When I was twenty-three I became the pastor of a non-denominational church in rural Kentucky. It was, as these things go, essentially an undercover southern baptist church, with contemporary music. It was Willow/Saddleback-esque, with all the typical evangelical beliefs, practices, and aspirations to one day be our town’s version of “mega.” This wasn’t my first gig with a church. I had been preaching since I was seventeen, and had my first church job, as interim pastor of the church I grew up in, at nineteen. Add in a brief, one year pastorate in college (that began and ended disastrously), and you pretty much have my resume. I had been out of college for a little over a year, and I was so ready to be back in a preaching role again.
That year after college was spent in a kind of exile. I worked at a Gap, assistant managed a coffee shop, and eventually worked in the billing department of a Chevy dealership. This wasn’t my best life. I wanted to give sermons and have theological conversation, and the sense of angst grew in me exponentially. So, when I discovered the opportunity to pastor what (I thought at the time) was a holy grail, meaning a contemporary, hip church, I jumped at the opportunity. There was only one, small problem: I was keeping a secret.
What I hadn’t told anyone, and had barely acknowledged to myself, is that was in the middle of a complete unraveling of my faith. As I stepped into my new pastorate, I felt an increasing discomfort with many of the interpretations and doctrines I had been handed. Up was no longer up, and I was finding it harder and harder to preach sermons that the faithful were expecting. It was a time of great trepidation, but also a new exhilaration. I didn’t know there were new things to discover and uncharted territories to explore. My experience had taught me the opposite.
I often wonder what a visitor from another planet would have thought about my ordination. It may sound strange, but imagine with me what those extra terrestrial visitors might have witnessed. In the lead up to the ordination itself I was given a book to study entitled, “What Baptists Believe.” It was as riveting as you might imagine. The task before me was to study and commit to memory the answers to all of the questions I might be asked. I poured over each page, each topic. Like the returning prodigal, or Michael Scott heading to a deposition, I practiced my answers to any potential question imaginable.
When the evening came, in front of our church, my family, and friends, I was called to the platform where I was seated in a folding chair. The pastor then proceeded to ask questions about the Bible, original sin, salvation, the role of women in the church, and much more. I sat there and regurgitated the answers verbatim from the book I’d devoured. Afterward, all of the ordained men (and only men) went into the church basement to decide whether my answers met the level of orthodoxy required for ordination.
Before we move on, back to the interplanetary visitor who watched the process unfold. If we could ask them, what is the purpose of our religion, what would they say? It seems to me the answer could only be that the purpose of our religion was to believe the right things, in the right way, and to be able to articulate them when necessary. Not to innovate or discover something new, that would dangerous. The infamous slippery slope.
This is the approach that stopped working for me in my early twenties.
My early years on the job were challenging. I found ways to say new things in sermons, but in a way that those listening could make fit into their existing framework (this led to major issues later, when they learned I had actually meant them differently), but even that did not feel sustainable. As I continued being present to my doubts and questions, I found others who were engaging a similar journey. Brian McLaren, Rob Bell, and Marcus Borg pastored me through their books in those days, when there was no one to whom I could whisper my growing inability to keep saying the things that the orthodox faithful expected of me. I would read their books like Nicodemus coming to talk to Jesus under the cover of darkness.
Stress was building. People were beginning to leave the church, and it seemed that daily I was jettisoning part of my pre-existing, narrow framework for something more expansive. Those days were fraught with uncertainty, and yet exhilarating in possibility. I learned that what I was experiencing was commonly known as deconstruction. I was tearing my theological structure down to the studs, removing layers of old paint and sheetrock that, up until that point, had been had been the only home I’d ever known.
As you might expect, this process wasn’t neat and straightforward. It was messy and really painful. I didn’t know it then, but this journey wasn’t going to be as simple as trading one theological framework that no longer worked for another that was equipped to hold my questions and all that I was learning. Like any loss or breakup, there would be an unavoidable grieving process.
One of the first emotions that bubbled up to the surface was anger. With every new discovery that challenged the orthodoxy I had inherited, I felt both excitement and sense of betrayal. Why had I never been told about this other world full of more generous interpretations? Why had I been led to believe that the slippery slope would be the end of my faith? What I was experiencing didn’t feel like an ending. On the contrary, it felt like something that was just beginning.
Unfortunately, that anger would seep out in sermons and conversations. Looking back, during this period of time I would often rant against my conservative upbringing and the narrow perspectives that now were just superstitions to be mocked. I didn’t want to just deconstruct my faith, I wanted to blow the whole thing up. Forget leaving the studs; I was going to bulldoze the whole thing.
This deconstruction lasted for years. It’s all I could think about or talk about. I spent all of my energy picking apart the framework I’d been given, and I wanted to help others do the same. Sermon after sermon, small group discussion after small group discussion, I felt like I was offering a public service by pulling the rug out from under those who were in my care. What I didn’t realize at the time, is that I wasn’t giving anyone, including myself, anything in the place of what I was tearing down. There was no plan for reconstruction, just demolition. This only amplified the sense of loss and confusion. I knew what I didn’t believe anymore, but I didn’t know, or at least I couldn’t articulate, what would come next.
As I matured I began trying to articulate something constructive to offer as an alternative to the conservative framework I’d left behind. What I developed was a reconstructed faith that could offer an approach to the Christian story that honored both the head and the heart. Surprisingly, part of my reconstruction process has been coming to learn that reconstruction itself needs to be deconstructed.
The reason I needed to deconstruct to begin with was the inflexibility of the framework I had received. It wasn’t something I could fix with some spackle and a new rug. It needed to be razed to the ground. What would happen if I simply reconstructed? I would have a new rigid framework that I would end up defending and to which I would be beholden. One of the things I have noticed about the progressive Christian world, and in myself as part of that world, is the tendency to use the same methods as conservatives when their perspectives are challenged. We don’t need a kind of progressive fundamentalism that uses the same angry, narrow, snarkiness that leads to dehumanizing those who disagree with us. Reconstruction implies a new certainty and whatever new structure is built becomes as rigid, fixed, and unmoving as what it replaced. Whatever I reconstructed, I learned, I would feel the need to defend.
Instead of a theology that depends on (and then reflects) metaphors of construction I want to move toward a more organic theology. A theology that can reconnect us with the earth and our place in it. Simply put, we need our faith to go green. Instead of the metaphors of deconstruction and reconstruction, I have come to prefer the image of a garden.
My family moved into a new house last summer. We love the house, but I miss the box garden that we had at the old house. My father-in-law built the box, and helped me decide on the kind of soil to use. Then we went to a local nursery to buy tomatoes, squash, zucchini, and various peppers. I also planted strawberries and watermelon. We dug holes in the soil and planted our crops. With dirty hands and anticipation I watered our new garden. Then I did the hardest thing, the thing I am maybe the worst at. I waited.
Over the course of the summer I watered daily and watched for growth. As the plants began to produce, I noticed holes that began to appear of the leaves. Soon, most of the plants began to wither and die. Apparently they were the victims of an invasive insect that is known to ruin crops before they reach their potential. I didn’t discover the problem early enough, so I decided that it would be best to allow the dying plants to compost in the garden bed, which would hopefully add nutrients to the soil, and create the opportunity for a more robust and productive garden the next year. I took a hoe and began to dig up the plants and churn up the soil in the whole garden bed. If everything worked as I’d hoped, then the next year’s produce would benefit from the last year’s attempt.
This has become a helpful, comforting, and rich image in my theological framework. When I deconstruct and reconstruct, I have to remove what came before and replace it with something new. In the garden image, yesterday’s theology that I can no longer find useful can be churned up into the soil. Instead of something that I have to dissociate from, I can see my old beliefs as part of the process that is creating today’s growth. The garden doesn’t require us to know or commit to what we will plant, who we will be, or what we will believe in a year, or twenty years. It only asks us to be present to the moment, and to tend and care for the current season’s growth. When this season ends, we can incorporate it into the soil to provide nutrients for the next season’s growth.
Perhaps the greatest gift this organic approach has given me is that I no longer carry with me the anger that once marked so much of my experience. I've come to the realization that the voices that shaped me were not nefariously trying to keep information from me. They were actually doing the best they could within the framework they had been given (which is what I hope I am doing as well).
Metaphors matter. The images we assign to our ideas and concepts are instructive; they shape our imagination in meaningful ways. For me, embracing an organic image, a garden that is home to the entire cycle of life, death, and new life, has been transformative and hopeful. I hope it can do the same for you.
Hi Josh, your journey in many ways parallels mine that began in the late 1990s. I was quite active in the churches of Christ, a minister at one time. By 2006 I wrote a private e-essay book entitled "Jesus - the Prophet Wisdom Teacher" it essentially was a reframing of my "faith." I appreciate the path you are on and wish you well. I am 73 years old. My genealogy roots are heavily in middle Tennessee. Email me if you like. Best regards, Charles James