Now that we’ve finished Before You Lose Your Faith, I thought it’d be fun to look back at its overall message and themes. Often, these sorts of gung-ho books fulfill their purpose with their publishing. But their creators claim to aim at another audience entirely. With this book, who were the targets? And more to the point, are those targets likely to pick up this book, read it, and agree with its various exhortations?
As we’ll see, the answers to those questions are not what this book’s creators want to hear.
(In this post, when I talk about evangelicals, I generally mean the target demographic the book wants to persuade: culture-warrior, hardline and hard-right, literalist, and extremely Calvinist.)
(This post originally went live on Patreon on 1/12/23. Its audio reading lives there too. If you’d like early access, please consider becoming a patron ♥)
The back blurb of Before You Lose Your Faith tells us a lot
On the back cover of Before You Lose Your Faith, we find this text:
While it might be tempting to leave the church in order to find answers, Before You Lose Your Faith argues that church should be the best place to deal with doubt. This book shows deconstructing need not end in unbelief. In fact, deconstructing can be the road toward reconstructing—building up a more mature, robust faith that grapples honestly with the deepest questions of life.
We can infer, then, that the book aims for Christians who are already part of a church. Moreover, Ivan Mesa, the editor of the book, has his bio on the back cover. It reveals his ThM from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, right above the name “The Gospel Coalition” (TGC, the group responsible for the book). That’s going to tip off readers right away to this book’s evangelical leanings.
If those readers are already evangelical, all of these hints will also tip them off to its authors’ hard-right, culture-war-oriented, literalist Calvinism.
It’s extremely unlikely that a mainline, liberal, progressive-style Christian will be tempted to pick this book up. The concerns of such a Christian will not be the same as those of TGC’s target readers.
We could word its thesis thusly, then:
Before You Lose Your Faith seeks to persuade hard-right, culture-warring, literalist evangelical Calvinist readers to find answers to their doubts within their own churches, to engage with their churches’ leaders as credible sources of information, and to perceive deconstruction done correctly (meaning, in the way they like best) as a process that always rebuilds faith while incorrect deconstruction only leads to unbelief.
And how did Before You Lose Your Faith do by its own metrics?
In every single chapter that mentions churches as the bestest-ever places for doubters to find answers, Before You Lose Your Faith made one fact abundantly clear:
Churches are absolutely awful places for doubters. And really, for anybody else who fails to fall into lockstep for whatever reason.
Even as they parrot the same glib blahblah about their ideal vision of church community, the writers tackling this question always summarize their thoughts in the same way: Yes, and that’s all nice and everything. Of course, evangelical churches aren’t at all like this. You just have to pretend they are anyway. Eventually, you’ll find one that doesn’t trample you into the ground. Maybe.
One writer even demanded that church-burned evangelicals create and run their own community somehow if they couldn’t find such a church in their area.
If the goal is to keep doubting evangelicals’ bottoms warming their churches’ pews while they deal with their doubts, I can’t see how anyone could score this as anything but a complete fail. This book offers only a constant drumbeat of sad concessions regarding evangelical churches’ sheer abusiveness and toxicity.
If I had known nothing whatsoever about the churches favored by TGC before reading Before You Lose Your Faith, I’d have come away from the book knowing that at all costs, I needed to avoid them and their members.
As for the answers themselves, Before You Lose Your Faith fails utterly
About half the book’s chapters seek to offer doubting evangelicals reasons to stay Christian.
Every one of these chapters offers the worst reasons imaginable to do so:
- Circular reasoning
- Subjective feelings
- Appeals to consequences, emotion, etc
- Apologetics sleight-of-hand
- Constant strawmanning of enemies, particularly scientists
- Demeaning and vilifying those who leave their flavor of evangelicalism
- Last Ideology Standing
- Pascal’s fucking Wager of all things
- Veiled threats of Hell
Interestingly, not one chapter in this book actually offers a solid reason to believe the claims found in this flavor of Christianity. It’s not hard to imagine why, either: No such reason exists.
If it did, Before You Lose Your Faith would, like every book like it, throw everything they had in the direction of that reason. They wouldn’t need this other blahblah I listed, any more than real scientists need to do any of that stuff to demonstrate the truth of their claims.
(Can you even imagine if they did? Imagine a scientist trying to prove the sun exists: “If it didn’t, almost all life on Earth would be dead! But we’re alive, so clearly the sun exists!” I’m laughing now, imagining an evangelical book that used evangelical tactics to PROVE YES PROVE something real is actually real. I wonder if evangelicals would get the joke, though.)
Inoculating target evangelicals before the real doubts crash down on them
What Before You Lose Your Faith offers is the second-rate bullshit that Christians always offer because they lack real evidence. It’s what they offer instead. And they clearly hope very much that nobody notices and calls them on it.
Luckily for this book’s creators, evangelicals have been long trained to accept this second-rate bullshit in lieu of real evidence. Nobody else is even going to read this kind of book, at least not on the terms its creators want to set.
So in a very real sense, and perhaps ironically given this flavor of Christianity’s long-held hostility to reality, the creators of Before You Lose Your Faith seek to inoculate their target readers against real doubts.
If a real doubt happens to occur to one of those target readers, Before You Lose Your Faith wants that person to immediately throw up an antiprocess filter: Oh, I read about this a while ago. This is just eeeeeevil scientism. They’re trying to make my god into a piece of the universe’s furniture! What dummies!
The lessons of reality can’t pierce that filter very easily.
What can pierce it, though, and easily at that, is learning critical thinking skills and then applying them to all claims about reality. When Christians claim that something really big and all-encompassing meddles constantly in the real world, there should 100% be evidence of that meddling. And there just isn’t.
Once a Christian starts wondering why there’s no evidence that prayer works, or that miracles really happen, or that prophecies are any better than educated guesses, or even why Christians are such massive hypocrites when they supposedly have a god living inside of them, that’s when the blahblah offered by Before You Lose Your Faith starts looking a lot less reliable.
How effective has Before You Lose Your Faith been?
Evangelicals almost never go back to score anything they do. If it sounds sufficiently Jesus-y, then obviously it has the potential to be super-duper-mega effective. Since Jesus himself is the one who ultimately decides if one of his pet ants goes to Heaven or not, there’s really nothing any individual person or book or effort or group can do to increase or decrease their product’s effectiveness. It will be exactly as effective or ineffective as Jesus wants it to be. No more, no less.
(Chapter 14 even made this assertion out loud.)
This attitude makes Christians into the worst salespeople imaginable for the one product they sell, active membership in their own groups. They never need to learn better salesmanship skills or even people skills, since everything they do is a punt to mystery anyway.
So we shouldn’t be all that surprised to learn that nobody’s given Before You Lose Your Faith a proper post-mortem, at least not in public. I’ve looked over their episode list for their podcast, Gospelbound, and it’s the usual culture-war and threats cocktail that Calvinists like.
Does the target reader demographic seem aware of it at all?
In a word, no. Those who do seem aware of it don’t appear to think highly of it at all.
The book looks to be selling pretty well on Amazon, placing at #163 among general Christian faith books and #1,436 among Christian self-help books. Not one of its 4- and 5-star reviews sounds like it was written by someone with experience in real deconstruction. But a bunch of the 1-star reviews sound that way. Here’s one of them:
If you are looking to this book to help understand someone who is deconstructing or to gift it to them please just don’t! It really doesn’t address any of the hard issue that many of us live with and it’s very dismissive, minimizing and really just validates a lot of the stereotypes Christian’s wants to put on blast in order to drown out the hard truths. Just no!
Another 1-star reviewer says he bought the book to give to a friend, presumably one who is deconstructing (or has done). However, he apparently took the unprecedented step of reading the book himself first. Thankfully, he seems to have realized that this book would just make matters worse, from his point of view at least.
And still another 1-star reviewer simply advises the creators of the book to “Maybe ask a single person who is actually deconstructing and you may [learn] what it actually is.”
Criticisms also point out how insufferably condescending the book’s writers tend to be, which is 100% on point. I haven’t mentioned it because I figured it was a given. I mean, Calvinists learn how to communicate by using an AI that’s been fed nothing but quotes from snark and insult handbooks written by Mean Girls, Church Edition. But this beloved style of theirs apparently took some reviewers by surprise.
It really looks like almost everyone who bought and likes this book is someone who has never really engaged with serious doubts.
Has it impacted Christianity’s overall decline?
Perhaps the most important question evangelicals could ask, in evaluating Before You Lose Your Faith, is how it may have impacted Christianity’s overall decline.
So okay, I haven’t found a single real doubter who says the book helped them recover their faith. And sure, okay, we haven’t seen any overwhelming number of reviews from doubters saying the book’s awesome at its chosen task. In fact, when doubters come to the discussion, they always have huge criticisms to make instead.
Despite those failures, has Before You Lose Your Faith done anything to slow Christianity’s decline in America?
And that, too, seems to be a bust. Not long ago, I checked out more recent surveys, books, and studies about that decline. Nope, Christianity is still losing people like whoa. Nobody even thinks we’ve gotten to a bottom yet there. We might not hit this decline’s bottom for another 50 years.
It seems likely that Before You Lose Your Faith will end up in the same bin as countless other books claiming to be the surefire fix for Christianity. Forgotten, forever.
Strange, isn’t it, that a religion based around a real live god needs all these books promising to fix his religion’s decline? All he needs to do is show himself a little, answer some prayers, do some miracles. We’d be able to have a conversation about it, at least.
Maybe he’s as averse to real work as his most fervent followers.
Or, and I’m just throwin’ this out here, just spitballin’ really. Maybe he doesn’t exist at all. So whatever changes, it’s on believers alone to do.
Evangelicals’ shoulder angel of self-interest drives Before You Lose Your Faith
As we wind down this longform review, we ask ourselves—as we do, as we ideally always should—who benefits from Before You Lose Your Faith.
It’s certainly not evangelicals facing genuine doubt. Almost none of them are buying this book. Even fewer are reading it and coming away feeling stronger in their faith.
To answer that question, we look instead to who’s actually buying this book.
And there, we discover that it’s legions of believers from exactly this flavor of evangelicalism. I had a feeling that was the answer when I saw those Amazon reviews of the book, but it seems like a certain one now that I’ve read what evangelicals are writing about it.
The writers of Before You Lose Your Faith might not know anything about deconstruction, but they do understand how to tickle evangelicals’ itching ears. They know how to tell evangelicals exactly what they want to hear. And they know that doing that opens evangelicals’ wallets and parks their butts in church pews.
Why evangelicals are in decline
For example, here’s one pastor who just loves the book.
Of course, his church has professional and friendship ties to TGC. He’s likely the flavor of Christian they like best. They even gave him his copy of Before You Lose Your Faith. He implies that divine intervention led him to read this particular book earlier than the rest on his to-read list. But I’m sure those ties have a lot to do with his reading choices—along with its itty bitty length!
At any rate, this pastor absolutely loved the book. He gave it a glowing review.
Contrast that glowing review with what the 1-star readers at Amazon said. You’ll get a potent illustration of exactly why Christianity is in decline right now.
This pastor used to not care about deconstruction. He tells us in his review that he really didn’t even understand their doubts.
Well, now he totally cares! Now he’ll be sure to preach much more about doubters’ struggles, as described by this book! I’m sure doubters will be simply thrilled to see it. But if he actually does do what he proposes, he is sure to drive off the doubters in his flock even faster than they were already going.
All the care in the world doesn’t matter if it’s about the wrong things, and maybe especially if it drastically mischaracterizes the people you ostensibly care about. He cares only about a cardboard cutout that other know-nothing evangelicals have propped up for him to tilt at like a windmill. And as such, whatever he does in response will just be chasing after the wind, to borrow a phrase from Ecclesiastes.
Before You Lose Your Faith is a bunch of answers endlessly searching for a question. It’s a bunch of solutions looking for a problem. It’s a bunch of evangelicals chasing the wind. They’re making busy work for themselves.
And not uncoincidentally, they’re making a little money before the gravy train finally stops for good.
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