Has anyone ever confided in you, “I’m deconstructing”? Maybe you don’t know the phrase, but you know the phenomenon when yet another social-media post announces departure from the Christian faith. The cause could be sex, race, politics, social justice, science, hell, or all of the above. For many, Christianity is becoming implausible, even impossible to believe.
It might be tempting to leave the church in order to find answers, but the new book Before You Lose Your Faith: Deconstructing Doubt in the Church (The Gospel Coalition) argues that church should be the best place to deal with doubts. Deconstructing need not end in unbelief. In fact, deconstructing can be the road toward reconstructing—building up a more mature, robust faith that grapples honestly with the deepest questions of life.
One of the key concepts of the book is offering disenculturation as an alternative to deconstruction.
“The thing I want to do is grab a hammer and just smash the thing to bits. That’s the temptation,” Jay Kim said in this week’s episode of Gospelbound. “But disenculturation is a much more meticulous and precise process. Rather than the hammer, we take the chisel so that we don’t destroy the stuff of substance, we leave the remnants of true Christian beautiful orthodox faith in place while doing the important work of meticulously slowly, within community, chiseling away at all the excess that doesn’t need to be there and probably shouldn’t be there.”
Kim explained that since we stand on the shoulders of giants over 2,000 years of church history, we know the basic contours of the faith that we must not discard. And with these essentials in place, we can work through details that owe more to our place and time than the faith once and for all delivered to the saints. Karen Swallow Prior, another contributor to the book, added that our digital age gives us access to a global village to demonstrate other expressions of Christianity that show what’s necessary and what’s incidental to the practice of our faith.
At the end of deconstruction is a question: Who is Jesus?
“Jesus is my bet, Jesus is my gambit, Jesus is good,” Derek Rishmawy said. “He’s better, he’s holier, he’s more beautiful, he’s kinder, he’s more gracious, he’s more gentle, he’s wiser than any of the select answers I might come up with.”
He is our ultimate hope, even when it feels like we’re falling away from faith.
The following is an uncorrected transcript generated by a transcription service. Before quoting in print, please check the corresponding audio for accuracy.
Collin Hansen: Has anyone ever confided in you, “I’m deconstructing”? Maybe you don’t know the phrase, but you surely know the phenomenon.
Yet another social media post announces departure from the Christian faith. The cause could be just about anything. It could be sex or race or politics or social justice, science, health or all of the above.
For many today Christianity is becoming implausible, even impossible to believe. It might be tempting to leave the church in order to find answers, but the new book, Before You Lose Your Faith: Deconstructing Doubt in the Church, published by the Gospel Coalition argues that church should be the best place to deal with doubts because deconstructing need not end in unbelief. In fact, deconstructing can be the road toward reconstructing, building up a more mature robust faith that grapples honestly with the deepest questions of life.
Collin Hansen: I’m joined by three of the contributors to this book, Karen Swallow Prior, Jay Y. Kim, and Derek Rishmawy. Thanks all for joining me on Gospelbound.
Derek Rishmawy: Thanks for having us on.
Collin Hansen: Well Derek let’s just start with you. Not every listener is going to understand deconstruction, they don’t know where that comes from. They may not have ever heard that term before. Tell us what is deconstruction.
Derek Rishmawy: So I get the easy one to start.
Collin Hansen: Yeah, right off the bat.
Derek Rishmawy: Yeah. So I’ll just I guess I’ll clarify right off the bat that it’s not necessarily if you know the term from literary theory and philosophy with Jacques Derrida at late 20th century developments, it’s not that. It’s not that term although you might trace a lineage of how those things are connected.
But most people are just kind of using that term in a loose sense in relation to the idea of construction or reconstruction. And when I use it in relation to faith, it’s helpful to think about Christianity as it’s often handed to us as a package, as a set of beliefs and a culture and practices that are all bundled together.
And what deconstruction seems to be used as is a process for thinking through kind of taking it apart bit by bit and examining it. And so for some folks there’s no one phenomenon of deconstructing, right? So, if somebody tells you that phrase you don’t automatically know what they mean. So there’s a range, right?
So for some folks you can think of it as sort of a re-situating process where folks are learning to take what we might say the doctrines of the faith being the Apostles’ Creed, the Nicene Creed, and re-situate them within a different framework of spirituality or political engagement or ecclesial situation, right?
It’s not necessarily Christianity is the creed and well the creed might be new to you. But quiet times and certain emotionalism in worship or whatever it is, it could be that and you’re pulling those things apart and you’re disconnecting that from your Republican voting patterns for the last 20 years or something like that.
So, for some folks it’s a re-situating. They’re still hanging on to their faith, they still believe basic core things that they did before, but they’re reorganizing the way that looks.
For some folks it’s a little bit more radical and we might call it a rethinking. So some folks are not just kind of re-situating kind of cultural encasing but actually questioning fundamental doctrines. So what does it mean that Christ died for our sins? What does it mean that the Holy Spirit spoke through the prophets? What do I think about scripture? What do I think about hell? Are these things necessary to Christianity?
So, 100 years ago, Ludwig Feuerbach wrote the book The Essence of Christianity. And he kind of distinguished the kernel from the husk. So a lot of people are trying to figure out what’s the kernel and what’s the husk and they’re not just doing that at the cultural trapping level, they’re doing at the doctrinal level, right?
So for some people it’s that. And then for some people it goes a little bit more radically in just thinking can I believe the thing at all? Do I need this thing? Is it so toxic through and through, toxic to my faith, to my pursuit of justice, to my own story of just trauma and hurt that the whole thing needs to be tossed?
And so when somebody says that, the first thing I’d say is don’t necessarily assume you know what they’re talking about. People are particular, and they use these terms in particularized ways even though what it generally signals is some reevaluation of the package that they’ve been handed for one reason or another and it’s a process of kind of going through what’s left, what they can hold on to or not. I don’t know if that’s helpful. Somebody pitch in.
Collin Hansen: Well, am I wrong to think that this sounds somewhat familiar to the emerging church of 20 years ago?
Derek Rishmawy: For me this is kind of a continuation. Yeah, 20 years down the line.
Collin Hansen: Right.
Derek Rishmawy: It’s not just familiar, it’s actually I think there’s a lineage from emerging stuff to what was kind of progressive evangelicalism too. And then thing … But I will say that I don’t want to narrow the conversation to just evangelical church, this is going on far beyond it and if you just look at what the thing is, I mentioned Harnack but rethinking the faith and kind of sifting kernel from husk, sifting culture from … That’s been going on for a long time and what we’re looking at is kind of a contemporary super-online phenomenon of this kind of old thing that’s been happening for a long time, at least as far as I can discern, but anybody else pitch in and correct.
Collin Hansen: Well, Karen, you’ve been working with students for a number of years, and what would you say is the most common reason you see for young people when they say they’re deconstructing, what would you say is the most common reason?
Karen Swallow Prior: Yeah, there are a couple of common reasons I think I can boil it down to. And I’ll pick up first on what Derek was talking about. Of course my context is having taught for over two decades in a conservative evangelical environment.
So the young people that I’m working with come from a particular kind of subset of Christianity. And I think for them, for many of them what I’ve seen is what Derek talked about primarily in that category one of kind of looking at how the doctrines of the faith have been packaged in cultural terms, political terms, even just sort of the practices like if you are a good Christian you will have a quiet time every day or you will do this or do that, these things that are very tied to a particular cultural moment.
I’ve seen a lot of students figure out whether or not those things, those cultural markers of evangelical faith are really intrinsic to the Christian faith itself. And that’s actually been a stumbling block for some of my students especially when I get so many students who come from very conservative backgrounds and they come to college like they’re on fire for Jesus and they think that the strength of their faith is measured by the minutes they put into their quiet time or the clothes that they wear and so forth.
And later figuring out that that is not the essence of the faith has been bewildering for a number of them. But beyond … That’s not the most serious deconstruction that I’m seeing although that certainly is one and it can lead down a wrong path.
But primarily I see the most serious kind of deconstruction taking place because of the topic I wrote about in this book and that’s anti-intellectualism. I’m seeing students who whether it’s English majors that I work with a lot or students coming from other majors in my general education classes who experience Christians refusing to answer questions or being afraid to challenge ideas and we’re not talking about the tenets of the faith, we’re talking about other things like scientific discoveries or good literature or just all kinds of questions related to the life of the mind that they don’t feel welcome to ask or that they actually feel they have been discouraged from engaging in.
And so I see a lot of students who are turned off by the anti-intellectualism and then when they approach matters of faith it becomes even worse. And if they find one thing that contradicts what they’ve been taught, then it can lead to a dismantling of the entire faith.
Collin Hansen: You do a great job of explaining there Karen that it would be a mistake for somebody to assume that our book or this book is about picking on or trying to embarrass or trying to point out the flaws of all these young people. Really it’s more of an encouragement to churches to be safe places for young people to be able to work these things out, to equip them as ministers, as leaders, as parents to be able to respond when this is happening so that young people don’t feel as though they have to leave the church to find answers to questions. And that I think really is more of the expected readership of this book in a lot of different ways.
Jay, let’s turn to you now. Derek said something I think was very noteworthy in his first answer. He talked about how this is a super-online phenomenon and certainly that was square with my experience as well and it’s hard to imagine the spread of deconstruction this way without the internet.
And I’m wondering, thinking positively here, what are some practices that you might commend for a healthy discernment for people who are looking for answers, looking to find, process their questions given just such a plethora of podcasts, TikTok videos, all kinds, how is somebody supposed to sift through all that?
Jay Kim: Yeah. Derek also mentioned that deconstruction is also not exclusive to the cultural moment we find ourselves in now. Meaning deconstruction was happening in various forms long before the internet.
I think what has happened with the internet though, the digital age has done two things. One, it has affected the shallowness of deconstruction, and it has certainly affected the speed or the rate in which it spreads essentially because of the digital devices at our disposal.
So yeah, that’s a great question. What are some sort of healthy ways we can engage. The reality is, digital technology is here and it’s here to stay, and there’s actually a lot of good that comes about from it. So we don’t want to throw the baby out with the bathwater, so to speak.
But it does remind me quite a bit if you go on the internet and you research or you just kind of Google advertisements for cigarettes in the mid-20th century, you’ll see all these ads for Camel cigarettes and there’s doctors. “Doctors recommend Camel cigarettes because they’re the healthiest.” It was almost coming across like this is actually good for you.
And here we are less than a century later, and it’s laughable, and I do wonder sometimes if we’re going to look back at the rise of the internet and ask those questions.
Now it’s certainly not the same, cigarettes, there’s just very little positive benefit while with the internet there are some real benefits. But I don’t know that we’re aware of its dangers and the sort of visceral ways that we need to be aware of them, meaning I think we sort of leverage these tools at our disposal fairly recklessly because they’re new to us, and we’re not yet fully aware of what it’s doing to us.
So the first thing I would say at a high level is we have to begin thinking about social media in particular but just the internet and digital technology as a whole as not simply being tools for information but actually tools for formation.
So our usage of these digital tools don’t just inform us, they form us and unform us and deform us in many ways. So there’s so much to be said here. One thing I would site is our mutual friend, Brett McCracken, and he’s a contributor to this book as well, and he’s got a new book out on something that he’s been working on for several years, The Wisdom Pyramid, that I’ve found so immensely helpful where he’s sort of taking the classic food pyramid and applying it to our discipleship to Jesus essentially saying at the base of the pyramid is Scriptures, the Bible, that’s where we go to first.
And then there’s the church, then there’s God’s glory revealed to us through beauty and nature and art. And then there are books and then sort of almost the dessert category of the pyramid would be the internet and social media.
So that’s one practical way of looking at it. How do you frame your worldview and the way you think about who God is and what he’s up to in the world. For many of us I think a healthy step would be to invert what is normative, which is to wake up and open up our Twitter feed or some other social media feed and try to get our information there rather to plunge ourselves into the depths of Scripture, to commit to a church community to find God beyond that through long-format reading and the beauty of the world around us, and then to see the internet and social media as sort of small, peripheral, supplemental guides.
Another thing I would say that’s been really helpful for me is from Andy Crouch, he talks about treating your smartphone like you would a young child. Meaning you put the phone to bed before you go to bed and you wake up before that phone wakes up.
I’ve got two young children, and I guarantee you if I went to bed, if my wife and I went to bed before they went to bed, it would be a disaster. And so it is with smartphones I think, to give ourselves that sort of bandwidth and that space to clear our heads and our hearts. So it’s not over-inundated with social media and the like.
Collin Hansen: Man, I have noticed those formative effects of the smartphone, of social media in particular. I’ve just noticed the way Twitter accelerates life. It just makes things move so quickly or the sense that things are moving so quickly. It just gives a sense that things are happening. It becomes its own little self-enclosed world or perspective on everything. It’s very engrossing but also distorting in that as well, and it has that formative effect, and Derek I don’t see you spending nearly as much time on Twitter as I used to there. I don’t know what kind of decisions you made there.
Derek Rishmawy: Yeah, I’m about to have a kid, and I just I just need to lower the anxiety levels right now and just reckon with myself I think to some degree. So yeah I’m off right now.
Collin Hansen: I’ve had to make similar decisions just in terms of what you pointed out there, anxiety levels when life is moving at that pace. There is a sense sometimes I get with the deconstructing process of a loss of control. It just almost feels like things are spinning and I don’t know how to find my place.
I had a friend of mine liken it to surfing when a big wave comes and it just dumps you. And you don’t know up from down or left from right anymore, you don’t know if you’re going to bash your head on a rock, or if you’re going to just sort of get guided onto the sea shore. You just don’t know.
And it’s a very scary kind of experience, and I wonder Derek if one way that people grab on to find something stable is to buy into some of the common deconstruction templates that we see out there because it doesn’t really appear that every story is different, it appears there is even kind of a … It also depends on your medium.
Derek Rishmawy: Yeah.
Collin Hansen: Because there seems to be an Instagram type of deconstruction that we see in that template. So, how do you see that kind of, I guess performative deconstruction affecting this phenomenon?
Derek Rishmawy: Yeah, that’s a hard one. I think you’re right to say that it’s not just one template. There are some recognizable templates out there for people telling their stories of coming to a deconstructing point or how they did it.
And there’s probably a couple different reasons for that. One is just because a lot of people are, and we have to reckon with this is a lot of people are having the same experiences in our churches. So, if a lot of people keep saying the same thing, then people need to reckon with the fact that, okay, well maybe our churches aren’t asking these questions properly. Maybe we’re not dealing with our politics properly. Maybe we’re not dealing with abuse properly. Maybe we’re not.
And so a lot of churches have to reckon and ask hard questions of themselves. So if you keep hearing themes, pay attention if you’re a pastor or a parent, whatever.
The other thing that’s not mutually exclusive, you kind of already gotten at, is that stories shape our experiences and we don’t just generate them out of nowhere, right?
And I think about an example, an analogy for my health. So I’ve had chronic pain issues for the last 10 years, and one thing I’ve noticed over time is I’ve tried to figure out what’s going on with me, my discomfort was always real, like painfully real. Like you can’t walk sometimes real.
And over the years though my explanation for what was wrong with me would shift overtime as I either went to a different doctor or different WebMD site or a different whatever.
And I remember even one time where they were testing me for a neuromuscular disease, and the doctor kind of gave me this possible diagnosis, and I was looking at the diagnosis, and it matched some of my symptoms, but it didn’t seem to initially match others. But as I started to narrate my own experience back over the last five, six years in my head, I actually found myself retrofitting some of my experiences to fit the diagnosis because I want an answer for my pain and my pain was real.
And it turned out the diagnosis was wrong, and we’ve moved on since then. But I’m not saying that’s what everybody is doing, but I think there is a certain reach for an explanation when we’re in disorienting times, when we are socially dislocating, and it doesn’t surprise me.
Last year has been just massively dislocating for people. We’re in the middle of a pandemic, a shut down, things are out of whack. People’s relationships are in critical states. They haven’t been in church for six, seven months often. They’re hyper-online, the world is going to end in a lot of ways feeling of things. And so everything is dislocated.
That’s not driving all of it, but that can’t be underestimated as a thing. So often times we reach for narratives that are on offer and there’s a philosopher, I cite him in that chapter I wrote,
Jason Blakely, he’s got a little book called We Built Reality. He talks about the way a double hermeneutic effect takes place where sociologists will put forward an explanation for human behavior in some areas. So 1950s it kind of almost talk about the rational consumer as a way of describing purchasing behavior.
And overtime, as that idea filtered its way out into the culture, people actually started to describe their own behavior increasingly in ways that fit the model that had been proposed. So it was actually like a diagnosis. It’s almost like Shrödinger’s Cat we’re observing it. Actually changes whether it’s there or not and whatever.
But there is a sense in which proposing the diagnosis actually changes whether it’s there or not and whatever. But there’s a sense in which proposing the diagnosis actually begins to create a cultural effect and becomes a self-fulfilling interpretive grid.
So the more people are opposing these, to go back to online, you see one Instagram story that looks a certain way, it creates an intensive effect where more and more people start to interpret their experiences, their painful experiences and discomfort along that same grid and then it just has a multiplier effect.
And so I think that’s not all of it, right? And I’m not saying that you’re just following some cultural trend necessarily, if you’re experiencing these things. But we have to wrestle with the fact that other people stories shape our own understandings around sometimes for good, sometimes for ill, sometimes it can be distorting.
And so just wrestling with that, why these templates, they become memes, right, and memes spread. So that’s I think part of that.
Collin Hansen: Jay, I love the perspective Derek is bringing here because I think it’s so pastoral of helping to understand not only the specifics of each person but also how we’re all caught up in bigger narratives.
And one of the bigger narratives we find is that churches are not a safe place to be able to deal with these things so people can retrofit to say, “Right, there was that one time when this youth pastor said this or when somebody, a pastor said this or something like that.”
Jay if somebody asked, would you say your church is a safe place to doubt?
Jay Kim: That’s a great question. I’m biased so I would say yes. But I have reason for that. Yeah, what Derek said I think is spot on that memology is a real thing. It’s a field of study right now in fascinating ways because it shapes cultural narratives, which then have the power to shape our own personal narratives and then the waters get very murky in terms of trying to figure out what is the anchor, what is the truest story upon which we can sort of build a life and a worldview and all those sorts of things.
So when it comes to our church, and we’re not unique in this, I think many churches take this approach particularly in the digital age. The reason I say I do think we’re a safe place to doubt is because we’ve been trying really hard especially in recent years to promote slow and steady.
We’ve been inviting people to slow down from the pace at which all of the rest of their lives seem to move. Much of it propagated by social media, and we talked about it earlier just this urgency, like you said, Collin, that you feel like you’re wrapped up in this sort of speed that you didn’t …
It was a pace you did not set, it’s a pace that’s been set for you by social media and the digital age. And so we’ve been trying to create really a transcendence space like come, slow down. The goal is not for you to come and sit through an hour and 15-long worship service and then have all the answers. The goal is for you to commit to a particular community and for us together to embrace the slow and steady journey of growth and learning and transformation into the image of the risen Christ.
And so we try to push away as much as possible sort of quick heat, microwaveable answers even though often that’s what people in terms of their felt needs, that’s what people are coming for.
We don’t say the answers don’t exist, we simply say it’s like a really good gumbo, and it’s going to take hours and hours on the fire for us to be able to pull out all the flavors in such a way that it’s enriching and transformative in a meaningful way rather than popping it in the microwave for 30 seconds and there you go, at least it’s hot, that sort of thing.
So that’s been a big part of it too. And I think the challenge for us, as has been the case for probably most churches that we face in that invitation is just the incredible rise of individualism.
In the West this has been going on for a long time. It predates the internet age by a lot, but still the internet age has sped it up. The individualism now is just it is the default worldview of most people. That everything about their life experiences has to be catered to them and that’s just, my best understanding of Scripture, that’s not the way of Jesus.
And so there’s a lot of undoing that needs to happen there. But also real beauty on the other side of it in ways that sort of energize the human being. We’ve seen that with people when they sort of let go of their hyper-individualism. It’s hard, but then they experience the beauty of Christian community and it energizes them in brand new ways.
Derek Rishmawy: On that slowness, I think there’s something really important here also for not just talking to folks who want answers, but also for those who are anxious to give answers. I think a lot of damage is done when folks, pastors, small group leaders, Christian friends who are just concerned for friends who may be asking difficult questions and there is an anxiety that’s provoked in you that you have to provide one right then and there that leads people to just give really bad ones or half-baked ones or actually, and this is something that an embrace of the gospel, an embrace of God’s wisdom and the fact that God is always at work is helpful for you as someone who’s trying to minister to others is taking to God your own anxieties about having the right answer in that moment or in that conversation.
When talking to college students at UCI, I have several where it’s like, “Okay, we got an hour. That’s cool, we don’t have to get to everything, and you’re still cool to come and join, and we don’t really sign it on the dotted line. We don’t have a dotted line for you to sign.”
But giving space for that and recognizing though, and this is also another very important thing with that anxiety, is the way other people’s doubts and anxieties and stories are actually probably provoking and raising some of your own. This is I’m going to go with Charles Taylor again, because everybody at TGC goes to Charles Taylor.
But the thing that he points out about, the fact that everybody’s faith is cross-pressured, everybody’s doubts, everybody’s beliefs, everybody’s remix of their faith or staunch confessionalism or whatever it is. It’s all bumping up against each other and somebody maybe putting that energy out there really strong like they’re really deeply rooted in their confession, they’re really deeply rooted in their anti-belief, they’re really deeply rooted.
And some of that, a decent amount of that is actually posturing to kind of prop yourself up in your … You’re almost hyping yourself up. “I’m definitely not close to that. Or I’m definitely not just about to just walk back into my old Bible study. I’m definitely …?
So recognizing that your own anxiety might be playing a role and dealing with that and taking that to Jesus so that you don’t actually do pastoral damage to others because you’re actually trying to force somebody to land at an answer way too quick because you’re really just trying to quell your own doubts.
This is something you have to deal with otherwise if you don’t actually have that embraced and nailed down for yourself you’ll force other people to arrive too quickly and you’re not helping them, you’re helping yourself.
Collin Hansen: I can see that especially, Derek, for people who are working with young adults, especially college pastors, because most college pastors if they’re in their 20s don’t have everything figured out, they don’t have all their theology settled. And so they are themselves in flux as they’re trying to guide younger people through this process and you can see how a lot of damage results there.
Karen, coming back to you, have you seen someone come through the deconstruction process with a stronger faith on the other side, and I’m hoping you have. And if so, what made the difference in that case?
Karen Swallow Prior: Yeah and of course this goes back to what do people mean by deconstruction. And there are so many elements too and I really appreciate the way Derek laid out the different layers, because I think they all apply.
I have seen a lot. Again, I’ve been teaching for a couple of decades, and I will say that I have seen far too many students deconstruct and not come back. And just generally speaking, for whatever this is worth, and it’s anecdota,l but I’ve taught thousand of students in a conservative evangelical environment, the ones that fall the hardest are the ones that were the most adamant, conservative, secure, confident in those areas when they came to college.
And they really fell hard. But what I have seen, actually there’s a student that I’m actually pretty close to, a former student, I’m pretty close to and had her a number of times as a student, and I’ve watched her continue on with her life and marriage and children and all of those things.
And she went through a particular kind of deconstruction, more of the stripping away of the cultural trappings but that caused her to reconsider the doctrines and her faith. And she seems to be in a very strong place and I’m actually … I threw the question out there on my social media as well, which may have been a foolish thing to do, but these stories are amazing and I’m fine and I don’t know if this …
Derek, I think it was Derek mentioning before. Yeah, he just talked about how when we’re hearing these stories, if we are honest and we are vibrant, our faith is not dead. We’re asking questions of ourselves too, right? We’re asking … So when someone comes to me and says, “Do you think I’m still a Christian because I no longer vote this way. Or do you think I’m still a Christian because I believe this teaching about women?”
Those are some easy ones. But I do have to confess that in the past few years there have been, I know this is not a new thing. I know that these things have been going on as long as, well as long as Christianity has existed and especially as long as Protestantism has existed because of the nature of it.
But in the past few years there are many cultural trappings that are being exposed and yet at the same time there are many Christians out there who would and do say that absent those cultural trappings you are not a believer.
So, as I see more and more people who are stripping away those cultural trappings, deconstructing those and yet do affirm the orthodox creeds and do show fruit in their lives, then I’m asking myself as well, “Well what are the cultural trappings that I’ve assumed all these years?”
And so to sum up my entire answer, I actually having heard so many stories and so many variations of them, I’m ultimately right now hopeful and optimistic because of this deconstruction that’s going on in a variety of ways and because things do move so quickly, even some of the most dire and sad stories that we’re hearing, that seem the most hopeless, things do pass ,and I actually I’m confident that maybe the pendulum will swing the other way and something new and good will come out of it and dare I say maybe even some kind of a new 500-year moment reformation.
So I’m hopeful and optimistic from the stories that I’m hearing about people deconstructing.
Collin Hansen: Well I’m glad to hear that Karen. And Jay this leads straight into my question for you because in this book we’re, as I mentioned earlier, not trying to beat up on people and say, “How dare you?” Not trying to shame people and say you’re supposed to put all these doubts or questions away. No, we’re trying to again bring them to the surface and try to level one another and to help them through this process.
And we also propose in the book that maybe deconstruction is not the most helpful way to think about this but in fact we would invite all Christians to undertake a process of disenculturation.
Jay could you just explain a little bit of what disenculturation looks like and why it’s necessarily actually for all Christians to do?
Jay Kim: Sure, yeah. In the book Hunter Beaumont wrote a chapter about this, and super helpful. Yeah, Christianity like all movements, really, it has a particular language and customs and aesthetics and norms that find their own sort of iterations throughout time and culture.
So, I grew up a child of the evangelical youth group sub-cultures. So I grew up going to Acquire the Fire conferences and listening to DC Talk’s Jesus Freak on repeat.
And so there’s a lot to it that for me when I went through my own deconstruction phase, which I did, which several contributors to this book actually also went though. So there’s a lot of empathy there. There certainly is for me and for so many of us who contributed to this book.
Yeah, that’s essentially what it was, what sort of would probably have been labeled and maybe started out for me personally as deconstruction really ended up being in a much more precise way, disenculturation where I was with the help of some guys who really continued to love me and care for me and pray for me and sort of nudge me toward Jesus again.
I was meticulously going through and parsing out that which was a part of the ‘90s evangelical youth subculture that I grew up in.
Collin Hansen: Right.
Jay Kim: That which was the step of substance, genuine, historic, orthodox Christianity. So for me a way to think about it was, it was essentially sort of doing the hard work of figuring out what is the stuff of substance here and what is the stuff of style, because the styles change, and some of it is helpful for a time, and then it becomes really unhelpful, even harmful.
Some of it is just unhelpful and harmful from the onset as Karen was talking about some of the cultural trappings that are so rampant these days. There’s some of it that you look at and you just say, “Oh, this is not some sort of thing that’s helpful for a season, and it’s going to be dead and gone some day.” There’s some stuff that’s just like, “No, this isn’t actually Christian. This is not the way Jesus. It doesn’t fit within, again, beautiful, historic, orthodox Christianity.”
And I think when C. S. Lewis talks about chronological snobbery, that’s really helpful for me. It’s hard to live outside of the time and space and moment that you live in. It’s just really difficult.
But one of the most beautiful things about Christian faith is that we stand on the shoulders of giants, we have 2,000 years of the church’s history that should paint for us in very big broad strokes what it means to be a Christian, and once we can identify those things, it becomes much more, not easy, but it becomes much more doable to dis-enculturate.
To then say, “Okay, this is the stuff of faith that that has been true since the beginning and all of this other stuff that angers me, that frustrates me, that really wants me, it pulls at me to sort of push away from the church or from other Christians or whatever, it becomes clear that we can sort of parse that stuff out.
That is hard work. I think one of the metaphors I use in my chapter in the book is the difference between hammers and chisels. And I think with deconstruction so often there’s so much emotion laced alongside it, which makes a lot of sense because like Derek said earlier, it’s all shaped by our stories.
So, when you see a particular caricature for example of Christianity and that caricature hits a particular note, a minor note in the song of your life.
The thing I want to do is grab a hammer and just smash the thing to bits. That’s the temptation. But disenculturation is a much more meticulous and precise process. Rather than the hammer, we take the chisel so that we don’t destroy the stuff of substance, we leave the remnants of true Christian beautiful orthodox faith in place while doing the important work of meticulously slowly, within community, chiseling away at all the excess that doesn’t need to be there and probably shouldn’t be there.
And that differentiation I think is really important. And to Karen’s point about her hope, about the future, I’m hopeful too because I’m excited to see more and more people now leaning in that direction and pointing people in that direction.
“Hey, let’s parse this out a little bit more thoughtfully rather than deconstruct, disenculturate genuine Christian faith from all the other stuff that we’ve attached to it.”
Karen Swallow Prior: Some of the most encouraging stories that I’ve heard of deconstruction actually are coming from my former students who have left America to go and serve in other parts of the world, and that’s where it becomes so much easier to see the cultural things.
And we shouldn’t all have to do that physically or literally although many of us should. But that’s perhaps one of the gifts of the digital age as well, is that we are able to, this global village allows us to see more expressions of Christianity that are not confined to our country or our region.
And so … Or we could just read books too, that’s my preference. But yes, just getting, being able to see beyond our own cultural moment in time and place.
Derek Rishmawy: Yeah, I think I’ll just say that it’s helpful to do that in terms of just having a global mindset of just even recognizing that, not to be crass, but oftentimes we shrink. We talk about abstractions about the church and we’re really talking about our youth group and we’re really talking about the last two or three churches that we’ve been in.
And there’s enough of those. You string them together, there’s a lot of failures. But yeah, you expand out the view and you just see a lot more of the glory alongside the ugly and church history is a lot of ugly and a lot of glory that reminds you.
It’s actually the whole thing is only justified by Christ anyways. And so you do have to reckon with that but you get more of the … You get a fuller picture than just kind of being myopic about our North American experience.
Collin Hansen: Well Derek you have one of the concluding chapters in the book and I guess it’s sort of our anticipated Jesus juke chapter, is that what you would say?
Derek Rishmawy: Oh man.
Collin Hansen: What are you trying to accomplish in that chapter?
Derek Rishmawy: Yeah. The gist of it is this, if you’re rethinking Christianity and if you’re deconstructing, reconstructing, whatever is it, really the thing is look at Jesus, right? He’s the center, he’s the point. Wrestle with him and we need to wrestle with him on his own terms, right?
Like what did Jesus claim about himself? Who did he say he was? Was he the sinless son of man, the son of God who lived and died and rose again for you? If so, that changes the question of what we’re doing, right? If so, then wrestling with what did he say? I’m wrestling with hell, I’m wrestling with Scripture, I’m wrestling with men and women, I’m wrestling with all these issues.
So go, “Did Jesus have words on this?” I’m not talking about a canon within a canon. I think Paul was inspired, I think the Old Testament is inspired partially because of what Jesus said.
But the thing is just I see a lot of people wrestling with these things or talking about going through this process and oftentimes it’s easy to talk about Jesus in abstractions and not wrestle with the actual flesh and blood person that we meet in the Gospels who said real words about all sorts of subjects like money and politics.
And so wrestling with is my problem with Christianity, is my problem with Christ himself actually, and that changes the question. But my big bet though, my big bet is that you can count on Jesus, right? Jesus is my bet, Jesus is my gambit, Jesus is good. He’s better, he’s holier, he’s more beautiful, he’s kinder, he’s more gracious, he’s more gentle, he’s wiser than any of the select answers I might come up with. I’m going to biff it. I’m even going to biff it probably in my presentation of Jesus because I’m still wrestling with him, and really that’s one of the images that I like with this whole process is Jacob wrestling with the angel, Jacob wrestling with God until he gives him a blessing.
My thing is wrestle with Jesus and you may end up with a little bit of a limp, your idea of who God was growing up and it may lead to some dislocation. You may dislocate churches, you may dislocate political ideology, you may dislocate a lot of things, right?
But you’ll get a blessing because Jesus is the blessing. Jesus is the gospel, Jesus is good. So look at him. If the church sucks, that’s your church. That doesn’t surprise me. Jesus does not though.
And so that … I don’t really care about you continuing to call yourself an evangelical, continuing to go to whatever church up the street that you were raised at. It would be great if you could, if it’s a good one.
I don’t care about a lot of those things, but my thing is are you hanging on to Jesus? If you hang on to Jesus, if you let Jesus hang on to you, everything else will sort itself out in the long run. He will sort it out.
And that’s the thing I love about Jesus. Is Jesus is extremely patient, right, and that’s I think something for pastors and for people walking, for people to look at, is you need to look at Jesus, right?
Has the Jesus you’ve been presenting actually part of the offense because you’ve muted the offense or you’ve added to the offense? Like look at Jesus. Let him be your guide through this whole reconstruction process. Let him examine your heart, let him ask difficult questions of yourself, of your own motives, like why am I going through this, what’s going on?
And I’m repeating myself, but it’s hard once you get a preacher on a roll about Jesus. Really it’s he’s the good news, he’s the whole point, and if not who cares? Really, I could not care less about any of the other questions if Jesus isn’t actually the risen son of God. Like let’s just pack it up and go home.
Collin Hansen: Sounds straight out of 1 Corinthians 15, right there.
Derek Rishmawy: Yeah, yeah.
Collin Hansen: Probably it would be wise for us to end on that note. But Karen I would like to give you a last chance, let’s talk to parents whose children are walking through this process, let’s talk to pastors young and old, church leaders in general who …
I expect this book will be picked up especially by people who are trying to … They aren’t deconstructing themselves necessarily, but they’re trying to help somebody else who is, either just to read it to understand for themselves or to share it with that person at whatever stage they might be in.
Let’s speak to those leaders here on Gospelbound. What one thing do you wish every church leader and parent knew about deconstruction?
Karen Swallow Prior: I wish that they knew how important it is to not only be open to but actually encourage questions. To be explicit in saying and modeling the ability to ask the questions, to wrestle, to come to someone with questions and then as Derek already said, to be fine with not knowing the answer or not being able to provide it right away.
Just encourage explicitly the asking of questions as a wrestling of questions and don’t ever assume that those questions are not lurking in the back of a promissioners or young person’s or student’s mind, because they are.
Collin Hansen: Yeah, I think one way teachers can model this especially well is to anticipate those concerns, ask them themselves in their preaching, in their classroom teaching and answer them respectfully. Assume that people even as they might be nodding along, might be right there on the spot Googling something on their smartphone or scrolling through their Twitter feed and finding something else out there.
It’s pretty safe to assume, I’d say in light of what Derek was talking about earlier, that we’re in a cross-pressured environment and that all of us come to belief now through doubt.
And so this is not so much a process that we find to be an aberration, but rather one that we expect to be increasingly normative, which is why in the book we’re trying to recommend the process of disenculturation as necessary.
My guests on Gospelbound this week have been Karen Swallow Prior, Jay Y. Kim and Derek Rishmawy. Contributors to The Gospel Coalition’s new book, Before You Lose Your Faith: Deconstructing Doubt in the Church. You can pick it up at Gospel Coalition’s online store, store.TheGospelCoalition.org. Thank you all for joining me today.
Derek Rishmawy: Yeah, thank you.
Karen Swallow Prior: Thank you.
Jay Kim: Thanks.