Sunday Reflections: How the Language of Deconstructing One’s Faith Helped Me Understand Adolescence
In the award-winning novel Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo, the main character, Xiomara Batista, spends a lot of time questioning and challenging the very deep Catholic faith that she was raised in. She’s trying to figure out who she is and what she believes; she’s trying to make sense of her parent’s faith and find a faith that she can believe in for herself. She is deconstructing her faith.
To be clear, this is a pretty normal part of adolescence. In fact, it is one of the primary tasks, to move into a more independent sense of self and figure out who you are, who you want to be, what you believe, and how you will move through this world. One of the most fundamental tasks of adolescence is to figure out a self-identity. And often, this involves the deconstruction of faith.
Deconstruction is quite literally a critical analysis. Metaphorically, it takes the pieces of something apart and takes the time to evaluate them each individually and then figure out how they fit together, or don’t, in the scope of one’s own life and belief system. And to parents, it can be terrifying in no small part because religion, matters of faith and devotion, are so incredibly personal and fraught. In the end, when you start talking about matters of belief, you are often talking about literal matters of life and death, and what happens to one’s mortal soul after death. It’s not an easy topic by any means.
In the book Heretic’s Anonymous by Katie Henry, we meet a group of teens from a variety of faiths who are at different stages of belief. Some are devout, some are questioning, some are atheist, and some are deconstructing. It’s not so much that they don’t believe, it’s that they don’t believe in it all the way the adults in their lives want them to believe so they engage in critical analysis to determine what it is the do believe and how they can incorporate that into their life. One of the main characters, perhaps my favorite, is a teen girl who very much loves her Catholic faith but is also a feminist. There’s a lot of tension in many faiths when it comes to embracing and upholding feminist ideals.
Although I have been aware for a while that millennial and teens – and today’s teens ARE NOT millennials – have been leaving the church, I have only recently become aware of the concept of and language of deconstructing one’s faith. There are discussions online using hasthags like #exvangelical (which is about moving away from fundamentalist Christianity, with some choosing atheism and others just choosing a more progressive faith), #emptythepews (which specifically calls for an exodus out of the church), and a variety of other discussions about what it means to deconstruct one’s faith. I read and follow these discussions for a variety of reasons, both professional and personal.
Many teens (and millennials) are leaving the church because they do not find that the church practices what it preaches. They will argue that the church preaches that God loves all but then actively preach hatred towards the LGBTQ+ community. The teens that I have talked to see an underlying greed and corruption in the church, and they are angry at the way that the church has turned their back on both the Earth and their future by engaging in climate change denial. And as news breaks out that more and more denominations have spent decades covering up childhood abuse to protect their name and the adults around them at the expense of children, they are finding it harder and harder to feel that church cares about them at all.
In the book The Distance Between Lost and Found by Kathryn Holmes, the main character is wrestling with her continued participation in a youth group when the very teen who has sexually assaulted her continues to be embraced and lauded by her friends and family. She feels lost, lonely, rejected, terrified and unsupported. She finds herself in the wilderness metaphorically and quite literally as she wrestles with her truth at church camp. She is a proxy for every child, teen or adult harmed by the church who is trying to figure out where they still fit in at a church that wants to deny the truth of what has happened to them, leaving them vulnerable and alone. She is deconstructing her faith.
As the mother of a teenage daughter, I have the opportunity to have a lot of hard and important conversations with my teen. And because we are a family that goes to a Christian church together, a lot of these conversations revolve around the Bible, the church and lately, a lot about LGBTQ+ issues. I have found that this generation of teens is the most accepting and open about their and other people’s sexual and gender identities and the topic is very important to them. We also happen to be United Methodist and our denomination recently voted to uphold traditional views of gender and sexuality and to prohibit same sex couples from marrying or being ordained. This is a topic that my teen was very aware of and chose to follow on her own. And she came to me heartbroken when the church voted to hold people she loves outside of the full fellowship of the church. If given a choice, I’m sure that she would not currently choose to keep attending church.
She also has spent time with me in my work with teens in various spaces. She has seen me love, embrace and support transgender teens, gay teens, queer teens, questioning teens . . . And she always seems surprised when I talk about how sometimes it is still hard for me to totally shake off what I have been taught for literal years by the church regarding LGBTQ+ issues. You see, deconstructing your faith isn’t easy and it isn’t a one time process. I feel like I’m always challenging, learning, and growing. But when we talk about it I tell her that I have one huge thing that I am always trying to keep in mind: I never want to harm a fellow human being. Which is not the same thing as saying that I never do, because I have, I do and I will continue to do so because that’s part of being human. I have chosen to be honest, vulnerable and open in my parenting in part because I want her to know that she doesn’t have to have all the answers right now. I know that I certainly don’t, and I’m 46.
It’s important to note that deconstructing faith doesn’t have to mean walking away from it entirely. It’s just a process of questioning and challenging what you are taught. If done correctly, it usually involves asking for spiritual guidance to help with things like discernment and guidance. It often involve letting one’s faith evolve and represent the more complex thinking that we develop in adolescence. It’s moving from black and white thinking to recognizes the various shades of grey that inhabit the reality of the world we live in. It’s taking the pieces apart, but putting them back together again in ways that make sense and affirm both the foundations of your belief system and full dignity and rights of your fellow humans.
To be honest, I think much of adolescence can be understood in the context of deconstructing. Teens are constantly in the process of deconstructing and then reconstructing who they are, what they think and feel, what they believe, and how they want to live in the world. Although it’s easy to look at a word like deconstructing and have negative thoughts, I think it really embodies many of the processes of adolescence. And remember, deconstructing almost always results in reconstructing, whether that be of faith or self. Deconstructing isn’t something we should fear, because in the end, it almost always results in a more honest, thoughtful, and healthy reconstruction of self.
Part of what I do as a librarian who serves teen is to provide them access to the tools and resources that can help them in this process. I believe in the power of story and words to help us explore the world around us and the world inside of us so that we can deconstruct and then reconstruct our understanding. The power of story helps build compassion. Words enlighten, motivate, encourage, challenge, affirm and more. There are teens that I have had the opportunity to sit and talk with, teens I have watched grow from year to year, but there are also teens who have walked into my library that I have never seen and the simple act of providing the book that they needed when they needed it has helped them become the person they are today. It’s a responsibility I do not take lightly.
Filed under: Sunday Reflections
About Karen Jensen, MLS
Karen Jensen has been a Teen Services Librarian for almost 30 years. She created TLT in 2011 and is the co-editor of The Whole Library Handbook: Teen Services with Heather Booth (ALA Editions, 2014).
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