In Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s inaugural speech, he told the American people that “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” The country was enduring a major economic crisis and would soon face the threat of fascism encircling the globe, but Roosevelt managed to communicate something about fear. Fear itself can sometimes be more threatening than individual threats. That is often true within the church, where we seem to find something new to be afraid of every few years. Right now the worry is “deconstruction.”
Like every hot topic, deconstruction is being defined in many different ways. For some, it is the path of inquiry that leads to becoming “exvangelical” or even non-Christian. To others, it is the process of closely examining personal beliefs, looking at faith piece by piece, and sorting beliefs according to merit and evidence. It may include disentangling cultural and denominational norms from biblical truths. It is many things to many people.
Our biggest problem with deconstruction right now is probably our current obsession with it. It may be that the church’s fearful response to deconstruction is a greater danger than deconstruction itself. When we engage the deconstruction conversation from a place of fear, we betray a lack of confidence in God and the truth of Christianity, which alienates people who are deconstructing and also suggests a lack of spiritual health in ourselves. The church needs a clear understanding of the distinctions between our culture and the Kingdom of God, but those differences should not be posed as existential dangers to the church. When they are, it can only increase doubt where there ought to be confidence and exclude people who need a warm embrace.
Responding to cultural trends with fear can even make us Pharisaical. Though we often simplify the Pharisees as hypocrites, they were, like us, caught in “culture wars” and often afraid. The Pharisees were surrounded by polytheism, temple prostitutes, and infanticide. Like evangelicals today, they were concerned about the declining influence of religion and people falling away from faith. They pushed back against cultural influences, emphasizing the Jewish holy laws, and they sought to protect the borders of belief, wary of Samaritan doctrine and the tax-gatherers who collaborated with Rome. Not all Pharisee doctrine was false doctrine. Even Jesus told the crowd that when it came to the Pharisees’ teaching, “all that they tell you, do and observe,” but he followed that by adding “but do not do according to their deeds” (Matthew 23:3). Their practices pushed the people away.
The Pharisees’ fear of corrupted doctrine kept them from seeing Christ in their presence. In Luke 5:21, the scribes and Pharisees described Jesus as a “man who speaks blasphemies.” Very quickly the Pharisees found themselves defending the “truth” against the “Truth and the life.” They knew so well what things were supposed to look like that in Matthew 12, they rejected the Lord of the Sabbath because of how his disciples kept the Sabbath. Their attempt to hold the line led to them missing the narrative unfolding before their eyes.
If legitimate fears of false doctrine and cultural corruption led the Pharisees into troubled waters, illegitimate fears also caused them to stumble. Jesus’ rising prominence was a threat to their position in society and his kingdom was in conflict with their hierarchy. In Luke 5:26, when Jesus healed the paralytic and forgave his sins, the scribes and Pharisees actually “were all seized with astonishment and began glorifying God; and they were filled with fear, saying, ‘We have seen remarkable things today.’” But when Jesus went from that scene to dinner with tax collectors, “the Pharisees and their scribes began grumbling at His Disciples, saying, ‘Why do you eat and drink with the tax-gatherers and sinners?’” (Luke 5:30). The Pharisees expected to be in a privileged position when it came to the Messiah and they were shocked and dismayed to find that he did not distinguish between them and the obviously unclean. To acknowledge Jesus and become his followers, they would have to become born again, but they would also have to abandon their social position.
A fear for the safety of all Jewish people helped lead the Pharisees to become determined to have Christ crucified. According to John 11:47-50: “Therefore the chief priests and the Pharisees convened a council, and were saying ‘What are we doing? For this man is performing many signs. If we let Him go on like this, all men will believe in Him, and the Romans will come and take away both our place and our nation. But a certain one of them, Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, said to them, ‘You know nothing at all, nor do you take into account that it is expedient for you that one man should die for the people, and that the whole nation should not perish.’” In fear, they decided to extinguish the light that had come into the world. Deconstruction isn’t offering us a new covenant we need to worry about missing, but neither do we want to operate under the blindness that comes with fear.
Like the Pharisees, we live in confusing times, with many competing values. The Pharisees wanted to defend the truth against false doctrine, they wanted to live differently from the rest of the world, they wanted society to operate in certain ways. So many of us want the same things and pursue the same objectives. Very easily we can and do end up like the Pharisees, clutching to status, interpretation, and safety rather than clinging to Jesus. What the Pharisees missed in their rush to defend the practices and people of faith was the very presence and activity of God. Their fears also failed to expand the Kingdom. What will we miss if we operate out of fear? Who will we exclude? What will we find ourselves clinging to?
The fear surrounding deconstruction has to do with the fear of people leaving the faith. There are real reasons for concern. Fewer young people today are identifying as Christians in the United States. Podcasts tell the story anecdotally and polls empirically; there is a decline in church membership. While churches and parents often worry about outside influences, Russell Moore has convincingly argued that “a significant amount of secularization is accelerated and driven not by the ‘secular culture,’ but by evangelicalism itself.” Moore writes that many young Christians are “walking away from evangelicalism not because they do not believe what the church teaches, but because they believe the church itself does not believe what the church teaches. The presenting issue in this secularization is not scientism and hedonism but disillusionment and cynicism.” People are worried our churches will become empty, but when we don’t have confidence in God’s provision for the church, our faith appears empty.
Fear will not help us overcome the real challenges that come with working out faith in culture. If cultural trends and new approaches to faith become the center of our attention, we lose sight of Christ. Rather than face deconstruction in fear of what it will mean for the church, we can address it with confidence in God’s provision for his people. If nothing, not death, nor life, nor principalities, nor heights, nor depths can separate us from God’s love, neither can deconstruction destroy the church. The Bible does not tell us that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself, but it does tell us repeatedly to “be not afraid.” When we live that truth, it is a bold testimony.
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This is a prescient piece. Our times are confusing, but they are by no means uniquely confusing. So there are, in every age, causes for fear. What may have changed over the course of the past two decades is the rise of media networks that manipulate those fears and cause people to engage in what Jonathan Haidt calls “motivated reasoning.”
Thus, on the left, we have a growing body of citizens who think that racism is lurking around every corner. And while it surely lurks around some, the actual supply of racism is fortunately far less than the demand for its existence. And there are those on the right who panic that the changing place of women and gays in society is going to bring the whole republic down and banish Christians to perpetual dhimmitude. This alleged threat is so great that some, like Rod Dreher and Tucker Carlson, are ready to throw their support behind authoritarian, ethno-nationalist kleptocrats like Viktor Orban as providing an attractive alternative to a society in which gays can now live freely outside of the closet. Never mind that, as David French notes, we’re actually seeing steady improvement on most indicators of social health.
We need not let our fears get the best of us.
As for deconstruction, I think it’s important to look at the intent of the person seeking to use it. We are prone to err, and we almost always err in ways that are unconsciously self-serving. So, I’d suggest that a bit of deconstruction is necessary to help us see that our institutions may not be living up to their professed ideals. So, we should welcome a modest degree of deconstruction, just as we should welcome helpful criticism from friends. But deconstruction can also be used by those who wish us ill. Such people are principally interested in using deconstruction to seek personal revenge for some perceived wrong that the institution has caused them.
Right now, I’d suggest that the evangelical church and our cultural institutions have the opposite problem. Our cultural institutions have become too welcoming of deconstruction, even from those whose motives are principally focused on exacting revenge or instigating a Marxist revolution. By contrast, the evangelical church has become too defensive against any degree of deconstruction. Thus, the evangelical church is slowly morphing into an institution focused less on the Gospel and more on protecting and defending a certain subcultural identity whose origins are largely secular.
One can see this latter feature on display in the Twitter criticisms healed on Kristin Du Mez (KDM). KDM is an historian, and her writings focus on historical analysis. Namely, she traces the history of evangelicalism’s adoption of certain secular notions of masculinity and the recasting of those secular notions as normative Christian doctrine. But very few of the criticisms of the book have criticized the merits of her historical analysis. Instead, the criticisms have focused on alleged ulterior motives and her alleged disloyalty the evangelical cause. In short, the book’s critics largely conduct their criticism in a way that validates the book’s merit and proves its value in providing a beneficial sort of deconstruction.
There are two ways by which we can teach how we should identify more with the Pharisees. We can either raise the pedestal on which we place have placed them to a height that is close to the pedestal on which we have placed ourselves or we can lower the height of the pedestal on which we have placed ourselves close to the height of the pedestal on which they really stand. Though talking about fears we share with the Pharisees is important to mention, Stice takes the former approach. And I think that is the wrong choice to make when we read some of the descriptions that Jesus made of the Pharisees.
Didn’t Jesus call the Pharisees a ‘brood of vipers’ and he said that they like to put burdens on people that they themselves are unwilling to bear. But most of all, he said that they substituted their traditions for God’s Word in order to avoid following God’s Word. So it seems that the only legitimate way to identify with the Pharisees, which is an important point being made by Stice, is to lower the pedestal on which we have placed ourselves.
What does deconstruction often target? If you read Anthony Cook on Martin Luther King Jr., we get an idea of what that target is. It is behaviors and actions by members of a group which go against a certain set of stated beliefs of that group. When it comes to Christianity, deconstruction can show the hypocrisy of its believers. And though as Christians we shouldn’t fear that process and result, as hypocrites we are deathly afraid of being exposed. But it is in that exposure that we can find ourselves responding like the tax collector did in the parable of two men praying (see Luke 18:9-14). And perhaps, it is from that posture that we should always share the Gospel and call for social change. After all, starting from that posture can save us some embarrassment.
I’d suggest that intent does matter as well. Deconstruction can be beneficial when it enables an institution to conform its practices more closely with its institutional ideals. But it can also be used by those who detest those ideals, and who engage in deconstruction in bad faith simply as a means of exacting revenge. So, there is a need to distinguish between good-faith and bad-faith actors.
I’d suggest that another type of bad-faith actor is the one who defends the institution against good-faith criticism. Such people also care little about the institution’s ideals. Instead, they are more concerned with using the institution to benefit themselves. Unwittingly they end up undermining the institution by making the whole thing look like a racket.