This article was originally published on The Gospel Coalition:
Confession: When I was a kid, I was in love with Ricky Schroder. He was the only one for me. (Except for a short hiatus after The Karate Kid, when Ralph Macchio was my all in all for a few months.) That tow-headed heartthrob who took my breath away with every episode of the 1980s sitcom Silver Spoons.
As much as I felt undying love for Ricky Schroder, I knew little about him. I didn’t have the opportunity to open my laptop (they didn’t yet exist) or turn on our home computer (we didn’t own one), hop on YouTube, and watch my future husband walk me through his breakfast choices, morning drive, and whimsical musings. I couldn’t check his Instagram for updates every hour or tweet at him with the real possibility he might tweet back. The best chance I had of communicating with him was writing a letter to his fan club. I never got a reply. I was crushed. If I would’ve found out he was a former Christian now identifying as agnostic, it would have broken my heart. But it wouldn’t have shaken my own faith.
Around the time I was nursing a wounded ego for being stood up by the Ricky Schroder fan club, Neil Postman made a prediction in his 1985 book, Amusing Ourselves to Death. Postman posited that in the future, we would be oppressed not by an outside force like “Big Brother” in George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984. Rather, he foretold, “people will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think,” pointing to Aldous Huxley’s satirical Brave New World. He predicted that with the rise of technology and communication, people wouldn’t be deprived of information, but rather they would be given so much that they would become passive and egocentric. He feared that “truth would be lost in a sea of irrelevance.” Fast forward 35 years to a day replete with a global internet and smartphones, and Postman’s words ring with the chill of prophetic accuracy.
It’s no wonder, then, that every time we turn around there is yet another deconversion story being proffered as the newest ex-evangelical smoking gun. The most recent—and arguably most influential—one has come from entertainers and YouTube sensations Rhett McLaughlin and Link Neal of the Good Mythical Morning channel and Ear Biscuits podcast.
Power of Deconversion Stories
Rhett and Link have grown their brand performing hilarious satirical songs and engaging in zany stunts such as duct-taping themselves together, playing wedgie-hangman, crushing glow sticks in a meat-grinder, and flinging bags of dog feces at one another’s faces. With guest appearances on The TODAY Show, Live with Kelly, and The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, their stars have been rising for the past few years, swelling their net worth to an estimated $23 million. They were also Christians, former missionaries, and Campus Crusade (now Cru) staff members.
When they each recorded videos walking fans through their spiritual-deconstruction stories in February, it shot through the internet like a bolt of lightning. Over the course of a few days, social-media newsfeeds became inundated with hot takes, responses, disagreements, and praise for the comedy duo. The comment sections of their Reddit, Facebook, and YouTube pages reveal that their stories inspired many atheists and touched the hearts of some folks who experienced similar deconversion journeys, describing the videos as “beautiful,” “candid,” and “vulnerable.”
Several people reached out to me personally, including pastors who reported that the faith of several kids in their youth groups was rocked by the broadcasts, leaving them shaken and doubting. After all, when someone is conversant in apologetics and theology, knows his Bible, and can anticipate my suspicions and objections, it’s difficult to simply pass him off as someone who never really understood Christianity. Blend that with Rhett and Link’s magnetic personalities, and it’s no wonder the faith of many Christians has been unsettled.
The stories themselves weren’t so different from others that have lit up social media over the past few years. For Rhett, it started with questions relating to science, the age of the earth, and evolution. It morphed into doubts surrounding biblical reliability, the historicity of the resurrection, and the general idea of hell and judgment. But as both Rhett and Link recounted, there was something brewing underneath the intellectual questions. They both felt a deep discomfort with biblical sexual ethics, which they perceived to oppress women and their LGBTQ+ friends.
Reasonable answers exist for each notion the duo passed along that, in their opinion, defeats the truth of Christianity.
Since the release of their stories, several apologists and scholars have offered sound rebuttals to some of the claims made by Rhett in particular. I imagine those types of responses will continue to roll in. As an apologist, my knee-jerk reaction was also to grab my computer and start typing refutations with the force of a thousand suns. But I don’t think it’s the actual arguments themselves people have found so persuasive. It’s the people behind the arguments. The youth-group kids left flustered and agitated by doubt might’ve been entirely unperturbed had they heard those arguments from another source. But the same timeworn skepticism the church has interacted with since its inception is given a fresh dose of potency when delivered to a whole new generation by cool and funny guys who’ve become a fixture of their childhood.
This brings us to the salient question. How can two guys who make a living as YouTube personalities go from making possum corndogs one day to throwing 2,000 years of Christian history under the bus the next? Why were so many people rattled and even persuaded by them? Could it be that the cultural influences driving these deconstruction stories needs to be re-examined, rather than Christianity itself?
Maybe the whole deconversion narrative is due for a bit of deconstruction.
Media Platform’s Persuasive Power
When I was 11, I only had the opportunity to “see” Ricky Schroder once a week. As an actor playing a character on a TV show, my access was limited. I might get a new episode once a week if I was lucky. With the YouTube-ification of our culture, though, consumers are connecting not with actors playing characters, but real people who allow them to peek behind the curtain of their lives. They offer videos that present everything from video-game hacks to make-up tutorials to opinions about political and religious issues. And we don’t have to wait a week for the next episode—in many cases there’s a new upload every single day. This creates a sense of community, in which we come to experience love and loyalty for our favorite YouTube celebrities.
Our cultural moment is a cauldron of information and celebrity worship in which the cult of personality can ferment and grow. With every hit of the “like” button, the personalities we’ve subscribed to have become our authorities for truth.
Take Rhett, for example. One element of his deconstruction story that’s particularly compelling to young people is his seemingly exhaustive knowledge of Christian apologetics. With the precision of a gifted lawyer, he laid out roadblocks to the objections he knew would follow his statements. By naming several apologists such as Lee Strobel, Josh McDowell, Tim Keller, and Ravi Zacharias, he knocked the legs out from under their arguments. There’s a good chance the Christian kid who looks up to Rhett (and probably doesn’t ever crack open his Bible) will never read those authors now. When Rhett says he’s read all the Ravi Zacharias books and found them uncompelling, the church kid probably won’t even bother with more than 30 books, containing decades worth of complex and carefully thought-out arguments that have been tested by time, debate, and rigorous scholarship. Now, the debate stops at Rhett’s conclusions.
Trading One Worldview for Another
Rhett was careful to say he doesn’t think these apologists are intentionally deceiving anyone. This implies that they are, in fact, deceiving people. Then he skillfully planted a possible motive: money. He suggested that if all these apologists and theologians were to recant their stories and change their opinions, their livelihoods would be at stake. Aside from the fact that most apologists have day jobs, this leads to a fair question: what would Rhett and Link stand to lose if they didn’t capitulate to culture on an issue like same-sex marriage? Would Jack Black and Daniel Radcliffe guest star on their YouTube channel if they held to the biblical doctrine of marriage and homosexuality? How would it affect their revenue streams and net worth to remain faithful Christians in today’s cultural climate?
After poking holes in Christianity, Rhett offered no plausible alternative to explain reality. When he jumped the Christian ship, he didn’t jump into another boat, but into a “sea of uncertainty.” His Christianity has been replaced with what he calls “openness and curiosity.” He describes how liberating it’s been to let go of the “appetite for certainty.” To the careful observer, it’s evident that Rhett has traded in one worldview for another: Christianity for postmodernity, with all its skepticism, denial of absolutes, and relativism.
Apostasy Is Real
There’s one thing I respect about the deconstruction stories of Rhett and Link. They acknowledge that Christianity means something. They understand if you cease to believe in core tenets of the faith—like sin, the atonement, the resurrection of Jesus, and the reality of heaven and hell—then you shouldn’t still identify as a Christian. In a church culture where those lines are increasingly blurred, their clarity is refreshing. And we as Christians shouldn’t be surprised when this happens. There will be those among us who claim the name of Christ today, and tomorrow they won’t. This is something Jesus himself said would happen—and it will continue to happen until he returns (Matt. 24:12).
The apostle Paul identifies his friend Demas as a “fellow worker” who was with him while imprisoned in Rome (Philem. 1:24; Col. 4:14). Later in Paul’s ministry, however, he writes that Demas ended up loving the present world more than the things of God and walked away (2 Tim. 4:10). I can’t help but notice the similarities. Demas traded eternal hope for earthly treasure. Rhett echoed that he’s more interested in what happens during his life on earth: “It’s not so much what happens after you die, but what happens while you’re alive.”
Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians 2:14–16that through his missionary work, Christ spreads the fragrance of the knowledge of himself. To some, it smells like beauty and life; to others, it smells like death. This is the effect the gospel has, and we should expect these types of reactions. Rhett said, “If I don’t have to believe [Christianity], then why would I?” Link expressed, “Why was I working so hard to make Christianity work for me if it wasn’t even true?” Aside from encountering intellectual stumbling blocks, it seems that, to YouTube’s favorite pair, the gospel had begun to stink. It would appear that despite how destabilizing and difficult their deconstruction processes were, they no longer wanted Christianity to be true.
Apostles of Unbelief
The sad reality is that, for the deconverted, disbelief isn’t sufficient. These apostles of unbelief are on a mission to help others deconstruct with the same evangelistic zeal they learned from their previous tribe. But as Christians we should be encouraged to remember that for every Rhett and Link, there’s a Lee Strobel, a J. Warner Wallace, a Holly Ordway, a C. S. Lewis, and a Rosaria Butterfield who tested their beliefs against the evidence, and found their atheism wanting. With the help of the Holy Spirit, they became convinced that Christianity is true as they gazed deeply at Christ’s beauty. They loved not the things of the world, but repented of their sin and put all their hope and trust in him. Christians today must be ready to provide a compelling defense for Christ—and even play some offense—as we demonstrate an alternative story to deconversion.
I think Postman was on to something when he wrote, “What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one.” Why ban a Tim Keller or Ravi Zacharias book when you can create a community in which no one will want to read one? The lesson we can learn from the Rhett and Link story is to observe the power of the media platform, recognize the roadblocks of the new apostles of unbelief, and keep a humble eye to history, remembering that our Savior told us some would fall away.
The truth is that we have a personality-driven culture in which two comedians can persuade Christians to rethink their faith in just three hours of video. And that’s no laughing matter.