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.

11 comments:

Shane Ogle said...

Phil,

Great post. I have recently read "The Shack" and agree whole-heartedly with your synopsis (as I blogged on the book as well). I also recently read "The Multiplying Church: New Math for Planting Churches by Bob Roberts (an emergent/missional pastor) was pleasantly surprised by him (blogged on this book as well). I then read "The Divine Mentor" Wayne Cordiero and "Sacred Pathways" by Gary Thomas - two seemingly opposing books -- but very sound in their approaches to the spiritual life. I am about to read a book entitled, "Why We're Not Emergent: By Two Guys Who Should Be". It is a book that addresses what the Emergent church actually set out to do -- the good and the bad. Mainly, it seems to discuss the theology behind the movement -- and why we can't go there (really looking forward to reading this one).

All this to say -- that "The Shack" was very disappointing. The Multiplying Church was surprising and even refreshing -- a shocker for me, as I am not super keen on the whole Emergent/Missional church. The Divine Mentor by Wayne Cordeiro puts me back on tract with the God of the Bible -- and first-hand inspiration. Sacred Pathways showed me that there are many ways to experience God -- and the last book helps to set my theology down in words -- as to why I am NOT Emergent/Missional (in the terms as used in our modern day church culture, anyways).

Thanks,

Shane O.

Jonathan Brink said...

Phil,

In the comments of that post I followed up the dialog with the distinction of Scripture. There is Scripture, and then my own broken interpretation of Scripture, much of which had been given to me by well meaning people. Part of deconstruction is shedding those understandings in favor of what the Holy Spirit, who is wisdom, is trying to give me.

Hope that helps.

Phil Steiger said...

Shane-

I have recently read a couple of Gary Thomas' books, and have really enjoyed them. I am always looking for good authors on spiritual formation, and was excited to find another I like, trust, and look forward to.

I am also hearing a lot about the "Why I'm Not Emergent" book. It sounds like a useful and engaging approach to the subject.

Phil Steiger said...

Jonathan-

Thanks for your response--I am curious to hear your further explanation.

Bradm said...

Hi Phil, I was wondering what you mean by "deconstruction?"

Phil Steiger said...

bradm-

Does it matter? (Making a point...not being beligerent.)

bradm said...

Yes, I think it matters what you mean.

Phil Steiger said...

Any and every serious form of deconstruction theory argues that meaning is ultimately in the reader and interpreter and not with the author. So, it doesn't matter what I mean by "deconstruction," all that matters is what you take me to mean by "deconstruction."

bradm said...

So that's basically what you mean by deconstructist - a person that thinks that meaning is in the reader, not the author? I don't think you are correct about that, but thank you for clarifying.

Phil Steiger said...

I am curious - what is your definition of deconstruction? Who do you follow in this theory?

bradm said...

I like James Smith's definition: "Deconstruction is a deeply affirmative mode of critique attentive to the way in which texts, structures and institutions marginalize and exclude "the other", with a view to reconstructing and reconstituting institutions and practices to be more just."

I don't "follow" anybody on this. And I realize, of course, that plenty of deconstructionists would agree that meaning is in the interpreter but not the author. I just don't think ALL of them think that (e.g., Derrida).