Erik Strandness reflects on deconstruction and reconstruction following an Unbelievable show on this topic

Unbelievable? has produced several shows about deconstruction featuring the experiences of high-profile Christians, such as Jon Steingard and Michael and Lisa Gungor, but haven’t really addressed the ordeals of rank-and-file Christians until a recent episode where author Olivia Jackson and pastor Preston Ulmer met to discuss not only their own deconstructions but the experiences of many others whose voices have largely been unheard.  

Author Olivia Jackson knew about the deconstruction of American Christians but wanted to see if the British experience was similar, so she sent out a survey and was overwhelmed, not only by the number of responses, but also by their diverse worldwide distribution. She published the findings in her book (Un)Certain: A Collective Memoir of Deconstructing Faith. Her book, rather than an in-depth analysis of the process, is an attempt to let the deconstructed speak for themselves in the form of testimonials and interviews. 

Pastor Preston Ulmer, through his research, discovered that the deconstruction process, rather than a tragedy, could in fact be the lifeblood of a healthy Church because of its ability to not only clarify one’s faith but also to make it more accessible to those outside the Christian bubble. He founded what he called doubters clubs, small groups of Christians, atheists and sceptics meeting together to discuss mutually agreed upon religious topics in an open and non-judgmental forum with the expressed goal of discovering truth together. 

Ulmer’s first book, The Doubters’ Club: Good-Faith Conversations with Skeptics, Atheists, and the Spiritually Wounded explained the purpose and format of the doubter’s clubs, while his most recent, Deconstruct Faith Discover Jesus - how questioning your religion can lead you to a healthy and holy God, delves into the “discipline” of deconstruction and how to do it well.


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Flavours of deconstruction

I think it’s important to begin by recognising that Christian deconstruction comes in two forms which often overlap. The first is an emotional deconstruction where one’s faith is fractured by the behaviour of its adherents. The second is an intellectual deconstruction where the tenets of the faith are broken into pieces by the hammers of modernism and/or postmodernism. 

I think we also need to remember that for many leaving the Church isn’t due to an existential deconstructive crisis but is the result of boredom and a perceived lack of practical relevance. It’s a demographic we need to take seriously but one that wasn’t really addressed in the show and which I won’t discuss in this article.

One of the problems inherent in these discussions is that they often lack a mutually agreed upon definition of deconstruction. Ulmer, in his book Deconstruct Faith, favours Melanie Mudge’s definition: “the taking apart of an idea, practice, tradition, belief, or system into smaller components in order to examine their foundation, truthfulness, usefulness and impact.” I think this is a solid definition when it is used as a verb to describe a premeditated process of intellectually investigating one’s faith but is inadequate when it comes to describing the emotion laden rejection of those profoundly hurt by Christian culture. 

It’s important to keep these distinctions in mind as we assess the work of these two guests. Jackson’s book primarily deals with emotional deconstruction and reads more like a diary of Church hurt, while Ulmer’s books, although still acknowledging the role of emotional damage, read more like how-to-guides for proper intellectual deconstruction. 


Seeds of discontent

As I mentioned before, these two types of deconstruction often overlap. Emotional Church trauma can lead to intellectual questions while honest intellectual questions ignored by the Church can lead to emotional rejection. Sadly, while deconstruction can affect any religious movement, the one that received most of the blame in this discussion was evangelicalism. 

It is an evangelicalism characterised by legalism, literalism, male domination and control. It is the same flavour of Christianity that has so frequently been in the cross hairs of the new atheism. While my experience with evangelicalism doesn’t look like this, it clearly exists and is widespread. Let’s however be careful not to completely throw it under the bus because it has also ubered many a lost person into the kingdom. 

After reading the guest’s books, I was struck by the fact that those who deconstructed weren’t generally concerned with primary Christian doctrines such as the trinity, the divinity of Christ, the atonement for sins or the resurrection, but were vexed by the biblical warrant their leaders gave for the peripheral rules and regulations which justified the authority, behaviour and worship style of their particular church. 

As Jackson stated in her book: “The majority deconstructed church before they started to deconstruct theology, often finding a seamless progression from toxic institutions to toxic theologies. This is circular and self-reinforcing: we become the God we worship and we fashion God in our own image.” 

Apologists look at this problem as primarily an academic one and have developed an impressive arsenal of sound answers to the perceived doubts of those who deconstruct. This strategy may be helpful for those who are intellectually troubled but does little to heal emotional wounds. The data reveals that as of 2023 only six per cent of self-identified Christians have a biblical worldview with born-again believers not faring much better at 13 per cent.

It therefore appears to me that we shouldn’t overestimate the intellectual concerns of a biblically illiterate Christian laity and miss the far more important emotional problem of people rejecting Christianity because of the behaviour of the Church. Don’t misunderstand me, apologetics is extremely important for Church health but its role in rescuing the deconstructed may be limited. 

As Ulmer noted in his book: “The use and abuse of power is, by far, the most common reason why people are leaving the faith…Deconstruction can be found any time authoritarianism is at work.”

We cannot grow seeds of faith in the deconstructed by simply sprinkling scholarly water on them because the real problem is often a church soil, which is shallow, rocky and full of weeds and has already sown seeds of discontent. 

Christian hoarders

Christians are often guilty of hoarding. Rather than simply accepting and promoting the gospel message, we lavish it with layer upon layer of doctrines, dogmas and devotions and forget our first love, Jesus. It, therefore, behoves us to periodically clean out our Christian closets before the junk spills out and litters our worship space. Decluttering our Christian home may also require that some walls be removed to create an open floor plan where all the nations can be blessed.

However, cleaning and remodelling shouldn’t be done alone because we need experts to help us identify what is valuable and what is not, and whether a particular wall is load bearing or just decorative. As Ulmer stated in his book: “When we deconstruct our religion or our faith, we aren’t deconstructing what God said. We are deconstructing what others say God has said.” 

Deconstruction should be a sharing process where we allow each other to walk through our worldview dwellings and compliment each other on the occasionally well-placed nail or two-by-four of truth but also point out where we see a clear and present danger of collapse. We can’t just ridicule the rickety worldviews of our friends, family and neighbours because when we do, we deny the deep emotional investment they have already put into such a massive undertaking. We need to do this in a knowledgeable supportive community with those who are experts in worldview construction and not those only skilled in demolition. 

It may be that at the end of our spring cleaning our faith should look more like a gospel yurt than a religious chateau. However, to do this we need to go back to the early Christian architects and review their biblical blueprint because it is hard to justify Christian hoarding when our hope is found in an empty tomb. 

Raze or redirect?

Ulmer pointed out that deconstruction, rather than a modern cultural curiosity, has been the lifeblood of the Church, beginning with Jesus, proceeding through Paul, the Church fathers, the Reformation and to the present day. 

Ulmer, in his book Deconstruct, put it this way:“Historically, Christianity is tethered to deconstructionists who are now revered as heroes. Trustworthy guides from Jesus to the apostle Paul to Martin Luther have become theological geniuses in their ability to ‘blow it up’ and strategically rebuild with the remains…Could it be that deconstruction is the discipline of a disciple, not an atheist?” 

I would, however, argue that these historical figures didn’t set out to “blow up” the faith but to help it correct course, pointing out where it had gone astray and putting it back on its original trajectory. Jesus didn’t scrap Judaism and start over, he honoured it, corrected its excesses, fulfilled it, and then brought the promise God made to Abraham to fruition. I think we are better served when deconstruction rather than raze, redirects.


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Deconstruction: Sacrament or sacrilege?

We ignore our critics at our own peril. If we don’t listen to them then the Church becomes nothing but a bunch of yes men and women kowtowing to their leadership rather than devoted followers bending a knee before the throne of God. Theological ideas left unchecked can quickly become laws in stone which are then used to bash people over the head with so we need to be very careful before we concretize our rules and regulations and test them to see if they can also be written on the heart.

“What if the ultimate tragedy isn’t a lost person going to hell but a Christian who helps them get there by restraining the spirit of curiosity?” (Ulmer, Deconstruct Faith, Discover Jesus)

Ulmer affords those who are deconstructing with a “prophetic liberty” as long as they are calling the Church to a “more Jesus-looking God”. The problem is that many of these critics aren’t warning the religious establishment that God’s axe is poised at their root for not bearing Jesus-fruit but rather just have an axe to grind.

Ulmer also describes deconstruction as a “holy process” and a “discipline of Jesus”.

“This book makes the case that in addition to being an invitation, deconstruction is a holy process that you can participate in with your non-Christian family and friends…Deconstruction is a discipline of Jesus, and Jesus’ followers would be wise to reclaim it. That is this book’s central, controversial idea.” 

While I don’t think it rises to the level of sacrament, I cannot condemn it as a sacrilege and ignore its refining power.

Kinder, gentler spirituality

Both guests noted that those who undergo deconstruction rarely return to the same faith they left but often find a kinder, gentler spirituality based on love. Love is a wonderful thing since God is love. 

As Ulmer noted in his book: “In every single interview I did with someone who used to be Christian, that person explained they started their exodus from Christianity based on the absence of love. As we rebuild a faith in Jesus, let’s remember that if the world doesn’t experience God’s love, the world won’t be transformed by God’s love.”

The word “love,” however, has undergone a postmodern transformation and is now more commonly understood as complete acceptance and tolerance, so the real issue is accurately defining God’s love. If love is defined in the postmodern sense, then Jesus isn’t your man because while he loved both neighbours and enemies, he also made it clear that when God’s love goes unrequited, salvation is impossible. 

It’s not just the Church that needs to undergo self-examination but also those who are deconstructing. They must ask themselves if they are taking the easy way out and embracing a religion where love is nothing more than virtue signalling. 

The Bible warns us not to love the world so if we are courting her then maybe we are looking for love in all the wrong places. You don’t get Jesus without the nails; you don’t get to walk with Christ without being hated by the world, so if suffering doesn’t figure into your religious mission statement, then Christ and him crucified isn’t for you. Jesus went to those who were sick so if we don’t admit that we have a malady then Jesus is nothing but a self-help guru encouraging us to name it and claim it.

In the second part of my article, I will discuss the place of deconstruction in the Church and how it can be used to strengthen the body of Christ.


Erik Strandness is a physician and Christian apologist who has practiced neonatal medicine for more than 20 years.