Warning: The following blog will be a little religious rambling…
I like to think of myself as a student of culture – mostly religious culture – well, mostly Christian culture – because that’s the world I live in. As a student of Christian culture, I’m noticing two interesting shifts.
One of the shifts getting a decent amount of attention within the Christian subculture is deconstruction. Depending on your particular theological perspective, deconstruction is either seen as a positive or negative practice.
From the negative point of view, folks view deconstruction as trading in Christian moral values for secular ideals. In other words, you can’t be involved in deconstruction and be a good Christian. This point of view is built on the foundation of absolute truth – and unchecked authority of fallible human leaders. Questions, doubts and searching for answers outside the approved platforms is seen as a threat to the institution.
From the positive point of view, folks view deconstruction as peeling away those unhelpful things that have been added to the Gospel message of Jesus. Folks find themselves questioning things that have been sold as “absolute truth.” They find themselves questioning the unchecked authority of their leaders. They find themselves questioning, doubting and searching for answers that lead them to resources outside the approved platforms.
I, for one, benefited from deconstruction over 25 years ago. Through a series of questions, doubts and searching for answers, I discovered that the heart of Jesus and the foundation of His message is simple…Love.
To get to that point, I had to weed through a lot of the legalistic values that were drilled into my understanding of faithful religious practice…”don’t drink, don’t smoke, don’t chew, don’t go with girls who do, and don’t dance.” While these rules made us well-behaved Christians, they really missed the heart of Jesus – and took some great interpretive liberties with Scripture. You see, I found myself in a spot where the messages I was hearing conflicted with the message of Jesus I was discovering in the Bible.
The process of deconstruction was very lonely. I didn’t feel comfortable talking about my questions and doubts because everyone around me seemed so certain. I didn’t talk about some of conflicts I saw between the Bible and the religious practice of the American Church because everyone seemed to just buy into it. I felt like there was something wrong with me.
Then, in the late nineties, I attended a conference and heard Brian McLaren address some of the very questions, doubts and conflicts I was wrestling with. I felt a certain freedom and immediate community with others who were attempting to scale back a great deal of the unnecessary baggage that had been imposed on Christianity. A couple of years later, I sat in a hotel suite with Doug Pagitt, Tony Jones and Andrew Jones (we were in a suite because the convention center for the conference was maxed out on space…the whole experience was a trip…as Doug Pagitt gave his seminar while relaxing on a king-size bed), and found more kindred spirits. At last, I felt the freedom and permission to pursue Jesus without all of the strings attached.
Today, many evangelicals are working their way through the process of deconstruction. The last 5-8 years, especially within American evangelical Christianity, have revealed the unhealthy joining of political platforms and religion. Many devoted evangelical leaders have convinced their followers that allegiance to a particular political party trumps all other allegiances (including, but not limited to, Jesus).
Pair this with the moral failure of far too many evangelical “celebrity pastors” (which, that whole concept is problematic), the narrow focus on “absolute truth” (which is defined by fallible humans), and the desire to hold positions of power (and control), the movement has unintentionally created the perfect platform for deconstruction.
And, that just scratches the surface of the deep dive many deconstructionists are taking.
There’s a metaphorical story that is often attributed to Thomas Jefferson, and has been retold by countless theologians and missiologists, that compares the Gospel to a diamond on a dung hill. So, the diamond sits on top of the dung hill and begins rolling down. Eventually, there’s more dung than diamond. But, underneath all the filth of the dung, there’s still a diamond. At some point, someone comes along and cleans the dung off the diamond and discovers something beautiful.
Deconstruction should not be feared. Deconstruction is the practice of cleaning the dung off the diamond. Through deconstruction, people are able to get back to the heart of the Gospel and discover that so much of what we’ve added to our religious practice has been more harmful and hurtful than helpful. When the excess is removed, something beautiful can be rediscovered.
The other shift is in response to deconstruction. As American evangelical leaders see folks rejecting what they have created, as they see folks questioning their system, as they see increasing numbers of folks walking away from the faith, they have doubled down.
Rather than using this rise in deconstruction as an opportunity for inward reflection and institutional evaluation and renewal, far too many are simply adding to the legalistic expectations of their folks. They are calling for stronger ties to political platforms, as they believe the long-term sustainability of their institution is directly tied to the success of their preferred political party. In many ways, they are attempting to smear more dung onto the diamond.
For those evangelicals deconstructing, here’s a suggestion from an old dude who began his season of deconstruction over 25 years ago…find a mainline congregation in your neighborhood. Listen, I know that mainliners have been viewed as “wishy washy” Christians, but let this be a place of healing and hope.
You see, while the style of worship will most likely be incredibly different than what you are used to (because, let’s be honest, if there’s one thing the evangelicals do well, it’s offering excellent contemporary worship), the theology, doctrine and commitment to both personal holiness and social justice will be refreshing. The commitment to creating a safe and welcoming place for all people will be refreshing. A focus on love and grace over legalism will be refreshing.
I believe there is hope to be found in Catholic, Evangelical, Orthodox and Mainline churches (and any other churches I failed to mention).
I believe God can and does use all kinds of Christian churches (conservative, moderate and progressive) to reach people with the Good News of Jesus Christ.
But, I just want to be sure that those going through a season of deconstruction know that there are safe and welcoming places for you. Much of what I hear my friends deconstructing their faith say they are looking for can be found in existing congregations. You aren’t alone. You don’t have to start from scratch. Having a supportive community around you while you go through this journey is important. There’s nothing wrong with questions and doubts…that’s often how we grow.
There’s nothing wrong with getting the dung off the diamond.