Author, theologian, and former pastor A.J. Swoboda has come out with a gripping book which attempts to deal with our cultural moment in modern Western Christianity, in particular the gray area of deconstruction. While this is a daunting task in and of itself, I feel that Swoboda has produced a resource that can be a great conversation starter as well as help provide much-needed clarity. Helpfully distinguishing between healthy deconstruction and a deconstruction of a toxic nature, the author provides plenty of personal anecdotes from his years of being a pastor (as well as a professor) in a city which prides itself on deconstruction.
Why are so many deconstructing?
One reason given in After Doubt is what Swoboda calls an “if…then theology” which tends to flood our pulpits and the evangelical psyche in general. What is an “if…then” theology? Swoboda points to Christ’s temptation in the wilderness where the Tempter came to Jesus with cheap formulas for quick success. Swoboda argues that the modern evangelical church has its own sets of formulas that we teach our children, youth, and young adults, formulas meant to guide young Christians but which often end up backfiring. For example, we promise young adults that if they save themselves for marriage, then they will lead a happy marriage and experience a fulfilled sex life. Or if one prays more and reads their Bible more, then they’ll no longer struggle in a particular area. These formulas more often than not prove to be shame-inducing and utterly unhelpful in the long run, leaving many in the church confused and disillusioned. Why aren’t they experiencing breakthrough from the formula someone gave them? Did they not pray hard enough? Read their Bible enough? Is something wrong with them? Such questions plague many Christians and can often lead to them abandoning either orthodox Christianity or any faith altogether.
Swoboda brings up the fact that in the Old Testament, God strongly warned his people about taking God’s name in vain. To take God’s name in vain is to promise something that God never promised, invoking God in a matter that God is otherwise silent on. When we promise God’s people (including our children, youth, and young adults) a breakthrough if they’ll follow a magic formula, we are guilty of taking God’s name in vain.
Some promise that if you’re faithful to Jesus, he’ll prosper you financially, or that if you have faith, you won’t physically suffer. The church must stop taking God’s name in vain and stop promising things which God never promised. Our invoking God’s name often does more damage than we think.
Individualism & our Western Baggage
Much of Western Christianity operates with convenience in mind. It’s not convenient to try and deal with real issues, so like an irresponsible doctor prescribing unnecessary medicine we prescribe “more prayer, more church, more Bible-reading” as if this is a cure. It’s convenient. It’s fast. But it’s cheap and unhelpful. It avoids the hard work of discipleship that often involves real blood, sweat, and tears, and of course community. Swoboda reminds us that earlier Christians, unlike much of the modern Western church, knew the importance of “I believe” as well as “we believe” and would hold these two realities in tension. That is, we must not neglect a personal relationship with God through Jesus, and we must not neglect the people/community of God.
The Enlightenment certainly plays a role in where we are today and how it’s become the norm to eye tradition (or authority) with suspicion. On the one hand, this is nothing new, Swoboda pointing out that the spirit of the Enlightenment was alive and well in Eden. In that glorious Garden, the original humans traded union with God for independence from him, a relationship with him for self-reliance.
The original humans sacrificed the good of the entire planet for their own “glory,” emphasizing the self while disregarding the other. In the process they wrecked not only the earth but their very humanity. In our fallenness, we often sacrifice others for our own personal gain, not caring about the collateral damage. This is what makes the spirit of the Enlightenment so dangerous, so eerie, so anti-God…
The spirit and ideology which wrecked the planet and God’s original plan is the same spirit/ideology wrecking the faith of so many Christians today, leaving disrepair and unresolved doubt in its wake. I agree with Swoboda (from experience and in talking to many who have deconstructed) that much of toxic deconstruction is rooted in self-reliance and unbiblical views of the self. Swoboda proposes that the church do a better job at teaching against a “me and my Bible” spirituality (which is at odds with historic Christianity’s emphasis on community). This unhealthy emphasis has paved the way for how many young Christians now allow a podcast (or podcasts) to be their spiritual food and nourishment.
Deconstruction & Privilege
Swoboda picks up on the fact that deconstruction seems especially prevalent among white affluent adults, many post-college students. While he used to lament this, Swoboda now realizes that for every white adult who has deconstructed, he finds five people of little-to-no privilege who place their faith and trust in God. It’s the disadvantaged who generally gravitate toward God, not the privileged.
The Cost of Distraction
According to Swoboda, one reason deconstruction seems to be at an all-time-high is due to our inability to simply think and deeply reflect. Ours is a distracted age which prides itself on more, more, more, and on multi-tasking. Swoboda writes, “Had Moses owned an iPhone, he wouldn’t have stopped and looked at the burning bush.”
And again, ““The human soul withers under the avalanche of distraction that our attentionally promiscuous culture has curated.”
“Had Moses owned an iPhone, he wouldn’t have stopped and looked at the burning bush.” A.J. Swoboda, After DoubtTweet
Swoboda points to what he calls theological impatience as a real factor in the deconstruction of so many, noting that the communities making up the New Testament Church had to wrestle with issues and with the unknown. Some were plagued by real doubts and concerns, and they were forced to wait and wait for a letter which could bring encouragement and clarity. Communities which received letters from an Apostle (like Paul) would need to wait months for an answer, whereas today we can just use Google when we have doubts or concerns. The early church didn’t have the luxury or email, or texts, or even the completion of the New Testament! “Until they got an answer, where would they go? They would pray. And debate. And disagree. And talk. And wrestle with their question. And read the Old Testament” until a letter from John or Paul would arrive. Until then, they practiced theological patience.
A must-read for young believers in general as well as any adults who have struggled (and/or are struggling) with deconstruction, After Doubt is a book I wish I had during some of my darkest years of deconstruction. Committed to orthodoxy while also committed to avoiding quick-fixes, there is finally a resource which deals with deconstruction responsibly and in a balanced manner.
I’m grateful to Brazos Press for providing me with a copy in exchange for an honest assessment.
October 19, 2021 at 1:48 pm
I agree that expectations of worldly success in exchange for piety can have a disillusioning effect on believers who feel short-changed by God. At the same time, Christians should grapple seriously with the theology of prosperity contained in works like the Law, the Deuteronomistic history, the Prophets, and the book of Proverbs. There’s a sense in these texts that righteousness and obedience do in fact lead to success—agricultural abundance, political influence, happiness, familial and communal tranquility, etc. While these blessings generally befall the holy people as a whole, there is obviously an individual element ingrained as well—it would therefore be unwise in my mind to label all such thinking as unfounded “prosperity gospel.” As I would argue (though I’m certainly in the minority here), even the early Christians had expectations about soon “ruling over the nations” in peace and justice when Christ returned to judge the pagan Greco-Roman world.
All that being said, I actually think disillusionment with the piety-in-exchange-for-success mindset is a relatively insignificant force in driving Christians to deconstruction. In my view, deconstruction is the process by which Christians de-marginalize themselves, that is, ingratiate themselves to the prevailing moral and political systems under which they live. Perhaps ironically then, deconstruction is the means by which Christians assimilate some of modern western culture’s symbols and attitudes so as to secure the material rewards provided by that religio-political order.
Coming back around to Swoboda’s point, it stands to reason that since Christendom disintegrated, the social systems which rewarded Christian piety have likewise vanished. So once disabused of the biblical moral-reward schema, many Christians turn to the moral system that actually and visibly delivers the (worldly) goods: connections, esteem, membership, access, etc.
October 20, 2021 at 9:47 am
I hear you saying that we should avoid overreacting to the prosperity gospel?