Over the past few years a large number of American Christians have shared that they have “deconstructed,” or are in the process of “deconstructing” their faith. The term is an interesting one. I’ve often wondered why “faith deconstruction” in particular has been used to express such a wide range of “questioning” of received Christian traditions, institutions and beliefs. Though some of this questioning may be more academic in nature, most of it appears to be intensely personal, reflecting painful betrayal and profound disillusionment with the church. Such questioning is understandable. But why the provocative language of “faith deconstruction”? Why has this descriptor taken on the life it has within American Christianity? And is it helpful, or ultimately unhelpful?

Certainly the term “deconstruction” has become a matter of heated debate. For some it is a damnable word, tantamount to apostatizing, and not to be redeemed. For others, it presents no threat at all, but signifies a universal – if painful – process of spiritual transformation. Somewhere in-between, and more commonly, it refers to an extensive re-examination of faith, a thorough analysis[1] involving a “massive inventory … tearing every doctrine from the cupboard and turning each one over in [our] hand.”[2]

Deconstruction has entered the mainstream, as is often the case, through the rarified reservoirs of the academy. Not all academic ideas find traction in popular culture, of course. But the term itself, and its “feel,” if you like, strongly resonate with the spirit of our age.

It is now a truism to say we all swim in a culture of institutional mistrust. A radical “hermeneutic of suspicion” is plainly evident in both the extremes of the left (e.g., hyper-attunement to microaggressions, dog-whistles and other coded speech from a pervasive, totalizing fill-in-the-blank-ism, a neurotic anxiety over sexual repression, a therapeutically-framed fear of the “toxic” other, especially of the white evangelical variety) and the right (e.g., fake news, vast conspiracy theories, a neurotic anxiety over religious repression, fear of governmental intervention … unless it’s against “woke capitalism”). Both ends of that spectrum have shaped our impression of one another, and hence our suspicion of each other. If we’re honest, we’re all a little suspicious. We have reason to be.

We’ve been marketed to our entire lives. Sold a bill of goods by Madison Avenue, scammed by Wall Street, suckered by politicians and swindled by preachers, we live under the perpetual caution of “buyer beware.” Weary of the bright façades, many of us want to tear down the scaffolded, cosmetic wrappings and lay bare the naked edifice. We want to denude the landscape of all the cluttered advertisements, clamoring propaganda and spinning rhetoric to expose the God’s-honest-truth. We want to debunk, defang, and deflect the torrential lies. We want to deescalate the violence waging war against our souls.

We’ve also broadly come to terms with the constructed nature of so much of our modern experience. Staple “givens” of the Western world, such as “the scientific endeavor” (Kuhn), “rationality,” “justice” (MacIntyre), “personal identity” (Taylor), “the white race” (Du Bois), etc., have been shown to be socially constructed phenomena. This doesn’t mean that there are no scientific facts (indeed, “science is real”), or that rationality or justice are merely points of view, or that all identity is groundless. But it does mean among other things that much of what we’ve experienced as “brute facts” are, in fact, thickly interpreted facts. And yes, that too is an interpreted fact.

This revolutionary realization has seeped into the tributaries of main street, the sprawling suburbs, and rural America. If what we’ve received as “absolute truth” is discovered to be substantially socially constructed, then, it follows, it can also be de-constructed. And if much of that “truth” proves, upon closer examination, to be less-than-advertised, then a thorough “deconstruction” is in order.

Deconstruction

But what is the proper sense of “deconstruction”? Though the meaning of any term is closely bound up with its use, it is illuminating (if a bit counterintuitive here) to consider authorial intent, and explore the term’s original meaning. Jacques Derrida, the so-called father of deconstruction, has repeatedly explained to critics and confused advocates alike that, despite its negative ring,[3] deconstruction is not “a negative operation.”[4]

But first impressions are hard to overcome. In addition to a frowning prima facia, “deconstruction” has also suffered the liability of all abstruse philosophizing: it is confusing. This is due in part to the playful proliferation of neologisms and re-definitions that Derrida has promulgated.[5] It is also due in part to a number of presumptuous misunderstandings among his readers – both friend and foe. Even more careful students of contemporary thought have variously misconstrued him, prematurely dismissing him as a kind of relativist[6] or nihilist.[7] As John D. Caputo contends:

… the most fundamental misunderstanding to beset Derrida and deconstruction is the mistaken impression that … texts mean anything the reader wants them to mean; traditions are just monsters to be slain … ; the great masters of the Western tradition are dead white male tyrants whose power must be broken and whose name defamed; institutions are just power-plays oppressing everything; and language is a prison, just a game of signifiers signifying nothing … without reference to the real world.[8]

With regard to the Western tradition, Derrida might well be looking the gift-horse in the mouth,[9] but rather than despising this birthright, he purports to take “the great masters” with the utmost seriousness.[10] Since deconstruction isn’t something we do, according to Derrida, but something that is already happening within a text, we must become closely attuned readers.[11] This entails more than reading “the classics” carefully. Because “there is nothing outside the text”[12] deconstruction is an event that happens everywhere, all the time. It is how we experience the world.[13] To put it another way, we might borrow from Cornelius Van Til and say that there are no “brute facts.” Every “fact” is controlled and interpreted first by God and, subsequently and often erroneously, by human beings. Every fact is an interpreted fact.[14]

Far from indulging in some cultural death drive, as critics often charge, engaging “deconstruction” is how we take responsibility as stewards of the world in which we find ourselves.[15] This was Derrida’s persistent claim.[16]

This translates directly to the confusion many have regarding those who use “faith deconstruction” to name their experience of doubt, critical re-examination, and sincere apprehension. We need to be careful here. What’s trending on social media isn’t always an accurate portrayal of the phenomenon behind the hashtag. Not all who are “deconstructing” are acting faithlessly. As a pastor, a number of Christians have quietly disclosed to me that they are “deconstructing,” by which they mean something like processing their doubts, disappointments and disillusionments. Yet I’ve experienced none of them as eager to “walk away from the faith,” or willy-nilly redefine it.

Given all the confusion, it seems wise for us to be cautious in jumping to conclusions about those who are “deconstructing”. Moreover, not only is the term understandable, I think it may be permissible. In the 12th episode of the Rise and Fall of Mars Hill podcast, Paul Tripp went so far as to say, “We should all be deconstructing our faith.” I think he’s right. More than that, I find the concept of deconstruction is actually helpful. And I would even argue that not only ought our faith be deconstructed, it ought to be deconstructed all the way.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Before I get to a deconstruction-all-the-way, a deconstruction-like-death, I want to address briefly Derrida’s concept of the undeconstructible. In order for deconstruction to be possible, he argued, there must an undeconstructible prospect,[17] an “infinite transcendence” beyond our present horizon that impels the deconstructing of our texts, traditions and institutions. All “deconstructive analysis is undertaken in the name of something, something affirmatively un-deconstructible.”[18] Responsibility to this name, that is, to our institutions, to our traditions, to carrying forward the torch we’ve been handed, compels us. Derrida speaks of “undeconstructible justice,” for instance, in legal reform, [19] or a “democracy to come,” at which we never fully arrive, but ever strive toward.[20]

In Christian terms, we might say deconstruction is not finally destructive of our traditions or institutions, but re-constructs them toward a more faithful “incarnation” of the undeconstructible gospel.

Now all this isn’t to say that deconstruction, properly and charitably understood, is finally compatible with Christian orthodoxy.[21] In sharp contrast to Derrida, Christianity teaches that the undeconstructible actually irrupted into our historical horizon in the advent of Christ. The messianic, of which Derrida speaks as ever coming but never arriving,[22] arrived two-thousand years ago in Bethlehem … even while we await his second coming. This difference is profound.[23] But I do hope this brief survey prompts us to re-examine our assumptions, and perhaps redirect us toward fruitful points of contact with those who are “deconstructing.” As the apostle Paul illustrated in Athens (Acts 17:22-34), we can find rich, common ground through flashes of insight that emerge even from systems of thought quite foreign to Scripture.[24]

I also hope it proves helpful in thinking about our own faith. It is true, we confess contrary to Derrida that the eternal logos has become historically conditioned, socially contextualized, and textually embodied in the apostolic gospel … “once and for all.” And rather than its Jewish particularity as a geo-ethnic event excluding or marginalizing non-Jews, its historical realization becomes good news for all nations.[25] The universal was localized in Christ, and through him, every locale was made a portal to heaven (John 4:19-24); and is now expressed in local churches scattered around the globe. Yet those local congregations, we’d all admit, are themselves far from heaven. As the apostle Paul wrote of himself,

Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Brothers and sisters, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.

In our current incompleteness, imperfection, impossible mass of contradiction, we are by grace open to – and ever moving toward – Christ’s future. Even with the apostolic tradition vouchsafed to us, we must confess that we have not fully attained to it, even while it is “in our hands.” This, I suggest, will involve a kind of on-going deconstruction. But in what sense may we speak of deconstructing “faith”?

Faith

In the Christian tradition, “faith” can have three distinct referents. First, we can speak of “the faith” as the content of the apostolic tradition (e.g., Jude 3). Orthodoxy might label this the “undeconstructible” Word of God – to Derrida’s horror[26] – in light of which all our words and deeds are deconstructed (e.g. Hebrews 4:12-13).[27]

Secondly, we can speak of “faith” as a gift, the fruit of the Spirit that attends God’s mysterious work of regeneration (e.g. Philippians 1:29). This is the spiritual reality engendered by the “implanted word” that unites us to Christ, and progressively blossoms during the course of our spiritual development.

Thirdly, and relatedly, we can speak of our “faith” as an historically conditioned, socially embodied set of beliefs and practices (e.g., Romans 14:1-23).[28] Such “faith” is constructed, even if its dynamic is the Spirit’s renewal, and its foundation the apostolic faith that has persisted through the ages by the same Spirit of truth. This “faith,” we would all agree, is eminently reformable. And given the culturally conditioned dimensions of its constitutive belief and practice, especially where it is blind to its constructed-ness, it is ripe for deconstructive analysis.[29]

Here is where some speak of “deconstruction” as a kind of disentangling of the essential elements of our received faith from its incidental historical developments and particular cultural forms – especially its perceived “evangelical accouterments.” Many evangelicals have affirmed this work of disentanglement as important, but differentiated it from deconstruction by referring instead to “disenculturation.” The term is taken from Richard Lovelace’s Dynamics of Spiritual Renewal, where the author uses it to address two opposing errors of contextualization: destructive enculturation (a kind of over-contextualization) and protective enculturation (a kind of under-contextualization). Disenculturation, then, becomes a crucial condition for spiritual renewal, in which churches “cut loose from cultural support,”[30] that is, from various cultural constructs that obscure Christ’s power and reign.

This is vitally true. However, the distinction between “culture” and “faith” is rarely as clear-cut as we imagine – particularly as we contemplate the third category above. As Paul Tripp said, “We better do it [i.e., deconstruct], because our faith becomes a culture, a culture so webbed into the purity of truth, it’s hard to separate the two.” For instance, consider this: rarely is it the case that any one individual or community of faith is either over-contextualizing or under-contextualizing. We are typically engaged in forms of both – simultaneously. To give one example, many fundamentalist churches that we might straightaway diagnose as protectively enculturated are at the same time destructively enculturated to certain political ideologies.[31]

Or consider that enculturation is not only pervasive, but at some level necessary for the church’s missionary task. To put this another way, the question isn’t whether the church will be contextualized within a given culture – we always are. The question is whether the church is contextualizing faithfully. For example, Paul radically disenculturated the apostolic gospel from its Judaistic encasement. But this resulted not in some a-cultural expression of the gospel, as if that were possible. Rather, the apostle’s aim was to re-enculturate in specific, gospel-shaped ways within his broader social context (1Corinthians 9:19-23; 10:31-33). Only from the matrix of a faithfully contextualized “gospel culture” can the church fulfill its vocation.

In doing this work of gospel re-enculturation, we are not attempting to get outside of our culture, beyond it, somehow – to get outside of the text, so to speak – but to more fully re-incarnate the good news within our contexts. In speaking of cultivating a “gospel culture,” we mean something very specific, though it can take on innumerable expressions in various contexts. To put it very acutely, we mean a cruciform community, in which we share continually in the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ. Life in such a community entails an on-going “deconstruction” at the cross.

Deconstruction…All the Way

Immensely helpful at this point is Martin Luther’s foundational distinction between the two kinds of theologians – one of glory and one of the cross – from his Heidelberg Disputation (1518). And it’s appropriate to raise this elemental category of Luther here since the etymology of Derrida’s “deconstruction” traces back through Heidegger to the reformer’s use of destructio in reference to the gospel’s “destruction” of worldly wisdom and reason (1 Corinthians 1:19).[32]

This is to say, the destructio of what we might call “theologies of glory.”

In God’s judgment against the pride and arrogance of men, the divine power and wisdom paradoxically appear to them as weakness and foolishness … as something to be despised and rejected. In this way, the theology of the cross confounds – and deconstructs – “theologians of glory.” Such theologians “build their theology in the light of what they expect God to be like—and, surprise, surprise, they make God to look something like themselves,” Carl Trueman writes.

The “theologians of the cross,” however, are those who build their theology in the light of God’s own revelation of himself in Christ hanging on the cross.

This is revolutionary.[33] Here’s the problem though. We are all habitually theologians of glory – even the most doctrinally orthodox among us.[34] We are naturally curved in on ourselves, making and re-making our theology, as applied in word and deed, to our own advantage. We are constantly reverting to theologies of glory in our forms of worship, in our use of power, in inhabiting our socio-economic strata, in our performing righteousness, whether personal piety or public virtue, in our sexuality and familial relationships, in our practice of hospitality, etc., etc. These are all susceptible to being cast in our own image, as Trueman observes, “and all must be recast in the light of the cross.”

Through the weak and foolish word of the cross, quietly powerful through the indwelling Spirit among the community of God’s people, Christ himself deconstructs our deep-seated theologies of glory. By the sign of the cross (Galatians 6:17) — that is, not through our own triumph or heroic performance, but through inward agony and outward mistreatment[35] – our enculturated faith is exposed, reproved, refined and renewed. As we are continually plunged into Christ’s death and raised in his resurrection, we are becoming, slowly but surely, theologians of the cross.

This is the deconstructive work of the cross. It is far more radical than any “deconstruction” we could undertake ourselves, whether by our own individual efforts, by some ecclesial tradition, or by any alleged internal mechanism of history or language. It is the secret work of God, in which the church reformed is ever being reformed. Deconstructed all the way down.

But then why use “deconstruction,” rather than “reformation”? To be sure, deconstruction can be understood under the rubric of reform. But whereas “reform” typically addresses the formal doctrines and recognized practices of a particular community of faith, “deconstruction” draws our attention to the actual doctrines taught, formally and informally, to consider the subtexts, to interrogate what is emphasized and de-emphasized. It addresses the unrecognized, covert and off-the-record practices that, for better but usually for worse, are integral to the culture of a church or faith community. It invites us to attend to the gaps and lacunas within our own faith, to be attuned to the anomalies and ambiguities “from within.” Rather than settle for a forced harmonization or superficial coherence, we are called to explore these incongruities with curiosity in the pursuit of a deeper fidelity.

Deconstructive readings are not a replacement of conventional or “first readings,”[36] but rather supplement them as a deeper “second reading” analyzing the discrepancies, inconsistencies and tensions within a text, tradition or institution. As such, deconstructive analysis is not interested in simplifying (though that too must be done), but rather complexifying the narrative. The reason is not to be ornery, to problematize for the sake of making problems, but to unearth infidelities – in our case, to uncover theologies of glory – within the tradition in which one is operating. It exposes the hidden, downplayed, disavowed beliefs and practices – say, for instance, the fact that the presence of the church has not always been “good news” for minorities, or that a scandalous percentage of evangelical pastors confess to using pornography – and calls for thorough reform in the clarifying light of “the faith once and for all delivered to the saints.”

It honestly acknowledges our limits and deficiencies (personally, historically and institutionally). If it subverts our “faith,” it is in the interest of the integrity of our faith. It is ever open to correction, redirection, reconsideration, repentance. That is to say, it is ever open to Christ’s future, in order to become more faithful to his past (life, death, and resurrection). And before the glory of resurrection must come the anguish of crucifixion.

This work is deeper than mere doctrinal reform, as important as that is.[37] It is part of the “cruciforming” of our souls. To quote Luther regarding the agony of becoming a theologian of the cross:

It is not understanding, reading or speculation, but living — no, dying and being damned — that makes a theologian.

It is a humiliating predicament, if ultimately therapeutic, to be deconstructed at the cross, to be crucified with Christ, to become a genuine theologian of the cross. I’m reminded here again of Paul Tripp’s words from the podcast:

You know I celebrate the church of Jesus Christ … I love the gospel, I have no other wisdom than that, but I’m sad for the Church … There is a devastating humility that comes when you are willing to deconstruct something you have given your life to.

But if we are loyal sons and daughters of the Church, we will risk such deconstruction. Indeed, it is the only way forward.

Footnotes

  1. Like the English word, “analysis,” which etymologically means, “a breaking up, a loosening, releasing,” so “deconstruction” involves a kind of “breaking down.” But not for the sake of sheer dismantling or destruction.
  2. Rachel Held Evans, Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving, and Finding the Church (Thomas Nelson, 2015), 50.
  3. As Derrida writes in Letter to a Japanese Friend, “The undoing, decomposing, and desedimenting of structures, in a certain sense more historical than the structuralist movement it called into question, was not a negative operation. Rather than destroying it was also necessary to understand how an ‘ensemble’ was constituted and to reconstruct it to this end.” See also Deconstruction In A Nutshell (New York: Fordham University Press, 2021) p.37, 41.
  4. This misunderstanding is present among both popular opponents and proponents of “deconstruction.” Against this impression, John D. Caputo writes: “[deconstruction] does not leave behind a path of destruction and smoldering embers … far from being nihilistic, deconstruction is deeply and profoundly ‘affirmative,’” Deconstruction In A Nutshell (New York: Fordham University Press, 2021) p.37, 41.
  5. See Roger Lundin, Culture of Interpretation (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993), 206, fn.44. The new erudite obscurantism that has unfortunately emerged is now the butt of many jokes … and a famous hoax. And this is to say nothing of the “horror stories” that have come from the Yale School of criticism. Many have wondered whether Derrida himself wasn’t a trickster, hoodwinking the entire academic community. I am more inclined to agree with Kevin Vanhoozer’s assessment: “My own view of Derrida is neither conservative nor radical, but centrist: Derrida is a serious philosopher whose critique of philosophy shakes it to its very foundations and takes it to its breaking point. … While he needs to be heard, his is neither the last nor only word on the subject. Nevertheless, Derrida’s iconoclasm performs one positive function: that of cleansing the hermeneutical temple of the purveyors of cheap interpretations,” Is There Meaning In This Text (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1998), 52.
  6. In answer to the question of whether he was a relativist, Derrida exclaimed: “No, relativism is a doctrine which has its own history in which there are only points of view with no absolute necessity, or no references to absolutes. That is the opposite to what I have to say. … I have never said such a thing,” J. Derrida, “Hospitality, Justice and Responsibility: A Dialogue with Jacques Derrida,” in Questioning Ethics: Debates in Contemporary Continental Philosophy (New York: Routledge, 2002), 78.
  7. E.g., the otherwise cogent analysis of Anthony Thisleton in Interpreting God and the Postmodern Self (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995). Though he is correct in observing that “Jacques Derrida…explicitly acknowledges his indebtedness to the principle of suspicion in Nietzsche …,” yet the problem of “will to power” in interpretation is not Derrida’s primary concern. Lundin is more on point, even if he finally dismisses Derrida as a “joyous” nihilist: “What is unique in his thinking is the claim that this sense of emptiness is not a product of the specific cultural and intellectual history of the modern West; instead, Derrida argues that the emptiness is at the very heart of language, which is always on the verge of self-betrayal … For Derrida, language begins to deconstruct itself even before a critic trains his or her gaze upon it.” Culture of Interpretation, p.192. However, Derrida vehemently rejects the supposition drawn: well then, everything is meaningless.
  8. So writes Caputo, Derrida’s theological bulldog, if you like, in Deconstruction In A Nutshell,, 37-38.
  9. Derrida on deconstruction and the Greeks: “It is an analysis which tries to find out how their thinking works or does not work, to find tensions, the contradictions, the heterogeneity within their own corpus … So to be true to Plato, and this is a sign of love and respect for Plato, I have to analyze the functioning and dis-functioning of his work,” from “The Villanova Roundtable: A Discussion with Jacques Derrida,” in Caputo’s Deconstruction In A Nutshell, 9.
  10. “This has been from the beginning a terrible problem for me … this caricature, this lack of respect for reading. Because as soon as one examines my texts … one sees that respect for the great texts, or the texts of the Greeks and of others, too, is the condition of our work …” Derrida, Nutshell, 9. See Caputo’s commentary, 71-105.
  11. Derrida asserts, “Deconstruction is not a method or some tool that you apply to something from the outside…Deconstruction is something which happens and which happens inside; there is a deconstruction at work within Plato’s work, for instance,” Nutshell, 9. So contrary to popular usage, deconstruction is not a “procedure” or critical “methodology,” but a painstaking analysis of an “auto-deconstructing” text. See fn vii. This “second reading” requires attunement to the details of the text – attending to its tensions, differences, and disparities. It is an earnest care for the text, Derrida insists, that alerts us to its deconstruction.
  12. This line has proved another canard for Derrida, with critics concluding that the philosopher is a pure conventionalist or linguistic idealist who rejects any reality outside of the personal subject. On the contrary, he argues it does “not mean that all referents are suspended, denied, enclosed in a book, as people have claimed, or have been naïve enough to believe and to have accused [me] of believing,” (Limited Inc., Evaneston: Northwestern University Press, 1988, p.149). And far from yielding a hermeneutical free-for-all, the context “determines” the meaning of the text, establishing an “indispensable guardrail” using the tools of “classical criticism.” Note the original context of his quote in Of Grammatology, Corrected Edition, tr. G. Spivak (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997), p. 158. See also Questioning Ethics, p.79.
  13. I find James K.A. Smith’s explanation to be a fair summary: “To claim that nothing is outside of the text is to say that everything is a text, which means … everything must be interpreted in order to be experienced,” Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism, (Eerdmans: Grand Rapids, 2006, p.39).
  14. “Since the natural man assumes the idea of brute fact in metaphysics and the idea of the autonomy of the human mind in epistemology, the Reformed apologist realizes that he should first challenge these notions.” Cornelius Van Til and William Edgar, Christian Apologetics, 2nd ed. (The Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company: Phillipsburg, NJ, 2003). Or “By virtue of [sin], man seeks to interpret experience independently of God; indeed he is left to himself so that he must seek to interpret all things without God. Hence, all his interpretation will basically be wrong. He will set up a new and false standard of objectivity. Man will think that though he interprets alone, he nevertheless interprets correctly,” Cornelius Van Til, Psychology of Religion (The Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company: Phillipsburg, NJ, 1971), no pg.
  15. Caputo comments: “If you have a tradition, you have to take responsibility for it and for its multiplicity (SdM 40/SoM 160). But that, of course, is the only way to conserve a tradition. That is why Derrida says … “So, you see, I am a very conservative person.” For he sees deconstruction as a way to keep the event of tradition going, to keep it on the move, so that it can be continually translated into new events, continually exposed to a certain revolution in a self-perpetuating auto-revolution,” Nutshell, 37.
  16. Now, having said this, it be might argued that Derrida and company protest too much; that his position in fact amounts to such nihilism, relativism or vandalism of the Western tradition. If so, it is the critic’s job to carefully and fairly demonstrate such implications. But it will not do – especially as Christians – to represent someone’s position in a manner that they themselves would flatly deny.
  17. See Nutshell, 16-17.
  18. Caputo, Nutshell, 128. Earlier he writes, “Deconstruction, I will argue, is the endless, bottomless affirmation of the absolutely undeconstructible” 42.
  19. “That is what gives deconstruction its movement, that is, constantly to suspect, to criticize the given determinations of culture, of institutions, of legal systems, not in order to destroy them or simply to cancel them, but to be just with justice, to respect this relation to the other as justice,” The Villanova Roundtable in Caputo’s Nutshell, 18 (see also his commentary on 42), See also his essay, “The Force of the Law: The Mystical Foundation of Authority,” 1989 in Deconstruction and the Possibility of Justice (New York: Routledge, 1992), ed. Cornell, Rosenfeld, Carlson.
  20. Nutshell, 42-44.
  21. More on this below. Lundin’s comments in Culture of Interpretation, 203-211 are apropos here. Vanhoozer writes, “Derrida has correctly analyzed the modern situation, or at least an aspect of it, but he has done so by bracketing out orthodox Christian beliefs. As Brian Ingraffia contends, the death of God that informs deconstruction is the death of the God of the philosophers, not of the God disclosed in Jesus Christ,” Is There Meaning In This Text?. 52.
  22. For Derrida, there must be a messianic kingdom to render our current “reforms” meaningful, but his messianic prospect is always coming and never arriving. For him, the arrival of the messianic into history would be catastrophic. In this sense, Derrida’s “messanicity” is a kind of anti-Christ-ism.
  23. James K.A. Smith’s “inoculatively” titled, Who’s Afraid of … series, for all their help in clarifying many confusions, also lend themselves toward deemphasizing critical differences. This is true of his volume addressing Derrida (Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism), though to be fair, he does acknowledge Derrida’s distance from Christian belief.
  24. It is striking that Paul approvingly cites an ancient Greek poet (Aratus) expressing his Stoic panentheism:

    Let us begin with Zeus, whom we mortals never leave unspoken.

    For every street, every market-place is full of Zeus.

    Even the sea and the harbor are full of this deity.

    Everywhere everyone is indebted to Zeus.

    For we are indeed his offspring…  (Phaenomena 1-5).

  25. Derrida reveals his concern over such claims when he writes, “As soon as you reduce the messianic structure to messianism, then you are reducing the universality and this has important political consequences. Then you are accrediting one tradition among others and a notion of an elected people, of a given literal language [although the Greek of the NT problematizes this concern for Christianity], a given fundamentalism,” Nutshell, 23.
  26. Derrida’s horror is that the undeconstructible might enter the stage of history as an event, an institution or a text. That is, in Derrida’s terms, that it might become deconstructible.
  27. This Word is not only embodied infallibly in the text of Scripture, but also faithfully if fallibly in the living tradition of the church. In other words, the (undeconstructible) faith, handed down in the apostolic tradition (2Ti 1:13-14), is not a vacant sign that deconstructs other empty signs, but a tupos or pattern of sounds words (2Ti 2:2; 1Ti 1:10-11; 4:6; 6:3; Titus 2:1; cf. Ro 6:17) enshrined in Scripture and expressed in a tupos of practice – the apostolic pattern of life (Phi 3:17; 1Co 4:16-17; 11:1; 2Th 3:9). It is this rich context of words and actions that constitute a faithful “living tradition,” or what we might call “a gospel culture.” Rather than an arbitrary nexus of sectarian signs and antiquated symbols, it constitutes a universal language among the saints (e.g., love, 1Ti 1:3) that finds both its full expression and inseverable root in the life, death and resurrection of the Messiah.
  28. Derrida himself makes a similar distinction: “Then I would distinguish between religion and faith. If by religion you mean a set of beliefs, dogmas, or institutions – the church, e.g., – then I would say that religion as such can be deconstructed, and not only can be but should be deconstructed, sometimes in the name of faith,” Nutshell, 21.
  29. As Smith writes, “Deconstruction’s recognition that everything is interpretation opens a space of questioning – a space to call into question the received and dominant interpretations that often claim not to be interpretations at all.” Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism, 51.
  30. Dynamics of Spiritual Life (Downers Grove: IVP, 2020 edition), 211.
  31. This isn’t a contextualization error peculiar to fundamentalism either. As James K.A. Smith writes “The fact that there seems to be little tension between Christianity and American nationalism is … a sign of a Christianity that has accommodated itself to these American ideals of battle, military sacrifice … freedom [e.g. ‘freedom from’ rather than positive ‘freedom to/for’], and prosperity through property … many Christians experience no tension between the gospel according to America and the gospel of Jesus Christ because, subtly and unwittingly, the liturgies of American nationalism have so significantly shaped our imagination that they have, in many ways, trumped other liturgies,” Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation (Cultural Liturgies) (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009), 107.

  32. Nutshell, lvi, fn.87.
  33. “The implications of this position are revolutionary. For a start, Luther is demanding that the entire theological vocabulary be revised in light of the cross. Take for example the word power. When theologians of glory read about divine power in the Bible, or use the term in their own theology, they assume that it is analogous to human power. They suppose that they can arrive at an understanding of divine power by magnifying to an infinite degree the most powerful thing of which they can think. In light of the cross, however, this understanding of divine power is the very opposite of what divine power is all about. Divine power is revealed in the weakness of the cross, for it is in his apparent defeat at the hands of evil powers and corrupt earthly authorities that Jesus shows his divine power in the conquest of death and of all the powers of evil. So when a Christian talks about divine power, or even about church or Christian power, it is to be conceived of in terms of the cross—power hidden in the form of weakness,” Truman, https://opc.org/new_horizons/NH05/10b.html (accessed 4/28/22).
  34. As Trueman writes, “Yes, many talk about the cross, but the cultural norms of many churches seem no different to the cultural norms of — well, the culture. They often indicate an attitude to power and influence that sees these things as directly related to size, market share, consumerist packaging, aesthetics, youth culture, media appearances, swagger … An abstract theology of the cross can quite easily be packaged and marketed by a theologian of glory. And this is not to point the finger at `them’: in fact, if we are honest, most if not all of us feel the attraction of being theologians of glory.”
  35. Here Luther spoke compellingly of the strange agency of anfechtung and tentatio in the Christian life.
  36. Nutshell, 66-67
  37. Commenting on the criticism of Terry Eagleton, Lundin writes, “postructuralism [i.e., deconstructionism] is the perfect form of thought for people who seek the thrill of subversion without the risk of dangerous confrontation,” Cultural Interpretation, 194. This may be true, but as Dallas Willard has pointed out, something similar may be said regarding our evangelical preoccupation with theological orthodoxy without the hard work of orthopraxy.
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Posted by James Walden

James Walden is the lead pastor at Riverside Community Church in Columbia, SC.

5 Comments

  1. Kerry Layne Bond July 14, 2022 at 9:44 am

    Thank you for your thoughtful piece. I disagree with you that deconstruction is useful to the Church. In their book, CYNICAL THEORIES, Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay point out, “The author’s intentions are irrelevant, when those can be known, due to Derrida’s adaptation of Roland Barthes’ concept of “the death of the author.” If the author of the Bible is God, then deconstruction advocates for the death of God. They go on to assert, “to read “deconstructively,” by looking for internal inconsistencies (aporia) in which a text contradicts and undermines itself and its own purposes when the words are examined closely enough (which is to say, too closely and, especially since the 1990s, with an agenda—Theory’s normative agenda). In practice, deconstructive approaches to language therefore look very much like nitpicking at words in order to deliberately miss the point.” (Kindle Location 570 and 578)
    Deconstruction deliberately “problemizes” the Bible so as to confuse, disorient, and dismember any meaning. Again, as CYNICAL THEORIES points out, “The early forms of postmodernism—with their ultimate meaninglessness, lack of direction, and concern only to deconstruct, disrupt, and problematize without providing any resources for rebuilding—” (Kindle location 614)
    In a word, deconstructionism, as it is applied to the Faith, attempts to destroy the Bible and those who read the Bible for “teaching, reproof, correction, and training in righteousness.”
    For that reason, and others I have listed, I cannot agree that deconstruction is useful to the Church.

    Pluckrose, Helen; Lindsay, James A.. Cynical Theories . Pitchstone Publishing. Kindle Edition.

    Reply

    1. Did you even read the article? You’re criticizing something that the author also criticizes.

      Further, when people speak of deconstruction, the focus is not on the biblical text but instead on the practices of certain faith communities, such as American white evangelicalism.

      Reply

  2. […] On the more theological side of articles this week, James Walden wrote “Deconstruction and the Theology of the Cross” for Mere Orthodoxy, an ingenious mashup of Martin Luther and Exvangelical deconstruction, […]

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  3. […] James Walde at simple orthodoxy discusses this phenomenon and relates it to Luther’s Theology of the Cross. While Luther is indeed a valuable resource that can help contemporary Christians work through their problems and confusions, I’m not sure that “deconstruction” or “theology of the cross” accurately describes what disillusioned evangelicals are doing. . […]

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  4. I agree with the article. As Christians who are sanctified and are being sanctified daily. The cross is continually deconstructing our views that soothes our convictions that have an “inward bent” towards truth. We are always weighing things out through our own experiences of the truths and application of scripture. We pick and choose what to believe by even the most prominent theologians throughout history. Basically, we call the shots. Deconstruction is something that is constantly happening when searching for truth. If that were not so then once you are saved, you would have been filled with all wisdom and knowledge of God. But the truth is we will always be wrestling with these truths to apply them to our everyday lives and surrounding cultures.

    As the article says, the Bible and scripture are “undeconstructible”. We can only deconstruct that which man claims as foundational truths that form our modern-day evangelical doctrines and dogmas. Still, we all know that not all fundamental thought is seen as truth. As mentioned, we all take the liberty to weigh out what to believe according to our interpretation of scripture. And what is even more alarming is that all these differing beliefs will be (in the interpreter’s mind) stamped with the approval of the Holy Spirit. This is where truth claiming can be dangerous. Haven’t we all said something from the pulpit or in conversation only to later recant what we said? Go back to your sermons and notes from 20 years ago. I’m sure you’ll cringe once or twice with something you said. Throughout history the church has held unshakable views that they believed were of God, which through time they’ve had to repent over.

    It’s not bad or wrong to change your doctrinal views or preconceived ideas relating to our traditional fundamental practices. It’s actually quite a humbling experience to go through these changes. What is worse is hanging on to a view you know is wrong because you don’t want to challenge the system or face the criticism. Even Jesus deconstructed the religious views of the day. Deconstructionists are in good company.

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