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Deconstructing faith: Meet the evangelicals who are questioning everything

A new generation is re-thinking what they've been told about Christianity, the Bible and what it means to be a follower of Jesus. They argue a 'new reformation' is taking place as they voice their doubts and embrace a process known as theological deconstruction. Those who have walked this road say it's a life-giving and ultimately faith-affirming process, but others are skeptical. Sam Hailes investigates

What happens when everything you once believed about God begins to crumble? Perhaps you lose a loved one, get ill or are made redundant and start to question whether God really is good. Or maybe you stumble across sceptical material online, or have your beliefs challenged at university. In a moment, those doubts you’ve had about judgement or biblical infallibility come to the fore and you’re left feeling overwhelmed. What do you do?

For many, this question is not theoretical. Most of us can think of people who have walked away from Christianity entirely. In fact, 53 per cent of the UK population now have no faith, meaning that for the first time in living memory, most of the country is not religious.

But not everyone who doubts their faith ends up rejecting it. In fact, many evangelicals are claiming that an in-depth review of their beliefs has strengthened their faith. It’s a story I’ve heard time and time again from friends, acquaintances and even the odd well-known church leader. So what’s going on?

Questions 

Academics have dubbed it ‘theological deconstruction’, but in simple terms, they’re referring to what happens when a person asks questions that lead to the careful dismantling of their previous beliefs. Some talk about a “mid-faith crisis”, where deeply held doctrines are re-examined and sometimes jettisoned in favour of more progressive ideas. Many continue to self-identify as Christian throughout this time, others take on another label which they say carries less baggage, such as ‘follower of Jesus’.

A new generation of evangelicals is craving non-judgemental spaces where they can ask hard questions

This isn’t a path everyone understands (after all, we’re dealing with abstract and sometimes nebulous ideas), but those who have experienced theological deconstruction are convinced of its benefits. That doesn’t mean it’s easy.The dilemma for those experiencing a shift in their faith is often figuring out which of their beliefs are true and good, and which are false and harmful. Blogger and creator of the Poema podcast James Prescott was comfortable wearing the ‘evangelical’ label for many years, but that changed in the year 2000 when his mother passed away. “Suddenly the God I had known and grown up with was no longer big enough,” he says. “I had questions and doubts and nowhere to take them.”

This period of questioning can be painful and often isolating, as Christians are sometimes afraid to voice their doubts or admit to a change of theology. Journalist and author Cole Moreton argues that this is a particular problem in evangelical churches, which he says “are not set up to explore the questions of life”, but rather “provide their perceived answers”.

Many say feelings of grief, guilt and anxiety can accompany a period of deconstruction. The author of The Post-Evangelical (Triangle), Dave Tomlinson, explains that those who raise questions are often treated as if they’re “losing their way or backsliding”. He says this attitude makes it “very hard to be openly authentic” inside many churches.

Prescott says he has now reconstructed his faith and taken on “liberal theological positions”, which stand in stark contrast to his old church. “I shifted dramatically,” he explains. “I moved to a more mystics-based faith. The biggest shift was I changed how I believed. I found a spiritual path where the divine was wider, deeper and more inclusive. And Celtic liturgies, Taizé, and contemplation, meditation and silence became spiritual practices for me. I am now in a place where I am open, growing and going deeper without the trappings I had before.”

Defining deconstruction

“It’s examining your faith from the inside looking for potential weaknesses. The analogy I like to use is, before you set sail on a cruise ship, you’ll see it in harbour and people applying a fresh coat of paint, sealing up any gaps and dealing with the rust. This is done so it doesn’t sink once you get out to sea. And that’s essentially the same thing that we’re saying about faith. It’s about taking ownership over what you believe and potentially letting go of some of the things that no longer work.”

John Williamson

“Let’s say our faith was like a sweater. Yarn: our ideology. Weave: our tradition. This is how you wear it. Don’t change it, even if the sweater doesn’t keep you warm any more. Even if it’s too tight or the threads cut off oxygen at your neck. This is the way. Doubts and questions mean disrespect, and those are the seeds of evil, so just don’t.

But over the years, a thread comes loose and you try to just tuck it in alongside the others. You can cover the fraying up. You can pull the thread and think, ‘Oh, I don’t need this one, because it is harmful to me; it’s itchy and gets caught on corners.’ It comes out easily. And the sweater stays together. Then you pull another, and another, and soon you find all the yarn is gone. You have deconstructed the entire thing. You are left naked. People gawk and run away, and you feel two opposing things: the freedom of glorious nakedness, and the fear of the same.”

Lisa Gungor, writing in The Most Beautiful Thing I’ve Seen (Zondervan)

The French philosopher Paul Ricoeur said that when interpreting a text there is a ‘first innocence’ which is wide-eyed acceptance – just take it as it is. Then there’s a movement towards ‘critical distance’ where you step back from the text and ask questions and interrogate the text. And then he said there’s a ‘second innocence’ where you reconnect. It’s summarised beautifully in Ricoeur’s quote: ‘Beyond the desert of criticism we wish to be called again.’ And this is a huge proportion of people’s spiritual experience – that they begin with this wide-eyed acceptance and a joyful, childlike openness, which then goes through a buffeting of lots of questions, a lot of which come from wider culture. Then they arrive at a point where they feel there’s nothing left, that they’re in the desert of criticism. And sadly for a lot of people, that’s where the faith journey ends, rather than finding out what it is to be called again.”

Dave Tomlinson

“Picture three boxes. The first is order, the second is disorder, the third is reorder.

We’re all raised in the first box of order. We were given our explanation of what reality means and what God means. It gives you so much comfort that most people want to stay in the first box forever. But what has to happen between your 30s and 50s, is the glib certitudes of the first box have to fall apart. Who’s right, who’s wrong, who’s holy and who’s a sinner – I know these beliefs gave your ego great comfort – but if you stay inside the first box, it creates angry people, rigid people and unhappy people. When you leave the first box it feels like dying. When I had to leave my early Catholic certitudes it felt like a loss of faith.

But that wonderful early evangelical gospel holds you strong enough to endure the second box and not throw the baby out with the bathwater. In the second box you realise ‘it wasn’t as simplistic as I was told, but it’s not all wrong either’. If you can let God lead you through the second box while hanging onto order, God can lead you to the third box, reorder.

People want the first box at all costs but it doesn’t make them love Jesus. The crucified one who identifies with the poor and tells the outsider ‘never have I found such faith inside Israel’ – you see why they killed him! He was so comfortable with disorder inside of his own highly ordered religion. But he never throws it out – he still respects the temple. But he doesn’t waste much time there. That’s the position we’re in. I live with that same tension – figuring out what was good about the tradition I was given and what was accidental and arbitrary.”

Fr Richard Rohr, speaking on The Deconstructionists podcast

The elephant in the room 

Cast your mind back to 2011 and you might remember watching a video of one of America’s most well-known pastors walking through a snow-covered street, hinting that his latest book would deconstruct the traditional evangelical view of the afterlife. “Will only a few select people make it to heaven and will billions and billions burn forever in hell?” Rob Bell asked, as he introduced his new book Love Wins (HarperOne). For some, he was bravely calling out the theological elephant in the room. For others, the question Bell was asking was off limits. Some branded him a dangerous false teacher, and the popular Calvinist preacher John Piper famously tweeted: “Farewell, Rob Bell”.

When it comes to evangelicals feeling more free to voice dissenting opinions, Bell may have helped open the floodgates. The advent of social media and podcasting has allowed Christians who might feel on the edges of mainstream or institutional Church to gain a following and express views that their local church leaders might frown upon. Whether it’s closed Facebook groups such as Love Heretic or the British-based Nomad podcast, which bills itself as “stumbling through the post-Christendom wilderness, looking for signs of hope”, believers are searching for answers in new places.

The new reformation? 

John Williamson (pictured, left) is co-founder of The Deconstructionists podcast. He found evangelicalism attractive as a 20-something, but by the time his first child was born, he’d started to wonder: “Do I believe this, just because this is what I was told?”

One of the major areas Williamson found himself rethinking was atonement theory and the concept of original sin. “On one side of our mouth, we’re preaching to the world that this God is all-loving, and his love is unconditional. There’s nothing that you need to do to be given this gift of unconditional love. And then out of the other side of our mouth, we’re preaching you are born a terrible person and Jesus had to die. God had to allow this to happen in order for you to be forgiven. I had a hard time reconciling the two.

“I remember standing in my kitchen, and I looked at my wife, and I said: ‘You know, I have to be honest with you, I’m not really sure what I believe in.’ And as you can imagine, she looked quite shocked! We had a lot of tough conversations. She said: ‘This is not who I married’ and ‘Are we unequally yoked?’ There was a lot of her secretly praying for me, and hoping that I would get through this phase.”

As he sought answers, Williamson began to read books from outside of his own evangelical tradition. Later, he met a like-minded pastor named Adam Narloch and as the two went on the journey together, the podcast was born as a “safe place” to have “amazing, intense conversations outside of the formal church”.

Williamson says it’s “no accident” The Deconstructionists has taken off and attracted thousands of listeners from across the Western world. He believes a “new reformation” is taking place among young evangelicals who are rebelling against restrictive church cultures where some questions can appear off limits. “I think they’re just looking for something that that has some authenticity to it, some honesty to it. And they can smell BS from a mile away.”

Williamson is pushing back against a subculture of evangelicalism that is more prominent in the US than the UK. It’s a context where politics and religion are closely intertwined and there’s widespread intolerance of other Christians opinions (when Christian musicians Michael and Lisa Gungor said they didn’t believe in a literal reading of Genesis, for example, it led to some American churches cancelling their concerts). Critics say this kind of faith, where almost every issue is non-negotiable, can lead to a brittle, fragile Christianity. Nothing can be questioned, because as soon as one belief shifts or slips, the entire faith collapses in on itself.

Counting the cost 

It was a visit to the concentration camps at Auschwitz that began Lisa Gungor’s journey into deconstruction. Lisa had grown up in a fundamentalist Christian family and was immersed in the USA’s “health, wealth and prosperity culture”. Thinking about the horrors of the Holocaust presented her with questions she couldn’t answer, not least: “How could a good God allow these people to suffer?”

Lisa explains how she and her husband, Michael, “really, really wanted to be good Christians” ever since childhood. “We really believed our faith. So when you start to question all those things, it feels like your world is falling apart. It’s so easy for someone else to look at someone who’s deconstructing and say: ‘What’s wrong with you? Just believe!’ Someone who hasn’t struggled with this has no idea how it feels.”

When Lisa finally plucked up the courage to talk about her feelings with other Christians, conflict ensued. “We learned quickly that people didn’t want to talk about it. It started to feel like we were being cross-examined, or that something was really wrong with us for questioning our theology.”

The Gungors have often courted controversy when it comes to their theological beliefs. When they penned a blog post, containing the line “I have no more ability to believe… that the first people on earth were a couple named Adam and Eve that lived 6,000 years ago” it caused a huge backlash among their most conservative admirers. Then years later, and after wrestling with subjects much bigger than creation, Michael Gungor dropped a bigger bombshell: he no longer believed in God. He was an atheist.

“I was terrified for our marriage,” Lisa remembers. “I didn’t know how we would survive as a family.” Later, she attempted to follow her husband into his new-found atheism, but gave up within 24 hours due to having her own unexplainable mystical experiences.

Describing the faith of her childhood, Lisa says: “There was this idea that God is a transactional God in the sky who we pray to, and if you’re good and follow the Christian faith then you get good things. And those who don’t, go to hell and burn forever. That’s a scary way to see your faith!

“Many areas were more about the letter of the law rather than the spirit of the law,” she remembers.

When you question these things, it feels like your world is falling apart

Lisa says she has since reconstructed her faith and taken on a “wider, richer theology”. Today, “the way of love” stands at the centre of her beliefs. “It’s not: ‘I believe this, I believe that, I don’t do this, I don’t do that. I’m following all these rules and guidelines.’ It’s: ‘Do you see the oneness of all things? And Christ in all things?’

“Jesus had this language that tore apart duality and was trying to show us that we are one. That’s really hard to see and do and act out in practical ways. If I really believe my neighbour is the face of God, I’m going to treat them drastically different. And I’m going to change my life in dramatic ways a lot of us haven’t ascribed a Christian life to look like.”

Scripture vs culture 

There are concerns in some quarters that ‘theological deconstruction’ is merely a fancy term for moving away from biblical teaching. Bart Campolo’s story from progressive Christianity to atheism is cited by some as a stark warning of what can happen once you start to let go of evangelical beliefs which are culturally difficult to hold. Bart, who is the son of prominent author and speaker Tony Campolo, admitted on the Holy Heretics podcast that moving towards a more liberal view of God’s sovereignty was “the beginning of the end” of his faith. He explained: “Once you start adjusting your theology to match up to the reality you see in front of you, it’s an infinite progression. So over the course of the next 30 years…my ability to believe in a supernatural narrative or a God who intervenes and does anything died a death of a thousand unanswered prayers.”

Campolo continued: “I passed through every stage of heresy. It starts with sovereignty going, then biblical authority goes, then I’m a universalist, now I’m marrying gay people. Pretty soon I don’t actually believe Jesus actually rose from the dead in a bodily way.”

Campolo doesn’t think he’s a special case. On the contrary, he believes the current world of “progressive Christianity” – which is where many evangelicals who deconstruct find themselves – is heading towards full-blown unbelief. The message from Christians who frown upon deconstruction is this: Be careful about rejecting the authority of scripture, you could end up an atheist like Bart Campolo. But many of those who are experiencing deconstruction are adamant that they are not rejecting the Bible. Williamson says he treats scripture more seriously than before, because he approaches it as a “very complicated and diverse collection of writings written in multiple different styles”.

Moreton has a similar take: “I can remember being told: ‘If you’re looking for an answer to a question look in the Bible.’ I remember being taught the Bible was a manual for life. Unless you’re extraordinarily inventive, the Bible is not a manual for life. It’s a complicated set of books. And one of the things that’s happened over the last 30 years in particular, is that our understanding of texts and stories and truth has changed profoundly…and now you have the right, and almost the obligation, to question the text.”

Moreton also points to the growing gap between societal and Church attitudes as a reason many evangelicals in their 20s and 30s are rethinking their beliefs. He says that young Christians are being invited to same-sex weddings to “celebrate the love between two people” while some evangelical church leaders look on disapprovingly. “So they’ve got a really sharp decision to make about where they stand,” Cole says. “The society in which they live has an expectation of equality. I’m not surprised that many of them have decided to step away from their churches because they no longer believe what it was they were told before.”

One of the accusations levelled against Christians who teach that God approves of same-sex relationships, is they’re twisting the Bible to make it more culturally palatable. It’s a criticism that Moreton objects to: “Ever since we started this faith people have had to interpret their faith for the cultural context in which they find themselves. And sometimes that cultural context has spoken powerfully to us about the way we should be. And sometimes it causes us to wonder whether our understanding of scripture is actually correct.

“So when somebody says: ‘Oh, you’re interpreting the Bible to reflect what you believe, because of contemporary culture,’ I would love to know when, in the whole of human history, that has not been the case! I mean, that’s what Jesus was doing when he quoted the Hebrew scriptures – he was applying that teaching in the cultural context that he was living in.”

Reconstruction 

Dave Tomlinson (pictured, right) was a leader in the house church movement of the 1970s. One of the first doctrinal battles he found himself in was over women in leadership: “We began to appoint women elders, which was actually outrageous in that world at that time, and people would say to me: ‘Oh, you’re throwing the Bible away, you’ve just succumbed to secular feminist thinking.’ I said: ‘Just hang on a minute! You see, I think that God is part of social progress as well. The beauty of art is an expression of divinity. The inventions and advancements of human beings comes from God. By the same token, I think progress at the level of ethical and moral thinking is also part of that.”

Today, he says his ministry is to those on the edges of Church, many of whom are millennials. “A very big focus of my life has been on the people who are on the edges hanging on by their fingertips,” he explains, adding, “and this is not just the rank and file. Over the years, I’ve had a nonstop flow of clergy, ministers of all traditions, who come almost like Nicodemus at night, under the cover of anonymity, to have a conversation they feel they can’t have in their church or with their bishop.”

Tomlinson’s concern is that evangelicals who find themselves disillusioned with faith are often unaware there are other Christian traditions where they might find a home. He says many have been conditioned by a “particular Christian subculture which basically says: ‘This is the way and there is no other’.” This leads to an assumption that if you no longer hold to an evangelical view on some of the big issues, then you have to “abandon the whole lot”.

Ministers of all traditions come like Nicodemus at night to have a conversation they can’t have in their church

“And that’s what makes me very sad. I think in many ways, I view myself as a kind of evangelist to the converted, trying to say: ‘The good news is there are other ways to think about this.”

Tomlinson’s explanation of his own, reconstructed faith, is similar to many others I’ve spoken to: “I don’t think faith equals a set of propositions,” he begins. “And in fact, if you go back to the Gospels, I mean, Jesus never asked anyone to believe anything as a propositional truth about God, or heaven, or whatever. Jesus called people to a way of life. He said: ‘Follow me, be my disciples.’ And it was to a way of life, a way of being in the world. That is a different thing to faith defined as a set of intellectual propositions.”

For Tomlinson, intellectual propositions still matter, and he’ll happily debate all the big issues “until the cows come home”, but theological stances and opinions are no longer of ultimate importance to him.” Or as he puts it: “Is my doctrinal purity in somebody’s eyes, the thing that will get me to heaven or make me a better person? No, I don’t think it is at all.”

Tomlinson is no stranger to hurtful words from other Christians (he’s been labelled a heretic at various points in his life). He admits these criticisms have been difficult to deal with, but he’s keen to remain open-minded, and tries to find the kernel of truth that might lie beneath even the cruellest of criticisms. “Humility is a massively underrated Christian virtue,” he comments. “Humility says: ‘I cannot go out there and say, I’m right, and you’re all wrong.’ I think I can happily say, ‘This is what I passionately believe.’ But I’m only a human being and I can’t be right about everything.”

Answers 

There’s no doubt that theological deconstruction is a slippery term. Catch-all phrases that encompass thousands of people’s spiritual journeys will never communicate the whole story. But it’s undeniable that a new generation of evangelicals are craving non-judgemental spaces where they can ask hard questions. It may not be possible or appropriate for church leaders to endorse many of the theological views that some are adopting, but creating environments where doubt isn’t a dirty word is surely within our grasp. And for many people’s faith, that simple decision could make all the difference. Most would agree the Alpha course provides a helpful environment for people to ask questions, but if a person has already crossed the line of faith and committed themselves to Christ, where can they go to discuss difficult subjects? The internet is littered with the blogs of ex-Christians who never found answers to their questions. Surely the onus is on us to make sure our churches are places not only where non Christians are welcome, but also places for Christians who wrestle with doubt to find the answers they’re so desperately looking for.

Asking questions is arguably a sign that a person’s faith is growing, not stagnating. The answers that satisfied us as Christian teenagers may not sustain us as we enter mid-life. We need to think again, and the Bible’s instruction to love God “with all your mind” (Matthew 22:37), means we can’t bury our heads in the sand.

Jesus promised his followers that when the ‘Spirit of truth’ comes, he will “guide you into all truth” (John 16:13). Yes, questions are important, but answers matter as well, and reconstruction is vitally important – as Williamson puts it: “It might look cool to be a wandering spiritual nomad forever, but I don’t think that gets you anywhere.”

Of course, deconstruction can be dangerous. An uncritical approach can lead people to adopt false ideas about God, leave their church and reject any form of spiritual authority. We should be especially cautious about changing beliefs simply in order to make them more palatable to our 21st Century Western, predominantly secular cultures.

At the same time, an increasing number of Christians are testifying to the value of the deconstruction/reconstruction process. Whatever we think of this trend, we ignore it at our peril. At its worst, theological deconstruction might be lazy shorthand for becoming more liberal. But at its best, this sometimes painful and often misunderstood process gives Christians time to prayerfully work through difficult and faith-shaking questions, and in time, many find their formerly fragile faith reborn into a robust trust in God that can withstand anything.

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