Moore to the Point
Hello, fellow wayfarers. American evangelicalism is deconstructing all around us, but what if there’s more than one way to deconstruct? … Why you might think you’re losing your faith when you’re just burning out … How to know what you’re good at … And desert island music … This is this week’s Moore to the Point.
Russell Moore
There’s More than One Way to Deconstruct

With all the talk of deconstruction these days, one key problem is that very few people mean exactly the same thing when they use the word. For some people, to deconstruct is to lose faith altogether—to become atheists or agnostics or spiritual-but-not-religious “nones.” For others, to deconstruct is to continue to believe in Jesus but to struggle with the ways that religious institutions have failed. And for still others, to deconstruct means to maintain an ongoing commitment to orthodox Christianity and a robust commitment to the church but without the cultural/political baggage of whatever’s called evangelicalism.

These completely divergent meanings might suggest that the word deconstruction doesn’t communicate any one specific thing without a great deal of qualification. (Come to think of it, that’s true of the term evangelical these days as well.) Yet that doesn’t mean deconstruction is a smaller phenomenon than we think.

As a matter of fact, I think the case could be made that, in some sense, all of American evangelical Christianity is deconstructing. It’s just that there’s more than one way to deconstruct.

At one level, we can say that deconstruction is happening in terms of institutions. A few weeks ago, someone asked me what percentage of churches or ministries I thought were divided by the political/cultural tumults we see ripping through almost every facet of American life. I answered, “All of them—100 percent.” I wasn’t saying that every church is in conflict; many aren’t. I was saying that even the churches and ministries that are not descending into warfare know they are not and are therefore looking around with vigilance, wondering what could be the one word said, the one event scheduled, to set it all off.

But beyond that, at the level of individuals and leaders, we are perhaps unaware that the people who are doubting or scandalized or traumatized by what they’ve seen in the church do not constitute the most dangerous form of deconstruction. A different, much more threatening form of deconstruction is actually what could destroy us.

I always thought of the word burnout as a rather banal way of communicating exhaustion from overwork. “Make sure you take a vacation,” one might say. “You don’t want to burn out.”

But in his new book, The End of Burnout, Jonathan Malesic argues that burnout is something else entirely: “the experience of being pulled between expectation and reality at work.” To illustrate his point, he uses the metaphor of walking on stilts.

Stilt walking, Malesic writes, compares to the experience of holding both one’s ideals and the reality of one’s job together. When the two are aligned, a person can hold the stilts together and move forward. That doesn’t mean it’s easy, but it’s possible, and the person can walk. But when the two are misaligned—when the ideals and the reality are radically different—the person finds different ways to cope, all of which lead to a kind of burnout.

Some people, Malesic argues, might cling to their ideals while the reality swings away from them. In this case, his point is that our expectations of our work and careers are too high. We expect them to give us meaning and purpose in life, which they cannot deliver.

In the case of Christianity, though, the metaphor has clear limits, because we have expected not too much but too little of the church. The church is meant to shape our character and, if not to grant meaning to our life, to point us—through worship and mission and teaching—toward that meaning.

The incongruity of a kind of Christianity that does not even aspire to the holiness, love, gentleness, Christlikeness, mind renewal, and burden bearing that we see in the New Testament often leads those who see “behind the veil” to the point of exhaustion. Some may even start to question whether they were lied to all along.

For some, Malesic contends, the stilt walking falters when they ignore the reality and hold on to their ideals anyway.

This is the sort of coping mechanism we see in those who wave away the current crisis in the church by saying, “Well, think of all the good things happening” or “Most people aren’t like that” or “The church will never be made up of perfect people.” Those things are easy to believe because there’s a sense in which they are all true. But often, in times like these, what the people really mean is “Don’t talk about these matters in public; we can handle them on our own in private. We don’t want to give Jesus a bad reputation.”

Jesus never asks his church to protect his reputation this way: by covering up “in his name” whatever is communicating something that is wrong or allegedly dangerous.

But more than that, as Malesic points out in the workplace context, the “if we don’t talk about it, it will go away” mentality cannot hold. If our moral ideals are strong but we reassure ourselves with a false vision of reality, we will end up seeing through our own illusions—and others certainly will.

When that happens, the end result is a different kind of burnout: frustration. We start to despair that anything will or can eventually be done.

Yet the most dangerous form of deconstruction is what’s happening in the lives of people who would never consider themselves anywhere close to deconstructing. Many of them still seem to believe what they’ve always believed, still belong to or lead the same institutions they always have. And they often heatedly denounce those who are deconstructing or asking questions about why so much awful fruit has emerged from systems and institutions thought to be godly and trusted and “confessional.” For some of these people, there’s an entirely different kind of deconstruction, a different form of burnout.

Malesic argues that this form of burnout happens when one’s ideals and reality are so divergent that, having to choose one stilt to cling to, the person abandons the ideals in favor of the reality.

At first, the person can find all sorts of reasons why the ideals were too unrealistic, even if this totally contradicts what he or she has said before. In this person’s view, those who expect the church to live up to what Jesus demanded of it are “currying favor with elites” or “not realistic about how the world works” or “not seeing what’s at stake if we don’t circle the wagons around ‘the base.’”

Following such a strategy leads to depersonalizing people. And this leads to cynicism.

When the institution—or the movement or the cause or the theology or, even worse, their own positions or platforms—is all that’s left, such people have torn down in themselves the very character needed to protect and build those institutions. Even worse, they are deadened to the sort of conscience needed to hear the call to repent.

One can be a hack easily enough in the marketplace or in the political arena. But year after year of playing to whatever “the base” wants or expects from the church of Jesus Christ does something not just to the institution, not just to the lives of those harmed, but also to the souls of those playing the game.

Once people have whittled their moral principles down to only what is useful in maintaining their own places of belonging, … well, they have deconstructed, and not in the positive sense of the term. They have deconstructed themselves.

As we watch evangelicalism in the United States deconstructing in various ways, I wonder if what we should seek is not to avoid burnout but to want the right kind. After all, God seems to work the most miraculously at the point of our frustration and helplessness and even despair.

The prophet Elijah was not crazy to believe that he had was in a hopeless situation. The people of God were captive to idols and to vicious, predatory, narcissistic leadership. Elijah had to get to the point where he could hear God saying, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” (1 Kings 19:9).

John the Baptist was not asking something unreasonable when he sent his disciples to Jesus, saying, “Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?” (Luke 7:20).

And it was when the disciples on the road to Emmaus said of the recently crucified Jesus, “We had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel” (Luke 24:21) that their traveling companion, Jesus himself, revealed that their hopes were met in ways they couldn’t have imagined ahead of time.

The question is not whether we will deconstruct but what we will deconstruct. Will it be the wood, hay, and stubble that is destined to burn up and burn out (1 Cor. 3:12–13)? Or will it be our own souls?

Sometimes those we think are deconstructing are just grieving and asking God where he is in a moment like this. That’s happened before.

And some who are confident and certain, who are scanning the boundaries for heretics, have in reality given up belief in the new birth, in the renewal of the mind, and in the judgment seat of Christ. All that is left, then, is an orthodoxy grounded not in a living Christ but in a cultivated brand.

That may be the saddest deconstruction of all.

How Do You Know What You’re Good At?

Last week, I was recording with my friend Todd Hunter, an Anglican bishop and the head of the church-planting network Churches for the Sake of Others, and he asked a question I didn’t know how to answer.

He referenced something that I do all the time in my ministry—I can’t remember what it is right now—and asked, “At what age did you realize you could do that?”

I thought for a minute and concluded, “I’m still not sure I can do that.”

I’ve thought about this some more because it’s a question people ask all the time: How do we discover where our particular gifts or talents lie so that we know how to put them to use for the church or the world? This assumes, though, that it works that way: We figure out what we can do and then do it. But it usually doesn’t look like that.

I consider myself profoundly untalented and ungifted. I’m sure part of that comes from comparing myself to others with greater and more remarkable gifts. And I’m sure some of it is what we call imposter syndrome. But a good deal of it, for all of us, is probably the fact that we know ourselves only from the inside out.

The things we are gifted to do—even those things we work hard to cultivate—just seem normal to us, while other people’s gifts seem so difficult as to be extraordinary. We look at other people’s gifts and assume that there’s a remarkable origin story where they suddenly went from having no inclination to having some ability.

I wish that I could write songs—or even that I could in any way read or understand music—but I can’t. To me it all seems algebraic (which, in my view, is a synonym for incomprehensible).

You don’t really need to figure out “Here are the things I’m good at” before you can cultivate those things. Find ways to serve people in ways that seem normal to you. Over time, you’ll find what it is in you that the rest of the world needs. And you’ll almost never be impressed with it, because in your eyes, it will never be as extraordinary as what someone else can do in ways you never could.

Desert Island Playlist

This week’s submission comes from reader Josh Cromwell, who said he will probably think of things he will wish he’d included, but if he waited for the playlist to be perfect, he’d never send it.

Josh’s music choices for a desert island:

1. “Bohemian Rhapsody” (Queen): This is one of my favorite songs ever, just because it has a little of everything yet it somehow all works together brilliantly. Plus, it would be a great song to sing along to while stranded on an island.

2. “He Stopped Loving Her Today” (George Jones): Not only the greatest country music song ever written in my opinion, but one of the best songs ever written of any genre. The way George builds and pays off the story in this song is absolutely masterful.

3. “October Sky” (Yebba): This isn’t the Yebba song that most moves me—that would be “Paranoia Purple,” but that song is just too heart-wrenching to hear over and over while stranded on an island. Not that this one is exactly happier, but the nostalgic feel and Yebba’s impeccable vocals make this one the choice for me.

4. “Superstition” (Stevie Wonder): I absolutely cannot sit still when this song comes on. At the very least, my toe’s gonna start tapping involuntarily. Another song that would help lighten the mood on some of those harder days. And Stevie’s talent is just unrivaled.

5. “If We Were Vampires” (Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit): This might be my favorite love song, precisely because of its sheer honesty. Jason Isbell captures the fact that one of the things that makes a marriage so precious is the temporality of it. And that maybe, just maybe, that can make us appreciate and cherish it all the more, because as he says (and Jesus affirms when pointing out that there is no marrying or giving in marriage in heaven), it can’t go on forever.

6. “It’s Quiet Uptown” (Cast of Hamilton): “Forgiveness, can you imagine?” The lyric pretty much says it all. A powerful portrayal of the nature of true forgiveness even in the face of tremendous betrayal and personal tragedy. Alexander may get all the press, but it’s the grace and determination of a faith lived well that really allows Eliza Hamilton to steal the show.

7. “Jolene” (Dolly Parton): This song doesn’t get enough credit for how unique it is. Virtually every country song of that era that dealt with cheating involved either a brutal takedown of the person the spouse was cheating with or kicking the cheating spouse to the curb. Dolly takes a completely different route and pleads with the would-be adulteress to stand down. Incredible. (Plus, as the kids would say, that guitar lick totally slaps.)

8. “Sweet Baby James” (James Taylor): This would be a perfect song to end the day. Being alone on a desert island would be a lot like being a cowboy sleeping alone in the canyons, and as lullabies go, singing this one works just fine for me.

9. “At Last” (Etta James): Another oldie but goodie. It grabs you from the first note and holds you till the very end. And that voice! Absolutely spectacular.

10. “The Silence of God” (Andrew Peterson): I may be breaking the rules here, and if so, feel free to leave it off. But I couldn’t leave it off this list. This song is like an anchor on the darkest days as it reminds us that (a) Jesus is deeply familiar with our sorrows and griefs and (b) the aching may remain but the breaking does not. That’s a good word for someone stranded on a desert island, and it’s a good word for us wherever we are.

Thanks, Josh!

What do you think?

If you were stranded on a desert island and could have only one playlist or one bookshelf with you for the rest of your life, what songs or books would you choose?

  • For a Desert Island Playlist, send me a list of up to 12 songs, excluding hymns and worship songs. (We’ll cover those later.)

  • For a Desert Island Bookshelf, send me a list of up to 12 books. If possible, include one photo of all the books together.

Send your list to, and include as much or as little explanation of your choices as you would like.

Quote of the moment

Knowing God without knowing our own wretchedness makes for pride. Knowing our own wretchedness without knowing God makes for despair. Knowing Jesus Christ strikes the balance because he shows us both God and our own wretchedness.

—Blaise Pascal

Currently Reading

Marc Eliot, The Hag: The Life, Times, and Music of Merle Haggard (Hachette)

Chuck Klosterman, The Nineties: A Book (Penguin)

Jeremy W. Peters, Insurgency: How Republicans Lost Their Party and Got Everything They Ever Wanted (Crown)

Robert W. Jenson, Canon and Creed (Westminster John Knox)

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