5 Lessons From Rhett and Link’s Spiritual Deconstruction

5 Lessons From Rhett and Link’s Spiritual Deconstruction February 19, 2020

The evangelical blogosphere has been buzzing with the latest sad tale of lost faith to come out of the evangelical “tribe”: popular YouTube comedy duo Rhett and Link, former youth leaders and committed believers who entertained many Christian and non-Christian listeners with their off-beat humor, dropped two new episodes of their podcast announcing that they no longer believed. (Watch Rhett’s here and Link’s here.) Christians like Matt Markins reacted with surprise and sadness, but also concern. Matt first heard about it when his 17-year-old son came to him and said, “Dad, can we have a talk?”

I never followed Rhett and Link with any regularity, but I occasionally dipped into the channel and was entertained along with their fans. It’s easy to see why they were popular with kids. They’re witty, quirky, and charming, and their friendship has deep roots. You simply can’t duplicate the bond you share with your best childhood pal. This is evident in their deconstruction testimonies as well, as the two stories are deeply and tragically intertwined. (I found Link’s opening story from his own misspent youth especially vivid and moving, a funny but poignant picture of forgiveness from a time in his life when he was earnestly seeking after it.)

Sadly, Rhett and Link’s stories will not be new or shocking to anyone who’s spent any time studying our culture’s meaning crisis or listening to deconversion testimonies. All the familiar beats are here: the fundamentalist upbringing, the YEC to evolution trajectory, the Old Testament conundrums, the books of Bart Ehrman, the politically leftward drift on sexual morality—on and on it goes, depressingly and predictably. Most heart-breakingly, by their own account they’ve led not only themselves but their wives and kids down the same path. Now, with their platform, they could do the same for others like them.

It would be easy to say “Well, another day, another ex-vangelical deconversion story. Nothing for us to see or learn here. Move on.” But, as usual, I have some thoughts that might be somewhat uncomfortable for everyone concerned. Here are five of them.

1. We can’t just blame the fundamentalists.

Yes, there is certainly a degree to which Rhett and Link’s typical YEC background left them ill-prepared to think carefully about evolutionary arguments, setting them up for anger and resentment when they realized “how things really are,” or so they thought. But Rhett’s testimony goes beyond the age of the earth to dig into questions around Adam and Eve’s existence and humans’ shared ancestry with great apes, ironically citing Francis Collins’ The Language of God as a key eroding influence here (something to file away for those who like to hand out book recommendations). Christians and apologists shouldn’t brush these questions aside as “things only fundamentalists have problems with.” It is unfortunate that William Lane Craig, the most public face of apologetics, has of late been walking down a misguided and rather alarmingly gnostic path on this cluster of questions (see, e.g., his head-scratching commentary on human bodies and souls in this rather cursory review of Nancy Pearcey’s Love Thy Body). To write about all the layers on layers of confusion in this area, sadly perpetuated by Craig and so by trickle-down to those who follow him unquestioningly, would drain the ocean dry.

Suffice it to say, I’m sorry, but Rhett and Link are right: To buy the evolutionary narrative, including common ancestry with apes, is to say goodbye to Adam and Eve as Jesus and Paul understood them and as a cohesive Christianity understands them. I realize that people are coming down the pike who are going to try to sell something different. But you heard it here: It’s a scam. Don’t buy it just because you have cold feet and you’re scared of fundamentalist cooties.

There are, in fact, plenty of thoughtful resources on these questions. I generally find the deepest and most thorough engagement on these issues comes out of work by the Discovery Institute, whose anthology Theistic Evolution offers an extensive and intelligent lit survey cum astute response. Work by Ann Gauger and others has also put to bed the claim of a “bottleneck” with Adam and Eve that no doubt is in the background for Rhett. (Here’s a slimmer and cheaper reference covering this and more.) I also like to point people to the criminally underrated Paul Nelson, who has not nearly enough lectures on YouTube but a few that are orders of magnitude more helpful than the norm (see especially this one). In any case, the point is that the fundamentalists have a point, but the good news is that the case is far from open and shut. All it takes is a bit of chutzpah, and the ability to weigh up evidence. Which leads me to my next point.

2. We need to teach people how to think about evidence.

This is a meta-point. I’m not talking about any particular pieces of evidence for particular things here, I’m talking about the consideration of evidence in general. There are philosophical tools that can help guys like Rhett and Link who find themselves knee-deep in arguments and see abandoning ship as the only option. They’re not fantastically complicated tools, they’re not tools that take three Ph.D.s to learn how to handle and use. They just take a little time and training from someone who does know how to handle them. Apologists need to not relegate epistemology to the “tech corner” while coasting by on generalism. Epistemology lies under all of this stuff, all the time, and it bears directly on comments both Rhett and Link make at several points in their testimony about feeling “an accumulated weight” of arguments undercutting their faith, or about searching for “the best explanation.” People need to be taught, at a level they can grasp, how inference to the best explanation actually works, how cumulative cases and probability actually work, and how the nature and weighing of evidence actually works. This is not just for the geek squad. It’s for everyone.

3. Apologetics is stuck in a rut.

I told you this was going to be uncomfortable. But I’m afraid it’s true. Is there an immaturity about the defensiveness with which Rhett keeps insisting that he’s “looked into this stuff” and people “don’t have to send him things,” because he’s already been there, done that? Yes. Does the apologetics market also have a same-iness problem, where the same few arguments and authors keep getting recycled and plugged over and over without pausing to ask whether a careful reevaluation and update might be in order? Also yes.

Rhett cites the books of Bart Ehrman in particular as key to undermining his faith in the gospels. In an especially painful line for those of us who understand Ehrman’s schtick all too well, Rhett says innocently that he believed Ehrman “engaged with the issues in an honest and even-handed way.” (Insert some dark muttering about millstones here.) The problem is that Ehrman’s work is like a bomb: It’s tricky, and it’s dangerous, and it needs to be handled and defused in a very careful, very precise way.

Unfortunately, not all the proverbial bomb squads in the apologetics community are up to that task, even though they are regularly pushed to the front of the line and lauded as if they are. Apologists need to be communicative, open, and receptive to criticism even when the truth is difficult to hear. They need to be open, for example, to hearing that maybe a minimalist approach to the resurrection and the gospels has actually hurt more than it’s helped. They need to be open to hearing that there is a point of diminishing returns with what you can extract from “even mainstream scholars,” that the apologetics market hit that point long ago, and that it’s past time to move on if we actually want to give Ehrman the scholarly burial he deserves. And they need to have the integrity and the humility to revise their own research, if necessary, in the light of evidence that they have made serious errors. But that, as they say, takes a village.

4. We need to talk (better) about the Canaanites.

Zooming in on a smaller picture in that big picture for a moment, in a point that has been a blog post that has been a long time coming but will have to wait for now. While the alleged divinely mandated slaughter of innocents in the Old Testament wasn’t dwelt on for too long in the testimonies, it was a significant and early point raised by both of them. I’m not going to say too much about this for now, saving it for the blog post, but I will just quickly say that I see no popular apologist writing well about this, and haven’t for years. This is not me going full Andy Stanley, it’s just me being honest about what I see as a gaping hole in the apologetics landscape. This is not a deal-killing conundrum (see previous point about cumulative cases and how to evaluate evidence), but it is a conundrum, and the ball has been dropped in about five different ways by people trying to make out that it isn’t. We need to do better.

5. We need to confront the new sexual revolution.

As those of us who know these kinds of stories should be able to predict by now, intellectual doubts are far from the whole story here. Both Rhett and Link express deep resentment with the conservative sexual ethic as it relates to homosexuality in particular. In Link’s words, it was something that was “eating at him” for a long time. Both of them talk about their friendships with gay couples and their growing disapproval of the church’s stance on gay “marriage,” which made even outwardly seeker-sensitive LA churches still not “accepting” enough in their eyes.

Apologetics has its place, but apologists need to understand what they are up against here. You can build your cumulative intellectual case for Christianity and poke holes in Bart Ehrman’s bad books all day long. In fact, you should. It is very meet, right and our bounden duty as apologists so to do. But just know that at the end of the day, it is entirely possible that the new sexual revolution will come along and sweep away every one of those castles like a tsunami in the lives of the people you know and love.

I am sorry to say that I think it’s too late at this point for Rhett and Link. I know the signs of “probably too late” when I see them, and I see them all over these videos. If that sounds discouraging, I apologize, but then again nobody has ever mistaken me for Prozac. However, on a more encouraging note, I believe there are also ways to preempt disaster in this area with those for whom it’s not yet too late. We can, for example, give kids a solid grounding in natural law to complement scriptural revelation, so that by the time they go off to college, they’ll have a better answer than “because the Bible says so somewhere for some reason” when they’re asked “Why are you so weird about the gay thing?” I’ve cited this excellent article by my friend G. Shane Morris, and I’ll do so again here. This is an area where evangelicals can take a leaf from our Catholic friends and nurture integrated minds, so when (not if) the tsunami comes, they will be ready.

So there you have it: Five lessons from the spiritual deconstruction of Rhett and Link. I wish they were more cheerful. But I think they’re true. And, as Rhett and Link both say they believe, sincerely if misguidedly, at the end of the day that’s what really matters.

 

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