“Deconstruction” is an overused but underdefined slogan in contemporary Christian circles. Its broad range of meaning has contributed to numerous misunderstandings, especially between the fracturing groups emerging from American evangelicalism.
On the one hand, the term can be understood pejoratively, referring to a kind of tearing down of “ancient boundary stones” within historic orthodoxy, resulting finally in apostasy. In this case, deconstruction is simply destruction, reducing the Protestant impulse of reformation to demolition. On the other hand, it can signify an honest reappraisal, critically evaluating the various elements of one’s faith rather than settling for an unreflective confession. In this case, the aim of deconstruction is a positive reconstruction in the light of a “searching and fearless inventory.” Both of these connotations, we might note, are far removed from the original meaning.
However we think of the term, most would probably agree that not all forms of “faith deconstruction” are good—nor are all bad. Ian Harber, who deconstructed his own “progressive Christianity,” says “the goal of deconstruction should be greater faithfulness to Jesus, not mere self-discovery or signaling one’s virtue.” Ivan Mesa, editor of Before You Lose Your Faith: Deconstructing Doubt in the Church, similarly writes: “Deconstructing can be the road toward reconstructing—building up a more mature, robust faith that grapples honestly with the deepest questions of life.”
Jacques Derrida, the so-called “father of deconstruction,” coined the term as a translation of Martin Heidegger’s concept, destruktion. Interestingly, Heidegger’s term itself appears to be a translation of Martin Luther’s use of destructio to describe God’s “destruction” of human wisdom through the gospel (1 Cor. 1:19).
Contrary to (post)modern wisdom, the foolishness of God has brought us face-to-face with the eternal Word (1 Cor. 1:21–25). This Word deconstructs all our wise words. But it must be interpreted by fools like us. Decades before Derrida, Cornelius Van Til observed that every fact is an interpreted fact, including facts of faith. This is why we’re “always being reformed.” There exists a space between our faith and the faith—“a space of questioning,” as James K. A. Smith names it, “to call into question the received and dominant interpretations that often claim not to be interpretation at all.”
Clarifying Mission and Community
It’s important to acknowledge that this includes many aspects of American evangelicalism. In addition to the idiosyncrasies of our own beliefs, our faith has been peculiarly enculturated within our historical and social contexts. The task of disentangling the gospel from its more dubious cultural forms and expressions is called disenculturation. It’s a Word-based and Spirit-led project (2 Tim. 4:1–5; 1 Cor. 2:6–16), and it’s imperative for gospel renewal. It’s also missionally driven. Some years ago, my family and I (Greg) moved from America to plant a church in Manchester, England. Being in a different culture makes it considerably easier to pinpoint areas in need of disenculturation. It’s also fertile ground for the long work of reconstruction.
Being in a different culture makes it considerably easier to pinpoint areas in need of disenculturation. It’s also fertile ground for the long work of reconstruction.
The most conspicuous difference I’ve noticed is that Christians in the UK, as a minority group, seem to have more fully come to terms with their identity as elect exiles in the world (1 Pet. 1:1). Living as “a faithful remnant” within a non-Christian context, with little expectation of recognition, is a powerful antidote to a consumeristic faith.
Likewise, biblical community becomes a necessity when the majority culture is unsympathetic or even hostile to the gospel. In these places, there’s a stronger felt need to pray together, to worship together, to learn from the Word together, to break bread and bear burdens together. It’s not uncommon for people to sell their homes in order to move closer to their church family, nor is it a huge deal to do so.
Moreover, as religious minorities in a post-Christian city, marketing strategies for church growth are not generally effective. When it takes a decade for the average person to convert to Christianity, the church must be in it for the long haul. We evangelize because Jesus commands it and because we love others, not because we expect to attract significant numbers to our congregation. This clarifies motives and purifies methods, disentangling them from worldly appeals (1 Cor. 2:1–5).
Sacrifice is also expected when one is a minority. We’re sobered to count real costs. This subverts a triumphalist mindset (1 Cor. 4:16–20) so common among majority cultures. Being marginalized also undercuts any kind of hero narrative born out of the toxic individualistic laboratory of American spirituality. We know we can’t save anyone, let alone ourselves; we can only point to the One who does. We’re encouraged to depend less on ourselves, more on one another, and together on Christ our Lord.
Jesus’s Deconstruction Project
Theologian and philosopher John Caputo wrote a book titled What Would Jesus Deconstruct? Though we don’t subscribe to his radical theology, the concept is not entirely without biblical warrant. As Joshua Ryan Butler put it, “Jesus deconstructs bad teaching in order to reconstruct good teaching.”
Our Lord certainly did this within his first-century, Middle Eastern Jewish context. He might well deconstruct a good bit within our 21st-century, Western Christian context as well—perhaps including some of our current modes of “deconstruction”!