Written By Daniel Kelly
Joshua Ryan Butler recently released an article through the Gospel Coalition talking about the reasons he sees for people deconstructing their faith.
In a follow-up tweet he said ‘I’m still waiting for a critique that touches on any of the articles “actual” content’. I doubt this is true but the following is my attempt to communicate to Joshua with fairness, but without holding back, on what I see as areas of concern.
The following is a critique of your recent article ‘4 causes of deconstruction’. The article is short and I wouldn’t think that this is all you would have to say on the matter. However, I believe that whenever we produce an article, book, podcast, video, etc we must appreciate that most will approach it in isolation of the wider views of its author. The author is fully accountable for the content and its implications. I am not setting out to critique your character and views in total (I do not know you) but this article in particular which as I will set out here is harmful. The resistance you have received is not unfounded.
1 Church hurt
It was right to lead with this as it is no secret that this is a common reason for people Deconstructing. The problem I have with this section is not in that observation but how it then goes on to present it’s ‘cure’. It suggests that the cure is lament on behalf of the person who has been abused, With only a cursory comment on ‘good community with good boundaries’
This is completely backwards, here is what you, Joshua, could have written.
‘My heart is broken each time I hear these stories. We as the church ought to be a place of refuge never of sinful abuse. The cure is: us as church leaders and members making sure that we are setting the right boundaries and challenging areas within the church which may create inappropriate power relationships. We must take any report of abuse seriously – Particularly when it involves church leaders. We must desire God’s justice and the integrity of the church over short term public relations concerns.
They will know us by our fruits which means growing compassion and justice, and pruning off the rot of abuse’
Something along these lines would not only challenge the problem at the core – taking ownership and challenging its Christian readers to take up their role – it would also be far better at reaching out to those who are deconstructing. Showing them that you have heard, that you understand, that you lament with them and desire justice too. Right now the article reads as blaming survivors for failing to cope ‘correctly’.
Q1. Do you understand how your text could be interpreted as ‘blaming the victim’ and providing your Christian readership with no practical tools for positive change?
Q2. What actions have you taken to prevent situations of abuse from occurring within your church, to ensure that any reports are taken seriously with a desire for justice and to safeguard your own conduct?
- Bad Teaching
My deconstruction led to the conclusion of atheism and thus I don’t think there is a ‘good teaching’ of theology but I think once again you could just go a long way by simply recognizing that the questions here can be honest and hard.
The Bible’s cultural context, unfamiliar genres all with complex and varied principles of interpretation means that questions will arise. Surely tackling these together as a church is better than demonizing questions so that they are only tackled alone.
The Canaanite genocide, abortive bitter waters, acceptance of slavery, etc are all serious problems. Paul’s odd utilisation of the creation story to justify patriarchal systems was a key part of my departure from faith. There are hard questions and your article belittles these concerns and gives off an arrogant sense of having the pure & complete ‘good teaching’.
The article as a whole reads as if deconstruction (whether to another form of faith or into atheism) is irrational and those who disagree with you are just simply ill-informed rather than having legitimate disagreement with you and your positions.
Q3. Do you agree that many of the challenging passages and questions are legitimate, should be respectfully discussed and some may have good rational reasons to disagree with your theology?
- Desire to Sin
Christy Stroop has a fabulous article on this entire matter which I could not put better myself.
What I will add in relation to your article is that while it rattles through a few things it starts with affairs – leveraging the implication of dishonesty and betrayal. You double down on this later with the phrase ‘This masks what was really going on’. The article is denigrating the character of those deconstructing with a broad brush and doing so without any substantive evidence – merely unverifiable anecdotes. The message currently being communicated to your primarily Christian audience is read as ‘those on the outside are evil people’.
I won’t go into details but while I left faith my wife remained a believer. Already dealing with something difficult church leaders added hurt and mistrust with only the measly justification of this cliche. If Christians care about marriage as much as they say they do, the carelessness with which this narrative is utilised would stop.
Finally and I do not mean this as a cheap shot but these statements also raise major hypocrisy flags when there are so many church leaders and apologists who have been verified to have fallen so short of the standards they have preached as well as the standards of empowered consent that I and many others hold to.
Q4. Do you understand why many of us view the narrative you have constructed here as deeply offensive, evidentially unfounded and likely to lead to harmful outcomes?
Q5. Do you appreciate that those outside your accepted forms of Christian faith have a different system of ethics rather than no ethics and therefore conflict and disagreement can run both ways ?
Q6. How do you think Christians practically would and should use this content when talking with those deconstructing? As here you have provided no meaningful guidance.
- Street Cred
There are always debates on ethics happening within society and this can lead to conflict. However your article suggests a common narrative that there is a particular hostility towards Christianity which I’ve not seen well defined or quantified in any meaningful way. I see no reason to believe there is anything beyond theologically motivated anecdotes that this is the case unless you can provide evidence to the contrary.
People do like to fit in and I think we should appreciate and empathise with this as a normal aspect of being human. Once again one of the biggest challenges about deconstruction is alienation from your former community. As humans we want to feel understood, spending time with those whose interests and values are similar to our own. For many (especially through Covid) that has come from online communities. I find it great that so many different communities have been able to flourish and support people through this journey. I make no apology for spaces which are positive, affirming and fulfilling being a threat to churches which show themselves not to be.
Now I broadly agree in your assessment that social pressure plays too big a role in our human decision making when it is not all that reliable in leading us to ‘truth’. However your article leans on another trope amongst Christians that the world is using manipulative techniques to socially pressure people into lies while christians simply provides truth rather than social pressure. This is of course completely false.
The reinforcement of theological convictions through collective singing is a form of social pressure.
The emphasis on maintaining a physical church attendance which maintains exposure to it’s theology and community is a form of social pressure.
Even your article which, as above, insinuates that those who leave the faith are morally deficient is a social pressure to deter people from considering joining that group as they know they would then be viewed in this way by their peers. And plenty more examples could be provided.
The social pressure not to leave your faith by its surrounding community is immense and one of the biggest hurdles to those deconstructing. If you are going to suggest some pattern of thinking in how we should evaluate claims and resist social pressure, then this should be applied consistently to both sides.
Q7. Do you have any clear definition and verifiable evidence to support your claim ‘The cultural hostility is real’?
Q8. Do you recognise that Christianity makes considerable use of social pressure in maintaining its beliefs and membership?
Much like your article is not comprehensive neither is my list of critiques and I urge you to listen again to the other voices speaking out on this.
My key critiques are as follows
- Your article fails to properly address incidents of abuse within the church. instead suggesting that survivors of abuse are bad at grief.
- Your article expresses an arrogance in your positions and a belief that those outside your views are simply ill-informed.
- Your article makes numerous assertions that could theoretically be supported by evidence but are not.
- Your article does not demonstrate understanding, empathy and an honest portrayal of people who are deconstructing but instead portrays them as dishonest and treacherous.
Q9. Do you now recognise that the criticisms (here and elsewhere) are rooted in genuine problems that people have perceived in your article?
Q10. Do you still maintain that your article alone (ie. absent of your wider beliefs, clarifications you’ve made elsewhere, other articles, etc as these are unlikely to be found by all readers) has contributed positively to your church and those deconstructing?
Q11. Will you retract the article?