Burning Down the House of Fear with Brian Zahnd


Photo by Mike Newbry on Unsplash

‘Deconstruction’ is a popular term in conversations among church leaders these days. Only when deconstruction is invoked, we’re not talking French intellectual movements; it’s more to do with reassessing the received faith of our childhood and sorting out what resources are still there for life as an adult. In other words it’s what we used to call ‘growing up.’

Some people find that their church experience was so wounding or involved so much cognitive dissonance that they have left the church behind altogether. Others see the opportunity for a new kind of faith that draws on the hard wisdom of their experience and the fruit of new critical tools to do a ‘renovation’ that blossoms into a new, liberating connection to God.

Brian Zahnd is one of those.

There have been some prominent examples of people going through public reckonings with their own churches. Rachel Held Evans, before her tragic death at age 37 in 2019, spoke for a generation of people looking for a more expansive and open definition of evangelicalism. Beth Moore, the popular Southern Baptist Bible teacher, has recently made a move, it seems, to Anglicanism due to her disappointment with the political turn of her denomination and its discouragement of women in leadership. Both women felt the scorn of certain segments of the evangelical establishment.

Zahnd is not so prominent, but he also conducted his renovation in full sight of the church he founded in St. Joseph, Missouri—Word of Life. The long-time pastor and writer left behind a faith formed by fundamentalism and moved to something with deeper roots and more contemporary awareness. He offers his experience as a witness to the possibilities of holding onto faith in his new book When Everything’s on Fire: Faith Forged From the Ashes.

“Is it possible to hold on to Christian faith in an age of unbelief?” Zahnd asks early on. “The answer is yes!…There are also trustworthy guides who can say with Fyodor Dostoevsky, ‘I believe in Christ and confess him not like some child; my hosanna has passed through an enormous furnace of doubt.’” (23)

The guide Zahnd leans on the most is Søren Kierkegaard, the 19th century Danish philosopher famous for his belief that one must take a “leap of faith” in order to find a credible Christianity in the modern age. Zahnd wants to tweak that phrase based on his own translation. He feels that the decision to follow Jesus is a decision to act in a particular direction—a leap to faith. “Christian faith is the decision to act in imitation of Jesus Christ because in your heart you know this is right.” (114)

A statement like this hits the modern era as a kind of circular reasoning or an irrational dependence on feeling. Zahnd can take you through all the intellectual paces to show how he arrives here, (and he does, rehearsing the stories of the “masters of skepticism”—Nietzsche, Freud, and the like). But in the end he argues for the truth of the mystic. “I’m all for theology,” he says, “but no matter how pristine our theological knowledge of God may be, it is not a substitute for actually experiencing God.” (137)

Zahnd is a fountain bubbling with resources for thinking about faith from philosophy to Russian literature to art. He’s also pretty accessible. You think you’d like to sit down with him and share a coffee or something stronger and talk about many things.

What he hopes for, though, is an engagement with those who are distressed by the fires raging all around and who want to dream of a different kind of church. “Dreams,” he says, “are a portal to a world where all things are possible.” (160)

He offers a few of his own. A few of my favorite dreams: 

I dream of a church that is at home in God’s good world instead of huddled anxiously at the departure gate…The blessed hope is not that we’re going but that Christ is coming.” (161)

I dream that maybe we’re still the early church.” (163)

I dream that the church of the distant future will kindly forgive our faults, for we too are people of our time.” (164)

But in the end I want to keep seeing the world as Zahnd does—not as a God-forsaken place burning up, but as a place with “every common bush afire with God,” to quote Elizabeth Barrett Browning (as he does). “Resin-sealed cones and fire-activated seeds await the flames that will liberate them. For these trees, fire is not the end but the beginning. Christianity may be like these fire-dependent trees. Sometimes we need some old things to burn down before we can have new growth.” (171)

If that’s deconstruction—let it burn.


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