The Difficulty with Deconstruction
Yesterday I addressed the ‘danger’ of deconstructing faith: that you never get back what you gave up. You and the thing (text, concept, tradition) are never the same.
Deconstruction is neither destruction / demolition nor is it reconstruction, reformation, repair, or the recovering of some initial or earlier understanding.
Why is deconstruction so difficult? I have figured out how to introduce this topic in 60 seconds (like a postmodern elevator pitch)
The 20th century saw the height and culmination of something called ‘structuralism’ which examined the nature of things and their order. This was done in many fields, such as science, but in language/literature it starts like this:
- Sounds are re/presented by symbols.
- These symbols are letters in the alphabet.
- Letters are put together to form words.
- Words are put together to form sentences.
- Sentences are put together to form paragraphs.
- Paragraphs are put together to form chapters.
- Chapters are put together to form books.
- Books are put together to form libraries.
That is the structure of literature and a certain kind of knowledge.
Post-structuralism came along as said, “well yes … but no word completely contains the meaning of the actual thing is represents, and to be honest, it doesn’t even contain its own meaning. In fact, these symbols appear to be somewhat random and maybe even arbitrary.”
Deconstruction begins here.
Deconstruction then begins to ‘play’ with the text to see if there is any give in it. Is it pliable? Does it ever move or change? What is assumed about the text and by the text? Is the text aware of its assumptions? Do we know that author meant that? Is that the only the thing that the text can mean? Are there gaps, contradictions, blind spots, double meanings, or obstacles in the text? Has it grown rigid and brittle over time?
Deconstruction has fun with reading the text. It is often playful and whimsical, sometimes frisky and mischievous – sometimes it can be irreverent.
Most people who are open-minded are still ok up to this point. Where it becomes objectionable to many is when deconstruction inevitably takes on a posture or tone of criticism, sarcasm, accusation, transgression, or even mocking.
Deconstruction does not have a built in stop-gap or safety-valve. It has no logical end. It can feel like a free-fall or a bottomless pit. Deconstruction is intentionally disorienting and challenging.
This is all within the original area of literature and literary theory.
Now take that same impulse or permission and adapt it to spiritual or religious matters.
Take that above set of questions and begin to apply to:
You can see where people who are deeply invested in those arenas begin to bristle at the whimsical, critical, irreverent, subversive, or ironic movement of deconstruction.
This is the difficulty with deconstruction. It has no natural end. It can seem like an endless loop. It seems to get power (get drunk?) from its own activity. It is an omnivore that threatens to devour all it sees … and maybe even itself.
As my friend Jez Bayes pointed out, “deconstruction does seem to end up negative where it’s used … without careful limits or communal shared purpose.
That means that when people start deconstructing they aren’t able to stop, and it ends with unnecessary destruction of faith outside of any coherent community.”
For those of you who are new to my approach, I want to show my cards here:
- I am deeply suspicious of the past.
- The only thing I like less than the past is people who want to take us back there.
I felt like I needed to tell you that before I show you my feeble attempt at the deconstructive voice. This is a thing that I wrote several years ago but shows my entry into the discursive process.
Please note: I am allergic to words that begin with ‘re’.
Post-structuralist and deconstructive writers use lots of slashes, dashes, and parentheses.
So why are so many Christian projects, programs, and theologies framed as past-oriented endeavors?
Perhaps this is why so many (re)ligious organizations and people (re)sort to (re)clamation projects in (re)action to the perceived problems that (re)sult from our denial or failure to (re)cognize that we have indeed entered into a new and different era – a place that we have never been before.
The impulse to (re)ach back into the imagined past and attempt to salvage some measure of order or to (re)orient ourselves to this new landscape in understandable. The danger, however, is (re)sounding as we endeavor to become (what the fantastic book title labels) ‘The Way We Never Were’.
It is notable how many contemporary religious/spiritual projects employ a motive that begins with the prefix ‘Re’. Admittedly, there some important words in scripture that begin with ‘Re’. Words like redemption, reconciliation, and restoration are indispensable examples. Two other powerful words that would complete that constellation would be repentance and reparations.
Unfortunately, these five ‘Re-’ words are not the ones that show up the most in Christian circles or are found the most in spiritual literature. While ‘revelation’ and ‘religion’ may be the most prominent offerings, they are not the only ones. Many religious projects are framed with words such as:
The above group of ‘Re-’ words may have a comforting and comfortable ring to them,
but they are insufficient for the challenges that we are up against. One of the major challenges of this past-oriented thinking is that it places the vital energy in the past – like a sort of big bang or a pool cue striking the cue ball and sending it crashing into the group – the initial energy is dissipated and we are slowing losing steam (and power) to atrophy.
I would argue that the nature of Christianity is incarnational – so the past is not the sole determining factor for our present or future expression. We have access to an untapped reservoir of power for the present. We are being compelled or called (lured) by the possibilities of the future. We can never re-turn to the past. The nature of time and reality do not allow us to revisit but only to remember.
Deconstruction is loving the past enough to not simply conserve or preserve it.
The danger of deconstruction is that you never get back what you gave up.
The difficulty of deconstruction is that there is no end to the process.
 I have a whole big program that includes a 125-page masters thesis on contextual theology and a 11 year web archive dedicated to innovating and updating for today.
 Stephanie Coontz, The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap (BasicBooks, 1992).
 More could be said on exploring those five Biblical concepts for the 21st century. The primary problem with the past may be that it is too easy to romanticize some notion or concept in isolation without addressing the larger structures of injustice and exclusion that it was embedded in or birthed out of.
January 17, 2020 at 2:37 am
Bo, thanks for part 2! I had to laugh realizing that I too “use lots of slashes, dashes, and parentheses.”
While I’m certainly not a trained expert on the subject of “deconstruction,” I have spent my entire life asking “Why?” That question, and an attitude of discovery, seems to be at the heart of your explanation.
Your analogy of “deconstructing” an old barn appeals to me. Yes, it’s important to understand the distinctions between deconstruction and “demolition…reconstruction, reformation, repair, or the recovering of some initial or earlier understanding.” And I understand your aversion to drawing any inherent connections between deconstruction and any of those future possibilities.
Staying with your analogy, deconstruction always begins with some goal or desire in mind. “I’m taking this thing apart because I want to…” In the case of faith, such initial goals might include proving or disproving past events or core beliefs, discovering new meanings (i.e. purposes), or testing our personal beliefs to see if they survive critical examination.
I grew up watching the PBS TV series This Old House. Each build includes a final episode where the family discusses the process and result. One recurring theme I recall is people saying, “When we started, we planned to do xxx, but as we were doing the methodical tearing apart (i.e. the deconstruction phase), we discovered yyy and changed our plans to add/subtract zzz. We didn’t plan for the final result, but we’re happy with this unanticipated outcome.”
Sometimes those unexpected discoveries were good (hidden custom architectural details) and sometimes they were “bad” (rotten foundations). Either way, the discoveries fueled changes both big and small. And no two projects were the same.
I find a similar parallel with a **healthy** approach to deconstructing faith. If you take something apart to prove that it’s fine the way it is (i.e. your current beliefs), you gain little to nothing in the process.
But if you deconstruct your faith with a less-biased openness to “finding what we find,” you’re more likely to enjoy the benefits of unplanned potential.
As I think about it, that reminds me of the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus: at nearly every step, people were saying, “This is not what we expected.” Some people were open to deconstructing their centuries-old beliefs/assumptions, and because of that, they benefitted (in various ways) from the presence of God in Jesus.
Then or now, we all enter deconstruction with a goal, or bias, in mind. Fine; acknowledge that, proceed with caution, and enjoy the adventure!
If I’ve misunderstood you on any of this, please feel free to set me straight. 🙂 – CW
I too share your distrust of the past and people (or institutions) that want to take us back to an overly-romanticized moment in history. As I read your comments about church leaders driven by the “impulse to (re)ach back into the imagined past…” I thought of these lyrics:
“Advice is a form of nostalgia,
dispensing it is a way of fishing the past from the disposal, wiping it off,
painting over the ugly parts and recycling it for more than it’s worth”
~ Baz Luhrmann, “Everybody’s Free (To Wear Sunscreen)”