A Feature Review of
Out of the Embers: Faith After the Great Deconstruction
Reviewed by Stephen Kamm
I struggled to find a church just after my divorce. Attending a large nondenominational congregation, with its exuberant expressions of faith, felt false. Small talk was agony and pieties fell from my mouth like rocks. On a whim, I decided to try a small church up the street from my favorite coffee shop. With its stone bell tower and slate roof, the simple, wood-shingled building looked serious yet unpretentious. It looked like a church should look, I thought, although I wasn’t entirely clear what I meant by should. “A Church in the Anglo-Catholic Tradition,” read its welcome placard. For a lifelong evangelical, it sounded just exotic enough to be interesting. Maybe, I reasoned, there would be fewer forced pleasantries. Maybe I could hide and absorb the faith of others.
The first time I walked through the door I was struck by a life-sized crucifix hanging over the chancel, a carved Christ broken on the cross. Behind it, light spilled from stained glass windows down stone walls and into dark wooden pews. The silence felt pregnant; important things happened here. I stayed in this congregation for six years, during which I shed an old way of worshiping – three songs, a sermon, announcements – and began to inhabit a liturgy: chanted psalms and incense filled processions, standing for the gospel and kneeling for confession, reciting creeds and canticles, bells and warm light and the host held high. Over time, these words and movements gave shape to the shattered pieces of my life, helping me worship with hope once again.
Many, perhaps most Christians will be familiar with this cycle of a faith deconstructed and rebuilt. Life happens. Faith’s building blocks – scripture, reason, and tradition – lose their solidity, or change shape, and efforts to mortar them together in new forms can be a challenge. For some, reconstruction may seem impossible: scripture becomes a book of old myths, reason cannot accept the inexplicable suffering of innocents, and tradition languishes, becoming hollow words and stale habits. To help Christians who are surrounded by the detritus of a faith deconstructed, Bradley Jersak, Dean of Theology at St. Stephen’s University in New Brunswick, Canada, has written Out of the Embers: Faith After the Great Deconstruction.
Jersak defines “The Great Deconstruction” as “the current wave of migration out of previous faith forms into a new understanding of God (for better or worse) and/or the mass exodus from faith altogether.” And he intentionally frames this migration as an antipode to “America’s two Great Awakening movements.” Something big is happening, he suggests, something “two centuries, five centuries, and two millennia” in the making. In order to understand “deconstruction as a great historic tradition and broader social phenomena,” he turns to seven “sleepers” – individuals in history who have posed the greatest challenge to faith or who offer unique answers to faith’s most vexing questions.
Why “sleepers”? Jersak suggests that his treatment of these figures – Moses, Plato, Voltaire, Soren Kierkegaard, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Simone Weil – parallels the Seven Sleepers of Ephesus, saints who were sealed into a cave during the Decian persecution after falling asleep there. As the legend goes, a Christian emperor awakened them with prayer centuries later, rejoicing at the “living evidence of the truth of the resurrection.” Jersak hopes his awakened “sleepers” will be of help to the faithful today.
His treatment of each figure contains multitudes. Take, for example, the chapter on Moses, titled “Into the Darkness, Into the Light: Agnostic Faith (From Moses to John of the Cross).” Jersak opens with God’s self-revelation on Mount Sinai, from which he concludes that “Judaism was and is the mother of apophatic religion.” He moves to Macrina the Younger’s via negativa, then to the “apophatic paradox” – how God may be revealed in negation. After a long exchange with his friend, the Orthodox Archbishop Lazar, on “uncreated energies,” Jersak offers a taxonomy of St. John of the Cross’s “Dark Night of the Soul,” and concludes with a nod to another friend’s suggestion that “a sharp dart of longing love” can break the cloud of unknowing.
Some “sleepers” are introduced to encourage the reader to look “unflinchingly” at faith’s strongest critics and see the truth in the critiques. Jersak hopes that doing so will winnow out the chaff of weak faith in order to arrive at the nourishing mustard seed of a strong faith. Believers need to “pay attention” to Voltaire, he argues, because “wherever people who say they love God continue to practice sectarian hatred . . . his prophetic indictment stands.” Likewise, Nietzche “makes us play out our deconstruction all the way out . . . all the way to the very bottom of the abyss,” where the Christian must discern whether faith is necessary to live well.
It’s an ambitious project. At times, the tour of these robust interlocutors of the Christian faith, undertaken in an effort to discern the antecedents to the current wave of deconstruction, reads like an intellectual history. Now the reader is drawn into an interpretation of Plato’s analogy of the cave, then taken through a treatment of Voltaire’s major works, next into Nietzche’s nihilism, in the midst of which are a few paragraphs on Christian existentialism. Each chapter is shot through with reflections on what that particular thinker, or school of thought, might mean for the person of faith today. In addition, Jersak offers stories – from his work as a pastor, or simply his experiences as a friend – in an attempt to show what he is trying to tell.
I found the process compelling and dizzying in equal measure. My marginalia includes repeated instances of “I need more here,” or, “this needs to be teased out,” reflecting both the weighty nature of the topics he introduces, and my desire to spend more time on them. For example, he suggests “co-suffering love” could anchor a faith unmoored. “Does not the crucified God demand that our ‘Where are you?’ move beyond the desperate (or cynical) rhetorical question into sincere inquiry, one that remembers to consider the cross?” If so, then, “your salvation is an epic, cross-bearing ascent, further up and further in with Christ.” Yes, I thought, that’s quite good, and yet even as he highlighted this theme multiple times, its call was muffled by the noise of other ideas, other topics, other thinkers.
To be sure, the breadth of Jersak’s efforts are pastoral in intent. “How we experience God’s love and light is my central concern,” he notes early in the book, and similar refrains pepper the text. He covers quite a bit of conceptual ground in an effort to offer clear guidance to the confused and struggling believer, which suggests a challenge for the book’s framing: Is it written as an intellectual primer for people of faith at any time, or is it, as the title suggests, a book for the current wave of those leaving traditional forms of faith?
Consider the following claim: “Surely, an objective, dispassionate assessment of much of the church today is that it has become mired in compromise and corrupted by politicization.” Aside from the fact that the statement begs for clarification, it suggests that Jersak sees a rot at the core of much of today’s church, and that Out of the Embers is an effort to identify that rot and suggest a path, or paths, forward. And yet, without flesh on the skeletons of this, and other, similar claims throughout the book, it’s impossible to tell whether and how the “sleepers” address the suggested problem.
As such, framing the phenomenon as the “Great Deconstruction” is more distracting than illuminating. Moreover, it’s unnecessary. Jersak is earnest and candid, often playful, as he marshals considerable intellectual resources to do the good work of helping people who are struggling with their faith. It is clear that he has great pastoral sensitivity, born from his own experience of a faith lost and rebuilt. There is real insight to be mined from the book, particularly in the final section when he moves away from the “sleepers” and presents portraits of the faithful who have lived through suffering and hardship and, finally, when he shares bits of his own faith, drawing upon his spiritual mentors in the Orthodox church.
In these chapters, there is less argument and more song. And music is essential for those who are trying to rebuild their faith. If, in the midst of deconstruction, faith is a song believers long to sing, we don’t learn to sing it again through music theory. We learn by joining in the great choir of fellow believers who are belting and bleating out a song half known and wholly hoped for. We learn by being immersed in the big, beautiful story of grace again and again, as I was many years ago in the rich liturgy of the Anglican tradition. There is music in Out of the Embers, some of it quite compelling, but it can be hard to hear through the volume of Jersak’s efforts to answer all of faith’s most challenging questions.
Reading for the Common Good
From ERB Editor Christopher Smith
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