Whose fault is it when people deconstruct? What can we do about it? How do we help them to move forward? Erik Strandness reflects on deconstruction and reconstruction following an Unbelievable show on this topic
This is a follow up article exploring the Unbelievable? conversation between pastor Preston Ulmer and author Olivia Jackson. You can watch their discussion here. Read the first part of Erik’s reflection piece here.
Gambling with the faith
One of the tragedies of deconstruction is that it’s happening right under the noses of our pastors. All too often those in the pulpit ignore or gloss over the tough questions their parishioners are asking, leaving the congregation to wonder if the church really cares. The late Christian writer Frederick Buechner described this situation well:
“In the front pews the old ladies turn up their hearing aids, and a young lady slips her 6-year-old a Lifesaver and a Magic Marker. A college sophomore home for vacation, who is there because he was dragged there, slumps forward with his chin in his hand. The vice-president of a bank who twice that week has seriously contemplated suicide places his hymnal in the rack. A pregnant girl feels the stir of life in her. A high-school teacher, who for 20 years has managed to keep his homosexuality a secret or the most part even from himself, creases his order of service down the centre with his thumbnail and tucks it under his knee…the preacher pulls the little cord that turns on the lectern light and deals out his note cards like a riverboat gambler. The stakes have never been higher.” (Frederick Buechner)
It happens in part because of ignorance but also because the church leadership doesn’t want to rock the cultural boat and get thrown overboard. Sadly, when a church pay cheque is tied to organisational rules and regulations, and not the gospel of Jesus, pastors may find themselves in a theological bread line if they are perceived as stoking the flames of doubt rather than dousing it with a bucket of cold religion.
Pastors need the freedom to shepherd their flock and not worry about being put out to pasture. Jesus said you cannot serve God and mammon, so we must ask ourselves: are we rewarding our pastors for quieting the bleating herd or answering the questions of the lost sheep?
The congregation desperately wants someone to address their immanent deconstruction and not give them a pat on the back for putting on a brave face so let’s not gamble away their faith by going all in on a religious bluff, because when we do those who have doubts about the Christian hand they have been dealt will just fold.
Freedom to what?
One of the perceived benefits of deconstruction is freedom from the constraints of religion. Jackson, in her book (Un)Certain: A Collective Memoir of Deconstructing Faith, noted that this was a sentiment common to many of those she interviewed:
“Nina (UK) has noticed the spread of freedom across her life: I remember them sending us the statement of faith and saying: ‘If you can’t sign up to this, just admit that you’re having a crisis of faith’ and I remember thinking: ‘No, I’m having an awakening of faith, this is no crisis. This is magical, I feel amazing. I feel so much freedom, I can see beauty in the world. This is no crisis, but you’re right that I cannot sign up to this.’ So, then we left.” (Olivia Jackson)
The problem is that once you deconstruct you are still faced with the same sin problem. Ridding yourself of Christianity doesn’t make it go away, it just cedes the “original” problem to another organisation. In the end, no matter how you choose to live out your deconstructed life, sin will once again enslave you because it poisons all human endeavours.
You can’t keep running from it because it will always catch up with you therefore you had best think twice before you abandon the only One who can take it away.
All are welcome?
Most of the people Ulmer and Jackson interviewed had to deconstruct their faith on their own. Ulmer recognised the tragedy of this situation, prompting him to form doubter’s clubs where atheists, sceptics and Christians could all come together to work out their struggles in a safe community.
However, after reading Ulmer’s book, it didn’t seem like he had reserved a seat for evangelicals because he considered them a large part of the problem. He used words like, “bomb” and “dynamite” to describe the task of deconstruction, which is quite threatening to those who most need to hear the message.
Dialogue should revolve around how to do church better and not about how to get the evangelical monkey off our backs, which means that traditional evangelicals must also be invited to the table.
Historian Tom Holland, in his book Dominion, makes the case that the world we live in conducts its business in a Judeo-Christian manner. Glen Scrivener, on a more popular level, makes the same case by equating Christianity with the air we breathe.
Christianity is therefore the stage upon which deconstruction is performed, and while it’s easy to get caught up in our own personal drama, the larger Judeo-Christian show goes on. So, while we cannot dismiss individual hurt and doubt, we need to remind those who are deconstructing that the world already spins in a Christian way.
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I applaud Ulmer for taking a proactive stance and tackling deconstruction before it tackles us. Deconstruction is a waste of time if it is just primal scream therapy over the failings of the Church, but it can be invaluable if the Church comes alongside and assists in the rebuilding process.
The hope for every deconstructor is that they would be able to build an even more solid worldview but as evidenced by the proliferation of deconstruction websites and podcasts it seems that they prefer to dance in the ruins. They explore different religions and spiritualities but don’t evaluate them with the same stringency they applied to their Christianity. It’s one thing to rebuild a spiritual worldview but quite another to enter a religious homeless camp where you can shoot up questions but never seek treatment.
Rebuilding faith begins with a solid foundation and what better Person to contract with than the Carpenter himself. We can foolishly hire mortal handymen to do the job, but we will always be disappointed with their work because they aren’t bonded and licensed in upholding the Universe. As Ulmer wrote in Deconstruct Faith:
“Christ is the carpenter who lives among us now. He is the great builder and renovator. To not let him rebuild your faith is to not care about the words of Christ. Does his authority over your spiritual home shock you as much as it shocked his original audience?” (Preston Ulmer)
“The goal is to reveal Jesus, not to preserve religion.” (Preston Ulmer in Deconstruct Faith)
I find it fascinating that every religion feels the need to bring Jesus into their religious fold. It seems Jesus is a primal entity that most faith traditions can’t ignore and whom even atheists are willing to give an honorary degree in wisdom and kindness.
Ulmer wants to strip away religion until we reach the Jesus core and then answer the question, “Who do you say I am?”
Sadly, deconstruction isn’t content to find the hidden Jesus but also feels the need to dismember him by removing the parts of him they don’t like. They want to keep the Jesus who makes their joy complete but ignore the Jesus who suggests that some people will weep and gnash their teeth.
Returning to the centre
I really like the way Ulmer described the process of helping those who are deconstructing. He referenced authors Michael Frost and Alan Hirsch whose book The Shaping of Things to Come described two different ways we can envision the relationship between Christians and non-Christians.
The first is the most common and describes a fence between the two groups such that you are either in or out. The second, which is more helpful, sees Christ at the centre and gauges people by their distance from Jesus.
As Ulmer wrote: “Rather than seeing people as in or out, what if we started seeing people by their degree of distance from Jesus?”
So, rather than trying to get people to meet the entrance requirements for our camp, we show them the power of living in proximity to Jesus. Once again Ulmer opines:
“We are all surrounded by companions who seem to have a more robust belief than we do, filled with stories of visions and experiences. Maybe together we would be able to discern the presence of Christ among us. Maybe that’s the point.” (Preston Ulmer)
Ulmer and Jackson make the case that the deconstructed are on the periphery of the Church not necessarily because they have drifted away but because they have been pushed aside.
The Church often makes Jesus so holy that they distance him from doubters, but we must remember that Jesus not only embraces those who believe but also those who cry out, “Help my unbelief,” and as the Body of Christ we must not turn a deaf ear.
Erik Strandness is a physician and Christian apologist who has practiced neonatal medicine for more than 20 years.