A Movement Coming To The Forefront
One of my goals for this year is to spend more time studying the entire concept of what is being termed the “deconstruction” movement. I have heard this word being utilized for a few years now, and personally know several individuals who have gone through a process of what they would call “deconstructing their faith.” Typically, what happens is that an individual coming from a theologically and politically conservative background goes through a “deconstruction period” where they systematically dismantle their beliefs coming out on the other side theologically and politically progressive, atheistic/agnostic, or perhaps even something of all the above. In other words, somehow often after going through the deconstruction process, they reject some or all of the core tenets of biblical Christianity.
Now, this movement is, in my view, coming to the forefront of theological conversation and will be a subject of consideration, for a bit. As I progress through deconstructionist literature this year, I hope to provide quite a bit of thought about this issue and engage with specific works from this movement. Obviously, I have serious concerns and issues about the entire deconstructionist viewpoint, and I want to dive into some of those initial concerns today. I want to discuss some of the origins of this movement, bring in the thoughts of others, and try to lay a few foundational pieces of insight for those who are also thinking through this issue. This post will be more broad in character, and we will increasingly drill into more of the specifics of this movement later on!
The Origin and Meaning of Deconstruction
The term “deconstruction” has its origins from the heart of postmodern philosophy in the writings of Jacques Derrida.1 Undoubtedly, I want to fully assert that the term is a bit slippery being used in a wide variety of ways depending on the person. Today, technically speaking, the deconstructionist practice has morphed beyond Derrida, Dr. James Lindsay writes:
“The high deconstructive phase of postmodernism most closely associated with Jacques Derrida (who is most famous for the deconstructive approach) passed in the late 1980s. However, its practices of nitpicking and applying radical skepticism of categories, stable meaning, and objective truth, as well as its commitment to social constructivism continued into various forms of cultural studies. It is seen most strongly in queer Theory and intersectional feminism, where the stable categories of the male and female sexes are regarded as oppressive (see also, violence of categorization) and where gender roles as well as race relations are assumed to all have been constructed by dominant groups in society in order to oppress marginalized ones.”2
Putting this in everyday English, the deconstruction process proposes to try to see how certain beliefs and practices have been used to “oppress others” then move forward to dismantle those beliefs. Primarily, the determination as to what is oppressive and should be deconstructed is made according to sociological theory. In other words, what tends to be labeled “oppressive” is quite often that which is deemed so according to a critical theory and progressive lens. Let’s give an example to put flesh on this entire subject!
A Deconstructionist Vs Conservative Evangelical Approach
Suppose that I have a young believer come up to me seeking more information as to what the Bible teaches about race and why it asserts what it does. Now, this person is not looking to abandon the faith, in this example, they simply have legitimate questions desiring more information on the subject. My response, as a conservative evangelical, would be to walk through texts like the creation account, Acts 17:26, and even other instances such as verses dealing with Jew and Gentile relations in the early church. I would explain how there is only one race . . . human, and that while ethnicity is a legitimate biblical category, ultimately we are all created by God, made in His image, and descended from the same parents who are Adam and Eve (literal, historical people). I would answer questions along the way, and likely I would eventually take the person and show them how the popular ideas in the culture around issues of race ultimately are inconsistent and show them the full truthfulness of the biblical worldview. Essentially, I would attempt to use the Bible to show the proper teaching, then on the basis of a biblical foundation interact with the false teachings of the culture demonstrating their inconsistencies.
In contrast, if the same believer came up to a member of the deconstructionist movement, they would receive a vastly different response. The emphasis would be placed upon historically and sociologically examining how they believe the church’s teaching on race has been used in the past to oppress others. At points, they will likely point to issues we should unequivocally agree are horrific such as how some individuals took biblical passages, and wrongly used them in their attempt to justify the chattel slavery of black individuals in the past. In response, the individual seeking to understand a proper view of race is not directed fundamentally to the Scripture, but to the stories of those claiming oppression who can teach us more about the issue. The theological perspective of the deconstructionist movement is rooted in sociological analysis grounded in a progressive ideological background. Thus, instead of seeking to exegete the text of a particular passage of Scripture, the emphasis will be placed upon historical examples of racism and the elevation of the current voice of “oppressed individuals” with the goal of leading the person to adopt a view shaped by certain strongly left-leaning sociological and historical perspectives.
Perhaps an even clearer example is found in the concept of gender. For example, the very idea of heterosexuality being considered right and normal in a society would need to be destroyed according to the deconstructionists who are seeking to fight for what they believe to be “oppressed” minorities like homosexuals. Therefore, a deconstructionist would examine the biblical teaching on sexuality and seek to demonstrate how, according to their view, it has been used to prop up the “oppression” of those practicing transgender and homosexual behavior. The very concept of the gender binary and heterosexuality being elevated above other forms of sexuality is offensive to them.
Severe Issues At The Forefront
As you can tell from the preceding section, the distinction between how a conservative evangelical and a deconstructionist would respond is quite vast. Dr. Neil Shenvi has helpfully addressed this movement in many ways pointing to the root issue of having sociology as the foundation for theology.4 He makes a powerful observation and says:
“In all these passages (and many more I could cite), we find that the authors view their concerns as one part of a larger and seamless liberatory project. They are not merely aiming to challenge racism or specific interpretations of gender roles, but our understanding of marriage, sexuality, hell, inerrancy, and the gospel itself.”5
I concur with Dr. Shenvi’s point, authors broadly writing to deconstruct historical evangelical theology are not just laying a problematic method for views on race and gender, but even the very Gospel itself. David Gushee, a proponent of the “intellectual deconstruction” of American Evangelicalism has cited such authors as Jemar Tisby, Beth Allison Barr, Kristin Du Mez, and others as part of this endeavor, a statement over which these authors rejoiced.6 These authors have collectively written on a wide variety of issues from gender roles to racism all from a perspective that at the very least is more on the left. Dr. Shenvi has demonstrated the danger of all these matters in this way:
“But once a white pastor endorses the view that he — as a white male — is blinded by his own white supremacy, unable to properly understand relevant biblical principles due to his social location, and in need of the “lived experience” of oppressed minorities to guide him, how long before someone in his congregation applies the same reasoning to his beliefs about gender?”7
Those believing that the goal of the intellectual deconstruction and remaking of evangelical theology is simply to evaluate everything we believe according to historic biblical theology are wrong and misunderstanding this movement. Some may use the term “deconstruction” in that way, but on the whole, this movement has a much broader goal in mind, the remaking of evangelical theology at virtually every point. In the end, it wants to evaluate how ideas like inerrancy and substitutionary atonement are power-plays to oppress others, then deconstruct these views. The stakes in dealing with this movement are not a peripheral issue here and there, but take us to foundational matters directly related to the Gospel itself!
Thoughts As To A Response
Mark my words, in the upcoming years this issue is going to continue to heat up and work its way further into mainstream evangelical circles. As a young evangelical, I know very few individuals who are not somewhat familiar with this movement amongst my generation, either being impacted by it themselves or knowing others who have been. Our response must be an unwavering fidelity to the Scripture. Undoubtedly, it is true that real acts of evil have been committed by those inappropriately citing a Bible verse. However, it is equally true that men like William Wilberforce utilized the accurately interpreted teaching of Scripture in his work to end the evil and horrific slave trade. Bringing us to an important point, Scripture alone is our ultimate authority for life and godliness. We can certainly learn from historical evidence, but like all else, it is subservient and subordinate to the Word of God. Meaning that we can look into the past seeing the real failures and successes of Christians to learn from those realities. For example, I can look at the lives of Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield learning much from their heroic stands for the Gospel while seeing failures and inconsistencies as it pertains to the issue of slavery and others. We should learn from both the good and the bad so we do not make the same mistakes, but hopefully, also be spurred on by their courage in defending the Scripture. In other words, we should evaluate their historical lives by the standard of Scripture, clearly seeing the good and being grieved by that which was sinful.
Consequently, the deconstructionist movement is making the mistake of throwing the baby out with the bathwater and using the wrong foundational standard. They can spot some issues that we can agree are incorrect, like the evil of race-based chattel slavery, but we cannot follow them down the paths of critical theory and progressivism which are unbiblical. They are laying down a method that is a huge pitfall in its approach to theology and harm towards a biblical understanding. They are not advocating for a mere reevaluation of views, but a destruction of historical evangelical theology grounded in Scripture to be replaced by the sociological analysis of those who are on the left. Read this clearly, sociology, opinion, and thoughts on history are not the foundation for our belief, the very Word of God itself is our only firm foundation! We analyze the past and deal with the present standing on the Scripture.
Many will object to my decrying of this movement because they believe that we should “evaluate our ideas.” The deconstructionist movement is not out to merely reevaluate our ideas and beliefs based upon the Word of God, that is not its goal at all. Fundamentally, I believe in the idea that we should seek to know what is true and why we believe it by drinking deeply of God’s Word. Study the Scripture, pray to God for understanding, and seek to wade the deep waters of biblical theology that you may know the truth, get rid of ideas you have that are unbiblical, and live in obedience to God. We do not need deconstruction, we need to come to the Bible to know the truth. Friends what I just advocated for is good, old-fashioned, biblical reformation by the grace of God!
Fundamentally, deconstructionism ties in closely with much of what we have been seeing in regards to Critical Theory and the Social Justice movement. I look forward to continuing to dive into much more material on this issue and hopefully provide biblical responses on these issues. If you have resources you want to recommend on this subject, please feel free to use the contact page to send them to me. The goal of this post was merely to lay a foundation for continuing to examine this issue in the future, I pray it was beneficial for those intrigued by this issue!
1 Here is the background and definitional information about this term:
3 Note: James Lindsay and Helen Pluckrose make some intriguing thoughts about this issue on pages 106-107 of their book Cynical Theories.
Neil Shenvi Documenting the author’s response and other important information: