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If you’ve grown up in the church, chances are you’ve seen a number of people walk away from the faith. While this is nothing new, trends do indicate that we are seeing more of it in our cultural moment. It’s not too hard to see that, in some ways, it’s becoming costlier to be a Christian in the West. And those who end up leaving Christianity behind often want to tell their stories.

So the question is: Can we learn anything from those deconversion stories? I think so. In this article, I’m inviting you to pull up a chair, listen to a sad story, and reflect with me.

Not long ago I wrote an essay on the psychedelic movement. It was published on the Substack of the young Canadian journalist, Rav Arora, which explores psychedelics for their therapeutic uses. Two subsequent guest posts in that space delved directly into arguments for and against Christianity. The author arguing for atheism was Alice Greczyn, who it turned out had written a memoir, Wayward, chronicling her deconversion from evangelical Christianity. She is now an actress and an activist for deconversion through her non-profit, Dare to Doubt. I was able to get an e-book version of her book and I read it with a kind of fascinated horror over the next few days.

My conclusion, upon finishing the memoir, was a sad “no wonder.” Nothing about Greczyn’s family or church experience fostered the kind of stability and rooted faith that we might expect to withstand either the sufferings of life or the particular temptations of our therapeutic age. Indeed, by the end of the book, we learn that not only have all five Greczyn siblings left Christianity, but even her parents have departed anything that could be described as evangelicalism or even historic orthodoxy. And so for Christians this turns out to be an instructive cautionary tale, a kind of photo-negative of the kind of Christian community and upbringing that fosters lasting spiritual vitality.

Slain in the Spirit (by a Charlatan)

Alice grew up in a beautiful old Victorian house in middle America, attending a non-denominational Pentecostal church with roots in the Vineyard movement. One of the early turning points of their journey was the advent of the Toronto Blessing in the 1990’s. “We had always been a tongues-speaking church, but the Toronto Blessing allowed the power of God’s Spirit to fully unleash in ways that reminded me of the Great Awakenings in my homeschool history books.”[1]

The author can be forgiven for mistaking the true revivals of the 18th century with the dubious revivalism of the 19th century, as Iain Murray has argued in his excellent book Revival and Revivalism. In other words, the Toronto Blessing had a lot more of Charles Finney in it than George Whitefield or Jonathan Edwards. More than once in the story, these ecstatic revival-style meetings were the source of deep spiritual confusion for Alice as she found herself unsusceptible to their psychological manipulations and unable to be ‘slain in the Spirit’ like those around her, leaving her with lingering questions about why God refused to visit her.

When she was just ten years old, she was brought to just such a revival meeting led by charismatic Rodney Howard-Browne. Young Alice went forward to receive her blessing, but despite his hand on her head, nothing seemed to happen for long moments. The hand grew heavier and heavier until finally he resorted to shoving her down the stage’s steps, which made it look just like she had been ‘slain in the Spirit.’ She lay there for a few minutes like she had seen others do.

When it felt like enough time had passed, I quietly made my way back to my chair and decided never to tell my parents what happened. Who would believe that a famous pastor had pushed a little girl down a flight of stairs? There was another reason I didn’t want to say anything: If anyone knew the Holy Spirit hadn’t been the one to push me over, they’d know there was something wrong with me. There must be something wrong with me. Everyone else had been slain in less than a minute.[2]

Another excruciating experience was at a Toronto Blessing conference where a “prophet woman” tried in vain to get her to be slain in the Spirit for several minutes before finally resorting to the same technique as Howard-Browne—a not-so-gentle nudge to help out the Holy Spirit. These parts of Greczyn’s memoir serve as scathing indictments of the more unhinged elements of the charismatic movement that Costi Hinn and so many others have exposed as manipulative, unbiblical, and little more than guru-led charlatanism.

Who can be surprised that someone subjected to such things would eventually come to see that the problem was not at all with them but with the beliefs and practices that brought about these inexcusable situations? And while we may not be literally shoving others, it is all too easy to shove people in other ways—a harsh word, a guilt trip, pushing for decisions—letting misguided zeal lead to manipulation which in turn leads to resentment.

Following God’s Leading (Into the Ditch)

Unfortunately things went from bad to worse. Alice’s parents came to believe that God was asking them to quit their only source of income, sell their house, get rid of their earthly possessions, and follow God’s leading on a great adventure of faith—which really amounted to floating around from place to place, and waiting for opportunities to share God’s love. Needless to say, this plan was not informed by best practices in missiology or evangelism.

While the other four children in the family took this in stride, Alice craved stability, a family home, and her own space. Later she slipped into depression and despondency as a result of her family’s unstable and nomadic lifestyle. Within this super-spiritual paradigm, there seemed to be no room for normal human creaturely needs for order, cleanliness, privacy, intellectually satisfying answers to deep questions, and some semblance of control over one’s life. Are these things really at odds with the Christian life? No, but they are at odds with a vision of the Christian life that replaces the common graces of wisdom and prudence and living within creaturely limits for the unquestionable dictates of God’s subjective leading.

Her parents never seemed to consider that Alice’s ability to flourish should inform major life decisions. They never seemed to think it necessary to discuss these major changes with their children before announcing them as a fait accompli. And when she did express dismay, instead of wise counsel and open discussion she was told to fix her attitude and received facile pieties like “talk to God.” Alice rightly observed that “whatever God put on someone’s heart went unquestioned and was nonnegotiable.”[3] This is the Achilles’ heel of the ‘God told me’ approach to life and spirituality, and it would not be the last time that Alice would find her life upended by such claims to divine guidance.

The worst manifestation of this occurred a few years later when Alice’s friend Luke announced to her that God had told him she was going to be his wife. Apparently no one had told her the only correct response to such a claim is: “Great – I’ll let you know when God tells me the same thing.” Instead, she received this like an order from on high, like a foot soldier being ordered out of the trench, which is about how excited she was at the prospect of marrying Luke. Even her father could only blindly affirm the sense of divine guidance rather than ask her something like, “Is this actually what you want?” It took months of misery and confusion for her to finally break it off with Luke.

There is a dangerous and damaging surrender of personal agency in this approach that unsurprisingly leaves devastation in its wake. When we ascribe to God what is in fact our own subjective ideas, we end up making him seem responsible for our own folly. People sometimes accuse Calvinists of a robotic determinism that crushes human freedom, and I am sure some fall into that trap, but in reading this book it became clear to me that this approach to life was far more injurious to one’s sense of agency.

After all, if I’m meant to follow God’s leading by listening inwardly, or taking someone else’s claim of subjective leading as authoritative, just where does that stop? Do I wait passively for God to tell me who to marry? Do I wait for him to tell me to get out of bed in the morning? If not, why not? I gladly leave room for God to speak and guide in mysterious ways, but surely we can see that there is a ditch to be avoided on both sides of the road.

Unfortunately, there was no one in Alice’s life to help her sort through these things with spiritual wisdom rooted in the gospel. Instead, her faith continued to unravel: “My faith fell into a crisis. In the year following my breakup with Luke, I waited for God’s punishment as though waiting for a death threat to be followed through.”[4]

Purity First, Gospel Second

Alice was also subjected to many of the excesses of the purity movement. We know that moral imperatives in the absence of a clear understanding of the gospel can result in an ugly distortion of the Bible’s message. As Rachel Joy Welcher writes in her recent book, Talking Back to Purity Culture, “If we talk about sexual purity apart from the gospel, we will create chaste Pharisees instead of imperfect disciples. Obedience is a response to grace, not a ladder to heaven.”[5] Like so many other teenagers and young adults of my generation, Alice was genuinely harmed by some of these teachings. There was an idolatrous fixation on female virginity, a tendency to dehumanize both men (as irredeemably lustful) and women (as stumbling blocks), and a set of unbiblical promises that amounted to a version of the prosperity gospel.

Rachel Joy Welcher’s book is a rare example of a healthy deconstruction that embraces the authority of Scripture rather than the authority of one’s own moral intuitions. In the following passage, she puts her finger on an issue that relates directly to Alice’s story. “So many of us walked right past the gospel on our way to a purity conference. Our parents and youth leaders were so concerned about our budding sexuality, scrambling for direction and wisdom, that some of us ended up signing abstinence pledges before falling on our knees in repentance.”[6] One gets the sense that purity was more central to Alice’s experience of the church than the gospel was.

And so along with Alice’s intellectual trajectory away from Christianity, we see a parallel and related moral and sexual trajectory away from Christ. This takes place most clearly when, as a young adult, Alice relocates to Hollywood to pursue modeling and acting, distancing herself ever more from any semblance of Christian community. Her family had already been sporadic in church attendance and commitment, often changing from one church to another without explanation, or going months at a time without attending any church, but Alice now had zero Christian influences in her life except for a couple of friends.

It doesn’t take the spiritual insight of a desert father to know that living alone in Tinseltown with unresolved theological questions and severe emotional baggage from one’s family and church background is a recipe for shipwrecking one’s faith. For a brief time, Alice tried progressive Christianity and found that more to her liking. Ultimately though, she came to question her belief in God’s very existence and devised a test to settle the matter.

Testing God

Standing in her apartment kitchen in Los Angeles, she asked God to prove his existence to her by physically moving a cinnamon container on her cabinet. “I stared at my spice cabinet for over thirty minutes. I knew because the clock on my microwave told me. The understanding sank in slowly. God wasn’t real. My faith was over.”[7] This is told with an attempt at dramatic tension, as if the reader might be left in suspense as to whether the cinnamon would move. But for me at least, the passage landed flat. Alas, she was no Elijah and the spice rack was no Mount Carmel.

My youngest daughter, who is not yet two, recently did something that illustrated to me the absurdity of this act. We were sitting together on the couch when she got up, left my side, went into my office, closed the door, and then knocked on it from the inside. Similarly, having shut the door on God through a series of very clear and significant choices, Greczyn gave him one last chance to prove his existence to her, on her terms, by knocking on the door of her spice cabinet. But just as Jesus refused to perform miracles for Herod and his fellow Nazarenes, he is not usually eager to acquiesce to our misguided tests. He does not subject himself to our proud probing, something we moderns seem incapable of accepting.

This episode reminded me of another deconversion memoir I read a couple of years ago called Losing My Religion by William Lobdell. (Say what you will, but these memoirs do tend to have catchy titles!) Lobdell also concluded his deconversion with a series of tests. In his case, he decided to weigh the truthfulness of Christianity by measuring the moral quality of those who identified as Christians, and then again by trying to measure the percentage of answered prayers for healing among sick and suffering Christians compared to the rest of the population. Needless to say, God ‘failed’ these tests and Lobdell then felt free to abandon Christianity altogether.

Another parallel between the two memoirs was the epistemological landing place. In both cases, the authors ended their books by speaking about ‘my truth.’ Greczyn writes, “No matter where you are in your spiritual journey or lack thereof, it is my sincerest wish that you are simply living in your truth.”[8] This idea, popularized by Oprah some years ago, is the enthronement of personal experience over objective reality, or capital-T Truth. If taken seriously, it is a metaphysical claim about the nature of reality, but often it serves as a way to avoid any uncomfortable implications that one’s own beliefs might have for someone else.

Concluding Thoughts

The story is presented as one where Alice leaves Christ and the church behind, going wayward into the world, but her experience as described in the book is explicable as a program of church-based social conditioning inside an insular Christian subculture that was radically alienated from the wisdom and riches of its own spiritual heritage. It’s a poignant example of the Moralistic Therapeutic Deism that sociologist Christian Smith described in his 2005 book, Soul Searching, especially the suffocating extra-biblical moralism of purity culture and the therapeutic flavor of the experience-driven worship services. And so: no wonder. No wonder this faith did not withstand the sufferings and temptations and nagging questions of life. Who could possibly expect it to?

There is a lot of sadness in this book. I was grieved to see how Alice suffered through much of her childhood and adolescence in what was at times a truly oppressive and unhealthy religious context. She experienced manipulation, trauma, neglect, and was hardly ever given stability, wise counsel, or the opportunity to receive good answers to her honest questions. She wrote her book because she found a kind of freedom and healing from the pain of this experience by rejecting the entire belief system and embracing sexual liberation. In one sense I don’t blame her for being unable to distinguish between the harmful elements of that system and the true ones. When the pain and confusion are overwhelming, who has time for such nuances? And when one is embraced by a new community offering acceptance, money, and pleasure, well the story almost tells itself. And yet for her sake, I truly hope her story won’t end there.

Those who have been hurt by the church are especially vulnerable to the voice that promises freedom in rejecting the faith and embracing what was once forbidden. In Talking Back to Purity Culture, Rachel Joy Welcher addresses this temptation: “Beloved, do not be deceived by such thinking. The gospel of self is everywhere, and it tastes sweet, like wine. Which is why we must drink all the more deeply of God’s Word—so that our hearts are not deceived: God is about his glory. God loves you, and your highest good is to be about his glory too.”[9]

One can’t help but wonder how things might have turned out differently if Alice’s family had committed to faithfully attending worship with God’s people at a church where the gospel was clearly presented and its depths regularly plumbed; if Alice had had older, wiser Christian women as part of that community to help her navigate the minefields of adolescence and relationships and sexuality; if there had been some avenue for her to get intellectually satisfying answers to her questions. There are lessons here for Christians and churches.

It is a tad ironic that Greczyn, in her flight from religion, embraces naturalistic materialism at the very moment so many others who grew up in it are seriously rethinking it. But perhaps her views will evolve further when the shine wears off and her heart begins to long for something deeper and more ultimately satisfying than living her truth; perhaps she may one day encounter the living Christ of the Scriptures and realize that he is utterly different than what she had assumed, that he did not fail her. I hope and pray that she does.

The truth is we are all wayward. We have all have gone astray, each of us to our own way. But none of us is ever beyond the reach of the good Shepherd who laid down his life for his people, the good Shepherd who brings the wayward home.

 


[1] Alice Greczyn, Wayward (Texas: River Grove Books, 2021), 27.

[2] Greczyn, Wayward, 30.

[3] Greczyn, Wayward, 53.

[4] Greczyn, Wayward, 320.

[5] Rachel Joy Welcher, Talking Back to Purity Culture (Illinois: IVP Books, 2020), 200.

[6] Welcher, Talking Back to Purity Culture, 153.

[7] Greczyn, Wayward, 345.

[8] Greczyn, Wayward, 418.

[9] Welcher, Talking Back to Purity Culture, 148.

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