I am so excited to tell you that the book came out today.
It has been such an honor to write this book in conversation with my mentor and friend Randy Woodley. The title is, “Decolonizing Evangelicalism: An 11:59 pm Conversation” published by Wipf & Stock.
It retails for $19. Right now, you can get it from Wipf & Stock at $15.20, in a week you can get it on Amazon and in a few weeks you can get it from us….in four weeks the hardback version comes out at $39.00. Get ready…
“This book is not for the faint of heart. Fasten your seatbelt and engage in a humble theological conversation which will draw you closer to Jesus as he ‘exposes truth and nurtures life.”
—Terry McGonigal, Director of Church Engagement, Whitworth University
I really can’t express how excited I am. Please stay tuned both here and at the Peacing It All Together podcast that I do with Randy for the beginning of an timely conversation.
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:
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.
Why am I bringing this up? I have noticed two trends within evangelical (or post-evangelical) types when talking about deconstruction.
Many use the word to simply mean “asking bigger questions for the first time”. Now, asking bigger questions and examining ones tradition or beliefs is fantastic. I just want to be clear that asking bigger questions is a good first step but is not all that deconstruction is about.
Others have taken to always pairing deconstruction with reconstruction. I have even seen it given the initials D/R (or De/Re) as if they go together.
Neither of these is the best development and so I thought I would just speak up in favor of the original impulse or sense of deconstruction.
I would like to say something in the positive and then in the negative (which is appropriate for the topic)
Positive: Deconstruction is love. It is not destruction. It is not demolition. Think of deconstructing an old barn. It is taking it apart timber by board, one nail at a time, in order to see (or show) how it is put together and how it stays together and works (functions). It wants to expose how it is assembled and where the various parts come from and where it fits in the function of the whole farm. Deconstruction may or may not ‘salvage’ what could be useful (or repurposed) in a different format.
Deconstruction is neither knocking the barn down with a bulldozer (demolition) nor is it setting the barn on fire (destruction). You have to love the thing to justify the time and painful energy to painstakingly pull it apart in an orderly and examined way.
If you didn’t love it you would either smash it in anger or just walk away and abandon it.
In the past I have used a plant analogy about how potted plants can get rootbound when they have been in the same pot too long and how it not only stunts their growth but how the roots will circle back and grow in on themselves. Institutions are like this. I still use the root-bound analogy for organizations, denominations, and groups … but it doesn’t have enough bite (or teeth) for the task of deconstruction.
Negative: You will never get the original thing back. You deconstructed the barn because there was something structurally flawed and deeply unsafe about it. You didn’t deconstruct the barn simply because it was old or outdated or had outlived its usefulness. There was something troubling, suspicious, and unusable.
This is the limit of the plant analogy. You might pull at the roots of a plant and repot it in a more spacious vessel in order to sustain its life and let it grow. This is the re/construction impulse that hopes to prune the vine in order to stimulate new growth.
I love the plant analogy and embrace the pruning for new growth mentality … I just want to be clear that this is not what deconstruction means.
The one thing that has changed is that deconstruction is come into more common usage and its popular version is safer and less edgy than the non-diluted original. So I want to be clear about something:
Deconstruction is not repairing the broken elements of something or tweaking the outdated parts. Call that renovation or restoration.
Just to be clear:
Destruction and demolition have their time and place.
Renovation and restoration have their time and place.
Even reconstruction has its time and place.
None of them are the same as deconstruction.
Deconstruction interrogates, second-guesses, mistrusts, speculates, and may even subvert that which is being investigated.
Deconstruction may come from a suspicion that something is fundamentally wrong.
Why does this matter? There is a growing tension between the increasingly common-use of the term deconstruction amongst parishioners and seminarians versus the agitation that term causes those in institutional leadership. It is obvious to see why those who run churches and seminaries don’t like deconstruction: they are inherently preservationists and conservationists. It is the nature of the job!
Evangelicalism is construct. It is a loosely configured constellation of loyalties. The boundary has to be highly guarded and aggressively defended because it is so fragile and temperamental. So those in charge of its unstable institutions don’t want their members and participants poking around at the foundation, calling everything into question, and pulling at every loose thread to see if it holds together.
Of course church leaders and seminary administrators are not big fans of deconstruction – it feels like sawing at the very branch you are standing on. It is somewhere between unsafe and unwise.
Having said that, it might be a good reminder that deconstruction is neither demolition or destruction … but it is also not renovation, restoration, or reconstruction.
I know that all terms are prone to drift and migration from their original intent (just look identity politics or ‘me too’) but wanted to be clear that deconstruction is more than just asking big question about the inherited tradition and it is not primarily for the purpose of reconstruction.
The danger with deconstruction is that the thing you loved enough to spend energy on will never be the same. You can’t just rebuild or refurbish it back to its original condition. Both you and the thing you loved are trans-formed.
I am done trying to convert people from the old ways – it is time to live into the new ways.
Nearly 20 years ago I attended the Billy Graham School of Evangelism and even over the last 10 years, as my faith has changed, adapted, expanded, and evolved, I have labored to help those who wanted a bridge to a new kind of faith.
In the past, I have held a deep sense of obligation to help those who were asking questions to get a sense of how things were assembled … or for those who were in transition to find a landing spot for their new conviction.
I didn’t want anyone to get left behind. We live in a time of constant change and fluid social settings. I always tried to account for various perspectives and to give a generous a framework as I could imagine.
I am satisfied that I have done that well.
No longer will my primary concern be explaining the faith and providing access points for those who want to understand. I have left a substantial bread-crumb trail for those who are looking to migrate.
Starting in 2019 my primary concern will be professing faith that works in the 21st century and postmodern context.
I am retiring from evangelism and moving to profession – from apologist to professor.
It takes a lot of energy to account for and attend to the various perspectives and then to frame them and present them in a way that any genuinely interested person could gain access. It has been a wonderful 10 years and it has been a very formative experience.
I will now put my energies toward a constructive and innovative project where my primary concern will not be translating or explaining for those who believe a different way … but professing a forward-leaning faith for those who are interested.
I am done trying to convert people from the old ways – it is time to live into the new ways.
Here is the upside: because Protestantism (in general) and Methodism (in particular) provide me an already assumed structure – complete with content, praxis, and institutional frameworks … I will be free to play off of the as-is always/already and put my energy into the:
Ironic (and at-times)
I am moving from being a builder who feels obligated to provide a constructive apparatus for those who are migrating and need a completed faith that they can live in (which is now available), to an artisan or song writer or analyst.
This is a big shift for me.
I have spent the last 10 years honoring, explaining, translating, and mediating between the Evangelical world of my upbringing and the new constructive, philosophical, and diverse approaches of the late 20th and early 21st century.
Those who have wanted to make the migration have largely done so – I leave them to be the new translators, practitioners, and guides. Evangelicalism has changed even more than I have in the last 10 years. It has become something in its contemporary manifestation that I barely recognize from my youth. 
I have thought about this long and hard. I am at peace with this change. I am confident of the timing. The reality is that Evangelicalisms is a closed-system (or what system theory would call a ‘bounded set’). It is has its own borders, its own gatekeepers/guards, and its own internal logic.
I will still be available to help those who are genuinely asking for clarification but I am retiring from the business of attempting to convert anyone.
I want to thank you all for the support and feedback during this journey. If you unsubscribe, I bless you and wish you well. If you choose to continue on, buckle up … some changes are in store.
 Evangelicalism (and its charismatic offspring) has its own operating system (based on inerrancy) where the Bible becomes a science text book, a history book, a counseling manual, a financial spreadsheet, an explanation of world religions, a road-map to the future, and guide the end-times/afterlife . The evangelical operating system is incompatible with nearly any other program that you might seek to run. It is an all-or-nothing- machine.
If same-sex marriage, evolution, end-times, and biblical inerrancy were settled issue – where would your energy go?
I have been thinking about this question for the past year as I returned to an evangelical context from 7 years away. For 7 years I attended a mainline (inter-religious) school and worked at a mainline (liberal) church.
I was struck upon my return to evangelicalism at the amount of energy that goes to LGBTQ discussions, defending creation and biblical authority, and end-times prophecy.
I kept thinking:
“imagine all the good that could be done if our energy didn’t go to this”.
So it has been eye-opening to be appointed to a church this summer where our energy doesn’t go to those issues – it turns out that my suspicion was right! An amazing amount of good does get done when your energy is not being sapped by those controversies.
Those controversies are exhausting and they occupy a disproportionate amount of mental and relational energy for evangelicals.
I sort of get why so many evangelical, charismatic, fundamentalist, and pentecostal young people walk away from the church in their late teens and early 20’s. I get why so many people are now claiming to be ‘nones’ and ‘dones’. If you were raised conservative and then you settled those issues, your faith might seem spent.
I am in the midst of developing a thing for folks who are thinking about faith again as an adult but who want to begin again with those issues off the table. What would faith look like if those 4 variables were changed to givens? Where would your energy go?
I would love to hear from you:
Where would your energy go?
or if you have settled those issue, what has your energy gone to instead?
A fascinating part of my last 2 years is the amazing number of evangelical and charismatic pastors that I have been able to talk to who feel trapped by the whole ‘open & affirming’ conversation [or same-sex marriage issue for some].
I hear, on a fairly regular basis, that they wish they could be ‘open but not affirming’ or that the whole conversation would just go away and they could just get on with the business of preaching the gospel or making disciples without this cultural pressure to conform to something they are uncomfortable with or even see as wrong.
On the other hand, I have heard from so many gay and lesbian friends about the sheer frustration and agitation at churches saying that everyone is welcome (come as your are) but it really being code for ‘anyone can come and attend but to be fully accepted or empowered will require you to change and conform to be like us.’
The church that I am now pastoring is not just ‘open & affirming’ but it actually a reconciling congregation that advocates for LGBTQ inclusion at every level of church life, ministry, and ordination. You can probably imagine how amazing it feels to be able to say with complete integrity that “everyone is welcome here” and know that it is totally true in this place !
This morning I wrote the following post in prep for the weekend:
You may have seen that Vermont Hills UMC’s tagline is ‘a spiritual oasis’. It has been both fascinating and encouraging to find out how accurate of a description this tagline is.
I’ll be honest: we live in a cynical age and if you are not an accepting and welcoming church, people will grow skeptical of taglines and slogans. You have to be open and affirming of people’s journey and their uniqueness or it will not pass the ‘smell test‘.
It was with great joy that I discovered that VHUMC really is a safe and accepting place – that it lived up to the tagline of being ‘a spiritual oasis’.
Now, no one wants to define themselves by what they are not or what they are against – as tempting as it may be. So we don’t want to state this in the negative or only in contrast to others. We want to be as constructive and as hopeful as possible.
That is why it gives me great joy to be able to say that you are welcome here.
In fact, you are more than welcome – you are wanted!
Part of our transition toward being a conversational community is that we need people of:
different religious convictions
different income levels
different education levels and styles
different phases of life
I am delighted to be able to say this about VHUMC and I look forward to exploring this topic together this coming Sunday.
IF you are a conversational pastor (as I am) THEN you actually want to hear from people of different genders, stages of life, races, religious backgrounds, and sexualities. It is not something to be addressed or overcome … it IS the point and the joy of being in dialogue.
If people just repeat back to you what you already believe – that is called ‘an echo chamber’.
Perhaps the biggest challenge of being a conversational church is accepting that we are not all going to agree about everything … and that is not just ‘OK’ but is a good thing!
Tomorrow I will post part 2 of this idea and ask: ” what would our energy go to if this debate was settled?”
I have been following a fascinating debate about authority and accountability for popular female bloggers. Much of it is response to the evangelical Christianity Today (CT) Women article “Who’s In Charge of the Christian Blogosphere?“.
The articles states:
“Hits on a viral post lead to book deals, which lead to taking the conference stage. Winsome, relatable writing, good storytelling, and compelling life experiences are often as crucial to audience size—and therefore to authority—as theological teaching, presuppositions, or argument… garnering huge followings based on a cult of personality and holding extensive power and influence, yet often lacking any accountability to formal structures of church governance.”
It goes on to say that “In the vacuum created by a lack of women’s voices in the church, Christian female bloggers became national leaders who largely operate outside of any denominational or institutional structure.” Instead of authority deriving from institutional (academic or ecclesial) powers, theirs come from the marketplace.
This is vibrant and highly contested discussion (a visible on Twitter) which I am following with great interest. There are 4 levels of investment for me – and none of them seem to connect with one another.
I am an academic, a minister, a blogger and I am from an evangelical background. These four have almost no overlap …
I have had the pleasure of learning at a school with amazing professors like Kathleen J. Greider, Monica A. Coleman, Grace Yia-Hei Kao , Najeeba Syeed and my PhD Advisor Sheryl Kujawa-Holbrook (who’s book on inter-religious learning is a must read).
As a professor I require my students to read Elizabeth Johnson, Bonnie J. Miller-McLemore, Elaine Graham, Sheila Greeve Davaney, Letty Russell, Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz, bell hooks, Crystal Downing, and MaryKate Morse.
In my church life – both in Los Angeles and now in Portland – with all of my Dist. Superintendents as well as both Bishop Minerva Carcañoand Bishop Elaine Stanovsky, the United Methodist has women at every level of leadership.
I am also a blogger – which is quite independent of either my academic or ecclesiastic responsibilities. So I get the concern over accountability with that enterprise.
In contrast to all of the above: I was raised, ordained, and continue to teach adjunct in a evangelical denomination where CT carries a lot of weight and often initiates conversations.
So while I 100% understand and support those who are upset at the CT article, tone, conclusion, and narrowness of scope … I have to admit that it is a very real problem and concern in those evangelical circles in which CT exists. I know 50 pastors and people in church leadership off the top of my heard who say the sort of things that the article says.
My experience in the evangelical church stands in stark contrast to my experience in the academy and in the mainline church. They actually could not be more different in this aspect. It is nearly impossible to overstate. When you have male-only leadership, you are bound to have secondary and auxiliary voices become authoritative and this will be viewed either as a challenge or undermining to the establishment.
It reminded me of a conversation that I had with Phyllis Tickle at an event 3 years ago about authority and the age of the spirit. As someone who formerly pastored in an charismatic/evangelical church and now is in a Methodist setting, I had this take on the decentered and radically democratized notion of ‘authority’ heading forward:
Element 1: in the past we talked about seats at the table. Where does authority reside? Past answers have included leaders, scripture, the collective, bylaws, reason, etc. Traditionally we have talked about authority in a static sense – there in a danger of ‘misplaced concreteness’ when we talk about authority a deriving from one element.
Element 2: in the Methodist tradition we have the Wesleyan quadrilateral of scripture, tradition, experience and reason. This constellation of sources is vital because if both provides different anchor points for our ‘web of meaning’ and it is sequenced with scripture leading – but as prima scriptura and not sola scripture.
Elements 3: I read a fascinating article about developments in neuroscience. Researches have long looked for which part of the brain memories reside in. It turns out that memories are not located in any one place but in the connection made between different parts of the brain.
Having said all of that:
Proposal: Authority, like memory, is not located in any one place. It is uniquely comprised of the connection between component parts. Depending on the collected aspects, the authority that emerges will be unique to that organization, congregation, and movement. It will not look the same for a UMC pastor in Portland and a blogger in Austin, TX or an independent Baptist church planter in Carolina.
Authority doesn’t exist (per se) in that same sense that we have traditionally conceptualized it … OR perhaps I should say it doesn’t reside somewhere (a given place) – but in the connection and configuration of collected elements and sources.
Political Theology is a fascinating field that continues to become increasingly relevant in our interconnected post-9/11 world. One of my courses this semester is ‘Culture & Systems Change’ and part of the class is looking at the intersection of religion and politics.
In 1922, Carl Schmidt said that “all significant concepts of the modern theory of the state are secularized theological concepts.” The remnants of so many of our former religious and royal forms were adopted and transformed in this novel expression of belonging and duty. Not only is the word sovereign borrowed directly from religious vocabulary, but as Paul Kahn explains: “The politics of the modern nation-state indeed rejected the church but simultaneously offered a new site of sacred experience.” 
Think about the way the American constitution is spoken of as a sacred text that was penned by inspired patriarchs and cannot be questioned. 
Notice the controversy over the singing of the national anthem (a worship song to the nation) at sporting events.
Look at the uproar over burning a flag and realize how sacred that piece of fabric is thought to be because of what it symbolizes.
It can be troubling to be made aware of these connections for the first time. Is it odd that God and Nation are both referred to as ‘sovereign’, to interpret the constitution like the inspired scriptures, to revere the founding fathers like the patriarchs, to preserve the flag as if the fabric itself was sacred and not just symbolic, or to demand participation in the national anthem before one can play a game?
If you are interested in this topic, I wanted to point you to 3 really interesting resources:
“In terms of the more recent manifestations of evangelical politics, Lynerd defines republican theology as a political-theological doctrine that “asserts the mutual dependence of individual liberty, moral virtue, and Christian faith to support a civil religion that values all three.” However, a civil religion uses faith to sanctify politics, whereas political theology makes use of theology-based ethics to advance political causes. His use of the phrases political-theological doctrine and civil religion is key here, because it disrupts the prevailing evangelical narrative that political engagement is about duty to one’s faith and not about politics.
Although it may not be clear whether political evangelicalism is a civil religion, which is thus intrinsically political, or a theological system in which politics play a large role, Lynerd’s work foregrounds the explicit political character of right-wing evangelicalism. He reminds us that the alliance between evangelicalism and the American right is “not accidental,” taking on its current shape only in the twentieth century.”
Take at look/listen to those and let me know your thoughts!
 Paul W. Kahn, Political Theology: Four New Chapters on the Concept of Sovereignty, Reprint (Columbia University Press, 2012), location 37.