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The Spiritual Wasteland of Ex-Evangelicalism


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Author Mike Duran has a blog and is tackling a thorny issue–what do we do with former Christians who have walked away from God?
https://www.mikeduran.com/2021/05/02/the-spiritual-wasteland-of-ex-evangelicalism/

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In 2010 Audrey Assad released a worship album entitled “The House You’re Building.” At the time, she was a gospel singer gaining in popularity among evangelical audiences. I purchased the album and very much enjoyed it. One of my favorite songs on the disc is “Restless.” “I know You’re more than my salvation,” Assad sings, “Without You I am hopeless.” And then the chorus:

I’m restless, so restless
‘Til I rest in You, ’til I rest in You
Oh God, I will rest in You

It’s a beautiful song. Yet sadly, over the last decade, Assad’s “restlessness” appears to have gotten the best of her.

In early April of 2021, the artist tweeted that her current spiritual pilgrimage has taken her into experimentation with hallucinogenic drugs. In that thread, she writes that “psychedelic mushrooms” helped her meet “the Divine Love that undergirds this universe.” She’s thankful that “plants have helped [her] get there” and is bothered that “these ‘beings’ are ‘illegal.'”

Assad is just one of many evangelicals who have re-examined their faith only to abandon many of the shared theological orthodoxies that have historically defined the parameters of Christianity.

The contemporary term for the process behind such spiritual migration is “deconstruction.” In Assad’s case, deconstructing the Fundamentalism of her childhood led to her conversion to Catholicism (in 2007), which she soon abandoned, surrendering to nihilism (which she talks about HERE). Assad eventually admitted, “I don’t know if I believe in God if I’m honest. I don’t know if I believe in meaning.”

Within a decade, Assad went from proclaiming her need to “rest” in God to ingesting hallucinogenics in hopes of encountering Something like Him.

Like many of those who begin deconstructing their faith, Audrey Assad has ended up in a bad place. She might not believe it’s a “bad place.” Indeed, much of what I will henceforth describe as a “spiritual wasteland” some will view as an oasis. But as someone who has found existential solace in that “anchor” of hope Who is Christ (Heb. 6:13) and also experimented with psychedelics and religious exploration before becoming a Christian, I can testify to the spiritual darkness such searches like Assad’s inevitably tap. Frankly, it’s hard to imagine that abandoning Christianity for a world without God or meaning is an actual upgrade. But such are the trade-offs for ex-evangelicals.

Ex-evangelicals (or exvangelicals, as they are often called) tend to share many common traits. For those seeking freedom from religious uniformity, exvangelicals are an unusually homogenous bunch. For one, they are predominantly of the Millennial or Generation Z demographic (born 1981 – early 2000s). Raised mostly by evangelical Baby Boomers, this group has not completely abandoned religion but is reconstructing their faith so as to distance themselves from the perceived fundamentalism of their parents. Not coincidentally, the newly “reconstructed” faith of the ex-evangelical is mostly to the ideological Left of their starting point. In some ways, this could be a simple extension of the “progressive values” they already embrace. Nevertheless, the “transition” that results from said “deconstruction” is almost always a radical event. And typically takes familiar form.

For example, this podcast features 11 evangelicals who describe why they left their faith. The answers are varied, but similar. Like Brady Hardin, 32, podcast host of The Life After, who said, “I consider myself an atheist now because I can’t logically look at anything in the Bible, and say, ‘Oh, that’s worth me believing.’ Literal interpretation of Hell is just so outrageous.” Or Steena Marie Brown, a sexual embodiment coach, who “started asking questions that fell outside of the bounds of evangelicalism. Intuition and psychic gifts and trying to make sense of my experiences of God in that realm, things started to blur, and people couldn’t understand me or couldn’t handle my exploration.” The rejection of political conservatism is the default for most exvangelicals. Blake Chastain, host of #Exvangelical podcast, said, “Engaging with my faith was making me more politically and socially liberal. I rejected evangelical Christian conservatism and the default Republican stances.” LGBTQ-affirmation is another common thread binding exvangelicals. For example, Emily Joy now attends a “very gay Episcopalian congregation” while Brady Hardin’s faith deconstruction led him to coming out as homosexual.

Of the reasons cited for why millennials are leaving the evangelical church, the most common is political differences with the status quo.

According to a 2014 Pew Research Center study… 45 percent of millennial evangelicals support same-sex marriage (compared to 23 percent of previous generations); 51 percent (versus 32 percent) believe society should accept homosexuality; 41 percent (versus 27 percent) favor stronger government involvement in providing services; and 45 percent (versus 36 percent) think aid to the poor does more good than harm. 

So in many ways, the ex-evangelical movement is only peripherally religious, more similar to a political realignment with Millennial Christians moving from the traditional conservatism of their parents to progressivism. Ironically, exvangelicals bring a religious fervor to their newfound political alignments.

In The Rise of #Exvangelical, Bradley Onishi, himself a former pastor and exvangelical, chronicles the movement:

Recently, those who have left evangelicalism have begun organizing themselves online under the hashtag #exvangelical. Spurred on by white evangelical support for Donald Trump, the #exvangelical movement is providing the type of group I, and so many other ex-evangelicals, longed for during our deconversion process: a welcoming community that helps the disenchanted work through the process of deconversion. 

More importantly, Onishi notes the ideological machanations behind #exvangelicalism:

“#exvangelical isn’t just a support network. It’s an activist movement full of individuals trying to reshape the political and moral narrative surrounding evangelicalism by subverting its claims to moral and patriotic authority.” (bold, mine)

So for many ex-evangelicals, their spiritual journey is not just about interrogating their own faith, but joining an “activist movement” whose mission is to “reshape the political and moral narrative surrounding evangelicalism by subverting its claims to moral… authority.” This is a fascinating admission inasmuch as it highlights the ideological roots from which the impulse to “deconstruct” one’s faith often spring.

“#exvangelical isn’t just a support network. It’s an activist movement full of individuals trying to reshape the political and moral narrative surrounding evangelicalism by subverting its claims to moral and patriotic authority.”

Yet the real casualty here is not ex-evangelicals’ political affiliations, but the unorthodox and often anti-biblical assumptions this movement appeals to. Whereas evangelicalism is tethered to certain “fundamentals of the faith,” exvangelicalism is a free-for-all of religious gobbledygook, a wasteland of atheism, occultism, immorality, and heresy.

For example, a significant number of exvangelicals have become atheists or agnostics. Like Assad, former Christian musician David Bazan is now an agnostic. Mike McHargue, better known on the debate circuit as “Science Mike,” tells a similar story of deconstruction. He now believes “it is possible to be both an agnostic and an atheist.” Bart Campolo, son of famous Christian teacher Tony Campolo, left his faith to become an atheist and “secular humanist.” Interestingly enough, Campolo admitted that Progressive Christians ALWAYS become atheists. Popular YouTube comedy duo Rhett and Link “both said they are no longer Christian with Rhett saying he would call himself ‘a hopeful agnostic’ and Link saying he would call himself ‘an agnostic who wants to be hopeful’.” Ojo Taylor went from Christian Punk Rocker to Agnostic Professor. In the world of #exvangelicals, deconstruction often leads to deconversion.

 


Mike goes on in this vein for quite awhile, providing examples, until he arrives at this conclusion:
 

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Of course, not all who leave evangelicalism end up as atheists, religious progressives, or occultists. Nevertheless, by denying the authority of Scripture, its core creeds and tenets, and the testimony and traditions of the early Church, many former evangelicals untether themselves from theological mooring, leaving them adrift on the ebb of the age. The inevitable shipwreck is evidenced in lost faith, broken families, nihilism, despair, drug use, gender dysphoria, pagan beliefs, and even witchcraft.

It is not a coincidence that those who embark on the deconstruction of their faith often end up in a spiritual wasteland.

But perhaps the greatest irony of the ex-evangelical movement is its militancy. Many who have left evangelicalism because of its fundamentalist rigidity and fervor end up espousing contrary beliefs with equal fundamentalist zeal. They have swapped their former evangelical dogmas for more progressive ones. Rather than Scripture being the locus of authority, the ex-evangelical deifies the will, making personal experience, personal choice, and personal preference the most sacred of all energies. Their new creeds may not be as prohibitive as their former, but they are enforced with equal piety. Their new enemies are no longer the “libs,” the godless, or reprobate, but those who dare to teach traditional sexual morality and Original Sin. The exvangelical simply replaces the world, the flesh, and the devil with the GOP, FOX News, and Young Earth Creationism as the real axis of evil.

Please do not understand this piece as an attack on the spiritual seeker. I sympathize with those who wrestle with their faith. In fact, I’ve chronicled my own “unconventional pilgrimage” within evangelical culture — a journey that led to my leaving the pastorate and rethinking my religious beliefs — in my memoir “discipl-ish.” I’ve experienced both the good and the bad of evangelicalism. Trust me. But one thing I can confirm — as Augustine famously said, “Our hearts are restless until they rest in Thee.” In this, Audrey Assad was correct when she said, We are “restless… “Until we rest in God.”

 

 

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