Updated: Dec 6, 2022
Deconstruction is a contemporary buzzword in Christendom, and like all buzzwords, it has taken on a life of its own well beyond the linguistic territory it formerly covered. In current usage, deconstruction serves as a general label for the process of taking apart and examining the interlocking parts of one's faith tradition. In evangelicalism, with its strong emphasis on the Bible as the ultimate authority, deconstruction often starts with a more critical look at the scriptures.
Originally, deconstruction was a term used to describe the inherent fluidity of language that makes it far less stable and certain than we assume it is. This is especially true of written language which is usually presented as highly structured (hence, de-construction) and precise in western societies. Until the ideas of Jacques Derrida and Hans-Georg Gadamer jumped into mainstream culture, the platonic nature of language went largely unexamined by the layperson; words were thought to signify absolute objective truth, like Plato's ideal forms.
The influence of Gadamer, Derrida and others shifted the conceptual landscape of literary hermeneutics* or how we interpret language-based works. While they disagreed on whether or not one could determine an absolute truth from a written text, it placed the complexity and relativity of language front and center. Bruce Ellis Benson, in an article entitled Gadamer, Derrida and How We Read puts it this way:
"On the one hand, writing can make an author’s thought present even without the author’s presence. On the other hand, the fact that in writing (unlike in speech) an author’s presence is unnecessary means that the author is no longer able to control interpretation. Charitable interpreters often make appeals to 'what the author really meant,' but the absence of the author means that we are left with only the text. And texts can be understood in different ways."
These ideas are not new, in fact they call back to ancient times when spoken and written language were in competition for ascendancy in how one an access truth. William Schniedewind writes:
"In ancient Greece, for example, Plato's Socrates complains to Phaedrus, 'Written words seem to talk to you as though they were intelligent, but if you ask them anything about what they say, from a desire to be instructed, they go on telling you just the same thing forever. And once a thing is put in writing, the composition, whatever it may be, drifts all over the place '(Phaedrus, §z75d)… Although Socrates complains bitterly about the written word, his complaint is preserved, ironically, only in a written account. In Plato's Seventh Letter, he wrote that 'every serious man in dealing with really serious subjects carefully avoids writing, lest thereby he may possibly cast them as prey to the envy and stupidity of the public.'"
William M. Schniedewind. How the Bible Became a Book: The Textualization of Ancient Israel
Rabbinic traditions in its early forms emphasized orality as superior in its unfixed and debatable properties, making it flexible yet authoritative. In searching for the timeless truths in the ancient stories, there can be an advantage to debate and discussion versus written accounts whose "correct" interpretations are controlled by a political hierarchy.
The first controversy to appear on the church's naughty list was relativism, or the idea that we can't be as certain about those universal ethical principles as we once thought. The church as a primary proponent of knowable absolute truth saw postmodern relativism as a slide toward moral chaos and reacted by doubling down on the inerrancy and scientific accuracy of the Bible. Relativism as a label came to represent a dilution of a fixed understanding of gospel, a sellout to culture and the continued antagonism of secular academia toward the Christian faith.
Deconstruction as a project undertaken by modern Christians emerges from all these ideas applied to the two primary means of transmitting faith from one generation to the next: our Bible and our set of shared traditions that inform participation in the Christian religion.
Official church institutions tend to see deconstruction as a threat to established lines of authority. As you can imagine, when people start to question the formerly unquestionable it can cause some consternation among those who have a vested interest in keeping the tribe together. You'll hear discussion on whether or not deconstruction is healthy or unhealthy, or if there's appropriate versus dangerous deconstruction. In intellectually regimented or "certain" faith traditions, deconstruction elicits hostility. In more conceptually flexible traditions there may be a safer, more welcoming space that allows people to process without having to abandon their community.
Relativism and postmodern philosophical trends in general threatened to unseat the church's long-held intellectual fiefdom concerning absolute truth. If people got the idea that truth was a more slippery character than the church led them to believe, questions about authority and even reality itself were bound to follow. It's much easier to operate in hard categories of black and white than to acquire the wisdom needed to navigate ambiguity.
One conservative reaction was to bet on a firmer commitment to the inerrancy of the Bible. In 1978, a large group of evangelicals gathered in Chicago to produce a statement affirming an all-or-nothing commitment to certainty about the correctness of our English Bibles.**
Not all branches of Christendom reacted this way, but all that take the Bible seriously have found it challenging to navigate new territory with little historical precedent. If one takes deconstructionist concepts seriously, it’s a better course of action to let go of our insistence that we can accurately understand a text and by extension, understand God- and that frightens more than a few believers. If our written Bibles are far more layered and complex than we were taught, it means that capital "T" Truth is actually elusive and interpreting texts in different ways might be appropriate. This move creates insurmountable problems for official organized religion, and annoys the deeply held cultural assumption that truth can be agreed upon because it's written down in plain English- and we have denominational authorities to determine the right interpretations for us.
There are many triggers for people who find themselves in question mode concerning their church experience. Dissatisfaction with the gap between the ideals of scripture and what happens on the ground in their church community, exposure to alternative understandings of biblical material, conflicts between the stories told by science versus those told by religion- these an many other points of departure propel questioners to probe more deeply into the ground of their belief. It's usually a messy and sometimes traumatic experience. Some are motivated by a desire to cut through the accretions of centuries of religious practice, others are more scientific, willing to follow where the evidence leads even if it's out of the conventional church.
Those who embark on a deconstruction journey hear themselves saying things they formerly kept to themselves, or never imagined they would say. They grow comfortable with statements like "I think 'inerrancy' tries to solve a problem the Bible never had." Journeys like this follow as many paths as there are people taking it. Some are willing to put everything on the table, even the very existence of God and the possibility of an afterlife. Others travel with hope as a companion to remind them that everything will turn out all right. Agnosticism, formerly out of the question, can begin to feel more friendly as certainty dissolves. Each encounter with new information widens the horizon of what we don't or can't know.
Personal experience can begin to take on a more prominent role, especially as an assurance that God is still there and always will be. It's up to you whether or not you deconstruct that cluster of ideas and emotions- some will and some won't. This isn't a quick process that ends with a diploma and a membership card. Learning to succeed in a culture of certainty took years; pulling it apart and deciding what's worth keeping may not end until you do.
To Think About...
Where does fear show up in the process of deconstruction? Why do we feel afraid to jettison certain beliefs even if there's reasonable evidence to disprove them?
What does hermeneutics (interpretation of literature) have to do with deconstruction?
Does truth need to be protected?
*Hermeneutics is the study of interpretation. It plays a role in a number of disciplines whose subject matter demands interpretative approaches, If your area of study touches on the meaning of human intentions, beliefs, and actions, or the meaning of human experience as it is preserved in the arts and literature, historical testimony, and other artifacts, you need hermeneutical tools. Traditionally, disciplines that rely on hermeneutics include theology, especially Biblical studies, jurisprudence, and medicine, as well as some of the human sciences, social sciences, and humanities. In such contexts, hermeneutics is sometimes described as an “auxiliary” study of the arts, methods, and foundations of research appropriate to a respective disciplinary subject matter (Grondin 1994, 1). For example, in theology, Biblical hermeneutics concerns the general principles for the proper interpretation of the Bible. More recently, applied hermeneutics has been further developed as a research method for a number of disciplines
**See the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy, which includes a section that outlines the hermeneutical principles affirmed by many modern evangelicals.