Constructive criticism is healthy, even in church
A prominent American Christian magazine recently warned against deconstruction – and it sounded pretty bad.
Fire, demolition and ashes – these and other disquieting words were used. 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.
The term deconstruction is of 20th-century coinage. Its first uses, according to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, were in 1967 when the French philosopher Jacques Derrida produced a publication blitz of three books – Of Grammatology (in English 1974), Writing and Difference (in English 1978) and Speech and Phenomena (in English 1973).
In these volumes Derrida introduces a mode of reading that pays close attention to the ambiguities and linkages of texts, the ways in which anything we read is best understood within the huge matrix of all communications. Contrary to stereotypes Derrida doesn’t say that anything can mean anything (although George Steiner says that).
Derrida instead warns us against prejudices and conventions that constrain our interpretations and keep us from seeing how texts often have several possible meanings – an idea that isn’t foreign to serious readers of, say, the Bible.
This original use of deconstruction, however, seems to have nothing to do with its use among Evangelicals nowadays – nothing except that Derrida’s deconstruction is linked with postmodernism, and a lot of Evangelicals seem to think anything postmodern is bad.
So what do people mean by deconstruction today? I encountered this 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 spoke about deconstructing their Christianity. Alas, we faculty members came to recognize we were better at helping students critique bad examples of Christianity than at helping them develop an integrated, healthy form of it.
Evangelicals have always practised – when at our best – careful Bible reading that prompts renewal and reform.
I carried that concern to Crandall University where we now require all our undergraduates, no matter what their major, to take a robust program in Christian studies capped with a course for senior students in ethical reasoning. (Other Canadian Christian universities, I’m glad to affirm, offer similar curricula.)
Deconstruction for these university students is generally a healthy exercise in critique – setting aside problematic aspects such as nationalism, racism and sexism in the upbringing they received in a specific Christian tradition. What needs to happen next is reconstruction.
Sadly, today we hear a third use of the term that has dropped the element of reconstruction. For many deconstruction means 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 levelled at the conventional Christianity of his peers – can end up with an individual composing a religion on his or her own.
Instead of arriving at a sound and solid Christianity shorn of mistaken human traditions, each person devises a consumer product tailored to his or her own preferences. No wonder those American magazine writers are alarmed.
Evangelicals in every place and time could use some healthy deconstruction, if by that we mean what Evangelicals have always practised – when at our best – careful Bible reading that prompts renewal and reform. So let’s not fear any honest criticism by our local questioners. Let us join them, instead, in holding lightly – or even outright abandoning – what isn’t essential to the gospel.
Let’s also help each other, however, to reconstruct a faith built on the abiding Word of God. Let’s continually seek better theology, piety and missional practice to move from deconstruction to a reconstruction more faithful to the gospel, the Bible and the Lord.
John Stackhouse is professor of religious studies at Crandall University. Find more of these columns at www.FaithToday.ca/ChristAndCulture.