A Letter to the Deconstructing
“Deconstructing” is a popular term, but a complicated concept.
For some people, it seems to mean a systematic rejection of many of the core tenets or practices they were raised in—like their understanding of God, or the Bible, or church. Many have deconstructed their way out of Christianity; some have made their way into different types of churches. Many of them have experienced pain at the hands of the church, their parents, or other Christians they trusted. Others have felt alienated by some of Christianity’s long-held moral convictions. Some have been frustrated by how political partisanship has captured some Christian communities. Many of them have found each other on the internet, gathering around Twitter and TikTok hashtags. My impression is that people who are deconstructing are often concerned first and foremost with injustice, not whether a theological framework is true or false. They tend to think their church community was not only wrong but harmful. The “deconstructing” are looking to escape and transform their past, as you are. Sometimes they have good reasons for doing so, but much depends on what type of life they “reconstruct” afterward. Generalizations are dangerous, and I want to be careful here.
It is hard to know how to be helpful as you work through your troubled history with the church. “To whom shall we go?” a disciple once asked Jesus, for “you have the words of eternal life.” The disciples were disoriented, confused, and scandalized by Jesus’ proclamation that they would have no part in Him unless they ate His body and drank His blood. His claim offended religious sensibilities and drove people away from Him. His disciples stayed with Him, though. What did they see in Jesus that those who left Him did not? I suspect they did not stay because they understood or thought everything was going to be all right. They could go nowhere else to hear life like that which Jesus offered.
I think about that passage sometimes when I hear one more story of someone who is deconstructing their faith. How can my words participate in Christ’s words of life? It would take a miracle for me to say something that would bring comfort and exhortation, to help turn you again toward the faith you are now turning away from. After all, this is a book about how questions fit in a life of a faith that is bound to the church, with all the suffering and pain that she sometimes causes.
It is hard to believe that God is good when the body He has given us can cause such damage. I hated the church the day she kicked out my dad after seventeen years of faithful service as a pastor. I still remember sobbing as he walked down the aisle of the church after his final sermon. I was twenty-four. I wept while taking Communion this Easter Sunday—not with joy, but with sorrow for all the damage the church and I have caused this world. I am glad Christ rose from the grave and defeated sin and death—but why did He have to leave us to ourselves and stay away for so long? Sometimes it feels like all we do is make a hash of things. I am more impatient than God is, clearly, and shocked myself with how angry I felt at His absence. I pray to God to never know another Easter like it. Our families shape us from the moment we are born, but the church promises us eternal life or death. It has a power over our imagination no other institution can match. The church can do enormous good or cause almost infinite damage.
Still, I do not think the sins of the church are a reason to leave it. Christianity is an odd religion—it builds alienation and pain into the church almost from its beginning. Why should we be free from participating in Christ’s sufferings in church—His body, which suffered at the hands of sinners? None of us have yet been made perfect. The Old Testament is one long reminder of the damage God’s people cause and the persistence of God’s love. God’s forbearance with His people is the real scandal. Why is He so patient with us when we clearly do not deserve it? I realize that this seems like a neat trick to those who are skeptical about Christianity: the church’s sins and failures suddenly become one more reason to believe because the Bible predicted them! I understand the frustration. But if we are going to oppose the church, we should at least accuse it of the right crimes—and Christianity has never held out that people would be safe from sin in her midst. Judgment will begin with the house of God. In some ways, it already has.
It might be that I am willing to put up with the church because I have nowhere else to go. Where else can I hear the truth about my own sins, and receive the power to repent? The fact that I have so many sins makes it hard for me to be severe toward the church. Our sins do not give others license to harm us, and our suffering is not (necessarily) punishment for them. But in an imperfect world, victims have their own vices. In a letter to his son that I recently read, J. R. R. Tolkien points out that the scandals of the church are a convenient temptation to disbelieve because they “turn our eyes away from ourselves and our own faults to find a scape-goat.” Confessing our sins frees us to hold wrongdoers accountable while still offering them forgiveness. Is there a more powerful sign of strength than showing mercy to the undeserving? There is nothing weak about forgiveness.
Maybe I am too sanguine about the church—but I don’t think so. “Sanguine” is an interesting word in this context: it means optimistic and cheerful, but it comes from a Latin word (sanguinis) that means “bloody.” How blood became optimistic has more to do with outdated theories of medicine than it does religion, but history has never stopped writers from making our point, has it? I am sanguine about the church because the blood of Jesus flowed for her, and for me. Where else shall we go? There are words of life here, even if they demand our death with Christ on the cross.
I was recently asked by a non-Christian why I had not tried to convert him to Christianity during his relational turmoil. I reminded him that I did mention Jesus to him once, so I am not that bad of a Christian. But I am reluctant to persuade someone to believe in Jesus because He will make their life better. Sometimes Christ does solve our problems. But sometimes He allows those problems to continue, and sometimes He seems to throw new problems at us. The whole question of Christianity is not whether it will make us feel better, or have better relationships with our parents, or have less anxiety at work—but whether it is true and good and beautiful. The cross of Jesus answers our deepest questions
and liberates us to ask a million new ones. But it is still a cross, which hardly offers the comfort and security we want.
I sometimes wonder whether people today are turning away from Christianity at all—or whether they are rejecting a cheapened, sub-Christian optimism that worships the false god of personal peace and affluence. Many people my age seem to have made Christianity a means to a stable job, healthy family, and happy emotional life—and then are surprised when the world lets them down. Sometimes God sounds more like a “life coach” than the terrible, strange, living God of the Bible. I suspect some of the “deconstructing” are only replacing one form of therapy for another—only access to their new sources of happiness is limited to those with money to pay for it. Think about the practices that have replaced church: people pay for therapy, for wellness classes, for yoga, for meditation apps, for relational counseling, for career counselors, for dieticians and personal trainers, and so on. All those can be helpful. Yet if that is what it takes to live a good life, no one with a working-class job and a couple of kids is going to make it. For all its problems, the church at least offers confession, meditation, and singing for free. All she asks is that you take up your cross and follow Jesus.
I am running out of space here, and this letter is already too long—though I dare say you expect such rambles from me by now. I want to close by putting some questions to you. I know doing so is dangerous: questions can easily sound like judgment. I do not mean them to be. I offer them only as opportunities to think about deconstruction with someone who is outside the community. My questions are not neutral. They are rooted in my impressions of what deconstructing has come to mean. Whether they are helpful will be limited by whether you resonate with them. Yet I offer them as expressions of my love for you. I wish you knew how troubled my soul is on your behalf—not because I am angry, but because I am grieved for the damage you have suffered and the course you have chosen.
First: Are you sure that deconstructing is the right stance to take toward the intellectual and religious inheritance you have received? We tear down buildings that we have judged to be condemned. Is being raised in a narrow corner of the faith enough to condemn it? Or is there more to Christianity than what you were given? Our intellectual inheritances are often more ambivalent than the language of deconstructing seems to permit. The tools we use to tear down were often given to us by the systems we are now turning against, and by the people who believe in them. The church I grew up in broke my heart—but they also helped me pay for college. We might need to cultivate gratitude for the gifts we were given alongside our anger at the pain we suffered. Otherwise, we risk reacting against a distorted picture of the world we grew up in.
A related question: Does deconstructing as an intellectual posture offer you sufficient resources to avoid cynicism? I take it that the aim of debunking is to see through a framework, to expose it as insufficient, whereas the aim of understanding is to discover how and why it works the way it does. The former offers no constructive alternative because it does not need one to survive; the latter mode of inquiry allows better options to emerge from within if the outlook under consideration is found wanting. Understanding strives to truthfully see the world; cynicism wishes only to dismiss it. If you will indulge me, I think C. S. Lewis said this better than I:
The whole point of seeing through something is to see something through it. It is good that the window should be transparent, because the street or garden beyond it is opaque. How if you saw through the garden too? It is no use trying to “see through” first principles. If you see through everything, then everything is transparent. But a wholly transparent world is an invisible world. To “see through” all things is the same as not to see.
It is possible that the community you grew up in worshiped idols. Sin is real and really distorts our understanding. But the mantle of deconstructing those idols is a heavy one to carry on our own. Where does the deconstruction end? As Oliver O’Donovan has written, the “prophet is not allowed the luxury of perpetual subversion.” What kind of damage are you willing to cause in order to undo the damage that has been done to you?
Third: Are you confident the digital community of deconstructionists is helpful? Publicizing our doubts changes them. We become more attached to beliefs that we broadcast, as attaching our reputation to them raises the stakes for us. Having company in our questions is intensely comforting, to be sure. Many people have gathered in online communities because they have struggled to find offline connections. But the social pressures of groups make it easy for them to take us places we never set out to go. (This is true of churches as well: any group of people that gathers around a shared set of interests runs the risk of becoming narrower as time goes on.) Off-line groups have other points of connection to hold them together, though, which makes it easier to keep things in proportion: members of a church live in the same city, are subject to the same politicians, and enjoy the same weather. They have much besides church to talk about, which helps keep their religious life from devolving into fanaticism.
This is less true of digital communities, as the people who gather only have their shared interest in common—whether it is their love of a sports team, a movie, or an influencer. The more time we spend in narrow interest groups online, the easier it is for them to take on a disproportionate significance in our self-understanding. It is undoubtedly helpful for people wrestling with doubt to have support—but we need solidarity from those who know us in real life, so they can help us keep perspective on what we have been through. Social media is a constant performance, which makes it difficult to know what is real about our doubts. Are you sure deconstructing in that environment is helpful?
Finally: Do you think it noble or good to love your enemies? Are your questions to the church motivated by charity or suspicion? Are your questions aimed at calling the church to repentance—or destroying it? Would you prefer a church that only offers comfort, or are you willing to accept one that makes demands? Justice is the external form of love, and love is the inner core of justice. They live and die together. Yet justice and love depend upon distinctions, on separating this from that. They demand an openness to the world, a capacity to be surprised. Are you sure your questions about your church embody a desire to tell the truth about it, rather than only to tear it down? What is true of one institution like Mars Hill Church in Seattle might not be true of another. You might have “seen this story before,” but you also might not have. The details, the actors, the context—all of them might need a different set of questions than those from the stories you have heard.
I have argued in these pages that seeking understanding should be the primary impulse of the Christian mind—but I really just mean the mind, whether Christian or not. Maybe that is wrong. But it seems to me that we should avoid turning deconstructing into a program or project. If nothing else, it distorts the intellectual life by turning one away from its primary aim and end.
Christianity is far stranger than many of its critics know and more compelling than most of its defenders can imagine. If it is true, everything hangs upon it. I hope you will allow the sorrow you feel to drive you deeper into the depths of God—for I am confident that you will discover words of life there more beautiful and good than those I can offer.
With my prayers,