Josh Harris and the Slough of “Deconstruction”

Josh Harris and the Slough of “Deconstruction” August 22, 2021

I am definitely not the target audience for  The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill, Christianity Today’s new hit podcast on the dramatic collapse of pastor Mark Driscoll’s megachurch empire. I didn’t grow up in a reformed church culture, didn’t even grow up in an evangelical church, and only ever followed Driscoll from a casual distance. When he imploded, I found it socially interesting, but personally irrelevant. My own faith was secure and grounded far from the madding crowd of Protestant Christian celebrity culture. I had evangelical friends, but my “church back home” was a pint-sized ACC parish with one endearingly inept priest, roughly five vestry members, and two acolytes (one of whom occasionally upped the drama by complaining when we sat instead of standing, talked too much in the nave, or didn’t volunteer to help him polish the candlesticks).

Similarly, although I was homeschooled, I occupied my own “bubble in the bubble” of homeschooling. This meant that while I was adjacent to circles where Joshua Harris was a household name, his work meant nothing to me personally. My parents were highly independent thinkers who never out-sourced dating advice—or, really, any kind of advice—to any broader culture, including homeschooling culture. So, likewise, when Harris’s empire crumbled, I watched the flames rise from a distance.

And yet, in spite of this, when the podcast put out a bonus episode on Harris’s rise and fall (fittingly titled “I Kissed Christianity Goodbye”), I knew I would want to give it a listen. Because while I may have lacked a personal investment in Harris’s particular story, I don’t lack personal investment in deconversion stories more generally—or, as they’ve recently and annoyingly come to be called, “deconstruction” stories. My parents instilled in me an early and deep concern for the needs of Christians who were doubting their faith. I was very fortunate to be guided preemptively through the minefield of objections that predictably populate such stories, especially when it came to questions about the reliability of Scripture. My education was grounded in John Warwick Montgomery’s principle that the most secure Christian is a “tough-minded” Christian: a Christian with a framework for his faith that’s durable enough to take some hits and emerge stronger than before.

In recent years, I’ve written and occasionally spoken about Internet-age deconversions, seeking to contextualize and hopefully shed some light on the phenomenon. I stress “Internet-age,” because deconversion in itself is hardly a new phenomenon. Western Christians have been having crises of faith since the dawn of the Enlightenment. But the Internet, and with it Internet culture, has turned deconversion into its own sad kind of public spectacle. And for figures like Josh Harris whose fame made them in some sense “too big not to fail,” the spectacle has drawn an especially large crowd.

All this and more is teased out thoughtfully in the new Rise and Fall episode on Harris, as host Mike Cosper interviews Harris himself and raises some probing points. Especially telling is the moment when he challenges Harris to answer the critique that he has simply “repackaged” his evangelical celebrity in a shiny new “exvangelical” wrapper. And that was recorded before Harris launched a $275 “deconstruction course” for Christians who wanted help navigating their way out of the church. The course generated such intense backlash that Harris was forced to pull the course almost immediately, cum abject apology: “I’d hoped I could use my platform to spotlight other people with more experience and expertise, point people to good resources, and offer questions to help people unpack and make sense of their own journey. But I recognize this approach is flawed.” Mistakes were made, as they say.

Harris himself cites primarily personal and relational factors in his own walk away from the faith. As public pressures and private crises intensified, he found his Christian identity unravelling in slow motion. His identity as an author unraveled as people pointed the finger at his hit book for the excesses of purity culture. His identity as a pastor unraveled as people accused him of indirectly enabling systemic abuse. And, most painfully, his identity as a husband unraveled as his marriage spiraled into divorce.

Since listening to the episode, I’ve been thinking about Josh’s story in light of an especially insightful reference by CT editor Ted Olson, reflecting in the podcast not just on Josh’s story but on the broader problem of burnout and discouragement in the church. Olson recalls that in Pilgrim’s Progress, Christian isn’t particularly swayed by his first encounter with Atheist. But when he hits the Slough of Despond, that’s when things turn a dark corner, when he is most tempted to give up and turn back. Granted, an abstract intellectual assault on one’s faith may catalyze a slide into the slough. But it’s neither necessary nor sufficient. Sometimes, as seemed to be the case for Harris, the assault is chiefly emotional and psychological. And sometimes, this is the most devastating kind.

As a young Christian, I tended to frame doubt mainly in intellectual terms. This was natural for a precocious teen with life experience still ahead of me. Now, older and sadly weathered by a fair amount of said experience, I find myself no less concerned with the problem of intellectual doubt. (I’m particularly distressed at how our seminaries, the place where young future leaders should be going to be strengthened in their faith, are more often than not actually planting seeds for them to lose it.) But I’m also well enough acquainted with the human condition to know it’s only one piece in the whole. When I hear de-converts give a list of unresolved intellectual doubts, I take them seriously, but I also quietly wonder what else might be in the mix.

This can include things that aren’t the de-convert’s own fault, as I think it did for Harris. Unlike the creators of the podcast, I don’t believe he needed to launch an apology tour for “how people were hurt” by his book. I think Josh Harris became a scapegoat for problems much bigger than Josh Harris. To the extent that this damaged his own faith, I feel deep sympathy for him.

At the same time, de-converts aren’t merely passive actors. Deconversion is not a thing that happens to them. We’re talking here about people with free wills, with agency. And the terribly sad but harsh truth is that sometimes, they practice that agency by willfully tuning out of the very frequencies that could save them. When I hear the well-worn line, “Nobody would answer my questions,” I take that possibility seriously. Yet time and again, this appears to be code for “Nobody would answer my questions in the way I wanted.

That goes for Harris too. In the podcast, when Mike Cosper presents the gospel and asks why it’s no longer sufficient for Harris, Harris replies, “It’s still a ‘good news’ which if you don’t receive, you go to hell forever.” Pages on pages could be written about this answer—to what extent it might trace back to a reformed soteriology (full disclosure, I’m Arminian), to what extent it’s a simple rebellion against holy justice for sin, etc., etc. My point is simply that it’s a moment where Harris makes his own agency clear. As Christians, we should respect that agency and hold Harris accordingly accountable, as we should hold everyone accountable for their voluntary choice to reject truth. We also need to have the intestinal fortitude to push back when such de-converts declare “systemic rot” where “rot” may be in the eye of the beholder.

This brings me to a recent Religion News Service article by Karen Swallow Prior, which was given the provocative title “With this much rot, there’s no choice but to deconstruct.” For those who don’t know how the writing business works, writers virtually never write the headline, and I can confirm this was no exception. Yet, while Prior wouldn’t have used a phrase like “no choice,” her article still attempts to frame the “deconstruction” process as at least to some degree necessary and positive. She opens the piece by leaning all the way into the neologism, with an analogy to a lengthy home repair project that required a complete teardown and reconstruction. So it is, she believes, with “deconstructions” catalyzed by systemic problems in the church. When a leader falls or a culture enables abuse, not everyone is able to absorb this and emerge with their faith intact. But, Prior suggests, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, because certain misguided ideas about Christianity (or Christians) perhaps should be “deconstructed.”

As a thesis, this has a sensible ring. But I take issue with the way Prior goes about expanding on and justifying it.

To begin with, she lists off a cross-denominational smatter of supporting examples, beginning with back-to-back links on Protestant and Catholic abuse scandals. Here, already, I want to call time for nuance. To be sure, when it comes to the Catholic abuse crisis in particular, figures like Rod Dreher have explicitly pointed to it as a driving factor in walking away from Catholic faith. But, as Dreher emphasized in a back-and-forth with Ed Feser, apropos of Catholic apologist Steve Skojec’s faith crisis, this should not be equated with walking away from faith, period. There are specific theological reasons why the ongoing enablement of top-down systemic abuse is more damaging to Catholicism in particular than to Christianity in general. In such a context, to “deconstruct” may, indeed, be a necessary and healthy thing. But the particularity of what it means to cross the Tiber, in either direction, shouldn’t get lost in the “deconstruction shuffle.”

And indeed, in general, there’s a wealth of difference between full “deconstruction” and simply shifting denominations, if the end goal is still within the bounds of “mere Christianity.” Of course, sometimes the trappings of church are mere trappings, so that for all intents and purposes a person might as well have gone full atheist, except that now he’s compounding his apostasy with the blasphemy of still taking communion. (This thought crossed my mind when Harris told Cosper he “might end up back in a church some day” — part of me wanted to say “Actually how about no,” given the sort of “church” where Harris would almost certainly drift if he drifted church-ward at all in his current state.)

I’m sure that, like me, Prior is also concerned to steer people away from the pitfalls of revisionism. Unfortunately, voices like, e.g., Richard Rohr are quite devilishly good at using the sort of rhetoric in her article as a Trojan horse, smuggling in radical revisionism under the guise of healthy “reconstruction.” Take, for instance, this quote of Rohr’s from a 2019 Premier Christianity article on “deconstruction,” around the time the new use of the word was picking up steam:

Picture three boxes. The first is order, the second is disorder, the third is reorder.

We’re all raised in the first box of order. We were given our explanation of what reality means and what God means. It gives you so much comfort that most people want to stay in the first box forever. But what has to happen between your 30s and 50s, is the glib certitudes of the first box have to fall apart. Who’s right, who’s wrong, who’s holy and who’s a sinner – I know these beliefs gave your ego great comfort – but if you stay inside the first box, it creates angry people, rigid people and unhappy people. When you leave the first box it feels like dying. When I had to leave my early Catholic certitudes it felt like a loss of faith.

But that wonderful early evangelical gospel holds you strong enough to endure the second box and not throw the baby out with the bathwater. In the second box you realise ‘it wasn’t as simplistic as I was told, but it’s not all wrong either’. If you can let God lead you through the second box while hanging onto order, God can lead you to the third box, reorder.

People want the first box at all costs but it doesn’t make them love Jesus. The crucified one who identifies with the poor and tells the outsider ‘never have I found such faith inside Israel’ – you see why they killed him! He was so comfortable with disorder inside of his own highly ordered religion. But he never throws it out – he still respects the temple. But he doesn’t waste much time there. That’s the position we’re in. I live with that same tension – figuring out what was good about the tradition I was given and what was accidental and arbitrary.

Sounds pretty anodyne, right? But dig deeper, and the real “rot” begins to emerge, particularly in the realm of sexual ethics, particularly in the realm of homosexuality—a recurring theme in many “deconstruction” stories, including Josh Harris’s. (As a side note, the writer of the blog I linked digging deeper on Rohr is himself an abuse victim who has made his own excruciating exit from Catholicism, but still clings to his own faith despite deep mental and emotional scarring.)

To be clear, I don’t intend to accuse Prior herself of having syncretistic goals merely because her rhetoric jibes with Rohr’s here. What I am saying is that she should at least be aware of how voices like Rohr have poisoned the discourse around this topic, so that when people hear talk like this, they are understandably suspicious.

A further problem I have with Prior’s piece is that along with sexual abuse scandals, she lists much more nebulous things like “racial strife,” or the mere presence of “partisan divisions.” Clicking her reference for the former takes you to an obviously slanted NBC op-ed arguing that white Christians are disproportionately racist. Clicking her reference for the latter takes you to a rambling “pox on both your houses” op-ed by Michael Bird on why Jesus wouldn’t have been simplistically conservative or liberal. “OK, fine,” I want to say, “But a second ago we were talking about the trauma and devastation of sex abuse, and now we’re talking about…what, exactly?”

Even worse is Prior’s indiscriminate inclusion, under “lack of integrity,” of an article on the non-scandal “scandal” around Voddie Baucham’s book Fault Lines, over which to my knowledge not a single person has “deconstructed” (nor should they, because it would be bizarre and irrational). Aside from the fact that even an actually plagiarizing pastor shouldn’t make anyone “deconstruct” their entire faith, the particular charges against Baucham don’t even hold water, and to whatever small degree Baucham gave a misleading impression in his work, he has fully clarified and apologized. If Prior was going to highlight this category of corruption, SBC president Ed Litton’s provably repeated, deceptive, and upon being caught, wholly unrepentant bulk copy-paste of whole sermon series, from multiple pastors, including personal anecdotes, would have been the natural and appropriate reference point, here.

I’m all for taking aim at corruption in the church. But we won’t help anyone out of the slough of “deconstruction” by picking ill-defined, or worse, mislabeled targets. Sometimes, there is real rot to call out. And sometimes, somebody is just mad because there was a clash of visions, and his preferred vision didn’t win. And when that person walks away, chances are very good that he will not be back. Not because he’s confused, not because he needs help discerning baby from bathwater, but because he doesn’t want to save the baby. And there is nothing good, “necessary,” or “beautiful” in that. It’s just rank pride, folly, and rebellion all the way down.

Does Josh Harris want to save the baby? In the Rise and Fall episode, Cosper mentions the story of Billy Graham’s close friend Charles Templeton, who famously deconverted as Graham’s star rose. At the end of Templeton’s life, Lee Strobel tells us he wept at what he had lost—at who he had lost. “Everything good I know, everything decent I know, everything pure I know, I learned from Jesus. … There have been many other wonderful people, but Jesus is Jesus…. He’s the most…In my view, he is the most important human being who has ever existed. And if I may put it this way,” he said, beginning to break down, “I . . . miss . . . him!” One wonders if there will come a moment in Josh’s life, years from now, when he weeps the same tears, when he feels the same clutch at the heart.

I hate to be cynical, but I’m not hopeful. It’s hard to pick a saddest moment from the Rise and Fall episode, but to me, one of the most painful was when Cosper invites Harris to do some self-reflection on the “celebrity status” of exvangelicals. Harris deflects: “I guess I can feel like it’s an easy out for Christians who I think need to think more deeply about poor theology and systemic issues.” Immediately after thus accusing others of “poor theology,” he attempts a tu quoque with the way Christians revere Jesus: “Why are we all still talking about Jesus? Because he is the most famous person in world history… What I’m saying is that Jesus, okay, let’s assume he’s the Son of God, the path of the cross is the path to exaltation, and the exaltation of Jesus does involve, if you want to use the word celebrity, celebrity. Now I think that’s a really flippant way of describing it, but I think we use celebrity in flippant ways to criticize other people as well.”

It would be comical, if it wasn’t so sad. So terribly, terribly sad.

But this is the rub, in the end, isn’t it? This is the question that has to be asked, that cannot be dodged indefinitely: Do you want Jesus? Do you miss Him? Or at least confess to missing Him, at times?

Writing this post has made me despondent now, so I feel a need to end on a bit of an uplifting note, by shining a spotlight on Josh Harris’s brother, Alex. Alex and a third brother, Brett, enjoyed some time as minor celebrities in their own right, but Alex settled into a legal career while Brett went off the grid to care for his desperately ill wife. Both brothers have retained their Christian faith. The Gospel Coalition did a long interview with Alex last year, which touched on Josh’s deconversion inter alia. I found Alex’s comments tasteful, perceptive, and wise. But now, in light of this newest interview with Josh, I find myself especially moved by the end of Alex’s interview, which, maybe fittingly, doesn’t mention Josh at all. I’ll just let it stand here, without further comment:

We ultimately do hard things, and we have the power to do hard things, and we have the hope that enables us to do hard things or to suffer through some very difficult things, because Jesus Christ has done the ultimate hard thing, that he died on the cross beating sin and death forever for our sakes. And because of that, we have this incredible hope, we have this incredible security, we have this incredible understanding that failure is not the end, and our own failures do not negate his faithfulness. As Christians, the person and work and salvation of Christ is what ultimately grounds us in the ability to do maybe some of the hardest things. The types of hard things that someone who is not a Christian would maybe not even consider doing. The ability to faithfully walk through suffering that is hard even to wrap your mind around, the way that Christians throughout history have done.

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