The Spiritual Wasteland of Ex-Evangelicalism
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.’“
I began to lose food allergies. I stopped biting my nails. My ED symptoms went quiet. And wildest of all, I felt I had met the Divine Love that undergirds this universe for the first time and the billionth time all at once.
— Audrey Assad (@audreyassad) April 7, 2021
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.
A World Without Meaning
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 to 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 ex-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 machinations 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.” (emphasis 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.
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.
Deconstruction Often Leads to Deconversion
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.
Religious synthesis and spiritual DIY-ism is another feature of ex-evangelical belief. Take former worship leader Michael Gungor who, after his deconstruction, now identifies himself as an “Apophatic mystic Hindu pantheist Christian Buddhist skeptic with a penchant for nihilistic progressive existentialism.” This kind of religious patchwork blankets the exvangelical landscape. For example, Micah Murray blogged about the deconstruction of his faith in real-time before eventually chucking it. Now, Murray describes his beliefs this way:
I am a believer convinced of nothing. I am agnostic who doubts my own unbelief. We are fleeting flesh-organisms on a fleck of dirt in an infinite universe that is mostly cold and dark. Maybe God loves us very much. Maybe God doesn’t exist and we make all of this up so that we can get through one more meaningless spiral around our dying star. If there is a God out there at all, any energy force or divine spark or current of Love at the heart of the universe, I want to find it.
Despite Murray’s existential unsurety, he provides deconstruction coaching for those similarly in process. Then there’s Rose Rosetree, another ex-evangelical, who now appeals to others like herself who’ve left the Church, but are still seeking to fill that spiritual void. Rosetree offers classes in something called Energy Spirituality, which correlates to a “planetary shift” that occurred in 2012, launching us into an Age of Awakening. Using “innovative systems at the leading edge of mind-body-spirit,” she employs “aura reading,” something called “Psychic Coercion Removal,” “Soul Energy Awakening Hypnosis (a form of past-life regression),” and “Vibrational Re-Positioning.” Sadly, many exvangelicals have swapped their faith for a convoluted, self-styled mishmash of religious ephemera… and can coach you to do the same.
The Authority of Scripture
Tied closely to this is a denial or diminishment of the authority of Scripture. Tragically, Rachel Held Evans’ last book, published posthumously after her untimely death, focuses on the authority (or lack thereof) of Scripture. Evans was one of the early adopters of today’s exvangelical trend. In her book, she wrestles with stories of genocide, rape, and slavery in Scripture by concluding it’s a very man-made book. She writes, “What business do I have describing as ‘inerrant’ and ‘infallible’ a text that presumes a flat and stationary earth, takes slavery for granted, and presupposes patriarchal norms like polygamy?” Evans’ reduction of Scripture is shared by most post-evangelicals. The Red Letter Christians movement is over a decade old. Tony Campolo and Shane Claiborne came up with the idea in 2007. According to the “values” section under the “What is RLC?” tab, “the words of Jesus are authoritative and they provide the lens through which we understand the Bible.” In other words, Red Letter Christians position all of Scripture against the words of Christ. If what Paul or John or Moses taught appears to contradict Jesus, we are to side with the words in red. This, of course, has led to much debate about what Jesus actually said. Likewise, many exvangelicals assume a “pick and choose” posture to Scripture. This often takes the form of denying miracles. I learned this years ago in a brief exchange with Jay Bakker on Twitter in which the pastor denied that Jonah was actually swallowed by a whale and that Jesus actually walked on water. Some progressives employ this as an hermeneutical strategy, saying “Anything in the Bible that looks miraculous or contrary to the normal functions of the natural world is not factual, but rather is mythological.” Blake Chastain admits that it was in “biblical literature” courses in a Christian college that he began “questioning whether the Bible was inerrant.” This subversion of biblical authority — replaced typically by one’s individual interpretation — is status quo for ex-evangelicals. By under-cutting the authority of Scripture, many ex-evangelicals are free to construct a belief system of their own choosing.
Affirming Perversion of Human Sexuality
LGBTQ-affirmation is another foundational creed for ex-evangelicals. Jay Bakker, who abandoned his fundamentalist evangelical roots for progressivism, is now a vocal advocate for LGBTQ-inclusion in the Church. Joshua Harris, author of the book I Kissed Dating Goodbye, famously divorced his wife and announced that he was leaving Christianity. In a post at Instagram, Harris announced, “I have undergone a massive shift in regard to my faith in Jesus. The popular phrase for this is ‘deconstruction,’ the biblical phrase is ‘falling away.’ By all the measurements that I have for defining a Christian, I am not a Christian. Many people tell me that there is a different way to practice faith and I want to remain open to this, but I’m not there now.??” Shortly after this announcement, Harris tweeted from a LGBTQ Pride Parade in Vancouver. In 2016, popular evangelical women’s leader Jen Hatmaker announced that she now affirmed same-sex marriage, even referring to them as “holy.” Four years later she would announce that her daughter is gay. Such transitions — from affirming LGBTQ to identifying as LGBTQ — is not uncommon. For example, Christian children’s author Matthew Paul Turner recently announced that he was divorcing his wife of 16 years and coming out as gay. After “unlearning everything she was taught about family, gender, sex, love, motherhood, God, and Christianity,” popular Christian mommy blogger Glennon Doyle divorced her husband of 14 years and declared herself in love with another woman. Emily Joy is described as another influential voice in the exvangelical campaign. Her recently released book ChurchToo chronicles incidents of sexual abuse and mysogynism in evangelical churches. Following her faith deconstruction, Joy also came out as a lesbian. Chrissy Stroop is also considered one of the early leaders in the #exvangelical movement. Before her deconstruction, she was called Chris Stoop and identified as a biological male. She has been called the #exvangelical movement’s “prophetic voice.” LGBTQ affirmation, inclusion, and/or identification is often central to the exvangelicals’ new profession of faith.
Connections With the Occult
As if that weren’t enough, another thread woven through the exvangelical web is its drift towards occultism. For example, Kevin Garcia wrote the book “Bad Theology Kills,” which one reviewer described as the author “guid[ing] their readers through the process of creating a life-giving theology of their own.” In this podcast, Garcia is favorably described as a “digital pastor,” a “queer theologian,” a “witch,” a “tarot card reader,” an “intuitive soul coach,” and identified by the pronouns “they/their”. As you can guess, the “bad theology” that Garcia describes is, basically, historic Christianity. Tarot cards seem to be a thing with ex-evangelicals. Like MJ Corkern whose Twitter bio describes her as both a “Tarot Reader” and “ExEvangelical.”
“…progressive millennials have appropriated the rhetoric, imagery, and rituals of what was once called the ‘New Age’—from astrology to witchcraft—as both a political and spiritual statement of identity.”
In her essay “The Rise of Progressive Occultism,” Tara Isabella Burton concludes that “progressive millennials have appropriated the rhetoric, imagery, and rituals of what was once called the ‘New Age’ — from astrology to witchcraft — as both a political and spiritual statement of identity.” Burton writes:
Progressive occultism—the language of witches and demons, of spells and sage, of cleansing and bad energy, of star and signs—has become the de facto religion of millennial progressives: the metaphysical symbol set threaded through the worldly ethos of modern social justice activism. Its rise parallels the rise of the religious ‘nones,’ and with them a model of spiritual and religious practice that’s at once intuitional and atomized. Twenty-three percent of Americans call themselves religiously unaffiliated, a number that spikes to 36 percent among millennials (Trump’s white evangelical base, by contrast, only comprises about 17 percent of Americans). But tellingly, few among this demographic identify as atheists or agnostics. A full 72 percent of “nones” say they believe in God, or at least some kind of nebulously defined Higher Power; 17 percent say they believe in the Judeo-Christian God of the Bible. Suspicious of institutions, authorities, and creeds, this demographic is less likely to attend a house of worship, but more likely to practice the phenomenon Harvard Divinity School researchers Casper ter Kuile and Angie Thurston have termed ‘unbundling’: a willingness to effectively ‘mix and match’ spiritual, ritualistic, and religious practices from a range of traditions, divorced from their original institutional context.
This “mixing and matching” of spiritual practices includes everything from practicing Buddhist meditation, to reading Tarot cards, to cleansing one’s apartment with sage, to attending Shabbat dinners.
In her article in The Atlantic on the growing trend of “black witchcraft,” Sigal Samuel notes, “Young black women are leaving Christianity and embracing African witchcraft in digital covens.” She writes about what some consider a possible synthesis of Christianity and witchcraft:
While some witches told me they were finished with Christianity, others said they still attend church, and argued that Christianity and African witchcraft are complementary, not mutually exclusive. As Omitola put it, “The Bible ain’t nothing but a big old spell book.”
Jeanna Kadlec divorced her husband and broke from evangelicalism at the age of 25. “In Brooklyn, she discovered tarot, astrology, and witchcraft, with it a world of queer women who also wanted to practice spirituality in a new way and enjoy the freedom of making decisions for themselves.” One exvangelical has even published An Introduction to Witchcraft for Exvangelicals. The author describes the book as, “An easy-to-read, relatable book about deconstructing fears around witchcraft for former Christians who want to learn introductory rituals and magical concepts.”
Unanchored in the Faith, Adrift in the Current of the Age
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.”
Mike Duran is a novelist, blogger, construction worker and former pastor. Find his books and blog at mikeduran.com.
Originally published at mikeduran.com. Reprinted with permission.