Before You Lose Your Faith: Deconstructing Doubt in the Church
Before You Lose Your Faith: Deconstructing Doubt in the Church. Edited by Ivan Mesa. The Gospel Coalition, 2021. 139 pp. Paperback. $16.99
What if, C. S. Lewis asks in The Great Divorce, the people in hell could get on a bus and take it to heaven? And what if, when they arrived, they were met by saints they had known in life who would try to convince them, even now, to give up their rebellion, pride and disbelief and embrace the love, mercy, and grace of Christ? What would they do? In his inimitable way, Lewis demonstrates—spiritually, emotionally, intellectually, and psychologically—how all but one of them would willingly choose to return to hell.
Among the damned souls who take the bus is an Anglican bishop (Lewis calls him the Episcopal Ghost) who slowly slid out of creedal Christianity into a dogma-free, miracle-free religion kicked off by a kindly rabbi whose ideas, he believes, would have matured if he had only lived past the age of thirty three. When his friend Dick tells him gently but firmly that he has come from hell, the Ghost is taken aback and says he has moved beyond such mythical, superstitious ideas as a literal heaven and hell.
When Dick insists that he has been in hell and that he was sent there because he was an apostate, the Ghost replies that God would not punish people for their honest opinions. When Dick asks him if he thinks there are no sins of the intellect, he replies: “There are indeed, Dick. There is hidebound prejudice, and intellectual dishonesty, and timidity, and stagnation. But honest opinions fearlessly followed—they are not sins.”
The Ghost then goes on to assert that his opinions “were not only honest but heroic. I asserted them fearlessly. When the doctrine of the Resurrection ceased to commend itself to the critical faculties which God had given me, I openly rejected it. I preached my famous sermon. I defied the whole chapter. I took every risk.”
“What risk?” Dick replies. “What was at all likely to come of it except what actually came—popularity, sales for your books, invitations, and finally a bishopric?” The truth of the matter, Dick explains, was that they both drifted along with the current of ideas, saying the things that got them good grades and applause, never resisting their loss of faith but embracing passively the spirit of the age.
Before it was too late, Dick turned to God in Christ, while the Ghost floated along, playing with reality, asking questions and taking journeys without desiring concrete answers or a final goal. The Ghost recognizes now only a vague sense of duty uncoupled from any “static, ready-made reality,” directed toward an impersonal “Supreme Value.”
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This remarkable dialogue, which Lewis published seventy-five years ago, reads like a 2021 Facebook post from a Christian celebrity who has left the faith of his childhood because he has found it too judgmental and exclusivist. Oftentimes, these deconverted celebrities will cite a narrow upbringing in a fundamentalist church or family, but, even when that is the case, their reasons tend ultimately to line up with whatever fashionable critique of Christianity has been circulating on social media.
They may claim that their deconversion is an act of courageous non-conformity, a brave decision to swim against the tide, but it is more often than not a capitulation to the political and social zeitgeist. As with Lewis’s Episcopal Ghost, it is something that they have drifted into and that, far from making them an outcast, has increased their celebrity status and won them the applause of the literati.
“Far from renegade, edgy, and brave, the announcement of a person’s conscious uncoupling from institutional religion is simply going with the flow of a culture that mainstreamed such behavior decades ago. Rather than going against the grain of Western culture, abandoning received doctrine and institutional faith—in favor of a self-styled, follow-your-heart spirituality—is quite smoothly ‘with the grain’” (26).
The passage just quoted is taken from Brett McCracken’s contribution to a new collection of essays edited by Ivan Mesa and published by The Gospel Coalition: Before You Lose Your Faith: Deconstructing Doubt in the Church. While showing sympathy, as all the contributors do, to those who are sincerely wrestling with faith issues, McCracken does not shy away from exposing how closely deconversion stories cleave to the individualist, consumerist narrative that dominates American discourse, both inside and outside the church. Worse yet, what McCracken calls the bespoke spirituality of the deconverted is mostly confined to the upper echelons of society.
“. . . bespoke spirituality is something typically only chosen by the privileged—those with the comfort, means, and social status suitable for an (often quite expensive) adventure in à la carte spirituality. The privileged can detach from institutions and meander on their intuitional paths with little concern for the possible dangers of a ‘go it alone’ spirituality. . . . To ditch religion in favor of bespoke spirituality (or no spirituality) is thus a bourgeois choice fully in keeping with comfortable consumerism” (29).
Before You Lose Your Faith shoots straight when it comes to the questionable motives of celebrity deconverters, but it is quick to listen and offer guidance to those who have been tempted by social media to believe that throwing off their allegiance to the “institutional” church will make them fuller, more actualized people. In addition to a lengthy middle section that takes a close look at the major issues that drive people to deconvert (sex, race, politics, social justice, science, hell), Before You Lose Your Faith offers two shorter sections that analyze the deconversion phenomenon itself and suggest ways that someone who has deconstructed his old faith can reconstruct a stronger, more nuanced one.
The essays in the middle section are solid and helpful; however, since those issues have been debated at length in other books and in endless social media feeds, I will devote the remainder of this review to the other two sections.
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In the opening essay, Trevin Wax sets the tone by challenging deconverters to apply the same “intense scrutiny” to their “newfound faith” as they have to the faith that their doubts have led them to reject: “What reasons do you have for believing that your doubts come from a neutral and honest heart? What if you are not the dispassionate pursuer of ‘facts’ you perceive yourself to be, but are instead shaped by assumptions and presuppositions you’ve never challenged? . . . Is it possible you’ve merely traded one set of unproven assumptions for another?” (11).
Wax brings these questions home by recasting the dilemma in terms that are both soundly biblical and recognizably postmodern: what story are you telling yourself about your journey and that of the human race? Is your deconstructed story really better than the one you left? Perhaps your move from institutional religion to intuitive spirituality is not one from error to truth, darkness to light, but merely from traditional to fashionable.
“You’ve been conditioned by your cultural context and your new community to see doubt as courageous. Instead of finding your identity and purpose within the story of the Bible, you have adopted a faith that follows the contours of the Enlightenment’s story of the world: There once was a time when you believed in superstition and religious dogma, but now you’ve dared to strike out on your own, reject the faith of the dark ages of your past, free yourself from your church, and become the hero who makes your own way in life.” (12).
Not only, Wax argues, is the Enlightenment story profoundly self-centered when compared to the biblical one it displaced; it “leads to an emptier and shallower life, a road toward nothingness” (13).
Ian Harber continues this line of thought, arguing that, though elements of evangelical Christianity can be criticized as shallow and empty, progressive Christianity has proven itself to be far more so. Woke cancel culture exceeds the most fundamentalist church discipline in its judgmentalism and its shunning of offenders. And it demands an even more rigid conformity of its disciples. It may claim to free believers from what it sees as an authoritarian God, but it does so by turning them all into their own little gods.
Progressive Christianity is founded on an illusion: “all of God’s blessings—without submitting to his loving rule and reign,” “progress—without his presences,” “justice—without his justification,” “the horizontal implications of the gospel for society—without the vertical reconciliation of sinners with God,” and “moral purity—without God’s standard of personal holiness” (20). As stories go, this one simply doesn’t work!
Which is not to say that we can’t tweak the story to fit our own historical moment. The most successful missionaries, Hunter Beaumont explains, are those who have learned to tweak the faith once for all delivered to the saints to make it accessible to cultures radically different from their own. They have done so, not by deconstructing the faith, but by disenculturating it: that is, ensuring “that the gospel kernel is free to enter new cultures without being captive to its old husk” (34).
Just as the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15) found a way to incarnate the gospel for Greek believers by freeing it from such non-essential Jewish customs as circumcision and the minutia of the kosher laws, so believers today need to find ways to free the gospel from the non-essential elements of modern American evangelicalism without sacrificing its biblical and creedal integrity.
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In the three essays that make up the closing section of the book, the contributors offer practical pathways by which to achieve a disenculturation of the gospel that will allow it to maintain its full truth and power in a postmodern, relativistic age.
Jeremy Linneman focuses on elements of our historical moment that have done much harm to the historical Christian teaching that “we’re relational beings—created in the image of a triune God” (114). In contrast to this traditional orientation to God and our fellow believers, Linneman argues, “much of American Christianity has flowed with mainstream culture in promoting personal autonomy, rugged individualism, and consumer culture. Historic Christianity teaches that true belonging is found in being fully known and fully loved by God and others. Yet American Christianity often follows secularism’s vision of the good life through production and consumption” (114).
This post-Enlightenment, post-Industrial Revolution, post-Madison Avenue brand of individualism has altered the proper focus and mission of the church and, understandably, driven many believers out of its fold in search of something more authentic. The trouble is that they won’t find anything different in the secular, progressive, woke society outside. Yes, Linneman concedes, it is true that “we’re hurt in relationships,” but it is equally true that “we find healing in relationships” (116). The answer is not to abandon the Christian church, but to join yourself to one that is faithful to historic Christianity—not through an endless round of individualistic church shopping, but by joining a local congregation and then working hard to build it into an authentic spiritual community.
While Linneman puts his focus on community, Jared Wilson puts his on belief. Though it is true that there are bad parents, bad preachers, and bad congregations out there, they are not always the real reason for why a church member deconstructs or abandons his faith. “The truth is,” Wilson assures parents, preachers, and congregations who are often too quick to put all the blame upon themselves, “sometimes people just don’t believe” (124).
American Christians “tend to assign logical explanations to apparently inexplicable actions because we’re pragmatists at heart. When Christians witness someone rejecting the gospel of Jesus, they often think they didn’t give the right presentation, offer the best apologetic answers, and so on. And sometime we do get in our own way. But the reality of the Holy Spirit resists such rationale” (125). Let us not forget that “[s]aving faith is a gift of God” (125) and that “it is not a strong faith that saves, but a strong Savior” (129).
Finally, Derek Rishmawy ends the collection on a high note by turning our eyes upon Jesus—not because that is the Sunday school answer to all questions, but because one’s decision to remain in or leave the church rises or falls on one’s understanding of Jesus. Most who deconvert because of one of the issues discussed in section two of Before You Lose Your Faith do so because they have only known a partial Jesus who reinforces their own views on sexuality or social justice, politics or patriotism. Their allegiance is not to the incarnate Christ, but to what Rishmawy calls a “fan-fiction Jesus” (132).
Each of us must ultimately answer Jesus’ question to his disciples: “Who do you say that I am?” (Matthew 16:15). And that goes for whether we are a deconverting celebrity in 2021 or an apostatizing bishop in 1946.
Louis Markos is Professor in English and Scholar in Residence at Houston Baptist University, holding the Robert H. Ray Chair in Humanities. He has written nearly two dozen books, including Atheism on Trial, Apologetics for the 21stCentury, and Lewis Agonistes: How C. S. Lewis Can Train Us to Wrestle with the Modern and Postmodern World.
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