Deconstructing in the Digital Age
It was media that undermined my faith, and media that helped me rebuild.
Note: I’m pleased to publish this guest post by my friend Ian Harber. You can read more from Ian at his Substack, “Back Again.”
I probably wouldn’t have deconstructed my faith if it wasn’t for YouTube. On the other hand, I don’t know if I would still be a Christian today if it weren’t for podcasts.
Growing up as an only child and experiencing tremendous suffering, I dove into my faith early looking for answers, meaning, and anything that could help me make sense of what I was experiencing.
I would come home after the final school bell rang and instead of hanging out with friends or doing homework, I would spend hours in my room watching YouTube videos of pastors, teachers, scholars, and scientists talking about the things I was wrestling with in my faith (this explains why I was terrible at school). I wanted answers and I knew someone had to have them.
One night I stumbled upon one of the original deconversion stories on YouTube. It was a series of twelve videos that chronicled the systematic deconstruction of someone’s faith from Christianity to atheism. At the time, it was more than my brittle faith could stand. My house of faith collapsed and I began a long journey through deconstruction.
My deconstruction was spurred along by many podcasts including, as I’ve written before, The Liturgists. I watched countless hours of talks from Pete Rollins, Rob Bell, Richard Rohr, and many more. I all but dropped out of my youth group and replaced my pastors with podcasters. I stopped trusting those who knew me in real life—my struggles, my propensities, my sorrows—and only trusted those who delivered spiritual goods to me in the form of .mp3s and .wav files.
Soon, however, the exact opposite path also took place. I knew my faith couldn’t be built solely on the critique of what is wrong with Christianity, but had to be built on the good, the true, and the beautiful. For all that might be good in regards to mystery and mysticism, I needed a sure and firm foundation to anchor my soul. I needed a real, bodily resurrection. I slowly but surely changed my media diet to include less The Liturgists and more Bible Project, less Rob Bell and more John Mark Comer, less Richard Rohr and more NT Wright. I realized that there was much of the Christian tradition I missed because I jumped straight from the fundamentalist environment I was raised in to the progressive side that has no use for institutions and sacred texts. My eyes were being opened—through media—to a way of being Christian that I never knew was possible.
This new media diet of mine made me hungry for more. The church I was attending, progressive and therapeutic, had no resources available for those wanting to grow in their faith. I had to enroll in a theological training program at a different church that was an hour-long drive from my house in order to begin a theological journey that would change my life. Ultimately, my faith would be rebuilt stronger than before and I now find myself a member of a local church.
It was media that took me out of the church and media that sent me back to the church.
It was media that undermined my faith and media that helped rebuild my faith.
It is impossible to understate—for better and for worse—the role of digital content in my faith.
Devices of Deconstruction
All of this was before “deconstruction” was part of the mainstream conversation in the church that it is today. Much of it was before most people even had an iPhone. In many ways, my story was a precursor for much of the way that tech and faith interplay with each other today.
Now, I make digital content for Christians full-time. I am on the other side of the screen from where I was all those years ago, partly because I know full well the power of media for discipleship. Our media diets have the power to form our faith and deform our faith. And the algorithms that feed us our content diet aren’t neutral. They know exactly what questions we’re asking, what life stage we’re in, what fears we have, where we live, and who on the internet is speaking to those things.
Every post you make, every like, every search, every time you linger for five seconds instead of two on a post, the algorithm registers your interest and feeds you more content like it. The doubts in our hearts are expressed through the movement of our fingertips and nothing we do on our screens is hidden from the algorithm. Our vulnerabilities are opportunities for rabbit holes of content we didn’t know existed to open like trap doors under our feet.
In Andy Crouch’s newest book, The Life We’re Looking For, he distinguishes between devices and instruments. Devices and instruments alike are akin to magic in that they expand our capacities and reduce our burdens. Bicycles, for instance, allow us to travel great distances with less effort and time than walking or running. Pianos allow us to play music that we couldn’t with our voices alone. These are instruments in that they expand our capacities, reduce our burdens but also still require something from the user. You can’t simply sit down at a piano one day and learn to play like Beethovan. You have to become the kind of person that can play the piano like Beethovan. With great power comes great responsibility.
But devices are different. They maximize the distance between power and character. Devices greatly expand capabilities while greatly reducing burdens. This is what computers and our smartphones do. We have instant access to nearly limitless knowledge, the ability to create almost anything we want, and all we have to do is tap our fingers a few times to conjure it—whatever it is—up on demand.
Crouch talks about how instruments and devices both make two promises to us:
● “Now you’ll be able to…”
● “You’ll no longer have to…”
These are wonderful uses of technology. But the wider the gap between the ability needed to use it and the power it gives you, there are two other promises that devices make that are unintended consequences of the first two promises.
● “You’ll no longer be able to…”
● “Now you’ll have to…”
In other words, while devices might give us expanded capabilities and reduced burdens, they also give us “restricted capabilities and enforced burdens”. You will be able to do more with less than before, but you’ll also have to do certain things within new limits that you didn’t have before. Our devices are both blessings and curses.
What does this mean for our faith when we have infinite access to spiritual content? What do we gain and what do we lose when devices become our primary mediator for spiritual content and facilitator of discipleship?
It might look something like this:
Now you’ll be able to access spiritual content from anywhere for free.
You’ll no longer have to pay for an expensive seminary education or rely solely on your local pastor for good teaching and instruction in the faith.
You’ll no longer be able to easily discern the difference between trusted, credible voices and those who are ill-informed or malicious.
Now you’ll have to choose who to trust more: your local church or the content you consume.
The ability to access quality spiritual content for free (like Samuel’s newsletter that you’re reading now) is an incredible innovation. Much like the printing press before it, it releases the riches of the faith from the spiritual elite and provides access to the priesthood of believers. For those who are in churches that are too small or immature to resource their people well, there’s an opportunity to learn from others anywhere in the world.
But we have also lost our capacity to trust our communities. Alternative facts don’t just exist in the political sphere, but in the religious sphere as well. Every heresy has a Bible verse and now those heresies are being fed as novelties to the faith-curious and institutional-skeptic on TikTok and Instagram. Loud nationalist propaganda is going viral among Boomers on Facebook powered by troll farms in foreign countries.
The Instrument of a Renewed Faith
That leaves us with a choice. Whom do we trust more? Our local church or the content that we consume? Social media has become the counterfeit-institution we turn to when we feel uncomfortable in our physical institutions. Many times the content that we consume highlights the abuses in the church. Many of us have been abused by the church in one way or another—myself included.
However, the media we consume isn’t the liberation we think it is. It will rapture us out of our communities, our place, our bodies, and into cyberspace leaving us without the very things that bring meaning to our lives. The answer isn’t to leave our communities for the safe haven of media, it is to embed ourselves into our communities more and push into the darkness to effect change.
The Catholic writer Ronald Rohleiser says, “Part of the very essence of Christianity is to be together in a concrete community, with all the real human faults that are there and the tensions that this will bring. Spirituality, for the Christian, can never be an individualistic quest, the pursuit of God outside of community, family, and church. The God of the incarnation tells us that anyone who says that he or she loves an invisible God in heaven and is unwilling to deal with a visible neighbor on earth is a liar since no one can love a God who cannot be seen if he or she cannot love a neighbor who can be seen.”
We are made of dust, not code. Content may supplement what we lack from our physical community, but it can never fill the wells that we drink from for meaning. We need church, the bread of the Word, the living water of Christ, and the fellowship of the Spirit in prayer. Even if you find yourself in a crisis of faith in the fires of deconstruction, our technology is not a neutral helper in the process. We must walk with trusted, wise guides, in a community of others who know us as real people, believing they will help us find the light when everything seems dark.
Ian Harber is a writer and works at Endeavor. He amplifies the messages of digital ministries through social media and building partnerships. He's been published by The Gospel Coalition, the Ethics and Religious Liberties Commission, and RELEVANT. He has an essay included in the book Before You Lose Your Faith: Deconstructing Doubt in The Church (TGC, 2021). Ian lives in Denton, TX with his wife Katie, and son Ezra. Follow him on Twitter.