A prominent Christian magazine recently warned against “deconstruction”—and it sounded pretty bad.
“Fire,” “demolition,” and “ashes”—these were the disquieting words associated with “deconstruction.” In fact, deconstruction was linked to so-called exvangelicals and seemed to be simply a trendy new synonym for “apostasy.”
Deconstruction, however, is not just de(con)struction. And it isn’t to be avoided at all costs. In this series, we’ll look at what it is, where it came from, and how to respond to it.
The term “deconstruction” is of twentieth-century coinage and it doesn’t originally have anything directly to do with religion. According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, its origin can be located quite precisely in the year 1967 when the French philosopher Jacques Derrida produced a “publication blitz” of three books: Speech and Phenomena (in English 1973), Of Grammatology (in English 1974), and Writing and Difference (in English 1978).
In these volumes, Derrida introduces a mode of reading that at once is very small and very large. It is very small in that such reading pays close attention to the ambiguities and linkages within each text: how words and phrases echo and modify and otherwise refer to other words and phrases in that text.
It is also very large in that anything we read must be understood within the huge matrix of all communications. Everything connects with everything.
Contrary to stereotypes of deconstruction—sometimes mistakenly called “deconstructionism,” as if it were an ideology rather than an interpretive strategy—Derrida doesn’t say that anything can mean anything. If he did, then no one could be confident they knew what he was saying, and he seems pretty confident that we can know precisely what he’s saying.
Derrida instead warns us against prejudices and conventions that constrain our interpretations and keep us from seeing how texts often have several possible meanings—even more than one highly plausible meaning. This idea, you will note, shouldn’t be foreign to serious readers of, say, the Bible.
This original use of “deconstruction,” however, has nothing to do with its use among evangelicals nowadays. Nothing, that is, except perhaps that Derrida’s deconstruction is linked with postmodernism, and a lot of evangelicals seem to think that anything postmodern is bad.
So what about deconstruction among current evangelicals? I encountered a second use of the term in the early 2000s at Regent College in Vancouver. As we faculty members taught our adult learners the basics of the Bible, church history, theology, and more, those students one by one and piece by piece examined the religion each had brought to us. As many of them modified or set aside elements of their respective versions of faith, some testified to an experience of “deconstructing” their Christianity.
“Deconstruction” for those Regent students, therefore, was a generally healthy exercise in critique: setting aside perhaps the white nationalism of their American evangelical church, or the tribalism of a black African community, or the sexism of an Asian Christian tradition—or the smug superiority of a Canadian congregation! What needed to happen next was reconstruction.
Alas, the term now seems to mean, at least for many evangelicals, a third thing: truly the dissolution of authentic Christianity. What starts as an appropriate questioning of this or that strange dogma, or odd devotional requirement, or dubious ethical norm—the kind of questioning that, say, a John Wesley or a Søren Kierkegaard would have rightly leveled at the conventional Christianity of his peers—can end up with an individual composing a religion on his or her own.
Now, “Do-It-Yourself religion” has been noticed by sociologists of religion for a generation or more. Friend Reginald Bibby joins others in calling it religion à la carte. Some of this, plus some of that, and a little of the other—there! My own form of spirituality.
Such mixing and matching has gone on in the so-called New Age, of course. But it has also been common in liberal Christian circles, in which a thinned-out version of the Christian religion is augmented and even corrected by insights, devotional practices, and even doctrines derived from other religions and philosophies. (Reincarnation, Bibby has shown in his national surveys, is a particularly popular accessory.)
So is deconstruction just the latest version of religious syncretism?
What’s new is that deconstruction is happening among evangelicals—and, yes, among Roman Catholics as well. What’s new is that people aren’t just leaving orthodox Christianity for another religion, a secular humanism of some sort, or sheer hedonism, but instead embarking on the distinctively modern (and postmodern) project of deciding what elements of Christianity to keep, what elements to discard, and what elements to modify.
What’s also new is that these folk are deciding each on their own, but usually in the context and with the impetus of loose, but compelling, social-media networks. Bolstered by sympathetic “likes” and by the testimonies of others from all over, individuals now feel freer than ever to pick and choose what makes sense to them and “what works” for them, displaying a confidence previously unavailable to solitary individuals disillusioned by their church experiences and fumbling toward an alternative.
Instead of arriving at a sound and solid Christianity shorn of mistaken human traditions—deconstruction in the second sense—this deconstruction means each person devises a religion matching his or her highest aspirations and deepest intuitions. Cynics would say, instead, a religion tailored to his or her own preferences. Either way, no wonder that American magazine was alarmed!
The series that follows will outline the characteristic convictions of the exvangelical deconstructors, their overall identity and religious stance, and expose the underlying epistemology—the way they decide what to believe. We’ll take a quick look back at the history of personal testimony to religious dissent as a bit of a genealogy of this latest trend. And we will conclude with observations about both how to construct theology and ethics, yes, but also how to understand the nature of Christian fellowship and especially how to deal with deep difference . . . and division.
[This is part one of our Signature The Deconstruction of Evangelicalism: An End? A Beginning? on ThinkBetter Media. If you want to follow the rest of the series or read (listen and watch) more content like this, enroll in ThinkBetter Media for exclusive content on apologetics, theology, epistemology, ethics, culture, and discipleship. Sign up today or start a two-week free trial of our Sustainer memberships HERE.]