In this interview, FEMME MAG intern Tireni discusses religion and spirituality with Eko*, a young Nigerian woman who practices a deconstructionist approach to Christianity. She talks about rejecting Biblical literalism, trying to reconcile her faith with her political stances, and the backlash she’s received from the Nigerian Christian community when she vocalises her beliefs.
TIRENI: Hi Eko! Thanks for sitting down with me today.
EKO: Heyy Tireni. It’s my pleasure to be here.
TIRENI: Great, let’s get into it. How would you say you identify, as it relates to your faith or spirituality?
EKO: I think I’m one of those annoying people that says, “Oh I’m spiritual and not religious”. Obviously, if I had to tick a box, it’s Christian but I specifically identify as a deconstructionist Christian if that makes sense.
TIRENI: Can you tell us a bit more about what that is and how you came to identify as that?
EKO: I think deconstructionist Christianity has really been a journey for me. When I was younger, I didn’t have the language for how I felt. Growing up, your parents take you to church and everything, but I always had questions nibbling at the back of my mind. When I say I had questions, I don’t mean that I doubted God or that I was Christian but rather just that I had questions within the faith, and no one wanted to answer them because it was always seen negatively or as heresy.
TIRENI: Makes sense! Let’s go back a bit to how you were raised. What was your childhood like growing up as a Christian?
EKO: Well, my dad was a Christian, but he was never super vocal. He believed in God, but I don’t think Christianity was his identity. You know those Nigerian parents where it’s church alllll the time? He wasn’t really like that. I think he believed in Jesus but wasn’t really active in terms of observing and enforcing religious practices. My mum was more of the active one. She would take us to Redeemed Camp and in December we would have periods of fasting. She ensured we observed all the usual Christian religious practices.
TIRENI: How would you say this routine has changed as you’ve become a young adult and gained independence?
EKO: Honestly, I think that when you don’t have that push from your parents, it allows you to explore your faith differently. I don’t necessarily subscribe to all the beliefs held by a lot of the pastors and preachers I listened to growing up like I did when I was younger. I still tune in to some of their services, but I feel like how I practice my faith now is more personal.
I don’t go to church a lot and I also think that’s because of the theology and messages they convey sometimes. Basically, there is a little bit more distance now in terms of my participation in the Church structure but I’m still very much in tune with my Christianity.
TIRENI: That’s amazing. For those who don’t quite know what a deconstructionist approach to Christianity is, what would be your quick-fire description?
EKO: To put it simply the term deconstructionist means “to take apart”. It acknowledges that we’ve learned a lot of information in our lives about Christianity and with that comes assumptions. We tend to base our entire theology on whatever we’ve been told from our church or culture and how they practice their faith. So, deconstructing is unlearning almost everything. In fact, it is unlearning everything and starting from scratch.
Deconstructing is critically reflecting and asking questions like, “What is the context behind this text? How were these statements said? How do we unlearn and re-construct our idea of the Bible, God, theology and discern what good and bad theology are?” I think it’s such a beautiful thing.
Lmao, you know I just realized that you said to give a short description and my answer was soo long-winded.
TIRENI: Haha, we have time! You gave just the right amount of depth we needed. When you think back, what moment would you say sparked your deconstructionist Christian journey?
EKO: I would say that it all started when I did a debate on religion and science when I was like 16 or 17. I got many questions from people who were atheists or agnostics and they asked me some very hard questions. That experience made me reflect and I realised many people do have these tough but valid questions and have left Christianity because everyone around them shunned them for questioning. After that, I created this niche for myself where I sought to speak to those people. I want to help them in their journeys, so they know that it is perfectly ok to ask questions or say, “Hmm this doesn’t sit well. I’m not just going to take it because my pastor said it.”
If I’m being honest, I think I also feel that way because I can relate to them in some sense. My political stances have always been the biggest challenge to my faith. In Nigeria, we’re taught that the Bible is very literal and incontestable. So, when I think about growing up as a feminist and as someone who believes more generally in equality and racial justice, it was hard to reconcile that the Bible and religion have been used to justify so much inequity, pain and suffering towards minorities. It makes you wonder, “Does this say anything about God? Does the Bible have unquestionable authority? Do we evolve past this?” These are the kind of questions that came to me.
TIRENI: You’re asking all the right questions.
EKO: I hope so! One thing I’ve realised is that instead of believing in Biblical literalism, the idea that the Bible is literal and the word of God in exact terms as opposed to people having an evolving conversation about their own interpretations of God, we need to privilege context. Yes, those who wrote the Bible and currently interpret it may have been informed by their own experiences and encounters with God, but they are still people and people will have a specific cultural context they operate within.
I feel like once we understand that our relationship with our faith involves an evolving conversation and that we will inevitably drop and add things based on changing interpretations, we would find ourselves in a better place. I haven’t completely reconciled everything because there are just some things I can’t explain. There are things that still seem so “Yikes” for lack of a better word but accepting this has helped me.
TIRENI: You mentioned how Biblical literalism is a dominant force within Christianity in Nigeria. How do other Nigerian Christians usually respond when they find out you’re a deconstructionist Christian? Do they think, “What’s this one talking about?”
EKO: I think it’s always followed up with “Eh?? You’re a what? What does that mean?” Some people may think it’s another denomination since we have so many factions of Christianity across the country. You know some Christians always think their own denomination is better or the one true denomination in contrast to other people. I think there’s already that kind of competition and inclination to look down upon the word because it shows that the Christianity I subscribe to may not be the same as what they’re taught in their denomination.
To clarify, deconstructionist Christianity is not a denomination, it’s a practice. It’s a mode of thinking and transcends all denominations. It’s looking at God, religion, and Christianity as a whole, not as a faction.
EKO: The other thing I get is that when I explain it, they’re now like, “Ahh! Who are we to question God? Don’t be a doubting Thomas.”
Disappointingly a lot of the pushback I get is from young Nigerian Christians. It’s completely shameful because you’d expect younger Christians to be more open-minded and say, “Hey, we’ve always been told this by former generations but let me think outside the box and start from scratch.” But no. There are people who have carried their chest and accused me of trying to “perform worldly Christianity” i.e., that I want to add social justice or wokeness. You know, they call me “Madam Woke”.
They abuse me because they feel that I’m just following a trend and trying to adapt the Bible to current times. But what people don’t realise is that the Bible was written at a time, so it was relevant for a culturally specific time. Me being deconstructionist is not me saying that the Bible is completely wrong or trying to stretch it to what it’s not. Rather, it’s me acknowledging that this is an evolving conversation and considering the process by which the conversation we have about Christianity has evolved over time till present today. People just don’t get that.
TIRENI: With all this backlash, I’m curious if you’ve had any positive responses?
EKO: Yes, there have been some positive responses. Some, but I do hope it increases. A couple of people speak to me and are like, “Hey, these are interesting questions that you are asking. Can you please point me towards any resources you have?”. I’ve also had people who have been church-hurt and as a result left the Church completely tell me that I’m making them re-think that decision. They talk to me about how they miss their faith but hate how hateful, bigoted, and discriminatory it was. My description of the deconstructionist approach I’ve taken to Christianity makes them want to come back. To me, that is the most heart-warming thing.
TIRENI: I love the concept of this kind of ministry which centres love and inclusiveness. We’ve spoken a lot about how external people have reacted to your deconstructionist Christianity. What about your family? Do they know about your approach to your faith and if so, how do they feel about it?
EKO: I think my mum is fine with. My mum is very active in the Church but the only thing she says to me is just, “Don’t stray from the church” which I think is a common reaction for those who hear about my faith. Often, it’s rooted in misconceptions about what a deconstructionist approach to Christianity means. They automatically think that it means that one is permanently leaving the Church. It’s painted as straying from God’s word but that isn’t necessarily true.
My brother is completely supportive. I speak to him about what I’ve learned through my deconstructionist approach to Christianity and he’s like, “You know what. That’s so true.” Now, he messages or directly comes to me and actively asks his own questions as well. We try to battle it out and he has gained confidence in asking questions which I’m very happy about. I feel grateful on a familial level. There’s great support.
TIRENI: I think you’ve just highlighted how deconstructing your faith just means reconstructing your faith on a more solid foundation rather than losing it. If you reflect on your journey and what specifically deconstructionist Christianity has taught you, what developments would you like to see in the future regarding Christianity in Nigeria?
EKO: I would love SO many things.
Firstly, I want pastors to be theologically trained. I don’t think it’s enough to tell people you got a calling. No one can verify that. Whether they call you on Airtel o, Glo o, MTN o, nobody knows where this calling came from. It’s the responsible thing to do.
Now, with that said I think that theological training needs to be done well. The training preachers receive must emphasise the context in which statements were said. It should accommodate debate, particularly as it relates to the Bible or scripture as metaphor vs literalist meanings. Moreover, it should acknowledge the historical, cultural and political context. Even in Biblical times, there was conversation between rulers and religious leaders, so we need to stop shying away from recognising the entanglement between these spheres.
On a related note, there also needs to be some level of should I call it “Cultural awareness training with Christ” because religion has always blurred the lines with secular culture. We need to understand how religion and Christianity in this case have been complicit in oppression. I’m not saying this as something to get defensive about, but it is important because we need to figure out a way to move forward and do retributive justice.
Secondly, I would love to see alternative modes of worship and community crop up in the future and more so in the Nigerian and broader African context. I’ve had to do a lot of digging to access the resources I’ve found and used to support my journey in faith. I also think more conversation and interaction with the Nigerian Christian community and academic theologians would be wonderful. There are so many people doing great work and who have helped in the deconstructionist conversation like feminist theologians, queer theologians, people of colour across the world and others from marginalised groups who are reading from a completely different lens and give so much context and specificity.
TIRENI: This is a stacked wish list with some great insights. Ok, last question. What resources would you recommend to any readers looking to learn more about deconstructionist Christianity? I know you said earlier that sometimes it can be difficult to find good sources.
EKO: There are so many amazing books and podcasts I would recommend. Here’s a shortlist:
- Holy Heretics: Losing Religion and Finding Jesus by The Sophia Society
- Blessed Are the Feminists (a Christian feminist podcast)
- The Deconstructionist by Adam Narloch and John Williamson.
PEOPLE & PROJECTS
- Candice Benbow (She focuses on the Church, Black feminism, and Black sexuality. I particularly love her #RedLipTheology thread and podcast).
- Dante Stewart
- Jo Luehmann (decolonising faith and spirituality)
- The Black Theology Project
- “Ancient Laws and Contemporary Controversies” by Cheryl Anderson.
- “A History of Christianity in Africa: From Antiquity to Present” by Elizabeth Isichie
- “Unprotected Text: The Bible’s Surprising Contradictions About Sex and Desire” by Jennifer Wright
- “Passionate and Pious: Religious Media and Black Women’s Sexuality” by Monique Moultrie
- “Liberating Black Theology: The Bible and the Black Experience in America” by Anthony Bradley
- “God of the Oppressed” by James H. Cone
These are some really cool resources, so I hope you enjoy them!
*Name has been changed for pirvacy reasons