Monday, July 28, 2008

Emotional Deconstruction

Many in the emergent movement are fans of deconstruction. They may be drawn to the promise of new theological and sociological horizons promised by deconstructing the recent past, but as Jonathan Brink notes, that may come with a price. For him, deconstruction is an emotional endeavor. As soon as we begin to call beliefs into question, we are bound to experience things akin to anxiety, even fear, as the things we were brought up with fall off one by one. As a good deconstructionist, he notes that the more people he reads and encounters, the more conclusions he comes in contact with.

Problem is, the older I got the more I realized that there isn’t really one great conclusion. There’s several conclusions.

He even sees problems with other points of view:

You see, the more I walk down the path of deconstruction, the more I’m beginning to see the holes in the fabric.

But, he assures us, we shouldn’t worry too much about his deconstruction. He doesn’t apply it to Scripture, only the interpretations of Scripture.

And to be clear, I’m not talking about deconstructing Scripture. Oh what a beautiful gift is Scripture. I’m deconstructing human attempts to understand Scripture.

That is a nice reassurance, but I am curious about how that gets fleshed out. It seems to me it will be difficult to protect Scripture from the blade of deconstruction while deconstructing the interpretation of the thing. So when Jesus says, “I am the way, the truth and the life, no person comes to the Father except through me,” and someone takes that to mean, “Jesus is the only way to the Father,” how is the second subject to deconstruction without immediately subjecting the first?

Deconstruction is a dangerous path to walk down for a believer who might be described as one of the “People of the Book.” How can we avoid subjecting Scripture to the deep subjectivity of this interpretational technique? After all, it is a compilation of books written by people who, for the most part, are now dead, and who, every one of them, was part of a radically different culture from anyone alive today. Scripture is tailor-made for deconstruction.

It seems to me that deconstruction has few to no upsides and suicidal downsides. Each alleged positive has an analogue in thoughtful analysis, and each downside does nothing but cut its own throat. In other words, it is possible to get all the gains of deconstruction without committing intellectual hari-kari. Concerning the downsides, a theory that alleges interpretive value is in the reader and not in the text leads to obvious and unavoidable absurdities. Deconstructionists disagree with that all day long, but that only makes their position even that much more ironic.

As for possible upsides, as Brink notes, there is the promise of openness to different conclusions and different points of view; even an irenic interaction with new ideas. Fundamentally, I see no difference between that and thoughtful analysis aimed at the truth. The deconstructionist may retort, “ah, but we do it with humility.” To which I might say their definition of humility needs to be reconstructed. Humility does not refer to truth, it refers to character. Humility does not forbid a person from sound and firm belief, it forbids them from vanity.

I also experience an emotion with deconstruction: intellectual repulsion.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Apologetics: Dead Yet?

With the rising of the emergent church movement and talk of living in a postmodern world, the subject of apologetics has been all the rage in some circles. Some are happy to declare traditional apologetics irrelevant in our new world where the best thing a Christian can do is invite another to share in their story. On the other end of the spectrum is the belief that the rational defense of the faith not only serves the purpose of discipleship, but even evangelism. In his recent article in CT, God is Not Dead Yet, William Lane Craig argues that apologetics are not only not irrelevant, but as useful now as they have ever been.

After Craig assesses the bulk of the traditional arguments for the existence of God, he asks, “Why Bother?” Craig makes the bold and provocative assertion that we do not live in a postmodern world, despite all the declarations to the contrary. In fact, he argues, to bend the subject of Christian apologetics to postmodernism would be catastrophic as it would reduce the truth of Christ to just another voice among a cacophony of views. He notes:

This sort of thinking is guilty of a disastrous misdiagnosis of contemporary culture. The idea that we live in a postmodern culture is a myth. In fact, a postmodern culture is an impossibility; it would be utterly unlivable. People are not relativistic when it comes to matters of science, engineering, and technology; rather, they are relativistic and pluralistic in matters of religion and ethics. But, of course, that's not postmodernism; that's modernism! That's just old-line verificationism, which held that anything you can't prove with your five senses is a matter of personal taste. We live in a culture that remains deeply modernist.

As a matter of practical fact, I think Craig is right. I have students who are knee-jerk relativists until they come face to face with reality themselves—they learn they can’t really live out the relativism they have been muttering about religion and ethics most of their lives. But, on the level of belief, I may not be inclined to agree with Craig wholeheartedly. I think the relativism in our culture has lead to an unusual condition where most people (especially most younger people) are content to live with the deep cognitive dissonance Craig cuts through with his evaluation. In other words, more and more people are content to live as if the world is not relative (morally or religiously) while believing (on at least some significant level) that it is.

Nonetheless, Craig is right to remind us of the social, evangelistic, and even discipling benefits of the apologetic tasks. I think if we dismiss it as no longer relevant, we do ourselves more harm than good.

Monday, July 14, 2008

The Shack: Don't

This brief entry in the Christianity Today blog, Out of Ur, documents some of the various reactions to the vastly popular novel, The Shack. I would like to add my voice to those who think this is not only an amateur piece of fiction, but also a really, really bad piece of theology.

You can find point-by-point remarks on the book’s various and multiple problems elsewhere, so I want to highlight two overarching problems I found with the book. First of all, as fiction it is able to lure the reader into a false sense of security. I believe the average reader takes in fiction through a different set of filters than they might a non-fiction work on something like the doctrine of the Trinity. As a result, readers are able to sugarcoat the toxic pills in the book by thinking to themselves, “after all, it’s only fiction.” Instead of thoughtfully engaging the concepts in the book (and there are plenty of clear, theological concepts in the book), a reader is more inclined to swallow the pills as part of the literary effect. No matter their form, bad doctrinal positions are bad doctrinal positions, and if a book can get someone to swallow bad doctrine without reflection, then…well, you can imagine what I think.

Secondly, and this is raised in Out of Ur, an author should never try to put too many words in God’s mouth or try and represent the Trinity too closely. The great pieces of Christian fiction over the centuries have approached God with great care and sparring explanation. The theology in those books is worked out in “real life” among humans who are struggling to understand and live out their faith or lack thereof. The more an author puts words in God’s mouth, the more they are in danger of saying things God would never say. Well over half of The Shack is dedicated to God speaking. Admittedly there are some touching moments—even really well-done moments—but there is too much wrong in the book for those moments to save it.

Life is too short to labor over something like this for the hope of enjoyment or edification. If your friends are reading it and you are worried, I suggest you read it. If you are a leader in your church and the other congregants are reading it, I suggest you do the same. If you want to write frustrated blog posts about the poor state of theological education and communication in our world, then definitely read it. Otherwise, pick up Pilgrim’s Progress, or Lilith, or The Man Who Was Thursday, or Out of the Silent Planet, or the Lord of the Rings, or…