the bible’s role in the deconstruction of belief

"Written About Us" cartoon by nakedpastor David Hayward

“Written About Us” cartoon by nakedpastor David Hayward

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The bible’s role in the deconstruction of my beliefs was critical. I had spent my time in churches that enforced the authority of the bible as the inspired word of God that could never be questioned at all.

Of all places, it happened when I was graduating from seminary. Here’s a section from my new book, Questions Are The Answer: nakedpastor and the search for understanding, describing that experience:

”After I graduated (from Bible College), Lisa and I got married and moved to Boston where I attended Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary to study my Masters in Bible and Theology. I was fortunate to be mentored by some of the most influential biblical theologians. I studied more Greek, more Hebrew, Aramaic, and the texts of the New Testament. This seminary was on the cutting edge of conservative Christianity, but it was still very conservative.

Even though my world was very black and white, at the time it felt very ordered and beautiful. I was happy in it.

Then, just before my graduation, The Silence of Jesus, by James Breech. I don’t know why I read it. Perhaps a friend showed it to me. Or maybe I saw it in the bookstore. I don’t think it would have been required reading because it certainly wasn’t from the seminary’s theological perspective. Breech’s argument is that there are essentially a few sayings of Jesus that could be relied upon as authentic. He proceeds to analyze these through a very convincing critical lens. As I was reading it, I could feel the foundations of my theological earth move.

Everything, my whole life, suddenly became very unstable and terrifying.

My parents were visiting from Toronto, and Lisa’s parents and grandmother were visiting from Alabama.

We were all stuffed into our tiny one-bedroom apartment getting ready to go to my graduation ceremony. I was literally freaking out. Everything I ever believed was in crisis! IT was like I had a tidy sturdy stack of blocks and one of the bottom ones supporting the whole stack… the inspiration and infallibility of scripture… had been pulled out.

I could feel absolutely everything about my world getting ready to crumble into a confusing and complicated heap. Lisa literally grabbed me and shook me and told me to calm down and that I had to get it together because I was graduating in just one hour. Somehow it jolted me out of my panic and I calmed down enough to go through with the motions of my graduation.”

I would probably pinpoint this moment as the beginning of my deconstruction. So many years ago! It was like a destructive virus entered my theological system and slowly but surely compromised the integrity of my beliefs. It wasn’t until decades later that it came to full fruition.

How about you? Do you identify with this? What would you pinpoint as the beginning of your deconstruction?

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15 Responses

  1. Sabio Lantz says:

    I have had several friends and acquaintances share their deconstruction stories with me. But there are thousands of on-line “My Christianity Deconstructed” stories too. And with this information, I have been surprised about the variety of supposed “triggers” or beginnings of deconstructions. And a huge variety in the time it takes for a deconstruction.

    My deconstruction trigger was due to the phrase “in Jesus’ name” at the end of one of my prayers — read the post here. But like you David, many people tell their story in terms of seeing the Bible differently. For me, the Bible had nothing to do with it.

    BUT, though I tell my story as starting on that day when I had that prayer insight, the real history is deeper. Indeed, I think everyone’s history is deeper. As I wrote here, our religious life serves us in many ways (and thus there are many different sorts of religiosity and thus deconstruction stories). But these functions are key. When these functions weaken, questions are more possible, and as questions gain momentum and we imagine being OK when we shift beliefs, our mind allows the “trigger”. In other words, the churning ocean of our mind is at work even when we are unaware, it may give us dates and events as triggers, but they disguise the complex longer history that we often will never know.

  2. Helen says:

    ‘So many years ago! It was like a destructive virus entered my theological system and slowly but surely compromised the integrity of my beliefs. It wasn’t until decades later that it came to full fruition.’

    Yes! I’ve finally realised that I was actually deconstructing all through the long years when I thought I was struggling and questioning to confirm my faith. Doh! And yet I never saw it. Maybe because I so wanted it to be true; maybe because I was still learning to trust the reality of my own awareness and experience.

    I continued to question and struggle for more than 40 years until the penny finally dropped! It’s not true! And in that instant the struggle was over, I stopped trying to fit my reality into a Bible shaped box, and my faith vanished just like that; Poof! I’m still not over the surprise but I’ve taken back the power and that feels good!

  3. Sabio Lantz says:

    @ Helen,
    When “the penny finally dropped”, was it because your Christianity was no longer serving the functions it used to? Maybe the kids moved out, a divorce, some tragedy or suffering (the safety of being a god-believer failed) or something else? Can you recall? Did more change than just theology, but instead you had a new reality that you needed a new theology to fit perhaps?

  4. Similar journey, highlights on my website. The final blow was “The First Coming” by Thomas Sheehan now at Stanford. Letting go of Christianity, very, very difficult journey. So well worth it.

  5. Kenton says:

    For me the damn burst when I read Brian McLaren’s “A New Kind of Christian.” Up until then I was trying to tie all the loose ends theologically, and they just never would come together in a nice tidy way. When I read ANKoC, it just came over me: I don’t have to tie up all the loose ends. The loose ends are a good thing! The loose ends keep us on the path where Jesus would want us to be: loving God, loving neighbor and yes, loving enemy. Not so that they would become “like me”, but so that I could learn to love everyone regardless of how different they were from me.

  6. Kris799 says:

    Even though I believe the Bible is mostly myth and historical legend, I have a new respect for it. I don’t go looking for answers to the minutiae in my daily life or use it to judge people, but I understand there were ‘truths’ the writers were trying to convey to a group of people throughout history. It is still a beautiful piece of literature and I still have a favorite passage, even though I no longer identify as Christian (Matthew 6:25-34).

  7. Yasmin says:

    I have not lost my faith in God, BUT I was never raised to believe the Bible to be written literally or to be inerrant. In actual fact, reading and studying the Bible were all about nit-picking the interpretations of various New Testament passages, with little reference, ever, to the Old Testament.

    I am a lover of history and language, so I read and learned about the cultural context of the Bible starting in my teens. It hasn’t been a constant study, I’ve let other things become more important now and then. Knowing this cultural context, however, had always helped me to understand scripture as I read more and more of it. Did Jesus actually say anything He is quoted as saying in the New Testament? I have no idea, and I don’t believe anyone else does, either (I always roll my eyes when another book is published by someone who claims to know that no, Jesus didn’t say THAT, but He might have actually said THIS. The author can’t know that any more than I can, for Pete’s sake.). I hope that passages such as John 13:35, “By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another,” are accurate quotes, because I depend on such basic principles of Christ’s to inform my faith. Even more than Jesus’ actual words, I read and think about how He lived His life. He taught and healed and partied (someone once pointed out that He would not have been a dinner guest so very often if He wasn’t so much fun to have around), and with rare exceptions, He met every challenge with love and with an answer that promoted love. What He might have worn, the order in which He taught certain lessons, things like that don’t carry as much weight with me. I may be in error to feel that way, but I do.

    I read once, in a book that is in storage 20 miles from here and of which I cannot remember the title or author, that the term “inerrant” when used to describe scripture actually meant only that the writers were believed to have been totally honest about what they wrote, that scripture is what they truly experienced and thought and believed. I believe that, that what we read is the experience of these people in their relationships with God. I understand that they were fallible humans, who saw and wrote through the lenses of their language and culture, but I, personally, still feel that their experiences teach me valuable lessons, however symbolically or even mistakenly they wrote. The stories don’t have to be literally true to have truth in them, in my opinion. Heck, we all recognize the lessons taught in Aesop’s fables, and NO ONE believes that those animals spoke to one another.

    I’ve never “believed in the Bible” as anything more than a history of certain people’s relationship with God, from their point of view only. There can be no devastating moment of feeling betrayed, or of a crumbling of my faith in that book. It is merely a book, a very valuable and treasured book that helps ME to understand MY faith, but might not do a thing for anyone else. My faith is in God, who uses the Bible and many, MANY other media, to tell me what I need to know. As our founding pastor used to say sternly to the church’s fourth graders when they received their personalized Bibles, “This book is not God. This is a book ABOUT God.” Amen to that.

  8. Helen says:

    @Sabio – thanks for asking. I think it’s just the way my mind works; I’m very prone to questioning and struggling and processing until ‘the penny finally drops’ in some way or another.
    No particular catalyst just a long, questioning, struggle to make sense of it all and a sudden realisation that I just couldn’t reconcile the reality of my life with the truth of the Bible promises anymore.
    I never expected the pendulum of faith to swing so far that it wouldn’t return but it did and that seems to be the way it is right now. I await the next step with interest!

  9. Mark A. says:

    I can’t pinpoint the beginning. I spent a lot of time trying to believe things that just didn’t ring true down in my soul, and wondered if I was the only one in my church who felt that way. And I’ve always been the sort of person who wants to get along with people and to be liked; so, I have always been extremely reluctant to press the bullshit button. But the “Wow!” moment for me was taking the class “Living the Questions,” which was led by one of our associate pastors. Marcus Borg, John Shelby Spong, Dominic Crossan, et al – what a group! And to find another 20 or so kindred souls from my church sitting with me discussing our questions. I’ve never felt so connected before or since.

  10. Melody says:

    For years these doubts would occasionally pop up, but I’d push them away or believe the religious anwers, even if they were a litte unstatisfactory.

    There’s a couple of things that had a major influence though: the whole hell-thing: really looking into that and realizing that whatever humans had done wrong in their life, could an eternal punishment really be a just punishment for a temporary life and sins?

    Another one was the realization that when seeing an interview with an atheist in some tv program discussing Christmas where he said that he wasn’t afraid of God and although I immediately assumed that he would go to hell and regret saying that etc. etc. the very first thing I felt was a huge pang of jalousy. He wasn’t afraid of God and I was! Even if he was cleary wrong about it, he still wasn’t afraid, and I still was…

    A little more recent was the assertion, on a website, that Jesus’s prayers had not been answerd and if His hadn’t been, than what chance did ours have? Jesus asks his Father to make his followers one as they are one, in order for the world to believe in his truth… but the church is far from one… and even in churches there is trouble and disagreement over doctrine.

    For the first time, I started really thinking about this idea and then figured that if Jesus was just a mortal, his prayer on the cross about God abandoning him, may have been real and not answered either. Rather than it being some divine way of saving us all, it suddenly dawned on me that he could have been a mortal man, a firm believer in his own belief, hoping and expecting God to show his might by taking him of the cross and it not happening, because God wasn’t there at all to answer his question….

    I tried to back down from that thought, but, so far, I haven’t been really able to. Rather it seems to me that a God who does not interfere in suffering, even when his people pray and ask him to so much, is not some divine mysterious plan, but a matter of him not being able to do anything, because he does not exist. In a way, it makes me feel better, because a God who does (or doesn’t) listen, and then doesn’t do anything to alter things, is difficult to worship, love, or respect. A God who cannot do anything because he simply isn’t there, isn’t nearly as horrible. It was a relief to be honest. And so I guess I lost my faith, yet it does not feel like such a loss. I have tried for so long to reconcile things and I simply can’t anymore and am making my peace with that.

    When searching for answers I never intended for this to happen yet somehow it did. I just wanted to really understand and know for sure; I wanted to address all these questions to deepen my faith, to strengthen it, but it turned out rather differently. Many, if not most of my prayers, had not been answered and instead of this meaning that God for some reason didn’t want to help me or didn’t like me or what not (Yes, No or Wait), I suddenly had a different explanation for that particular issue. I didn’t have to wait (dare I say eternally? 😉 ) for God’s reply anymore when making tough decisions…

    That were a few of the big things, there were many more, but this post is already a tad long 🙂

  11. Sabio Lantz says:

    @ Helen
    Thanks for the reply.
    Yes, I think you are a person who asks question — that is “how your mind works”. I think as we learn to let other things (besides our religion) serve the function of a religion, the easier it is for that mind to work and allow us to finally let the mind work fully. For you with was the insight that the magic promised by the Bible wasn’t true. So you build hope elsewheres and realized you did not need magic hopes. That is what it sounds like to me.

  12. Mark A. says:

    The whole Hell thing – yes, absolutely! I have Rob Bell (“Love Wins”) to thank for helping me shed that belief. And if there is no such thing as original sin, which is the way Judaism generally believes (and so would have been what Jesus grew up with), then there is no need for a mighty God to have some last, epic method of atonement – Jesus’ death on the cross – that would cleanse humanity of this. And if there is an all-powerful God, why would he need a stupid, petty rule that required Him to sacrifice Jesus before God could accept these creations of His, that He already supposedly loved unconditionally? But, if there is no God, it makes a lot more sense.

    Also, to me, if “God” is not that kind of God – if God is not some superhuman, heavenly judge – then God is not the type of God to require sacrifices, to hold sins against us, to heal us of disease or not, according to His own whims and fancies. Perhaps, as Richard Rohr teaches, God is a God of love, and God is all of creation and within all of creation, and especially found in our relationships.

    I still want to believe, but the God I’m trying to believe in now is definitely not the same God I spent my first fifty years trying to believe in.

  13. Melody says:

    @Mark

    I don’t know what or if there’s anything out there…but, just like you say, the God of my childhood and early adulthood is not someone I can believe in anymore. I sort of became disappointed in Him, wondering that if He is good, why can’t He be bigger than having hell for opponents? Why not forgiveness for everyone? Why be a jealous God, when that is a form of pettiness, and so on and so on.

    Perhaps there is something or someone transcendent, but as it is, I am ok not knowing. I do believe love, hope, or compassion are important regardless of where they come from, whether they are human or divine.

  14. Bernardo says:

    Deconstruction of beliefs ingrained since birth requires work. For those suffering from Christianity’s beliefs, I recommend the studies of Professor JD Crossan and also Professor Gerd Ludemann. For those suffering from Islam’s beliefs, simply turn on the news.

  15. Barb McRae says:

    David (and your commenters),thank you for sharing your story. For me it was a perfect storm: being laid off (because they couldn’t afford an Associate Pastor any more); realizing that I was a better preacher, smarter about people, more creative than the head guy who stayed; working with yet another narcissistic minister; and delving into the Big Bang which suddenly didn’t jive with Jesus. I was scared at first to say to myself, “I’m not sure there is even a God.” But I’m growing into it.

    I miss the sense of having a big picture story and community to relate to and through which I found a great deal of hope, belonging, meaning, and purpose. I haven’t closed off the possibility of God but the big picture I had is no longer big enough. Seeing Christian churches be such dreadful, unkind, self-absorbed, not-seeing-beyond-their-four-walls kind of places has been the icing on the cake. I gave a great amount of my energy to leading, coaching, teaching Christian church goers and have gained very little positive return. I want a vision and community that fits the reality of today.