Utter the word “deconstruction” in any evangelical milieu and you are bound to encounter a myriad of reactions. Many of these will come from “exvangelicals” who are ready to praise the glories of deconstruction. By deconstruction I mean the practice of re-examining previous beliefs and ultimately rejecting them, and by exvangelical I mean those who have deconstructed from their previous evangelical beliefs.
As the topic of deconstruction becomes more prevalent, so have the number of those identifying as exvangelicals. Consider the wildly popular exvangelical musings of John Piper’s son Abraham Piper or the former Pastor and evangelical mega-author Joshua Harris. Sometimes it is hard to remember a week wherein a prominent former evangelical isn’t renouncing their faith and advocating deconstruction. Such prominent departures aren’t more troublesome in the eyes of God, but the publicity many of them garner has the ability to cause serious doubt among those who remain committed to the faith, leading to anxious thoughts of deconstruction.
My aim in noting this trend is encouragement. That may sound odd if you are a Christian. How could this phenomenon be encouraging? Well, rather than offering a polemic on why such deconstruction ultimately lacks intellectual sustainability, I want to offer my own personal story—one of near deconstruction in hindsight. I offer it not because it is special or unique. It is neither. But my story might be encouraging because it is ordinary and highlights God’s ordinary sustaining graces.
I am now certain I would have abandoned the church had I not been guided into the intellectual bulwark of the church.
Self-Examination and Superficiality
I’ve always liked to think. But I wasn’t always aware of the greater intellectual world. After all, I grew up deeply enmeshed in the church. My dad was a pastor at various churches, from traditional Southern Baptist churches to seeker-sensitive mega churches. Throughout my teen years I never questioned my faith. It was the air I breathed. Despite witnessing slander, gossip, evil, and untold sins against my father and others within the church, I never questioned the veracity of my faith or the trustworthiness of Scripture and the church.
Then I went to college. I didn’t go to a state school, but an extraordinarily conservative Christian university. No doctrine of deconstruction was taught there. One would expect my faith to remain unchallenged—coddling my conception of the world. Several years in, nothing overtly sinister challenged my faith. But self-examination did. I first noticed the shallowness of my local church which lacked any sense of robust engagement with Scripture. Not soon after I noticed the superficiality of evangelicalism at large. It appeared to be completely void of intellectual substance. This finding can mark the beginning of a person’s journey to deconstruction.
But God in his grace provided a mentor who was a professor at the university. We would meet weekly for at least three hours and wrestle with every possible meaning and implication of the Greek New Testament. Nothing was off-limits. There was always something more to learn. He never had the answer for every question I had, but that didn’t matter. I was free to question, to wrestle, to think. It wasn’t just the opportunity to study Greek that made the difference. It was having someone devoted to deep reflection on Christian Scripture and its theological implications for all of life. I had someone committed to serious thinking.
Looking back on these formative years I am now certain I would have abandoned the church had I not been guided into the intellectual bulwark of the church. Had I not been given a mentor who provided an alternative way of thinking about the faith and the church, I would have walked away to pursue more intellectually satisfying and consistent paths to wholeness. Had I not been guided into the vast, deep, and rich intellectual tradition of Christianity, I would have been another exvangelical.
I realize the reasons for deconstructing are legion. Sometimes it is a lack of transparency. Other times it is a presence of abuse. But many times, people abandon the faith over the church’s perceived failure to be intellectually deep and stimulating. For me, this would have been the straw that broke the camel’s back. I had found the evangelical church utterly shallow. Was this all there was to Christianity? Was it all just pop music, self-help talks, and overnight video game extravaganzas? I could find all these things outside the church. In many ways I identify with people like Abraham Piper who find the evangelical subculture utterly bizarre and intellectually barren.
But I came to find that what I experienced in the American evangelical church was not universal—either today or in the past. It wasn’t always this way, and it doesn’t have to be this way. There is another, better way. God in his providence has guided the church since the beginning and gifted it with some of the world’s greatest and most penetrating thinkers. Anyone serious about thinking will be forced to engage with Christians throughout the ages — from Augustine to Anselm to Thomas Aquinas to Jonathan Edwards. Christian intellectual giants permeate the past. Even more, the biblical authors themselves from Moses to Peter to Paul model thinking of the highest degree. None of them offered a superficial Christianity devoid of serious thinking.
God in his providence has guided the church since the beginning and gifted it with some of the world’s greatest and most penetrating thinkers.
Keeping the Faith
For me, God’s means of keeping me in the faith has been the depth and breadth of the Christian tradition. While I have become jaded and appalled in some ways, God has been faithful to provide an alternative in the great tradition. Our tradition isn’t devoid of faults, but it is committed to deep reflection. The antidote to deconstruction for me has been to dig deeper into the churches and institutions that value the Spirit’s work throughout the ages. While I heartily endorse engaging ideas and seriously assessing them, the only way to most fully do this is within the Christian tradition. Most people who ultimately deconstruct either are unaware of the riches of the Christian tradition or don’t truly engage and seriously assess the intellectual bastions within.