Deconstructing Deconstruction: Jersak’s Chronicle of Spiritual Detox

Jersak is the Director of Theology & Culture and the Principal at St. Stephen’s University, New Brunswick and teaches peace theology at the Institute for Religion, Peace, and Justice. He is editor of some journals, writes novels, has three sons, a Czech background, and is currently age 58. His wife Eden is pastor at The Bridge, Abbotsford and they go their separate ways Sunday mornings. “We carry the division in the body of Christ in our marriage as intercession,” he explains.

“The Word of God is inspired, inerrant, and infallible. And when he was about eighteen years old, he grew a beard.” 

This is one of Dr. Brad Jersak’s favourite provocative lines, which he uses to expound on a key text: “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; it is these that testify about Me” (John 5:39). Put differently, the Word of God must be deconstructed to be more than a book. It’s Jesus of Nazareth.

Growing up a dispensationalist Baptist on the Canadian prairie, he meddled with Calvinism during seminary, then sojourned as a pastor with the Mennonites while doing some dabbling in charismatic inner-healing practises, after which he led a church plant called Fresh Wind in Abbotsford, B.C. Then his world shattered, and he has been rebuilding a new life and theology ever since, now within the Eastern Orthodox tradition. 

He is one of the key Canadian voices when it comes to the notion of faith deconstruction, and he’s just published his 18th (or so) book entitled Out of the Embers: The Great Deconstruction this past fall. Angela Bick and I interviewed him for our own forthcoming book on deconstructing Canadians with New Leaf Press. He gave us a friendly, personal, and at times poignant conversation about his de/reconstruction with Jesus, “history’s all-time, hinge-point proponent and practitioner of de/reconstruction.”

“I didn’t ‘do’ deconstruction. It did me. Or rather, it undid me.”

  • Brad Jersak, p. 63.

He doesn’t give a succinct definition for deconstruction, but rather emphasizes its necessity, its complexity, and both its liabilities and possibilities. He isn’t stingy with his metaphors for deconstruction, and they include renovation, detox, extreme makeover, pilgrimage, enlightenment and “a prison break from religious bondage.” But all of them, for Jersak at least, entail a deep connection to God and the church. This is not a story of deconversion, of leaving Christian faith and practise behind. It’s an intensification of that faith.

At heart he’s talking about deconstruction as a re-conversion. “Our experiences of exodus, of awakening, of letting go, of transformation, of metamorphosis, and so forth, represent a familiar path—a spiritual tradition—believe it or not—that we find at the very heart of the Christian story and echoed through the lives and testimonies of the saints.” This is symbolized in baptism—our dying to a false self and rising to a resurrected life.

Deconstruction as Excruciating

One thing for sure: Jersak is not endorsing deconstruction as a sweet spiritual pastime or as cool triumphalistic revenge on the religious right. For Jersak, deconstruction is excruciating, a harrowing affair that brings one to the edge of despair and meaninglessness. It’s a journey of spiritual peril, and if endorsed to an angst-ridden Christian, it must come with a stern warning label.

“As a Canadian I was watching a lot of my American friends become so disillusioned with Trumpist evangelicalism that they were part of a mass exodus from the churches,” he explained. First they left the church, then they let go of Jesus, and finally they gave up on love. “Love doesn’t work,” they said and exchanged it for a retributive justice. “Which marks them as having left one ideology and picked up another without changing the spirit of it.”

He’s critical of just any old deconstruction of faith. The hazards that come with dismantling your religious imagination are not to be trifled with. Jersak explains: “I had friends who were influencers in the deconstruction movement and I saw them really cheering them along, those who were deconstructing and saying yeah, #empty the pews.” Meanwhile Jersak notes some of these weary souls “not only lost faith but lost meaning in life and I’m talking psych wards and such. It was a false bill of goods. I’m not about herding them back into churches. But Its complex. For some it can be liberating.”

For others, he warns, its not simply liberating. In fact, one of his analogies explains deconstruction as a mastectomy. “That’s what it was for me,” he says. “Like, ‘I know a cancer has to go, but I didn’t know how much of me I was going to lose in this.’” De/reconstruction can be trauma.

Theological Detox

Deconstruction has been both personal and intellectual for Jersak, and his book dances between seeing deconstruction as breaking free from a constrictive belief system and as a colossal psychic collapse. The theological reconstruction has taken years and has been liberating, while the personal deconstruction has been more acute and harrowing. 

His theological deconstruction has included dismantling his own previous passionate defense of penal substitutionary atonement (PSA) and eternal conscious torment (ECT), both of which crumbled as he critiqued his own inheritance of a wrathful, violent and retributive God. This shift also entailed a transformation of his ego and performance-oriented, rationalistic self. As his life was “bulldozed to bedrock,” what was inscribed in the bedrock below was the words “God is good.”

God must be good if we are to worship him.

His theological work promotes a Jesus-centred hermeneutic of love and mercy, which champions a nonviolent atonement, ultimate redemption (not quite universalism), peace-building, and deconstruction. He and his pastor-wife have also becoming affirming of same-sex marriage—as the ethical outcome of a theology of a loving and caring God who welcomes all to the banquet table. But he is clear that such affirmation is not simply adopting a progressive ideology. Not at all. It’s all rooted in a theology of what Christ has done.

Of late, he has published a trilogy aimed at reconstructing a faith centred in merciful, forgiving deity modelled on Jesus: A More Christlike God (2015), A More Christlike Way (2019)and A More Christlike Word (2021). His books don’t read like a theological treatise, though.

In a way, his latest book offers some of the background to this trilogy—some of the personal journey along with the philosophical framework that gives it existential depth.

The book is a collage of conversations, lectures, sermons, correspondence—almost every chapter has documentation of an exchange he has had with a friend, a student, a reader, a priest, or—the real core of the book—the “seven sleepers”—his seasoned historical guides to deconstruction: Moses, Plato, Voltaire, Kierkegaard, Dostoevsky, Nietzsche, and Simone Weil. The book is engaging if not a little dizzying at times, as he jumps from conversation to conversation and metaphor to metaphor, drawing from emails, church fathers, existentialists, and scripture. 

Personal Meltdown

Jersak also underwent a personal deconstruction—what he calls a meltdown—about 14 years ago, and he is still in recovery. He is deliberately vague about what exactly happened here, but he says it involved being overwhelmed by other people’s tragedies as a pastor, burning out, crossing a relational boundary that caused significant hurt and shame, and ultimately, falling into a deep, dark pit of suicidal ideation. It was a kind of hell which he could not climb out of on his own.

It was in the agony of the pit, however, where God met him. He quotes Stanislav Jerzy Lec: “When I thought I had reached the bottom, a knock came from below.” Jersak interprets this knock as Christ, the wounded God, who has always gone deeper into the pit than us. This is the God who meets us in our hell—the worst of the human condition—and takes us by the hand.

Our Zoom interview with Brad Jersak in fall 2022.

Angela Bick and I interviewing Brad Jersak on Zoom.

The book title “Out of the Embers” is a testament to his own experience. What follows deconstruction—typically its called reconstruction—is a misnomer for him. It is not a rebuilding of the self, nor is it repair. It is a miraculous resurrection, phoenix-like, from the ashes. It is a divine miracle.

That a profound personal crisis triggers deconstruction is not unusual. What is exceptional with Jersak is that those deconstructing are more likely to say the perpetrator of their pain and trauma was some aspect of the church: whether is a revelation of pastoral abuse, unethical actions of a church board, dogmatic insistence on something like 6-day creation, the endorsement of Donald Trump, or rigid traditional sexual ethics. But in Jersak’s personal deconstruction, he was the problem that triggered his own unravelling and spiritual vertigo. It was the church that embraced him, forgave him, and helped him on his healing journey.

Note that Jersak’s website names his accountability team and he isn’t ashamed to talk of his 12-step addiction recovery, or that he calls his sponsor when temptation looms. He writes not because he is all better, nor because the journey is complete and stabilized. The struggle continues.

Deconstruction as Cultural Arson

His subtitle, “Faith After The Great Deconstruction” is a reference to what he calls in his book the “current wave of migration out of previous faith forms into new understandings of God” and/or “the great migration out of faith altogether.” This massive “upheaval of status quo belief systems” is of such magnitude that is deserves the descriptor “Great”—like the Great Reformation or the Great Awakening. In sum, deconstruction is both a “nervous breakdown” and “cultural collapse.”

He’s not the only one to suggest we are undergoing a siesmic cultural/religious shift. Consider Phyllis Tickle’s The Great Emergence, The Great De-Churching by Graham, Davis and Burge, and Alan Roxburgh’s The Great Unraveling. Andrew Root uses the title The Crisis of Decline. Something big is going down.

“We are in an age that is undoing old constructs at breakneck speed,” Jersak writes. But he is no enthusiastic salesman for such dismantling, even as much of it is necessary.

“I’m a deconstructionist helping deconstructionists deconstruct their deconstruction,” he told us. “I’m saying I’m not attacking it, but saying let’s actually do this thing, work it through. My agenda being that I don’t want anyone to deconvert.”

Brad Jersak

He is even more critical in his book. In his exegesis of Dostoevsky’s The Possessed he sees modern ideological obsession as comparable to Biblical demonic possession. “Liberal and progressive idealists become so disillusioned with their failed utopian hopes and so possessed by the smell of smoke and blood that destruction becomes an end in itself,” he writes. “Deconstruction devolves into cultural arson. When protests and pamphlets and lobbying fail to bring about the justice we demanded, someone lights a fire. Liberal utopian overreach is exposed… when any social revolution realizes that its dreams are doomed but continues the revolution for its own sake… deconstruction is destruction.”

This is the “burn it all down” mentality that made hell across Russia for a century. This is the nihilism that awaits at the end of modern progress’s failed promises.

Jersak’s conclusion: ideology will not save you, capitalism or communism, nor even deconstruction. “Wherever ordinary people—as unholy and afflicted as we are—open our hearts to see the pain beneath another’s sin and shed a tear in humble solidarity, we become participants in God’s grace, agents in their salvation and ours as well.”  Jersak champions co-suffering love as the Christian’s true gift in Christ.

Missing Indigenous People

One curious element in this book: in the ruins of the Western church, the road to reconstruction is said to follow the lead of the disenfranchised, those who “have not lost the plot” and who retain proximity to the cross. A whole chapter presents “radical empathy” for the struggle of black people in the United States of America. But there is barely mention of the need for truth and reconciliation with Canadian indigenous people. It’s mentioned more in passing in this book.

This American focus may relate to the choice of an American publisher, no doubt, but Jersak lives just down the highway from Kamloops, British Columbia, and the mass unmarked graves of indigenous children cried out as he wrote the book in 2021. Deconstruction for both Canadians and Americans must have a connection to decolonization if it is to be truly more than a personal disillusionment and recovery. Deconstruction must be a reckoning with our past failures as a church and reconstruction must include some participation in Truth and Reconciliation in this country. Jersak knows this, but it’s not fully conscious in the book.

Communion with Presence

Ultimately it is the co-suffering love of God that met Jersak at the bottom of his pit of despair and its what he gleans from his tour of the “seven sleepers”—his seven prophetic guides. Notably, the philosopher who championed the term deconstruction, the Jewish African Jacques Derrida, is not on the list.

What is common to all these prophets is that they all chaffed against society—the dominant culture of their day, whether they called it Christendom, the establishment, the herd, the crowd, or communist/capitalist ideology. In any case, some precious and pernicious social idol became rigid, unyielding and oppressive and these figures resisted and decried their political or ecclesiastical social control.

So make no mistake: deconstruction can liberate people from a rigid system that has outlived its usefulness.

What I find remarkable is that of the seven sleepers, only Moses and Dostoevsky were married, and Dostoevsky is known to have had affairs. This freedom from matrimony and children, I suspect, gave them more time to think and write, and it also suggests they were supreme individuals who did not struggle with the faithfulness that covenant intimacy—and a brood of children—demand. This undeniable pattern needs some unpacking.

The book relies heavily on existentialist philosophy, and we know one of its prime proponents, Jean Paul Sartre, famously said, “Hell is other people.” A long obedience in the same direction–with the same group of people–has become a rare accomplishment in our highly mobile society. Our research shows deconstruction is often not just a spiritual disruption–it’s a painful process of extracting oneself from a community that no longer feels like a home in which one can flourish and grow.

Jersak’s existentialist heart is fruitful for understanding the angst of being human, the absurdity of our existence, and the many foibles of our collective life. But existentialism is a radically individualist creed, and while Jersak is aware of this weakness, he doesn’t fully elaborate on the centrality of covenant in a Jesus-centred life. Deconstruction often leaves one sorely bereft. As Jersak makes clear, many who deconstruct are not only left in loss and despair, but they are deeply lonely.

Expressivist individualism is the most prominent idolatry in the West. We worship the Big Me, as David Brooks calls it, the sovereign self. While oppressive social structures are certainly necessary to dismantle, the freed individual is often left alone in the ruins. Jersak is right to deconstruct deconstruction. We must enter the wilderness of our transformation, but it’s not healthy wander alone in the desert for too long.

Heaven can be other people…

We need to reconstruct and somehow redeem our approach to the church, God’s covenant people, and Jersak can be a guide for this journey. “I was not, in fact, creeping off the end of a flimsy limb,” says Jersak about his deconstruction. “I was climbing down the trunk into the very roots of the historic apostolic faith… My church didn’t abandon me, betray me, or drive me out. In fact, they blessed my adventures…”

The book ends with the dual possibilities of human extinction on a ravaged planet or the gradual unfurling of the kingdom of God in human cooperation and conservation. Jersak’s Orthodox Church’s guides interpret the latter as “the commonwealth of presence in communion” which is manifest in such things as spiritual friendship. So while the world unravels, the kingdom simultaneously unfurls. The reality is, we desperately need to reconstruct a more healthy community covenant in the West. Ultimately, heaven is other people, in co-suffering love, following the cultural mandate to reweave social structures in which everyone can flourish. The church, at its faithful best, can be a signpost for that spiritual journey to be agents of renewal.

Out of the Embers is an accessible book, at times raw in its experience of deconstruction, that offers both a warning and encouragement to those being refined in the fires of such a (hopefully) transformative spiritual experience.

QUOTES From the Book Out of the Embers

“My idea of God is not a divine idea. It has to be shattered time after time. He shatters it himself.” C. S. Lewis, A Grief Observed, 1961.

The book ends with a benediction from Metropolitan Kallistos Ware: “True faith is a constant dialogue with doubt, for God is incomparably greater than all our preconceptions about him; our mental concepts are idols that need to be shattered. So as to be fully alive, our faith needs continually to die.”

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