock.
The beauty of Christianity is that despite having a boss who has every reason to fire us, he stepped into his workers’ world and became an undercover boss who wept with us, suffered with us, and in the end offered us the greatest love of all by dying for us. He doesn’t hand us a pink slip when we screw up, but makes it a red-letter day by bleeding on our behalf. So, before we accuse God of stepping on the little man, let’s remember that he is the only god who took the time to walk in our shoes.
All discussions about God’s existence eventually gravitate to the problem of evil, pain and suffering, and this discussion was no different. However, before we get into the weeds, we need to clarify the problem. We need to begin by pointing out that whether you are religious or irreligious, suffering isn’t going away anytime soon. The real question, therefore, is which worldview is capable of making lemonade out of the insufferable lemons.
If you want to read a powerful chapter on the reality of pain and suffering, please read Josh Porter’s book. He is gritty, honest and doesn’t sugar coat the problem. The main thrust of his argument is that both humans and spirits have free will, and because the spiritual and physical worlds influence one another, the consequences of bad choices will be felt in both realms. He readily admits, however, that God doesn’t completely get off the hook because evil was a risk God had to take in order to give us free will. Jon Steingard raised a valid concern about this free will defence.
“I don’t think free will defences work. They’re placing free will at a much higher value in comparison to lack of harm than we do in reality. We don’t value free will so much that were going to let people murder each other.” (Jon Steingard)
However, we need to remember that while free will can make us callously indifferent to the possibility of brutality, a lack of free will completely eliminates the possibility of freely chosen love, which for a God who is love is unacceptable.
Jon was also concerned that if you allow God to play the free will card then you have essentially committed yourself “to a version of God that looks a lot like no-God”. I would argue that maybe we should see restraint as a superpower. The thorn that Paul prayed three times to be removed remained intact because God said his power was perfected in weakness. Jesus told Pilate he could have called on a regiment of angels to fight for him, but didn’t because the power paradigm was different in his kingdom.
While restraint may be unbecoming to a God of the Omni’s, it is the calling card of Jesus Christ. So maybe what looks like “no-God” to Jon may actually be an even mightier God whose power is expressed in weakness.
Sadly, Christians all too often leave Jesus out of the theodicy odyssey, and spend all their time defending an omnipotent, omnipresent, omnibenevolent God, forgetting that he is also omnisuffering, a fact that we acknowledge every time we partake of the Lord’s Supper. We don’t worship a God who is full of himself but one who believes he does his best work when he is emptied.
The inconsistency of a good God allowing evil is a valid concern, but in the Christian tradition that God is the same one who took it upon himself. Christians need not gamble with theodicy because Jesus is our ace in the hole. Our God became a man and suffered, and while that may not be a satisfactory explanation for many, it does mean that you can’t look God in the eye and say, “you just don’t understand”.
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Flapping our wings
Josh also interestingly invoked chaos theory in his understanding of pain and suffering, where the flapping of a butterfly’s wings in one part of the world causes a tsunami in another part of the world. It’s an idea that has scriptural precedent. In its opening chapters, the Bible describes how a couple’s seemingly harmless fruit snack led to a world where “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God”.
Interestingly, the apostle Paul delivered his own treatise on chaos theory, where an isolated incident became a global tragedy. However, he didn’t leave us hopeless because he also explained how that theory could become the ultimate solution:
“Therefore, as one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men. For as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous.” (Romans 5:18-19)
The chaos we humans unleashed when we flapped our wings was redeemed by Jesus who spread his arms on the cross. While the butterfly effect may terrify us, we need to remember the reciprocal power of the Jesus effect. The free will that got us into trouble once again takes centre stage and becomes the means by which we can make things once again right. We may have chosen the wrong tree in the garden, but are offered the opportunity to redeem ourselves by choosing a different tree, the tree of salvation upon which Jesus hung.
Deconstruction is a real problem for the Church, but Josh points out this phenomenon is a first-world problem and not a third-world problem. He quotes Professor AJ Swoboda who stated:
“For every millennial, affluent, white college student who is choosing to deconstruct their Christian faith, there are five non-white people with less privilege in this world who are finding in the Bible the greatest message one could ever imagine.” Professor AJ Swoboda
Deconstruction ironically appears to be a problem for the affluent and not the afflicted. Those who should have the biggest beef with God stunningly find the meat of the gospel quite tasty. So, when we have discussions about deconstruction, let’s remember that the gospel isn’t just about making sense of the world but is more importantly a refuge for us when it doesn’t.
“I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33)
Erik Strandness is a physician and Christian apologist who has practiced neonatal medicine for more than 20 years.