Turning From a Different Gospel, Part 1
Constructing and Deconstructing Faith
Welcome to Part 1 of my latest series, which I’ve entitled Turning From a Different Gospel. If you missed my intro to this series, you can read it here.
One night in December of 1994, I laid prostrate and sobbing on the living-room floor of my parents’ house. No one else was home at the time. “Please, God, send me overseas where I can do some good for your kingdom,” I prayed. “Don’t leave me here in this country where there’s hardly anything left to do!” I was, without a doubt, toiling under a colossal misapprehension. But no one could argue that I was doing so with anything other than the utmost sincerity.
My dream of becoming a missionary after college—spurred on by the legends that my parachurch ministry leaders (not to mention slick recruiting videos played at exciting regional conferences) had told me for three plus years—had gotten derailed. As my nose and forehead pressed into the carpet, the lives of these legends flashed before my eyes: Jim Elliot’s martyrdom in an Ecuadorian jungle, his widow Elisabeth’s courageous return to the tribe who killed him, Amy Carmichael’s heroic work with children in India, Hudson Taylor’s groundbreaking labor in China. I couldn’t understand why I was being denied the opportunity to join their ranks. And because I hadn’t left room in my imagination for anything else, all I could perceive was a dead end. I concluded that instead of getting to go overseas to do brave things for Jesus, I would be stuck in America being comfortable with Jesus. Unless, of course, I committed to proselytizing my entire network of relationships. That, I believed with a childlike intensity, would be brave. (And very uncomfortable.)
During my three-and-a-half years of college, I had regaled various professors, classmates, roommates, friends, and suite-mates with persistent declarations of my love for Jesus and Jesus’ love for them. I wanted them all to be saved. The cherry on top of this zeal-filled student career was getting to spend my last summer in post-Soviet Russia befriending college students with the hope of getting to ask them three questions:
If you were to die tonight, how sure would you be, on a scale of 0 to 100 that you would go to heaven?
If you were standing before God and he were to ask you, “Why should I let you into my heaven?” what would you say?
What if I were to tell you that you could be 100% sure that you would go to heaven when you die? If you want to know how, I’d like to share something with you called “The Four Spiritual Laws.”
Well, God has a sense of humor.
Not long after Peter and I started dating in 2006, he told me that during his first year at Stanford in 1987, some student evangelists had knocked on his door one afternoon and—after cursory introductions and obligatory pleasantries—began, “If you were to die tonight…” After a few minutes of this, he mumbled as politely as he could something about being late for a keg party and sent them on their way. For years afterward, he referred to them as “the creepy people.” I burst out laughing, amused that in the intervening years, life had conspired both to make him more sympathetic to their cause and to make me lose my taste for cold-selling a canned message.
Peter actually became a Christian eight years after that awkward freshman-year encounter, without fanfare or an altar call or a religious tract. It happened after four years of college, followed by four years in the Navy (which included service in the First Gulf War), followed by a full summer of traveling the world with his friends (burning himself out on tourism and binge drinking), followed by a reading of C.S Lewis’ Mere Christianity on his flight home across the Atlantic Ocean.He had just started grad school in Philadelphia. A few weeks after following his sister’s recommendation to check out a Presbyterian church within walking distance of his apartment, the Spirit of God impressed on his heart and mind—right in the middle of a very ordinary worship service—the conviction that Jesus, this man who had identified himself as Israel’s Messiah, was also somehow the God who had created him and this world and was therefore the one who could help him make sense of both.
He had clearly experienced a conversion, but that moment wasn’t at all tied to the idea of going to heaven (versus hell) after death. It was anchored to being meaningfully reconnected with, or reconciled to, his Creator. In the ensuing decades, though, there would be no escape from the idea that the primary goal of “getting saved” was so that the disembodied soul could go to heaven (versus hell) after death. That understanding of salvation would insinuate itself into his imagination as something of central and foundational importance the way it had insinuated itself into mine in college — through church programs, sermons, mission Sundays, religious literature, religiously themed films, Sunday school lessons, and religious subcultural consensus — with a level of dogged persistence comparable to “we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.”
What I’m going to share in the rest of this series concerns a number of paradigm shifts I’ve experienced in my faith since that night of weeping on the floor of my parents’ house. Because these paradigm shifts have all involved some process of deconstructing faith, I thought I’d first take some time to discuss (as briefly but as clearly as possible) my own understanding of what deconstruction is and isn’t. After all, the word deconstruction evokes a vast spectrum of ideas, emotions, and sensibilities, ranging from the very negative to the very positive, and people regularly talk past one another when the word is used. It reminds me of that scene in The Princess Bride when Vizzini the Sicilian criminal “mastermind” exclaims, “INCONCEIVABLE!” for the fifth time and his henchman Inigo Montoya says to him, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”
I find these two sentences in the deconstruction entry of the Encyclopedia of Philosophy to be helpful: “To deconstruct is not to destroy. Deconstruction is always a double movement of simultaneous affirmation and undoing.” I suppose it’s the undoing part that makes some people nervous, as if something precious were being taken apart.
Allow me once again, though, to point to a phenomenon in creation that illustrates a better way of thinking about it: molting.
Apologies if the very thought of molting insects gives you the heebie-jeebies or if you’re suffering from cicada burnout because you live in one of the areas where Brood X emerged this year. I fully recognize that there’s an ick factor. Regardless, I can’t get over what an amazing process molting is. In the case of the cicada, the protective exoskeleton that’s normally a vital part of its body is also the only part that doesn’t grow or transform with the creature. So, when the cicada is ready to grow bigger or metamorphose into its next stage of life, it has to completely shed its exoskeleton.
You can appreciate from the video how vulnerable the cicada is to potential predators during this time. The following provides additional insight into just how tender a moment this is:
When an insect discards its exoskeleton, it also sheds large portions of the lining of the tracheal system. “It’s like having your lungs ripped out,” [said] Joseph Bernardo, an ecologist at Texas A&M University… Shortly before molting, the insects increase their oxygen intake by consuming 41% more than normal. Then, during the molting process, they stop breathing for up to an hour. Once the respiratory system is cleared, a compensatory surge in oxygen consumption occurs that lasts for around 2 hours. “Just like if you held your breath for as long as you could, and then breathed in a huge gasp.”
That’s how faith deconstruction can feel, by the way – like you can’t breathe and at any moment you might get eaten. Not always, but definitely sometimes.
The good news is that there’s real growth and transformation on the other side of it, and it feels something like a compensatory surge in oxygen consumption.
Here’s another thing: the more I read and re-read the Bible, the more I see faith deconstruction as a vital aspect of Christian discipleship/growing in Christ, also as something that God regularly initiates. Throughout the gospels, Jesus breaks down, re-frames, and then challenges established religious norms, established religious practices, established religious authority, established religious identities, established religious assumptions, and established religious boundaries. He does this with everyone he encounters. Here are just a few examples:
“You have heard that it was said… But I tell you…” (Matthew 5:21, 27, 31, 33, 38, 43)
“You [Nicodemus] are Israel’s teacher, and do you not understand these things?” (John 3:1-21)
“You Samaritans worship what you do now know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews. Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks.” See John 4:1-42
“The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. So you must obey them and do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach.” (Matthew 23:1-38)
Why wouldn’t it continue to be the case today? After all, we humans – not God – are the ones who are constantly losing our way to lifeless practices, bad theology that we insist (INSIST!) is good, and idolatry that we confidently confuse with true religion. In the scriptures, after Jesus’ ascension, the Holy Spirit continues the same work. Read the account of Pentecost in Acts 2:5-12, where Jews from every nation under heaven hear the Galilean disciples speaking their own languages, displaying a radical new vision of oneness and intimacy that transcends national identity. Read the account of Peter’s vision in Acts 10:9-15 in which God lowers something like a large sheet containing all kinds of animals that Jewish dietary laws label unclean and then tells Peter to kill and eat. When Peter objects, God tells him to stop considering them unclean. In the rest of Acts 10, we see that the purpose of the vision was to prepare Peter for an encounter with Cornelius, a centurion in the Italian Regiment, and a large gathering of Gentiles in his home. Because of the vision, Peter allows himself to be escorted to Cornelius’s house when his men come for him. Upon arriving, Peter says, “You are well aware that it is against our law for Jews to associate with a Gentile or visit him. But God has shown me that I should not call any man impure or unclean… I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts men from every nation who fear him and do what is right.” (Acts 10:28-29,34)
Rev. Willie James Jennings reflects on this extraordinary moment in his commentary on Acts:
The risk here is found not in believing in new revelations but in new relationships. The new word that God continues to speak to us is to accept new people, different people that we had not imagined that God would send across our paths and into our lives… Jesus was God transgressing, and now in the Spirit and in a private room made public, that transgression will take its full form. Jesus will draw Jew and Gentile together, not moving past the one to get to the other, not choosing one to reject the other, but precisely bringing together, drawing close what was far apart. The meeting is the new order—Jew and Gentile will share in one Spirit. This is the will of God, made known in the Son and realized in the Spirit, and this new order requires new listening.
For years and years, I missed the mind-blowing significance of what the Spirit was accomplishing in bringing Jew and Gentile together in this story and the implications it has for us today. I recognize it now only because over the past decade, the Holy Spirit has drawn me into a series of faith deconstructions that resemble that of Simon Peter here. They’ve led me into the places and spaces of new and different people, bringing me close to those with whom I once shared “a dividing wall of hostility.” (Ephesians 2:14) Interestingly enough, it was amid these relationships that I first realized there might be a serious problem with a gospel that primarily proclaimed that Jesus died for my sins so that I could know God personally and so my soul could go to heaven when I die.
Stay tuned for Part 2, “The Unexpected Inadequacy of Individual Salvation and a Posthumous Heaven.”
The first two questions are known among evangelicals as the Kennedy questions, named after evangelist D. James Kennedy who started the training program Evangelism Explosion. While the precise wording of these questions has undergone revision over the years, their diagnostic purpose hasn’t changed. They’re still used in many evangelical circles to ascertain whether a person’s hope for going to heaven when they die (commonly understood as their hope for salvation) is based on his/her own good works or on Jesus’ death on the cross. For those of us involved in our college ministry, these questions were used as a way of leading into a presentation of “The Four Spiritual Laws,” a tract published by Campus Crusade for Christ that laid out the so-called “plan of salvation.”
Right before he departed on his tour of the world, he pulled the book off his mom’s bookshelf on an impulse. It stayed at the bottom of his duffle bag the entire summer—until his flight back to the U.S.
From Winston Churchill’s “We Shall Fight on the Beaches” speech to The House of Commons on June 4, 1940. https://winstonchurchill.org/resources/speeches/1940-the-finest-hour/we-shall-fight-on-the-beaches/
Jennings, W. (2017). Acts: A Theological Commentary on the Bible. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press. Pages 108, 111.