Well, friends. Let us cherish this moment. We are now on the very last chapter of Before You Lose Your Faith. It’s been quite a journey, hasn’t it? But now it is finally ending. And what a place to end, too: by utterly, completely, catastrophically, galactically, and entirely missing the point of deconstruction. Our last writer throws a Hail Mary with his chapter, which asks doubters to direct their gazes to Jesus himself rather than anything else.
Today, we’ll examine why this request is not only impossible but will likely backfire with far, far more doubters than it’ll work on.
(This post originally went live on Patreon on 1/10/23. You can find an audio recording of it there, too, complete with Bother trying to get my attention early on. If you’d like early access, please consider becoming a patron!)
Everyone, re-meet Derek Rishmawy, the writer of Chapter 15 of Before You Lose Your Faith
Derek Rishmawy wrote Chapter 15 of Before You Lose Your Faith. According to his bio blurb in the book, he works as a Calvinist “campus minister” at University of California Irvine. He also co-hosts the Mere Fidelity podcast, which is itself an extension of Mere Orthodoxy, a really Calvinist blog site that he sporadically contributes to. In addition, we’re told he’s working on his PhD with a distance-learning divinity school.
Out of all the Christians who contribute to Before You Lose Your Faith, he’s likely the best-monetized and product-placed. I found his name everywhere. He’s even written for the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission and for Christianity Today.
We first ran across him in 2021 when we talked about Gospelbound, a very cringeworthy podcast. It was made by The Gospel Coalition (TGC), a mostly super-Calvinist consortium of mostly-young mostly-white evangelical guys. It’s still going strong, if you’re wondering.
Interestingly, Rishmawy has constructed a platform of beliefs for himself that includes an endless checklist of Calvinist claims that he accepts. That checklist functions as a substitute for the boring stuff he doesn’t want to do, like praying without ceasing (1 Thess 5:17). Dude not only admitted that prayer bores him silly in Christianity Today, but he also used that sterling writing opportunity to (poorly) psych himself up more for praying. But apparently he’s the one to ask about looking at nothing but Jesus himself to find bulletproof faith.
Those who can’t do, write chapters for Before You Lose Your Faith, I reckon.
What the last chapter of Before You Lose Your Faith wants doubters to do
In his chapter, Rishmawy makes this argument, which we will now steelman, as is tradition:
Religion is often very bad and sometimes even hurtful to even firm believers. Ickie, boo, hiss! However, Jesus himself is supremely good and always awesome. Yay Team Jesus! Before doubters chuck the religion aside for good, they should do what King Derek Rishmawy did and look only at Jesus.
And once they do, they will find that their beliefs slide into lockstep with his particular flavor of hardline Calvinist culture-warrior evangelical religion, because that’s obviously what Jesus himself would have wanted for modern American Christians. That religion is the only good kind.
If those doubters come out with anything different, like if they realize that a truly loving god couldn’t possibly care if two men get married, then obviously they have been grievously deceived somehow. They need to go back and gaze more intently at Jesus until his mirage parrots Calvinist claims at them.
And they need to do that till their beliefs align with King Derek’s own. I suppose that if they refuse to do all this busy-work at his command, he’ll only say they haven’t done it enough yet. I don’t know, maybe they weren’t predestined or something.
How the final chapter of Before You Lose Your Faith functions as a Hail Mary pass; also, analogies and colloquialisms
When Americans talk about a Hail Mary pass, we mean a last-ditch attempt to win a football game. It’s a long-distance football pass that is so unlikely to succeed that it’d take a miracle to score. A team that is losing their game decides to bank everything on that one pass. If it scores, it’ll get its team so many points that they’ll win the game. If it doesn’t, well, they were already going to lose anyway. It got its name because one quarterback who threw it said that as he threw the ball, he closed his eyes and said a Hail Mary.
(A “Hail Mary” is a Catholic prayer. Since medieval times, Catholic prayers have been used as time-measuring devices—particularly by cooks. Here, it’s used more as a request for divine help in making a risky pass.)
So when I say that this last chapter functions as a Hail Mary pass, I mean that the creators of Before You Lose Your Faith likely realize that they are still playing on the back foot, so to speak, with doubters. This is their last-ditch attempt to persuade those doubters not to leave their ranks.
And it is awful. It’s hard to put into words just how bad this advice is, but I’m sure gonna give it the good college try.
Hey, you know me: I like a challenge!
The first problem: Nobody is seeing Jesus (because they can’t)
Derek Rishmawy’s chapter is titled, “Take a hard look at Jesus.” Early on, he offers two bits of advice to doubters (p. 131):
[F]irst, as you walk down this road, approach it intentionally. Don’t just let it “happen” to you. Second, you need a guide, something or someone to help you focus on what really matters. I can think of none better to fill that role than Jesus himself—his words, his actions, and his person.
Firstly, anyone who intentionally deconstructs will find it very easy to settle their fake questions with evangelicals’ long-honed pseudoscience, pseudo-archaeology, apologetics, threats, and emotional appeals. That’s the entire problem with all of those things: They settle easily raised doubts by people who are completely predisposed to accept any answers that confirm their existing beliefs.
Deconstruction is messy and accidental because those experiencing it have realized just how piss-poor all of those things are. They recognize at last the problems with those easy answers: the logical fallacies, the circular reasoning, the utter lack of credible evidence offered by any of them. They’re quickly becoming immune to the threats and emotional appeals. Deconstruction happens despite everything evangelicals offer to doubters. So if the doubters are even halfway committed to the real truth, then they will not be foisted off quite so easily.
In fact, Rishmawy himself was one of those fake deconstructors. At most, he’s suffered what he calls “seasons of doubt,” which is Christianese for doubt that involved easily-handled talking points and resolved in time to please any judges. He tells us that he was “anxious to see if it could be pieced together again.” Amazingly, shockingly, astoundingly, it sure could! And that’s how we know his doubts never hit the level of the kind that leads to genuine deconstruction.
The second major dealbreaker: Literally no Christians can actually look at Jesus himself
Rishmawy’s second dealbreaker involves his insistence that if doubters only look to Jesus himself, to “his words, his actions, and his person,” then they’ll quickly find that everything that hardliner Calvinist culture-warrior evangelicals claim about Christianity is totes for realsies. He tells us (p. 132):
I suppose that’s an intuitive, Sunday-school point: focus on Christ to figure out what you believe about Christianity. [. . .]
Jesus guides us through all three stages of every deconstruction I’ve seen: the issues, the issues underneath the issues, and the Big Issue.
Yes, we’re dealing with yet another evangelical who seriously thinks that the reasons we give for discarding Christianity can’t possibly be our real reasons. There must be something else! And yes, because yes of fuckin’ course, he eventually lands on not wantin’ t’be account’ble to JAY-zus as the main real reason.
In the course of guiding us through the cattle chute of hardline Calvinist culture-warring evangelicalism, Rishmawy has some sub-points to make, like this one:
“Don’t fan-fic Jesus, listen to him.” In other words, don’t settle for anything else besides what these particular Christians think about him. Their Jesus insists on following the entire Bible, after all. He may be merciful to the obedient, but Rishmawy warns that he also “magnifies [. . .] God’s moral law.”
Meanwhile, I bet every one of his crowd ignores the dietary and grooming/clothing laws of the Torah. I already know that most of them get divorced whenever they please—despite Rishmawy’s insistence here on Jesus outlawing divorce. They always, always, always have a way to hand-wave away any Bible rules that they don’t like. It’s really just the weirdest thing.
I’ve said that exact line for years.
But really, it isn’t weird at all. It involves why Christians can’t look to Jesus himself, after all! So let’s dive into that question now.
Why this comically-adjustable Christianity is the norm, and not any hard-and-fast rules
When the Derek Rishmawys of the world ask doubters (or anyone else) to “look to Jesus,” there’s no way to do that. There never has been.
In truth, Jesus never wrote down a single word. Nobody contemporary to him wrote his words down, either. It’s a lead-pipe cinch that what we do have, the Gospels, were written decades after his supposed death. As far as we’ve ever discovered, not one person in those years of his ministry (30-35ish CE) ever said a single word about him, his followers, or his activities.
Without us immediately writing something down or recording it, it’s unlikely that we’ll ever accurately remember what happened. That goes double for conversations. What’s far more likely about the Gospels is that its writers presented stories about Jesus that confirmed the earliest Christians’ beliefs about him, and they put words in his mouth that validated their own teachings.
From the earliest years of Christianity, then, what we really have is a cardboard cut-out of Jesus presented to us by people who had a major stake in defining the beliefs of the new religion.
Whatever Christians may believe about their so-called relationship with Jesus, all they have to go on are subjective feelings and a few brief books about stuff his followers totally think he really said.
And that makes Christianity, as a religion, supremely easy to adjust to suit any believer’s tastes.
That’s why Derek Rishmawy’s Jesus is a judgmental, politically-conservative god. I’ve known people whose Jesus is a forgiving, loving, eternally-supportive god. Still others worship him as a surrogate Daddy.
There are as many Jesuses as there are Christians, it seems. But not one of them can put forth their version of Jesus as the most correct one.
The Problem of Wingnuts in Before You Lose Your Faith
Christians, then, have two big basic problems with their religion:
- No verifiable primary sources contemporary with Jesus; no writings by Jesus himself
- A host of truth claims about Jesus, his powers, and his followers that do not track at all with reality (and were largely rejected by 1st-century Jews precisely because they didn’t even track with the Torah)
First: In a very real sense, all that they do have is fanfic. Ironic, eh? For them to look to Jesus involves looking to what previous Christians have written and said about Jesus.
Imagine if everything we knew about the TV show Supernatural came entirely from fanfic writers!
Second: In response to their singular inability to verify any claim about their beliefs in reality, Christians have evolved this bad habit of assessing new information about their religion by seeing how it fits into their existing framework of beliefs. If it fits, it sits. If it doesn’t, they reject it. All a new claim has to do is fit mostly within that parameter, at most stretching out further outward a bit.
Gradually, if they keep approaching new information in this way, then their beliefs will inevitably spiral further and further away from reality. It is almost impossible to rein them back down to earth because they’ve already discarded reality as a means of testing new claims.
That’s how Christians become wingnuts. And it’s a Capital-P “Problem,” in my opinion, because there is no street-legal way for Christians to avoid becoming wingnuts without also critically endangering their beliefs.
Hardline Calvinist evangelicals are among the worst wingnuts in the religion. With endless sophistry blahblah and intense emotional manipulation, they have rendered themselves impervious to what reality tells them every day. It’s almost impressive.
Before You Lose Your Faith doesn’t even believe that Christianity is a relationship-not-a-religion
No part of Before You Lose Your Faith has asked doubters to look to Jesus himself. They have always recommended that doubters trust hard in what their religious leaders have told them. This chapter represents an interesting twisting of that message. Now, the religious leaders in this particular flavor derived their beliefs from looking at Jesus, not by trying to create a religious group.
And even on that level, the book fails. It fails just as hard as every other Christian who’s chirped at non-believers that they’re not in an ickie gross religion, but rather in a real live relaaaationship with a god!
The entire reason that Christians know anything about Jesus, even at the remove they have any information about him at all, is that a religion rose up that was based around that removed-understanding. If some anonymous people hadn’t decided to write books about him decades after his supposed death, there’d be no Christianity.
Lots of Jewish preachers were running around Jerusalem. Many claimed to be prophets, and many were wild-eyed apocalyptic prophets. I’m sure more than a few had similar ideas around reforming Judaism along Hellenistic lines. And we know almost nothing about them or their ideas.
For the writers of Before You Lose Your Faith, following their script involves as a necessity ending up in their religious tribe. If you don’t end up in their religious tribe, you’re not Jesus-ing right at all. Rishmawy himself lands exactly there as he side-eyes the stated reasons why deconstructors talk about abandoning his beloved culture wars (p. 135):
No doubt that is some of what happened. But Jesus also leads us to ask, is it only a newfound respect and love for others that leads us to take action on these questions? Couldn’t there also be a layer of fear of disapproval, as you enter a new community whose good opinion begins to matter more to you?
I can tell him this:
It is 100% not “Jesus” leading him to ask that. “Jesus” doesn’t do anything for anyone. Instead, it is 100% his religious indoctrination and dishonesty that do.
How we know that Before You Lose Your Faith isn’t really aimed at deconstructors
As I mentioned earlier, Rishmawy is one of those tedious sorts who thinks that nobody rejects his religion for virtuous reasons. No no, they always have non-virtuous reasons behind their stated objections.
(He may be projecting here. How often do Christians tell us why they want us to think they believe, but then reveal that ultimately, they’re terrified of death or Hell or living without the safety net of divine aid, or something like that? Almost every time!)
In this case, Rishmawy presents us with “a friend in the philosophy program” who was an atheist. One day, Rishmawy handed him that old, tired line about all the PROOF YES PROOF that atheists refuse to accept (p. 134):
One day I finally asked him, “If I could come up with answers to all of your objections, would you even want to believe?” (I’d heard my pastor say he’d tried this once, so I gave it a shot.) He stopped, looked at me, and said, “You know, probably not. Deep down I think I don’t like the idea of someone telling me what to do with my life.” Quite the self-aware 20-year-old.
If any atheist ever told him that, it would be the only atheist on the planet who did. I’ve never once heard a single atheist say or write that. Certainly, none said to me when I was Pentecostal! Generally, non-believers tend to tell Christians to come up with even one piece of genuinely credible evidence, and then we’ll talk.
We’re usually safe there, too. No Christians have, in the entire history of their religion, managed to credibly support even one claim they’ve made. In this way, they are exactly like every other religion’s believers. If any believer from any religion ever did manage it, it’d be a planetary game-changer forever.
RandomChristianDriveBy#24987245987 from Disqus, with yet another hilariously failed hot take about the Problem of Hell, will not be the planetary game-changer Christians need so desperately. And neither will Derek Rishmawy.
Why we have never seen real evidence in Before You Lose Your Faith
Over and over again, I’ve noticed that Before You Lose Your Faith never actually gets around to offering doubters any solid reason to believe. It’s offered arguments galore, circular reasoning, emotional manipulation, even veiled threats of Hell. But it’s never offered anything that sparks belief in someone who isn’t already predisposed toward belief.
Maybe this chapter hints at why.
Rishmawy’s insistence on “the issues under the issues” is a very old talking point. It draws upon evangelicals’ firm belief that they have tons and tons of PROOF YES PROOF. Except those meaniepie, dumb ol’ atheists refuse to consider it, probably because they want to have unapproved sex or be unaccountable to Jesus or something.
This belief means that any time someone shoots down an evangelical’s claims for any reason, that evangelical can take refuge in knowing that it was done for an entirely non-virtuous reason. It also means they never have to reexamine their own beliefs in light of the pushback received, because that pushback wasn’t offered virtuously. Their job, as they see it, is to pierce past that smokescreen, ferret out the real reason for rejection, and address that.
We saw this belief played to its cringiest limits in God’s Not Dead. In that movie, the mean ol’ atheist professor finally cracks under questioning from a TRUE CHRISTIAN™. He admits that the real reason he deconverted was that Jesus didn’t magically heal a sick relative when he was a kid. Aha! So now, all his evangelist needed to do was mend that anger, and the objections would vanish.
Mistaking Jesus for obedience in Before You Lose Your Faith
Rishmawy ends his chapter by loftily informing us that the actual real issue of deconstruction is Jesus himself (p. 138):
In the end, Jesus is the issue. We all face the question he posed to his disciples “Who do you say that I am?” (Matt 16:15). They rattled off the popular options: John the Baptist, Elijah, Jeremiah, or one of the other prophets. But Jesus wanted to know, “What about you?” To which Peter replied, “You are the Messiah, the son of the living God.”
Can you say the same?
And he has a shaken-finger warning for us too:
Take care, though—folks “believe in Jesus” in all sorts of ways.
Only if you land on the same Jesus he believes in will he think you are safe from Hell. That is, after all, the threat he works under every day of his life. It is the only penalty for disobedience in his world. And by disobedience, we do not mean disobedience to a mythic figure from about 2000 years ago. We mean disobedience to his tribe’s take on that mythic figure.
His tribe is real. The figure is not. That’s exactly how tribes full of hardline Calvinist culture-warrior evangelicals just like Derek Rishmawy can twist and turn the Bible around in all the ways that they do.
How we know Christianity is not based on reality, in the end
If Jesus were real, and if the Bible presented us with an accurate, reality-based picture of what he said, did, and expects of us, then I don’t see how there could be tens of thousands of flavors of Christianity today. I certainly don’t think Christians would be such power-lusting, control-grabbing hypocrites, and yes, I certainly include Rishmawy’s preferred flavor in that estimation.
The worst thing I can say about that flavor is that of all the variations on Jesus and Christianity they could have chosen, they chose the one containing the most monstrous, cruel, and evil god out of all the flavors. That says something scary about them. I’m glad more people are noticing and listening as they tell us exactly who they are.
NEXT UP: How effective has this book even been?
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