Erik Strandness reflects on a show featuring musician Michael Gungor and pastor Evan Wickham on millennials, music and mystical deconstruction  

Michael Gungor and his wife Lisa were pioneers in the Christian music scene, building a loyal fan base through their music and The Liturgists podcast. However, over time they found themselves drifting away from Christianity and embracing an increasingly progressive, mystical and deconstructed faith that left many of their Christian followers confused. 

Pastor Evan Wickham, a friend and former musical collaborator with Gungor, experienced a similar deconstruction but, unlike Michael and Lisa, he recovered his faith by digging deeper into its historic orthodox roots. The two friends met on Unbelievable? to discuss the deconstruction process and explore the reasons why their healing journeys ultimately diverged. You can watch the full show here.


Dancing in the ruins

Wickham and Gungor experienced similar bouts of deconstruction brought on by questions regarding the nature and character of the God they had been taught to believe in since their youth, a situation which was made even worse by churches that were unwilling and unprepared to give them satisfactory answers. However, while their journeys began in a similar place their destinations differed significantly. 

As Wickham noted, they both “deconstructed the same God” but “reconstructed very differently”. Wickham believed that Christianity still had the ring of truth to it and chose to move past its superficial expression and mine its rich past. Gungor, on the other hand, believed that those very truth claims were the problem, and instead of digging deeper he took flight and began to view all religions from 30,000 feet. 

Gungor, contrary to many other high-profile deconstructions, didn’t see his journey as a complete rejection of his evangelical past but rather as the discovery of a new perspective: 

“I think we tend to look forward at growth with fear and we look backwards with disdain…I did that for a long time, and I don’t do that anymore. I actually really value where I came from…I’m not defining myself in opposition to something.” (Michael Gungor)

Wickham similarly was careful to point out that he didn’t want his reconstruction to be an angry response to a church that had failed him, but wanted to rebuild on the promises of a loving God who had made himself known for thousands of years: 

“I knew I couldn’t lead a church in reaction to the bad stuff, and the hurt, and the bad teaching I had encountered. I had to lead a church in response to the goodness of God and the core of the gospel that has united the Church across continents and millennia.” (Evan Wickham)

Gungor turned away from orthodox Christianity because he felt its theology was too narrow and didn’t account for the richness of alternative religious experiences. Wickham, however, found that as he dug deeper into the Christian past, he discovered an even more extraordinary theology. Wickham reconstructed his religious identity on the cornerstone the builders had rejected while Gungor chose to dance in the spiritual ruins.  


Read more:

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Knee deep in the rubble 

Wickham dealt with his deconstruction/reconstruction in a very interesting way. Instead of rebuilding in a Christian bubble, surrounded by a bunch of yes men, he chose to do it in a wilderness of naysayers. He chose to reconstruct his faith in the very secular city of Portland, Oregon, in a church that exhibited a “vitality and passion for the healing presence of God,” a vitality made even more evident by the way it sought to mend the brokenness that surrounded it on all sides. 

What better way to contrast a relationship with the living God than in a place where everyone walks around as if he is dead? It’s much easier to understand health when surrounded by disease, it’s much easier to understand the importance of rebuilding when you find yourself knee deep in the rubble. 

Historical homework

Wickham discovered that Christianity was a house built on a rock, a dwelling place whose structural integrity had been repeatedly tested for 1,800 years, and so, rather than fabricating a new faith on sand, he felt it best to return to the original blueprint. Gungor, on the other hand, felt that the Christian prototype was deficient because it had no place for mystery, and while Wickham agreed that mystery should always have a room in the Christian house, it alone is an inadequate foundation upon which to build a solid faith. 

Wickham later went on to say that it is a mistake to dismiss the historical writings of Christianity just because unresolved mysteries remain. While he acknowledged that the desire to codify belief is partially to blame for a black and white, ‘either/or’ Christianity, he felt that true faith is actually a combination of the two, a ‘both/and’ stance where both mystery and creed are revered.

“I wonder if there are too many either/or’s in some of the framing of Christianity where for me it’s both/and…God is indescribable with language, and (yet) we have 2,000 years of creedal language.” (Evan Wickham)

We cannot just reduce faith to mysterious personal encounters and ignore the vast corpus of historical work produced by the body of Christ. So, before we write our own spiritual script, we should spend a bit more time doing our historical homework. 

Change of perspective 

Gungor had read, studied, and memorised a lot of Bible verses in his youth, but had a sense that Jesus’ words were mysterious and lofty, words that hinted at something more than the propositional truths he had been taught in church. His intuitions were confirmed in 2016 after a mystical experience under the influence of psilocybin mushrooms:

 “And then I took magic mushrooms and was born again. And now, I can see not only what the hell Jesus was talking about, but why he would use such extreme language.” (Michael Gungor in his book This: Becoming Free.)

He felt as if he finally understood what Jesus had been referring to all along, not because he resonated with his words, but because he believed they had shared an experience which defied description. Gungor acknowledged that many people would be quick to discount his experience as just a hallucination but explained that it wasn’t what he saw during that trip that transformed him but rather the profound realisation that his previous religious perspective had been so extremely limited. A narrow point of view shaped by his culture, religion and family background. 

“I thought Michael was the protagonist of the story and what I saw in 2016 wasn’t anything to do with God as much as it was to do with Michael. It was actually seeing what I thought of as Michael, as being the ego constriction and fear based, approval seeking, dad be proud of me, friends think I’m cool, please somebody love me thing that it is.” (Michael Gungor) 


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Ruining the mood

Gungor believed that his culturally conditioned understanding of God had been the source of all his religious angst, but after these mystical experiences he felt free to rid himself of the rigid caricature of God that he had embraced for so long, and just let God be God.

“The most faithful thing that I had ever done to God, in God, for God, was letting go of my mind’s grasp of God.”

Gungor seems content with the universality of seeking but very uncomfortable with the exclusivity of finding. He encourages others to feel the tusks, legs and ears of the divine elephant in the room but doesn’t want to ruin the mood by turning on the lights. 

The apostle Paul similarly congratulated the Athenians for their spirituality but didn’t stop there, he then went on to tell them that hillsides strewn with altars to various gods wasn’t a religious marketplace but a divine cemetery, and instead of laying flowers at the tomb of the unknown god they should get to know the God of the living. 

Spirituality is one of the great unifiers of humanity, however, it unites us not because all paths lead to the same God but because they all begin with the same spiritual hole, and when we deny that this hole has specific dimensions then that still small voice gets drowned out by the sounds of grumbling souls aching to be spiritually fed.


The problem with psychedelics, meditation and mysterious experiences is that while they may send you on a memorable expedition, you can’t live there, you must always book a return trip. The voyage may expand your perspective, but it doesn’t pay the bills. We can spiritually soar to the heavens for a moment but must always prepare for reentry. This difficult transition between the two is a constant source of human angst. Walker Percy shed some insight on this perpetual human dilemma.

“The spectacular miseries of reentry - especially when the transcendence is so exalted as to be not merely Adam-like but godlike. It is difficult for gods to walk the Earth without taking the form of beasts.” (Walker Percy – Lost in the Cosmos)

Spirituality isn’t a place we visit when the physical world lets us down, a safe space where we’re shielded from the rigours of life. Spirituality should be the desire to unite the physical and spiritual, to make life on Earth as it is in heaven, but that isn’t done by handing out bus passes to a spiritual realm but by travelling the Via Dolorosa of an incarnate God. Let’s not content ourselves with an occasional spiritual holiday when we can embrace the day-to-day reality of God with us. 


Read more:

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Baby face

Newborns are cute and cuddly but are also generic looking and difficult to distinguish one from another, which explains why hospitals are so careful about not mixing babies up after birth. You would never mix up residents at a retirement home because they are very distinct in looks and personality, but it could happen with newborns. 

Why all this talk of newborns and nonagenarians? The reason is that the more generic the religion, the more difficult it is to distinguish from other spiritualities, and while a lack of doctrinal distinctiveness may make it cuter and cuddlier, it also makes it easier to mix up after one is reborn.  

Orthodox Christianity, on the other hand, is easy to detect because it is well marked by the grey hairs of historical inquiry, which not only makes it more distinct but also more vulnerable to criticism. The problem for generic spiritualities is that sooner or later they must grow up, leave home, and try to make it in the real world where they will eventually discover that their baby face, while garnering compliments on Earth, will almost certainly guarantee that they will be carded when they try and enter heaven’s gate for happy hour. 

Word salad 

Gungor noted that the word “God” is understood quite differently from person to person and wondered if it was even possible to accurately describe him/her/or it with words. He questioned whether the Church has accurately portrayed the beliefs of Jesus and wondered if our Christian language reflects the true Word or has been redefined by a Christian lexicon

“I do sincerely believe that the words that are used by orthodox mainstream Christianity have drastically been reimagined from what I think Jesus would have meant in speaking about those topics.” (Michael Gungor)

Wickham noted that one of the reasons that divine description has fallen on hard times is because what was once a “we thing”, worked out by a great cloud of historical witnesses, has now become an “I thing”, where individual experience defines God. 

Gungor noted that his mystical experiences were so profound that they defied description, which made him question the validity of language as a form of religious expression. He recognised its necessity but didn’t want to confuse words for the truth to which it pointed.  

“I used to believe that language was sort of equivalent to the truth I was pointing at. It was almost as if I lost the distinction between the finger pointing at the moon and the moon itself and to me language is, at best, a finger pointing to the moon. When we start confusing language with truth, to me that’s a key distinction, the truth of the matter is unspeakable.” (Michael Gungor) 

Gungor wants his words and music to invite people into an experience with God but not to define him/her/or it. The problem is that while the sound of one hand clapping may help you meditate, without meaningful words it is just silent spiritual resignation. When we swallow the postmodern pill and believe that words have no meaning then everything becomes a word salad, which may appease a spiritual ruminant but does little to nourish those who ask, “Where’s the beef?”

Treading spiritual water

It’s interesting that the God of the Bible, rather than remain ineffable, took on monikers that connected him to the Earth. He was the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Jesus was the Son of God, Son of Man, and the Messiah. The uniqueness of Christianity is found in a God who became incarnate, a deity that inspired a book which gives us a vivid description of who he truly is. 

Religious plurality is easy to defend when it relies on personal experience because then you don’t have to litigate divine language. However, this raises a very serious question - what do you do when someone is drowning in a sea of spirituality desperately looking for something to hang on to? Shouldn’t we toss them a Word of life preserver rather than applaud them for the way they tread water? 

Bantering with bridge keeper

We all have a spiritual hole that needs proper filling. The problem is not the desire to fill an empty spiritual glass but the toxic material we pour inside. We need to respect the diligence of our fellow men and women as they carefully decant their deity but warn them that many divine substances are immiscible.

We will all one day cross the bridge of death to reach the Holy Grail. In preparation, we need to make sure we know the answers to all the Bridge Keeper’s questions because if we fail to take our faith quest seriously, we may just get tossed into the Gorge of Eternal Peril because we were so flustered by his queries that we forgot our favourite religious colour.


You can watch the full show of Michael Gungor and Evan Wickham here.


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