John Cooper from the band Skillet has recently declared war on “deconstruction.” But this is not new. Back in 2019 when Joshua Harris and Marty Sampson (of Hillsong Worship) posted public statements that they were deconstructing their Christian beliefs, Cooper wrote a Facebook post called “What in God’s Name is Happening in Christianity?”
We need to value truth over feeling. Truth over emotion. And what we are seeing now is the result of the church raising up influencers who did not supremely value truth who have led a generation who also do not believe in the supremacy of truth. And now those disavowed leaders are proudly still leading and influencing boldly AWAY from the truth. — John Cooper (2019)
What Cooper doesn’t know is that he is embodying all the things he is condemning.
What do I mean by that?
Let’s start at one of the high moments of the evangelicalism Cooper espouses. In 1980, the most respected evangelical university, Wheaton College, was opening the Billy Graham Center. They invited Charles Malik, a major international diplomat, one time head of the UN General Assembly and Lebanese Orthodox Christian to give a talk he titled The Two Tasks.
Spoiler alert: the two tasks are evangelism and education. The first part he’s saying they do evangelism great, but the rest is saying they do education horribly:
As Christians you should not be able to sleep not only tonight but for a whole week. But I know you are going to sleep very soundly tonight, probably because you do not believe me, probably because you do not care!
…If you win the whole world and lose the mind of the world, you will soon discover you have not won the world. Indeed it may turn out that you have actually lost the world…
This is a solemn occasion. I must be frank with you: the greatest danger besetting American Evangelical Christianity is the danger of anti-intellectualism…People are in a hurry to get out of the university and start earning money or serving the church or preaching the gospel…the evangelical cannot afford to keep on living on the periphery of responsible intellectual existence. (Malik, The Two Tasks)
Though Billy Graham and Wheaton president Hudson T. Armerding were there, the only person who seems to have got it was a young historian in attendance, Mark Noll, who, 14 years later would publish a book inspired by the talk, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind. He writes the book as a “wounded lover” and states his thesis in the very first sentence: “There is not much of an evangelical mind.”
What is he talking about? A portion of the book talks about “The intellectual disaster of fundamentalism.” What is that?
In the late 1700s German Biblical Scholarship started to look at historical and literary challenges of the Bible begun a hundred years earlier by Benedict Spinoza.
The Germans started noting harsh truths like the fact that in the first century Roman province of Palestine there was a very agreed upon “Son of God” — Caesar Augustus. His father Julius Caesar had been deified and Augustus in his political campaign printed on coins, above marketplaces and all over that he was the “Son of God” and therefore, the rightful ruler of the Roman Empire. Further, in Greek and Roman tradition whenever something would happen to change society, they called this news the euangelion, the word we see in English Bibles as the ‘gospel’ or ‘good news.’ As in this case: “The birthday of [Augustus] has been for the whole world the beginning of the gospel (euangelion) concerning him.” (Priene 150.40–41)
Mark 1:1 takes on a whole new meaning: “The beginning of the gospel (euangelion) about Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God.” It’s endorsing a crucified ex-carpenter/washed up rabbi insurrectionist as Lord, rather than powerful Roman emperor Caesar Augustus. This would be like saying Nat Turner rather than Andrew Jackson was President of the US in 1831, foolishness according to the wise.
These studies were called “higher criticism” because before that time period religion was a higher field of study that only certain people were allowed to discuss.
Along with higher criticism came exposure of the church’s sanctification of injustices like race-based slavery, exploitation and neglect of women, and a lot more expansion in ideas of science and sociology. Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth revealed the harsh truth that Christianity had become the opposite of “good news to the poor” –it was exploiting the poor.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer describes some harsh truth in this way:
Human beings have learned to manage all important issues by themselves, without recourse to “Working hypothesis: God.” In questions of science, art, as well as in ethical questions, this has become a matter of course, so that hardly anyone dares rock the boat anymore. But in the last hundred years or so, this has also become increasingly true of religious questions; it’s becoming evident that everything gets along without “God” and does so just as well as before…I consider the attack by Christian apologetics on the world’s coming of age as, first of all, pointless, second, ignoble, and, third, unchristian…. “So what room is there left for God?” Ask those who are anxious, and since they don’t have an answer, they condemn the entire development that has brought them to this impasse. (Letters and Papers From Prison: June 8 and July 16, 1944)
The anxious souls avoided the truth, and instead condemned the entire development. This is Noll’s “intellectual disaster of fundamentalism.” Fundamentalism was a historical movement began in the early 1900s to cancel “the entire development” by saying to be a Christian you must agree on five fundamentals:
(1) the inerrancy of Scripture, (2) the Virgin Birth of Christ, (3) his substitutionary atonement, (4) his bodily resurrection, and (5) the authenticity of the miracles. (1910 Presbyterian General Assembly)
This Christianity was good news to the wealthy. From 1910–1915 wealthy oil barons invested hundreds of thousands of dollars to distribute essays called “The Fundamentals” to every Church or Christian worker they could find an address for (about 700,000). The movement was never quite united but the conservative Baptists, conservative Presbyterians and the non-denominational business-centric Christian network started by Dwight Moody were the three movements who people tried to bring together under the term “fundamentalist.”
Fundamentalism fell on its face at the 1925 Scopes ‘Monkey’ Trial, when their champion, William Jennings Bryan, could not present a coherent understanding of the Genesis account in light of science. In a weird twist, he died from a stroke just days after the trial. Rather than confronting the uncomfortable truth, fundamentalists followed their feelings and created colleges where families could send their students without risk they would have to be exposed to Biblical criticism, evolutionary science or sociology.
By the 1950s fundamentalists were ready for a resurgence, but not with that name. Billy Graham, with the endorsement of people like William Randolph Hearst and Dwight Eisenhower, was able to bring them together as “evangelicals.” Graham amassed a fortune and had an open invite to the White House that would last from Eisenhower to Obama.
Graham’s contemporary MLK stood with the historically exploited and neglected and was called a ‘liberal heretic’ by Tim Lahaye, “that goddamned n***** preacher” by President Lyndon Johnson (one of Graham’s good friends). MLK was antagonized by the FBI, who sent him a letter blackmailing him and encouraging him to kill himself. Graham said that MLK should “put on the brakes” and that his dream of black and white children holding hands in Alabama would only happen after Jesus returned. In contrast to Jerry Falwell who was using his wealth to create the segregation academy now known as Liberty University, MLK was stating the uncomfortable truth “If America does not use her vast resources of wealth to end poverty and make it possible for all of God’s children to have the basic necessities of life, she too will go to hell.” MLK was gunned down 17 days later.
Graham and Falwell’s evangelical coalition became a new Republican voting block that gained political energy in the fight for segregation (which they lost) but in 1979 they were able to transition that energy into anti-abortion and the pro-business candidate, Ronald Reagan. At that moment is when Charles Malik gave them his talk, but, despite having near total dominance of the US from 1980–1992, Noll’s book in 1994 states they had made little to no progress on the challenge Malik set forth, to take history and philosophy seriously, and so the children of the Reagan generation, are asking questions and repenting, or, “deconstructing.”
John Cooper’s evangelicalism has roots in the dominant slaveholding/colonial Christianity which lost in the 1860s, then the business centered fundamentalism, which lost in the 1920s, and then in the pro-segregation business-centered Christianity of the religious right. The wrong side of every historical justice movement in the US and it does not want to remember this, hence the need for anti-intellectualism. They value the feelings-centered “truth” rather than historical truth. “Being evangelical means never having to say you’re sorry” says one historian of the movement, Tim Gloege.
Deconstruction Throughout History
The pattern we see through the Bible is that Abraham deconstructed the faith of his ancestors, Moses also deconstructed the dominant Egyptian theology. Jesus said of the dominant religion of his day it was perpetrated by snakes; he came to bring good news to the poor, “woe to you who are rich!” He was accused of wanting to abolish the law and the prophets, he said he was only there to fulfill them. Paul deconstructed his faith, he said he was a ‘Hebrew of Hebrews’ but considered it all loss in comparison with knowing the crucified insurrectionist Jesus.
Meister Eckhart (1260–1328) famously said “God, rid me of God.” A prayer prayed by many in their deconstruction.
Bartolome De Las Casas came to the New World in 1502 to inherit a plantation, but by 1515 he had deconstructed his beliefs, freed his indigenous slaves and was advocating against the Spanish form of colonization.
Martin Luther deconstructed his Catholicism at this same time period and started the Protestant Reformation in Northern Europe.
The Native American William Apess adopted Christianity in the early 1800s but deconstructed it shortly thereafter when he realized the way it was being used to justify atrocities against his own people. Ralph Waldo Emerson also gave his life to God at a young age, but after becoming a pastor realized that in order to be a good minister, he would have to leave the ministry, my name is a testament to the first US American deconstructors, the New England Transcendentalists. The Christian justification for slavery caused many like William Lloyd Garrison to deconstruct their faith. Slaveholding/Colonial Christians were so upset one said:
The parties in the conflict are not merely abolitionists and slaveholders. They are atheists, socialists, communists, red republicans, jacobins on the one side, and friends of order and regulated freedom on the other. In one word, the world is the battleground — Christianity and atheism the combatants; and the progress of humanity is at stake. -James Henley Thornwell, Minister, Southern (Slaveholding) Presbyterian Church, 1861
A book written in 2008 by David Hempton called Evangelical Disenchantment gives portraits of 9 noteworthy figures beginning in this same time period such as George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans), Sarah Grimke, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Vincent Van Gogh and James Baldwin, all of whom ‘deconstructed’ their Christianity.
Abraham Heschel, one of the best sources on the biblical prophets said “Hypocrisy rather than heresy is the cause of spiritual decay.” The Judeo-Christian is full of heretics.
The prophets are speaking to powerful people for the social sins they advocate:
Amos 5 says “Alas for you who desire the day of the Lord…It is darkness, not light…I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies…Take away from me the noise of your songs…I will not listen to the melody of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters.
Ezekiel 16:49 said: “This was the sin of your sister Sodom, she and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy.”
Isaiah 1 says “Even though you make many prayers, I will not listen; your hands are full of blood. Wash yourselves, make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.”
Evangelicalism has sinned in this way. We did not rescue LGBTQ people, we oppressed them. We did not defend African orphans, we exploited them. We did not plead for indigenous widows, we created them.
Evangelicalism is a house built on the sand of injustice and deconstruction is another word for repentance.
There is biblical precedent for an evangelical response to deconstruction: 2 Kings 22–23, when Josiah discovers how the nation of Israel has sinned, he tears his clothes and changes their ways. As evangelicalism has its roots in injustice and anti-intellectualism, it should repent and come alongside the historically exploited and neglected so that God’s will would be done on earth as it is in heaven. Yes, even if the historically exploited and neglected are Native Americans or people of a different color. Yes, even if the historically exploited and neglected are not wealthy. Yes, even if the historically exploited and neglected are women. Yes, even if the historically exploited and neglected are LGBTQ. Yes, even if the historically exploited and neglected are of another religion.
King Josiah went through and destroyed the places of idolatry, one such place might be Stone Mountain in Georgia where slaveholders have been commemorated ever since the 100 year anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination. We could also severely limit the capitalism of Wall Street rather than celebrate the rampant wealth increases of our top 1% while so much of our nation does not have access to housing, healthcare and education.
Deconstruction is the beginning of the day of the Lord, it is good news to the poor and woe to the rich.
So John Cooper, I would like to say to you: We need to value truth over feeling. Truth over emotion. And what we are seeing now is the result of the church raising up influencers who did not supremely value truth who have led a generation who also do not believe in the supremacy of truth. And now those disavowed leaders are proudly still leading and influencing boldly AWAY from the truth.
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Taylor Storey splits time between where he grew up in Santa Barbara County California and Berlin, Germany.
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