What assumptions do we pass along to young Christians about what the Christian life is like? And how might we pass along the faith to young Christians in ways that help them foster a faith that endures? Tim and Rick resume the discussion with John Marriott (PhD) on the topic of Christian deconversion. They discuss what parents, pastors, and Christian educators can do to help young Christians through doubt, handle differing convictions, and gaining perspective on difficulty, pain, and suffering. They explore the fourth stage of development from Dr. Marriott’s book, The Anatomy of Deconversion. This is part 2 of a 2-part series on Christian deconversion with John Marriott.
John Marriott: Why are we surprised when Jesus says, "I tell you these things in advance, so when they happen, your faith will not fail." Then they happen and faith fails. I don't think we do, necessarily, a really good job of really setting up young Christians to know that heartache will come, that sickness will come, that discouragement will come, and because of that, crisis of faith comes.
Tim Muehlhoff: Welcome to the Winsome Conviction podcast. My name is Tim Muehlhoff. I'm a professor of Communication at Biola University and also the co-director of the Winsome Conviction Project, along with my good friend, Rick Langer. Rick?
Rick Langer: I'm Rick Langer, and I am so thrilled to be able to be with you. I am sharing the responsibilities for the Winsome Conviction Project with Tim. I'm also the director of the Office of Faith and Learning here at Biola, and a professor in the Biblical Studies and Theology department. We're really grateful that you have joined us. We're having our second of two parts of a conversation with John Marriott here about the issue of Christian deconversion.
In our first conversation, we spent a long time thinking about what are some of the kind of unique forces that have kind of kicked in, in the last, perhaps, few decades? That have created some of this pressure towards deconversion, because we identified some statistics that are somewhat alarming in terms of the number of people, particularly in America, in the Christian West who are going through these kinds of deconversion experiences. We invited John, who's written a few books on this, done some research, to come and share with us just a little bit about this. We're picking up a conversation that we began in an earlier podcast.
Tim Muehlhoff: We kind of laid out the problem in the first segment. We shared some disconcerting statistics. John gave us some perspective on those, which was helpful, and then we talked about the five stages of faith, and we talked about how, stage three, you kind of are content. Your parents believe this, you have authority figures who believe what you believe. You've read books who have supported what you believe. Life is good, but then stage four happens where you're aware of something. John made the comment that often that can be through the internet. You've come across that counter argument, that just seems to make a whole lot of sense. I was transparent about my stage four experience.
John, before we get to what parents and youth pastors and Christian educators can do, the question I do honestly have and has been presented to us a little bit is, well, if a person is in stage three, are content in their faith, then why would you upset the apple cart? Why purposely, it's almost like an inoculation, why would you purposely give them some of the real disease? Some of the questions? Why not just let them stay content in stage three?
John Marriott: Great question, and thanks for having me back.
Tim Muehlhoff: Oh, love it.
John Marriott: It's good to be here again. Yes. Well, in our last discussion, I ended up by saying that I had gone to my local Christian bookstore and had access to all this apologetic material, and I would walk out thinking, "I know this is true and if other people would just get the information, then they would know it was true as well." That was all because I had only ever heard one side of the story, because there was never any access to the other side, right? If you ever watch a Dateline or a murder mystery, you watch the first half of the show and you're convinced the person is guilty, and then the second half of the show rolls around and you hear the other side and you say, "Oh, I don't know what I think anymore."
I think that this happens a lot today where it didn't happen in the past, because we have a lot of information that's presented to us from sources that are hostile to the Christian faith, and that's through the internet. The internet has lots of great benefits that it provides, but it also has this... It also is this source for information that is counter to the faith and can cause folks to head from stage three into stage four, because they come across information that they had never, and they would never in their normal life come across.
I think that your question is a good one, is do we want to move people from stage three to stage four? Part of me wants to say, yes, part of me wants to say, no. I think that the problem with leaving people in stage three is that there can be... If we really hope, and we really believe that the goal that God has for us in this life is to become more conformed to Jesus and be flourishing human beings. Then part of becoming that means believing true things, and being in the truth, and thinking through what we believe. Sometimes we inherit systems of thought, and doctrines, and ideas, and beliefs, and practices that although they might make us feel comfortable and give us a sense of contentment. It can be almost a false contentment or a false sense of comfort, because it's not necessarily in line with the truth.
We would, of course, think that there are many people who are in variant or deviant versions of Christianity, or maybe aberrant or heretical things like Mormons or Jehovah's witnesses, who would say they have a tremendous sense of peace and joy, but those aren't necessarily indicative that they're in the truth. I think that flourishing as a human being means becoming more like Jesus, which means becoming more... living more in the truth, and therefore, sometimes we might want to prompt people to rethink some of the things that they believe. To analyze some of the positions that they hold, and although that might not be a kind thing to do, because it doesn't make them feel good. In the end, it might be a good thing to do in the same way that taking my kids to the dentist when I know that they have a cavity, is not a kind thing, but it's ultimately a good thing, because it enhances and it produces their flourishing, whereas being kind doesn't necessarily do that.
Rick Langer: My little mini pushback, Tim, to this issue of, "Gee don't we need to give everyone in stage three, the disease of stage four," so to speak metaphorically. In other words, people who are content in their faith as is who don't really know what the issues are. Do we need to tell them the issues so they know they have the cure. I teach at a university, we all do. If a person's at a Christian university, they are the people who need to become aware of this broader conversation. My only concern about that is not everybody goes to the university. Not everybody needs to. My PhD's in philosophy, and I wrote my dissertation on applied ethics, and so I realize everybody has moral convictions. Does everybody need to become a philosopher? Does everyone need to be familiar with radically skeptical arguments about the reality of morality. Is morality merely performatory? In other words, it's simply a declaration of, "Yuck. I don't like that," or "Yes, I like that," and that's all there is for morality.
"Well, that sounds stupid." "Oh, no, it isn't. Listen to this development," "oh, wow." I don't think every soul on planet earth needs to go through that kind of an interrogation of their moral life. I do want people to be thoughtful morally, but there's an awful lot of really good people who just say, "You know what? I don't understand all that stuff, and as you run out this long complicated argument, I always lose you." But the bottom line is, "When you're done talking, I'd appreciate if you kind of wrap it up, cause my neighbor over here needs some help and I'd like to go help him." I'm like, "Oh yeah," and I think a lot of people have a faith like that, so I don't want to just say, "We've got to universalize this for everybody," but the bottom line is probably most of our listeners are people who've been through college or listening to, I imagine, professors, and I am all in on what we're saying here. I don't want to cut off too much time from John to give us the cure. Tim?
Tim Muehlhoff: Okay. Very quick. My only pushback on your pushback. If a person is not going through a crisis of faith, even if they don't have these doubts, let's say, "Hey, I'm good. I read C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity. I'm good," but how do you respond to your cousin who has questions? How do you respond to your child? How do you respond to a fellow parishioner who does have doubt stage four? That's how they need to at least be prepared to say, "I know you don't have doubts, but please leave room for your friend who has doubts," and don't just give him or her the A to Z Christianity in a nice, neat bow. You at least have to give room and space for people who do question. That's what concerns me a little bit about leaving people at stage three.
Now, John, the great thing about your book, A Recipe for Disaster. You say four ways churches and parents prepare individuals to lose their faith, but here's the great part, and how they can still have faith that endures. Why don't we give our listener some much needed good news, John. What would be some things that maybe we do that we shouldn't do, but then if we counteract it, there actually could be some good news.
John Marriott: Sure. I'm glad that we're getting to that, because I think that's really important. Well, there are a handful of things that come up over and over again in the deconversion narratives. I think that they indicate that we haven't always done the best job in communicating and passing on the faith. One of them is, is that we over-prepare folks and say that this is what it means to be a Christian, and you need to buy into and you need to accept everything in this package that we're presenting you. That package might include everything from literal six day creation at the beginning to all the way to a literal lake of burning fire at the end, and everything in between needs to be affirmed in the exact way that we, as a group, or as a family, or as a church interpret it.
That's what real Christianity is, and sometimes that leads to a very fragile inflexible house of cards like faith, where every belief is elevated to the level of being non-negotiable, and in a house of cards, as you can imagine, all cards have the exact same value when it comes to the building of the house. You pull out one, the whole house collapses, and I have read story after story, and listened to numerous people say, "Well, I was told that if Genesis isn't literal, then the Bible can't be true, because the Bible says what it means and it means what it says, and if Genesis is anything but 6, 24 hour days, then it can't be true, because that's what the Bible teaches." Then I went to university and became convinced that it's not six days and 24 hours and 10,000 years old, it's much... Well, it's 4.5 billion years old, and the universe itself is older than that.
Then I became convinced that there's good evidence for evolution, and so I had to come to the conclusion then, that Christianity's not true, because if I have to affirm this particular view of creation, then I can't be a Christian anymore. Or if I have to affirm this particular view of Hell, or I have to affirm this particular view of the Second Coming, because it ends up being a package deal. It's very difficult to say, in this sort of way of thinking, that you can reevaluate, and think, and choose, and go back to the text, and try and really wrestle with what it says, because you've been presented with what Christianity is, and it's an all or nothing kind of ultimatum.
Rick Langer: Wow, that's powerful.
Tim Muehlhoff: I can see us doing that with not just issues like evolution. Again, Biola's unapologetic. We take a stand on evolution. We don't apologize for our stance, but we also have to remind students that there are theistic evolutionists, that there are theologians who believe that God uses the process of evolution, and they love the Bible. They may interpret it a little bit differently. That message has to get out John, to students, or they're stuck in this, "Well, I think I'm heading towards evolution, so it's time for me to kick my religion, because the two are incompatible." You're saying let's make that a little bit more messy.
John Marriott: Oh, oh, oh for sure. There's no logical connection between saying, "I think evolution is true and therefore God does not exist." You might still say, "I don't think that God used evolution, or I think that God could have used evolution," but there's no necessary connection between saying, "Evolution occurred, so therefore God can't exist," unless you have the assumption that this text must always be read this way. That's where I think we need to step back and have some intellectual humility and recognize that there are lots of Christians throughout the world who have not always read this text that way, and that there are other ways of reading it where you can be faithful and still be a follower of Jesus. Not necessarily in the same ideological tradition, perhaps, that you started in, but you can still be faithful, orthodox, biblical, and not necessarily hold to every position that has been handed to you when you were growing up, because it's not an all or nothing approach.
Tim Muehlhoff: This is huge. Even evangelistically. I was speaking at UCLA with Cru and doing a evangelist, talking to people to ask questions, and here's what I got hit with John is, "Okay, well, if God ordained everything, then he ordained Hitler. He ordained 9/11, he managed blah, blah, blah, blah, blah." I finally had to say, "Okay, listen, what you're asking me is what a Calvinist would believe." Now, there are great Calvinists within the church without a doubt. Luther, Calvin, right? But that-
Rick Langer: Luther wasn't really a Calvinist. He was more of a Lutheran, and Calvin was more of a Calvinist.
Tim Muehlhoff: Yeah, but he was-
Rick Langer: But go ahead, you're on a roll. Keep rolling.
Tim Muehlhoff: But he would believe in a view of sovereignty the same as Calvin would. I said, "Hey, that is one option," right? I have a lot of friends who go that option. I'm not one of them, and there's a whole tradition that would really disagree with the way Calvin would interpret things, but that's okay, because we're a pretty complex group. People don't perceive that we're a complex group. They perceive that we're pretty rigid, so that was so great to say to non-Christians. I think we need to say that to Christians. You don't need to be a Calvinist, you can be an Armenian. You don't even have to be an Armenian, you can be whatever. We get so caught up in our beliefs that we say, "Hey, this is absolutely what the Bible says," and you're saying that might be causing some unintended consequences.
John Marriott: Right. Let me give you a practical concrete example of how I do this with my own kids. My son, Cody, just turned 13, and so he's now thinking and asking me about these questions. For the last few years, we've talked about them and he knows I'm writing these different books, and so one of the things I want him to know is that when you become a Christian, Jesus becomes Lord and his word becomes the final criterion for truth, and that there is a broad historical tradition that Christians have sort of hammered out that says, "These are the really important beliefs that make you, within the sphere of orthodoxy, of correct, right belief.
He understands these sort of creedal beliefs, that there's one God, and he's a Trinity, and that Jesus' death and resurrection is how we have salvation. We kind of walk through some of those early ecumenical creedal statements to say, "These are the guideposts that you need to really affirm," but then I expose him to other things. He knows that there are Christians out there who have different interpretations of Genesis, and he knows the interpretation that I hold to, but he also knows it's an interpretation. He also knows that he is free to come to a different interpretation, but one that he goes back to the text to affirm, not just one that says, "Hey, you know what? There's so many views on this. No one really knows anything, so I'm just going to pick the one that I like the best," because I think that in our age of authenticity, where everyone has to just do what they think is right, or only can affirm those things that line up with their values, we're always tempted to say, "Well, since nobody really knows, then I guess I can just pick what I want."
No. I want him to be able to say, "There is a plurality of interpretation on some of these secondary and tertiary issues, and I can be a Christian and be different than Mom and Dad on some of these, but if Jesus is Lord, then his word needs to be the criterion, so I better be able to ground my beliefs in the text. Then, because I know that there are people in the Christian community who have different views on this, and are very intelligent, and are very faithful and love Jesus. I need to hold those convictions with some intellectual humility, recognizing that I could be wrong, and not forcing other people, on pain of losing their faith, to either accept everything that I believe, or say you can't be a Christian."
Rick Langer: Yeah. This is a great point you've raised, that one of our challenges, once people realize there's a multitude of different viewpoints people have, I think that does translate in a lot of people's thinking into the idea that I've walked into a cafeteria of belief. When you walk into a cafeteria, if it's a smorgasbord, literally, the criteria used for what do I put on my plate, is what do I like the best? That's the mentality we adopt, which is really different than the mentality you might adopt if you walked into the investment sphere, for example, and were trying to save for your retirement. You say, "Oh, there's a multitude of options out here. Well, this guy over here is selling. He's sure that the tin market in Lima, Peru is going to go through the ceiling, so you should buy that. Oh, that's just as good as Warren Buffet."
It's like, "No, that isn't as good, and this isn't a matter of taste," though there are a whole set of different investment opportunities, and in some sense, for people to say, "Look, you're going to invest your life in a Christian community to whom you will form attachment." There are different communities, but the thing you want to do is really be, as Paul says in Romans 14, "Fully convinced in your own mind," but that doesn't mean your next door neighbor is going to make the same choice, because as Paul says, in Romans 14, "They're going to stand or fall before Jesus." It isn't that he's saying, it's unimportant. He's saying, "Look, they don't answer to you. They will answer to Jesus." When we walk in, we're not walking into a who cares cafeteria. We're walking into an area where we have to make different choices, but those choices will have real consequences based on a real world, and we don't all agree, but by golly, we should all be convinced. We should be convicted, so to speak.
John Marriott: Yeah. I think that what we also need to do is make sure that we're making those decisions based on using our intellectual capacities to reason out, as best as we possibly can, and think through the arguments, because in our age of authenticity culture, it is almost... Everything that we believe, not everything that we believe, but many of the beliefs that many folks would hold would be driven, not so much by what they think are the results of good arguments, but by the values that they have and they say, "Look, I don't even really care what the arguments are for maybe the LGBTQ position. I just think that it's totally wrong, and that it's... How could God ever do something like that? The reason why they feel like that, is because they're part of a culture that has inculcated into them, those values, and those values drive their moral thinking, as you're well aware.
Rick Langer: Yeah. Yeah.
Tim Muehlhoff: Let me bring up another one that really struck me, as an educator and also as a parent. It's when you said, "What's the assumption we're handing to believers of what the Christian life would be like?" I thought this was so good, you mentioned Saving Your Marriage, excuse me, Saving Your Marriage Before It Starts by Les and Leslie Parrott, where they said, "Heading into marriage, what do you think it's going to be like? Do you think it's all going to be bliss and happiness, and stuff like that? Or like any marriage, there's seasons of struggle and all that kind of stuff." That made me think, John, what are we handing to young Christians?
Do we tell them that maybe doubt, or questioning, or seasons of even Dark Night of the Soul, St. John of the Cross. Hey, that's life, and it affected C. S. Lewis, and it's no doubt going to affect you. I thought that was really good, because I wonder sometimes the messages we give to people, is that you're going to fall deeper and deeper in love with Jesus. Your faith is going to become rock solid. You're going to charge Hell with a squirt gun, that kind of an attitude then sets us up for failure. Comment on that.
John Marriott: Sure. I think that because God has created us and we live in his world and we lived in an... Adam and Eve lived in a world that God intended and originally wanted them to live in, which was in harmony, and I mean, there was no need for justice, but it would have been a just world, and that there was peace, and that there was contentment. I think that, because God has created us, that there is still this vestige in us that believes that that's exactly the way that the world should be. Then when you become a Christian, you think, "Well, then that's what God wants, right? This is what he wanted at the beginning. There was a separation, but now I'm reconnected to him. Therefore, if God is this parental figure and he's this good God, and I wouldn't treat my kids a certain way and I wouldn't let certain things happen to my kids, why would God ever allow those things to happen to me?"
You might not even need to be told that God has a great plan for your life. You might not even need to hear the explicit communication that says that he is a refuge for those in a time of trouble, and that he'll never leave you and forsake you, but I think that there is, just as a result of being created in God's image and having a basic understanding of who God is and his deep desires for people long-term, caused everyone to have kind of this expectation that if you're on God's side now, well, then he's going to come through for you, and he'll always be there for you, and you shouldn't experience these problems, and these heartaches, and these sorrows.
The ironic thing about that is, is that if you read the Bible, you see everywhere that just about everybody who followed the Lord closely, either in the Old or the New Testament, suffered some significant heartaches, some real troubles. The one that really gets me is that the Apostle Paul says that, "I spent three days and three nights in the deep, and I was basically stoned to death, and I've been starving, and I've been hungry, and I've been cold." I think these aren't things that were done always necessarily to him, by other people, these were things that he just found himself in terrible situations where he was freezing, or he was hot, or he had no food.
I think God could have stepped in and saved him from all of those things, but he didn't. He let him go through all of those, so why are we surprised when Jesus says, "I tell you these things in advance, so when they happen, your faith will not fail." Then they happen and faith fails. I don't think we do, necessarily, a really good job of really setting up young Christians to know that heartache will come, that sickness will come, that discouragement will come, and because of that, crisis of faith comes.
Rick Langer: Yeah. I wrote an article a while ago, on what happens when you pray and God doesn't heal. It was for a denominational publication, but one of the things I talked about in there is that we have a problem with what you might call an extrapolated faith. We say, "Because God is good, and because he knows about this thing because he's all powerful, he must fix it." It's a classic argument for the idea that there should be no evil if there really is a God. Well, we kind of apply that and we realize there's no verse that says in the Bible, "You shall never ever experience sickness or hardship." Quite the contrary, but you have an extrapolation that leads you to that conclusion.
If on the other hand, instead of an extrapolated faith, we kind of just took our faith... Let me just call it, a biblical faith, and by that, I simply mean, read the Bible and see what you should expect. Well soon you're like "Well, I don't know why, but my gosh, Paul got in..." You go through that whole list. "Jesus got... Oh yeah. All the disciples ended up martyred. I don't know why, but I know that this should be my expectation."
I think we do soft pedal that, no doubt to our detriment, because you're right. If you're expecting the other thing and you get the biblical thing, just what happens in the biblical histories and narratives, you're like, "Well, this isn't right." It's like, "Look, it may not be right by your extrapolation, but it certainly correlates with the experiences people really had."
John Marriott: Yeah. Let me go back to giving some concrete example of how to communicate that. My son is sick right now. He has a cough, cold, but no big deal, but we pray every night with our kids before they go to bed, and I try and take advantage of circumstances in their life. I will pray things like this, "Dear Lord, thank you that even though bad things will always come in our life, and that we live in a world that's broken, and that you don't always intervene and make life easy for us. We can trust that you're still good, and that you're loving, because you sent your son into the world, and he went through all of that for us. He gave his life for us, and so I ask that you'd help Cody as he goes through this experience, where he feels sick, and he's tired, and he's groggy, to remember that you're still good and that you've never promised him that bad things will never happen to him."
I don't explicitly sit him down and say that, but he hears that through our prayer, and we pray those things sort of enough. We try and pray theologically sound things that hopefully he'll pick up by osmosis.
Rick Langer: That becomes part of his expectations [crosstalk 00:24:48].
John Marriott: Exactly.
Tim Muehlhoff: I love having my students read Mere Christianity, right? Which is just a classic, and then they read, A Grief Observed. It's when Lewis lost his wife, and devastated, it devastated him. The questions he's asking are so freeing, that the great C. S. Lewis was asking these questions. Yeah. Questions that maybe you ask when a Canadian-based hockey team gets utterly destroyed in the Stanley Cup by a U.S.-based hockey team, the Tampa Bay Lightning, or as we call them, The Righteous.
Rick Langer: Let it go Tim. Let it go.
Tim Muehlhoff: Okay. Yes. Right. No, that was good. John Marriott, I wanted to try it, [inaudible 00:25:30], he's wearing the cap right now, and he in fairness is wearing a Canadian T-shirt
John Marriott: Hockey night in Canada. Hockey night in Canada, that's right.
Tim Muehlhoff: Hockey night in Canada. I grew up watching hockey night in Canada, John.
John Marriott: I wore it for you.
Tim Muehlhoff: Thanks.
John Marriott: Just like you wore that Detroit Red Wings hat for me.
Tim Muehlhoff: I did, in a bad way, [crosstalk 00:25:44] bad way.
Rick Langer: I hope the next time we have a podcast, it won't require having a purple Detroit Red Wings octopus on the table in front of me. I'm just expressing my hopes and desires.
Tim Muehlhoff: By the way Rick-
Rick Langer: Thank you for joining us for the Winsome Conviction podcast. It's great to have you along. We would highly recommend the books that John has written and you can find them... They're on Amazon and other places like that. Correct? On John Marriott. Just like the hotel version of Marriott.
John Marriott: Yeah. Also, I have a website, johnmarriott.org.
Rick Langer:Oh, great. Nice.
John Marriott: Two Rs, two Ts, johnmarriott, all one word,.org. Yeah, you can find some more information there.
Rick Langer: That is fantastic.
Tim Muehlhoff: Well, thank you for all the work you've done. I really do appreciate it.
John Marriott: Thanks for having me.
Rick Langer: You can always find us at thewinsomeconviction.com website or check us out at our podcasts. You can find it at Apple Podcasts, or Spotify, or wherever you find them. Thanks so much for joining us in this wonderful conversation.