“Something Is Happening Here”

Bradley Jersak’s tremendous new book, Out of the Embers: Faith After the Great Deconstruction, releases November 22, 2022. I had the privilege of writing the foreword for Out of the Embers, and I would like to share it with you in the ardent hope that it will inspire you to read what Steve Bell has described as “a most wise, kind, and timely gift for those of us whose very faith has been traumatized by the tumult of our age.”



Something is happening here
But you don’t know what it is
—Bob Dylan, “Ballad of a Thin Man”

North America has experienced two episodes of Christian revival known as Great Awakenings — the first in the eighteenth century, the second in the nineteenth century. Both produced a remarkable increase in church membership. (Whether the Jesus movement and the charismatic renewal of the late twentieth century qualify as a third Great Awakening is for others to decide.) But now, in the early twenty-first century, the church in North America is experiencing a precipitous decline — a mass exodus that Bradley Jersak has aptly dubbed “the Great Deconstruction.”

Something is definitely happening here. Mister Jones, the baffled reporter from a bygone age in Bob Dylan’s “Ballad of a Thin Man,” may not know what is happening, but there are others who do. American Christianity as a colonial extension of European Christendom has run its course and is no longer tenable — at least, not as the default religion and organizing center in an increasingly secular society. The phenomenon of what has been popularly labeled “deconstruction” is not a passing fad but names a genuine crisis of faith that millions of Christians, largely through no conscious decision of their own, are now facing. Once a Christianity corrupted by civil religion, consumerism, and clerical abuse is put on trial, the fate of Christian faith hangs in the balance. And, for many people, the jury is still out. It is certainly possible to deconstruct Christianity down to nothing. This has been the experience of many. But then what? What happens after the Great Deconstruction?

In 1888, one year before his mental collapse, Friedrich Nietzsche published three books: Twilight of the Idols, Ecce Homo, and The Anti-Christ. All three launch a withering assault upon Christianity, but none more so than The Anti-Christ. However, even in the midst of his scorched-earth attack upon Christianity, you can sense the alarm bells going off in Nietzsche’s mind as he laments, “Two thousand years have come and gone — and not a single new god.” Nietzsche’s grand project was to eradicate Christianity but avoid the abyss of nihilism. He correctly understood that only a god can accomplish this. Nietzsche’s hope was for the Übermensch (humanity manifest as the Will to Power) to arise as the new god, yet he complained of this god’s failure to appear. When the Übermensch finally did goosestep onto the world stage, it turned out to be not a god but a demon. In 1966, following the devastation wrought by the Nazi attempt to install the Übermensch, personified in Adolf Hitler as Europe’s new god, Martin Heidegger gave an interview to the German news magazine Der Spiegel, trying to explain his failure to denounce Hitler and Nazism. In this now famous interview, Heidegger, reflecting on the current state of affairs following the two world wars, said, “Only a god can save us.” These two renowned German philosophers knew that in the world of late modernity, only a god can stand between us and the abyss of nihilism.

But I have news for Nietzsche and Heidegger: no new god is coming. Why? Because the one God who has already come has triumphed so decisively over all other gods that there is no possibility of their rising from the dead. Once upon a time, the Western world was awash in gods and goddesses — from Apollo to Zeus, from Venus to Cupid, from Odin to Thor. But no more. It took a few centuries, but Jesus Christ eventually vanquished all rivals. Jesus Christ is the last god standing because he is, as declared by resurrection, the true Son of God.

The implication of Christ’s definitive triumph over the gods is enormous. Nietzsche and Heidegger both understood that only a god can save us from the meaningless existence of god-less nihilism. But since no new god is coming, we have reached the point in history where the only question that really matters is this: Jesus or what? If we are not going to believe in Christ, then what are we going to believe in? An ism as our savior? Conservatism? Progressivism? Capitalism? Marxism? Nationalism? Globalism? Dear reader, I have enough respect for you to assume that you will not foolishly put your faith for salvation in an ism. Heidegger is right: “Only a god can save us.” We are now so stuck in a morass of meaninglessness that we can only worship our way out of it. But what are we going to worship if not the one declared to be the Son of God by the resurrection from the dead? Money? Pleasure? Politics? Self? We already know that such things, worshipped as gods, destroy our soul. And even noble things like knowledge and science, or even family and friendship, when worshipped as gods, are exposed to be feeble idols that cannot save. We really have arrived at the end of any possibility of an innocent idolatry. It’s now God or atheism. God or nihilism. God or nothing. And the God who alone can save us has been definitively revealed to us in Jesus Christ.

In the Gospels, Jesus Christ is revealed as the light of the world, and how we respond to this light is our judgment. We either love the light and move toward it, or we hate the light and seek to escape from it. But there is no escape from the light other than to willingly choose to inhabit the outer darkness. This is like the elder brother in the parable of the prodigal son gnashing his teeth in the darkness outside the father’s house, refusing to join the party because he continues to nourish his resentment toward his sinful brother. The apokatastasis hope that Christ will ultimately reconcile and restore all things does not eliminate an indeterminate time of self-exile in the outer darkness for those who refuse the light of Christ. The question always remains: Christ or what? When a great many erstwhile disciples walked away from Jesus because of his scandalous talk of “eating his flesh and drinking his blood,” Jesus posed a very poignant question to the Twelve: “Do you also wish to go away?” (John 6:67). Simon Peter was at his very best when he replied, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God” (vv. 68–69). Peter knew: it’s Jesus or nothing.

Bradley Jersak knows this too, and his book has arrived on the scene at a time when everything’s on fire. The book you hold in your hands is filled with priceless treasures that have been pulled out of the embers and that offer you the possibility of a renovated faith after the Great Deconstruction. John Wesley often borrowed the language of the prophet Zechariah when he described his own life and faith as “a brand plucked from the fire” (Zech 3:2). My prayer is that many a brand will be plucked from the fire in the reading of Out of the Embers.

Bradley is a scholar who graciously consents to write not as a scholar but as a friend — a wise and trusted guide. In his engagement with Simone Weil, Friedrich Nietzsche, Søren Kierkegaard, and Fyodor Dostoevsky, he skillfully unpacks the insights of these important seers to help us understand the unique epoch we are passing through and how best to navigate it. There is never a hint of scolding in Bradley’s writing; he is a humble and compassionate comrade who has experienced his own disorientation from a messy unraveling. He has glimpsed into the abyss and found his way back to feel the breath of God in his lungs and the love of God in his heart. When our Christendom-constructed houses of wood, hay, and stubble are consumed in the flames of deconstruction, there still remain the gold, silver, and precious stones of a faith worth saving. Bradley Jersak has done the painstaking work of sifting through the embers and ashes to retrieve these treasures. Tolle lege. “Take up and read.” Recover and rediscover the imperishable treasure that fire can never destroy but only refine.

Brian Zahnd
Easter Week 2022