Book review: Uncertain

Anvil journal of theology and mission

Olivia Jackson, Uncertain: A collective Memoir of Deconstructing Faith (London: SCM, 2023)

reviewed by James Butler, CMS

This book is a detailed account of the stories of “deconstruction” of faith. Like the author of the book, I’m not so keen on the language of deconstruction, but it does seem to be the term most commonly used to describe the increasingly common and widespread experience. Broadly stated, this is a process of finding an increasing dissonance between what they have been taught and encouraged to believe in church, and their experience of life and the world. For some this is a crisis, for others a gradual process. The book describes this as “intentional examination of one’s core faith and beliefs, leading to a profound change in, or even loss of, that faith” (p xvi). Jackson wrote the book based on 400 people completing a questionnaire with a further 140 follow-up interviews with people across from around the world.

The book is split into three parts. The first part has 19 short chapters telling the stories of people’s experiences of the churches they were part of and the broadly evangelical faith they were encouraged to embrace. The second part has six longer chapters which go into more depth about people’s experience of broadly evangelical teaching and doctrine that they have found harmful, difficult and have “deconstructed”. Part three contains three chapters and looks at where people have gone next. For some this has meant finding freedom in leaving the Christian faith behind. For others they have found God in different places, traditions and religions.

The book is written as more of a memoir, reporting people’s experience and the ways in which they have made sense of it, rather than trying to draw out any larger theological learning. Although, early on, Jackson is careful to state that she knows people have positive experiences of evangelicalism (some would challenge her broad definition of evangelicalism), she does, in places, end up talking in generalities and a few times makes sweeping statements about “the church”. The book is definitely at its strongest when sharing people’s accounts and telling their stories. 

Approaching this as someone interested in how faith is lived, how church and mission are changing, and the theological wisdom that is emerging from such experiences, I would love to have dived more deeply into the theology emerging. If this had been a practical theology text, the accounts shared would have given ample opportunities to explore the nature of God, salvation, church and the work of the Spirit that people were discovering. This is where I often found thoughts going; however, they are not in this book. It seemed to me it was primarily written for people going through similar experiences, and Jackson’s commentary often opened up these kinds of reflection. This meant that there were a number of times when the discussion felt a little heavy-handed and a little more precision might have helped the points to land more clearly, but these criticisms are perhaps to miss the point of the book. Jackson is giving a raw account of the experience of deconstruction, and is more focused on telling the story than analysing it.

I’m sure that those who have experienced something similar will find comfort in being able to hear similar stories, and discover their experience is shared. There is no judgement and there is wisdom here about ways ahead. This book is also a gift to churches and church leaders if they are willing to listen. For some the tone will be too harsh and difficult to hear. There will be a tendency to be defensive, or to distance themselves from the accounts of harmful teaching. However, I think that for those who are willing to pause and listen, it is a gift, telling the stories of people who found their faith no longer fitted with their experience; people who had been committed to church and to God, yet in the process of deconstruction ended up feeling abused, or no longer able to stay in church. It shows how things that might have been intended for good have been warped and misshapen, and it brings into the light ways of leading and being which have always been toxic and need to be named as such. I would encourage people to listen carefully to these stories, not because they are “right” necessarily, but because they are a witness to, and against, churches and leaders which deserve to be taken seriously. 

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