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The Dangers and Benefits of Deconstruction: John Marriott

with John Marriott | April 7, 2023
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Deconstruction -- in yourself, or in a friend -- can shake you up. Author and speaker Dr. John Marriott talks about how deconstruction happens, how to deal with it, and even how to lean in.

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  • About the Host

  • About the Guest

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  • Shelby Abbott

    Shelby Abbott is an author, campus minister, and conference speaker on staff with the ministry of Cru. His passion for university students has led him to speak at college campuses all over the United States. Abbott is the author of Jacked and I Am a Tool (To Help with Your Dating Life), Pressure Points: A Guide to Navigating Student Stress and DoubtLess: Because Faith is Hard. He and his wife, Rachael, have two daughters and live in Downingtown, Pennsylvania.

Deconstruction — in yourself, in a friend –can shake you up. Dr. John Marriott talks about how deconstruction happens, how to deal, and even how to lean in.

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The Dangers and Benefits of Deconstruction: John Marriott

With John Marriott
April 07, 2023
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Shelby: Where can you inject hope is someone's feeling, I want to leave the faith?

John: Well, you certainly are, are not alone. There are lots of examples throughout the Bible of people who have wrestled with their faith. In fact, Gideon in the Old Testament when the angel of the Lord appears to him and says, “Gideon mighty man of valor.”
Gideon says, “You know who me?” And the angel says, “Yes the Lord's going to do great things through you.” And Gideon says, “Oh, really? Where's he been all this time?” We read about all these things that he did for our fathers, but we haven't seen hide nor hair of God doing exciting things in a, in a really long time.” [Paraphrased from Judges 6]

And so, I'm really struggling with this. Jesus knows that there are going to be genuine, sincere believers who really wrestle and really struggle with maintaining faith and walking close and associating themselves with Jesus. But He has grace, and He has forgiveness for them.

Shelby: Somewhat anxious, always authentic, this is Real Life Loading.

I'm your host, Shelby Abbott, and the words deconstruction or deconversion are probably ones that you've heard a lot lately. In the last several years. I've not only read a ton of stories about people deconstructing, but I've also had friends and family members do the same. And maybe you're in the same boat, maybe you know of someone or a few people who have deconstructed or deconverted from the Christian faith, and you find yourself at a loss of how to talk about it or even move forward into the conversation with those who've walked away.

Well, my guest today can probably help you. John Marriott is a university professor and author and a speaker who dives into this topic at length. He teaches at Biola University in Southern California and his PhD dissertation focused on deconversion from Christianity to atheism. So yes, he knows what he's talking about. Today, John and I are going to talk about how an Olympic athlete influenced his career path, the difference between deconstruction and deconversion, and some reasons why people leave the Christian faith. I know this'll be a really insightful and helpful conversation with John Marriott.
Now you've written several books about deconversion. Why is this topic that you focus on so much in your work and your writing, why is that the thing that you've gone toward?

John: Well, it goes back to when I was in college. I was on a track and field team. I was doing the triple jump. That was my event. When you get scholarshipped and you're brought in, you're brought in to compete and to do well, and I wasn't doing very well at all. I was actually doing really poorly. We were at Florida State University for a meet, and my roommate came and said to me, “Hey, you'll never guess who's in the weight room.” And I said, “I don't really care who's in the weight room.” And he said, “no, you gotta guess.” And so I threw some name out there. And he said, “No, Jonathan Edwards is in the weight room.”

Now for our listeners, that might not be a name that's very meaningful. But for me, that was a really important person. He was my hero. Jonathan Edwards was the world record holder in the triple jump.

Shelby: Wow.

John: But what made him really, really meaningful to me is that Jonathan Edwards was a really committed Christian. I really admired him. He had missed an Olympics because of his convictions about competing on a Sunday. And when I found out that he was in the weight room, I felt like God had arranged the universe just for me, because if there was one person that I could talk to, it would've been him because a few years before, he had gone through a terrible slump in his jumping.

So, I waited till he was done working out, and I went over and I shared with him my sad story of how I was going through a deep struggle and how I resonated with him and his experience. And I said, would you mind just watching me and telling me what I'm doing wrong? And he said, no, I can't do that. He said, I'm not a very good coach. I'll get my coach to watch. But I'd love to take you out for lunch. So, he takes me out for lunch. We spent the afternoon together.

Shelby: Wow.

John: He told me how when he was done competing, he was going to go to Dallas Theological Seminary and study there. It was a great afternoon. Now, I never jumped any farther, but I felt as though God had heard, had really heard me. You know, I was like really encouraged by all of this.

Then in 2007 I went online to see where he was. And the headline that caught my attention was, “Edwards Takes Leap out of Faith.” Oh my gosh. And I read that story.

Shelby: Wow.

John: I found out that Jonathan Edwards not only said that he was now an atheist, but that he didn't think that there was any good reason to believe in God, and that he was happier now than he ever was before man. And I had to try and make sense of that. When I did, I found out that he is only one celebrity deconvert out of tens of thousands of average Joes deconverts. Then I started to wonder, “Why does this happen? And is there anything that we can do to maybe mitigate some of the reasons why people end up leaving the faith?” That's when I decided that I would start interviewing people, reading narratives.

I interviewed probably 30 people who once identified as a Christian, told me their story. Then I read probably a couple hundred online narratives of people who have posted online. There's lots there if you're ever looking to find them and tried to understand what is the catalyst, what's the context, what's the process? What does the impact look like in the lives of people who once identified as followers of Jesus, and now no longer do?

Shelby: Okay. So you mentioned the word deconversion and we've talked about deconstruction on Real Life Loading before. Is deconstruction the same thing as deconversion? Can you help me understand the difference between the two?

John: That's a great question. There's a difference between the two. One can certainly lead to the other. So, if you're deconstructing your faith and you're pulling it apart, you're looking at it, you're wondering which pieces of it maybe resonate with who you are and where you're at, and which pieces of it don't, and then you maybe reassemble a faith in a way that you hope is orthodox and that is a bit more genuine to where you are. And I think that there's a place for that.

But deconversion is when someone who once identified as a, maybe we'll just use Christianity as an example, as a follower of Jesus and as a Christian. When they became a Christian, they converted, they made a turn from kind of their old way of life.
They started living a new way. They adopted a new set of beliefs that they thought reflected reality well and they became part of a community.

When someone deconconverts, they really are just undoing or reversing that process. They're saying, I no longer think that these truths or these claims are true. I don't think they reflect reality. I'm turning away and my life is going in a different direction now than it was. I'm living by maybe a different standard or set of beliefs, and I'm removing myself from the community that I was once a part of.

Shelby: Okay, so deconstruction is more of like the process leading up to it, but not necessarily crossing the line.

Michael: Yes, that's right.

Shelby: Okay. That's really helpful that you kind of unpacked that for us, helped us to see what the terminology is, because I've found that people use the term deconstruction and deconversion interchangeably. I think that's an error usually most of the time when people are talking about it. So, it's important - kind of on the same page before we even continue in the conversation to know what we're saying and what we're not saying.

From your research, what are some of the main reasons why people abandon the Christian faith? Because I think you said that probably the main cognitive reason, like the thinking reason people have is problems with the Bible. Is that still true or no?

John: Yes, it is, and the answer to you why people leave the faith is always the same. It's because it's not true. But how you get there is going to be different. You can come at it from an emotional perspective where you say, “if this is the kind of person that Christianity produces and they're so hypocritical and judgmental and mean-spirited, then obviously it can't be true,” or if God really said “x,” and God's really like that, or God didn't come through for me in a way that I expected him to come through for me when I had lived for him and loved him and served him - and I really wanted this to happen, and he knows that, and it didn't, you feel a sense of betrayal and then maybe you start to wonder if it's true.

But if you're coming at it from purely an intellectual kind of a reasoned based approach, the number one reason that people give is that they just say, “The Bible's not true. Just look at all of the contradictions that are there, look at the birth narratives in Matthew and Luke does, go to the temple within 30 days with Marion Joseph after her purification, or does he go into Egypt for a couple years? When did the Wisemen actually show up?

Shelby: Right.

Michael: So, there are those kinds of problems. There are issues with violence that people say, “Hey this can't be true if God is saying to wipe out all of these people.” There are archeological issues. Some people point out that there's problems between the Bible and scientific findings, especially around the first three chapters of Genesis, and so it would be those intellectual reasons that people point to.

Shelby: Yes. So, by implication, you have answers to some of these questions, perhaps all of them because you're a thinker and that we don't have the time to get into all of them, obviously in this short podcast. But even though people might find problems with the Bible, for example, how can you address that so that young people can find hope and not throw the proverbial baby out with a bathwater. Meaning I'm just going to ditch my faith because I have a problem with this. Can you address that specifically? Maybe just one little thing.

John: One of the, the things that I find for a lot of people who end up leaving the faith is when you listen to their story, they often come out of a background where they have been told that Christianity is this particular thing. If you can imagine someone handing you what looks to be like this giant house of cards made up of all doctrines and practices that you need to accept and hold and adhere to, if you're going to be a true, real biblical Christian, and of course, what kind of other Christian would you be rather than a true, real biblical one, right?

They're often handed this very inflexible, large, bloated raft of beliefs and practices, and they're told this is what it means to be a Christian and you need to affirm and believe these things. Then at some point they say, but you know what? I'm not so sure I believe this one and I'm really questioning that one. – And just like a house of cards, if you pull one out, the entire edifice collapses because so many of the, the beliefs in those kinds of systems are reinforcing each other.

And it's really helpful, I think, in what you just said to say, “You might have questions about what inspiration looks like and if the Bible must be inherent, otherwise it cannot be the word of God. You might have questions about women's rules and sexualities and all of those things, but if Jesus really is who He claimed to be and He really did rise from the dead, and there's good reason to believe that.”-

Shelby: Mm-hmm.

John: -Then that's the thing that makes you a Christian, right, is being committed to Him and what He's done for you and that He's the King of the kingdom.

And then being in the kingdom allows you the opportunity within those certain parameters to explore and to ask all kinds of questions about those different views. So what we believe about inerrancy or about science or about all kinds of other sort of secondary issues don't make us a follower of Jesus, but it's what we do with Him as the Son of God and what he did for us on the cross.

The second thing that I would say is, “Faith is not having an answer to every question, and it's not being certain of everything, but it's having enough reasons for a hope worth acting on, that faith isn't knowing everything.” But it's saying, “Listen, I think that I have enough reasons to take up my role in the story that the Bible tells. To play my role to put one foot in front of the other and go out and live practically as though it's true.” And some days my confidence in that will be very high, and some days my confidence will be lower based on some of the things that happen. But faith is not primarily about your confidence. It’s about the ability to act on this hope, and you don't need to have certainty to do that.

Then lastly, the last thing I would say is that there's a relational component to this as well. And if there is good reason to think that Jesus really lived and He really died and He gave his life for us, you need to have more than just an intellectual understanding of the faith. You need to have a real living relationship with Jesus so that when the hard questions and the times do come, you're willing to lean into and give Him credit based on that.

Shelby: And now it's time for three dots, three thoughts on Real Life Loading. This is where I share three simple ideas that could potentially change your life or at least slightly improve it.

Thought one: I have found that rooting my happiness in the things God has given me instead of in God himself will always leave me unsatisfied. Things like my education, my family, my material possessions, even stuff like my energy and my health. All of those things are good things, but they're just lousy saviors giving anything in my life that's not God aA promotion into the spot that only God belongs in will inevitably leave me disappointed and wondering, “Why did I elevate that thing into a position it was never intended to be in?” So don't kick God out of his rightful place in your life. He and He alone will satisfy you, so don't go elsewhere for the satisfaction you crave.

Thought two: So on the very first episode of Real Life Loading, I mentioned the epic sandwich I sometimes create with my friends called the Premium McChubble, combining a Chick-fil-A sandwich and a Five Guys’ burger. Go back and listen to that in case you're intrigued. But today I want to recommend a riff on that concept and make you Chick-fil-ito. Start by getting either an eight piece or 12 piece nuggets at the Chick-fil-A drive-through, and then go to your favorite place that makes burritos and order whatever you want in your burrito. But once you sit down it's surgery time. Open up that burrito in the most delicate way that you can and gently tuck all of your Chick-fil-A nuggets throughout the open burrito - getting excited just thinking about it. Then, even though it'll be kind of messy. Re-roll up your burrito by tucking and folding as neatly as possible, and then enjoy your newly crafted, beautiful combination of nuggets and burrito. Voila, the Chick-fil-ito. It's a marvel to behold. And then more importantly consume.

Thought three: A lot of people have their, what they call their Mount Rushmore of individuals who represent the top four people in specific categories. So, I wanted to share my Mount Rushmore of modern authors whose writing makes me love Jesus more. I'll literally get whatever book they write, no questions asked.

And amazingly, I've had three of the four authors I'm going to mention on Real Life Loading as guests. How crazy is that? All right. Here is my Mount Rushmore of modern authors whose books I'll get once they come out without question - Paul David Tripp, Tim Keller, Sam Allberry, and Rebecca McLaughlin. That's it. Those are my four.

What's your Mount Rushmore of Modern authors? Let me know on social channels at Real Life Loading. This has been three dots, three thoughts on Real Life Loading.

Let's get back into my time with John Marriott.

What if someone out there has a friend who is really questioning their faith and actively doubting and talking about the things they're not really believing about Christianity anymore?
How would you recommend that believer proceed with their doubting friend? What would you do?

John: First of all, I think you, the person that you're dialoguing with needs to know that you're a safe person to dialogue with. If you shut them down and if you immediately try and answer all of their questions, they will not come to you with some of their questions and their doubts. They need to see you as someone who is a safe person to talk to.

The second thing I think you need to do is love them unconditionally and communicate that to them. I think it's important for them to hear, “I'm really committed to following Jesus. And I realize that at the end of this process, you might not be, but you need to know that I will still love you. You'll still be my friend.” It might practically be difficult; these sort of things - relationships seem to become strained to the point of breaking sometimes when one remains in the faith and one leaves, but at least to the best of your ability to be able to say, “I will always love you as a friend, regardless of where you're at on that”

I think it's really helpful to ask them to then say, “Can you help me understand, can you explain your story, where you're coming from, how you've got there?” And to just listen and not always have answers to give to them, even if you might have some on the tip of your tongue.

Shelby: Yes.

John: And then maybe the fourth thing would be to say, “Hey look, you know, I'm really trying to process this too, because we're good friends. We have this common bond and I love. I don't mean to make this about me, because it's not about me, but this is hard for me too now.

Shelby: Yes, yes, yes.

John: So one way that would help me to process it is if you would share with me the reasons why and if maybe at a time of your choosing, you might let me offer you some feedback and some thoughts about those. Would you be open to just dialoguing?

Asking permission and saying, look, this can be on your terms. You can set the agenda. If you want to say, we can go out for coffee once a month for three months, and you can give it your best shot and ask me a bunch of questions and I'll tell you what I think. And then after that, let's not talk about it anymore.

At least I think that gives you, as the person who deeply cares about your friend, the sense that you have listened and heard and tried to respond in ways that address perhaps the issues that they've raised. If that doesn't have any change on your friend, then at least you'll know, I did this in a way that was honoring to them and respectful of them as a person. I've kept lines of communication open, and I've done my best to address the issues that they say are concerns for them. So at least, I tried to speak into their life and I don't have to just sort of feel like, wow I wish that there was something I could have done.

And lastly, I think that praying is really, really important - sort of focused, committed prayer. And remembering that people do go through deep valleys of doubt and return for as many stories as there are in the internet of people who have deconverted. There is a growing number of people who would call themselves, “revangelicals.” People who were Christians, left the faith and then have come back. So there's always hope.

Shelby: Yes, that's really, really encouraging to hear. So along those same lines, tell me about the attitudes we should have towards a friend who is going through either deconstruction or deconversion. Because you say that being clothed in humility, grace, and respect for others is the priority. So why are those aspects of humility, grace, and respect so important for us to embrace?

John: Well, I think that humility is really important, because it's one of Jesus's chief characteristics. Jesus, when He has the opportunity to tell us what He's really like, what His character is like, what the core of His being is like. He doesn't say that he's powerful. He doesn't say that He's sovereign. He doesn't say that He is all knowing. He says that He is humble. The Greek word there for meek and lowly is the word humble. And He says, come to Me and I will give you rest. That's Jesus's chief characteristic.

When the disciples want to know who's the greatest in the kingdom of heaven, Jesus, brings a child before them and says, “Whoever humbles himself like the child will be the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” [Paraphrased] So I think that humility is really important because it's the way that I think that Jesus interacted with other people. That doesn't mean that we become doormats or that we don't have opinions, but it means that we think, not less of ourselves, but we think of ourselves less often and we think of other people. When you do that with someone who is wrestling with the faith and who is maybe on the verge of leaving the faith, it's first of all the right thing to do just because it's the right thing to do.

Jesus tells us that we need to “love our enemies.” How much more so should we love someone who is struggling to maintain their faith? But it also opens up channels for dialogue, for interaction, recognizing that you have your own struggles and you have your own questions - that you don't have everything together. But that you deeply care about other people is something that I think a lot of people who end up leaving the faith don't experience. - and it almost confirms for them that they've made the right choice by the reaction that they get from people who feel very betrayed and feel very hurt and perhaps their own insecurities are being pressed when someone that they care for and love say, “I don't really believe this anymore.” But wait a minute, this is the thing that we have in common. This is our bond of unity. This is the most important thing to me and you're saying to me, “it's not true and you don't believe and it stings.” And person after person who I've interviewed and talked with have said, I was so hurt.

I have one woman whose mother on her deathbed wouldn't even look at her and talk to her because she no longer identified as a Christian. One of a pair of brothers who, one subsequently left the faith, ended up in a fist fight. And there are lots and lots of stories of people who've just been so hurt. I think that what we need to do is step back and pause and take a deep breath and remember that God loves these people just like He loves us. We need to be the grace of Jesus in their life. And that doesn't mean that we don't speak truthfully and straightforwardly to them, but it does mean that we treat them with kindness and love and humility.

Shelby: So, share with that college student who's listening right now about how they can have hope as they're feeling the pull to leave the faith. Where can you inject hope is someone's feeling, you know what? I think I want to leave.

John: Well, the first thing that I think that I would is that you certainly are not alone.
That you're not the only person who's wrestling with this. And that you shouldn't feel a sense of shame about it, that there are other people out there who are in the midst of it and wrestling with it. There are people who have gone through it and have managed to maintain their faith. There are lots of examples throughout the Bible of people who have wrestled with their faith.

In fact, Gideon in the Old Testament when the angel of the Lord appears to him and says, “Gideon, oh mighty man of valor.” Gideon says, “You know who me?” And the angel says, “yes you. The Lord's going to do great things through you.” And, and Gideon says, “Oh, really? Where's he been all this time? We read about all these things that He did for our fathers, but we haven't seen hyde nor hair of God doing exciting things in a really long time.” [Paraphrased]

Shelby: Yes.

John: And so I'm really struggling with this. You find Hosea asking, “How long? Oh Lord?” You have Job saying, “I don't deserve really any of this oh God.” You have David in the Psalms in Psalm 88, it starts on a sour note. It ends on a sour note, and there's no reconciliation at the end where all the other Psalms say, “But oh Lord, in the end I put my trust in You.” No chance this one ends, right? It says the problem is You set me up for failure. I wish I'd never been born. Thanks for nothing, God.” And it's encouraging that God includes that Psalm in the Bible, right?

Shelby: Yes, it's still in the Scriptures. Yes, yes, yes.

John: It's there. It's there. - The other thing is there's a difference between Peter and Judas. Peter actually denies Jesus three times, and yet he returns. He goes through this deep struggle. He goes so far as to say I disassociate myself from Jesus altogether from the pressure that He was under, and yet, God has space for him because there's real genuine repentance there. Jesus knew his heart. - There's a difference between him and Judas because in John 13, Jesus is going to wash the disciples feet, and Peter says, “You're not going to wash my feet.” Jesus says, “I have to wash your feet. otherwise you have no part with me.” Peter says, “Wash all of me then, Lord.” He says, “I don't have to wash all of you because you are clean, but not all of you.”

And it says, because Judas was there. Then you get to chapter 15, Judas is actually left by then and Jesus says to Peter and the rest of them that you have been cleaned by the word that I have spoken unto you. Jesus knew that Judas was never a sincere, genuine believer. He knew that Peter was.

Shelby: Right.

John: Which means that Jesus knows that there are going to be genuine, sincere believers who really wrestle and really struggle with maintaining faith and walking close and associating themselves with Jesus. But He has grace and He has forgiveness for them. So Peter is, I think, a real example for us of someone who really failed, but someone who really was restored by the Lord because the Lord knows his heart.

So the Lord knows your heart too. If you're going through this and you're wrestling with this. You know, the prayer, “Lord, I believe helped my unbelief.”

Shelby: Yes, yes.

John: Is a really meaningful prayer, I think, to pray. I don't think that someone should feel a sense of shame or a sense of foreboding; or I'm on my way out; or I'm not a real Christian because that's not necessarily the case.

Shelby: Yes, that's really, really good. As we're thinking about young people, what are some of the building blocks that a twenty something, for example, can craft in their life to instill a lasting faith so they walk with God as they move on to the later stages of life? How can a young person prepare well now for what will inevitably be difficult in the future? What, what are some things?

John: The first thing to do would be to find a really good church community. That you go to on a regular basis that acts as a counterweight to the formation that's happening to you 24/7 throughout the rest of your life.

The second thing I would say would be to find somebody who can mentor you. And maybe not in an official sort of formal way but find people that are older than you who have some wisdom, who you can intentionally go and spend time with who have thought through things in life; who have gone through hard experiences-

Shelby: Yes.

John: -And have still managed to maintain their faith. Another thing is to have really sound and good theology. Sound theology, I think, can really go a long way in addressing a lot of the intellectual struggles and questions that we might.

The last thing I would say would be nothing is a substitute for a deep growing relationship with Jesus. I don't think that you have to read your Bible and pray every day like it is some sort of a ritual that you have to do.

If someone were coming to me and saying they're struggling with doubts, the first thing I would not ask them is, “Well, how is your relationship with Jesus and are you reading your Bible before breakfast every day? But I have a friend who does similar research to me, and he's listened to hundreds of deconversion narratives, and he says, “I can tell you a lot of things that they have in common,” he says, “but the one thing he doesn't hear is that there was a deep abiding relationship with Jesus that people mourn over when it's lost.”

Shelby: You know, like I said at the beginning, all of this is very personal for me because of the people in my life who have walked away from following Jesus. And this conversation with John was so helpful for me because it gave me not theoretical places to go concerning deconstruction and deconversion, but practical places as well. I really appreciate John's heart and his expertise as we navigate these tricky waters in our modern times.

If you want to dive deeper into the social aspects of doubt and deconstruction, you can pick up my book DoubtLess: Because Faith is Hard, on Amazon (and I really think it'll help. If this episode with John Marriott was helpful for you, I'd love for you to share today's podcast with a friend, and wherever you get your podcast, it can really advance what we're doing with Real Life Loading, if you'd rate and review us.

It's vastly easy to find us on our social channels. Just search for Real Life Loading, or look for our link tree in the show notes. I want to thank everyone who's on the Real Life Loading team, Kaytlynn, Jarrett, Chloe and Josh. I'm Shelby Abbott. I'll see you back next time on Real Life Loading.

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