The Demon of Deconstruction?

The following is an excerpt from a short seminary paper I wrote that deals with biblical authority from a postmodern critique…

Derrida: Nothing Outside the Text

Jacques Derrida was a twentieth century philosopher who is famous for stating: “There is nothing outside the text.”[1] For many, this has been a difficult statement to deal with on a theological level. Modern Christians have taken that statement to mean a number of different things, typically believing it to have negative ramifications for how we approach faith and understand the Scriptures. On the surface, this seems to indicate that the whole world is some type of text. If that is the case, then logically it follows that Derrida must have been denying material reality and believing in only language. Often, this simplified understanding of Derrida and of his “deconstruction” philosophy has led many Christian scholars to become defensive. If the only reality is text, then the one God who is separate from the created order could not actually be existent. If the only thing that exists is texts themselves, then that which the Bible speaks about would also be false. Things like the resurrection, creation, or spiritual warfare would not be real; and therefore, there would be no redemption of the cosmos or humanity.[2] Another common understanding of the deconstruction spoken of by Derrida is that one can make a text mean anything without boundaries.[3] For these reasons, the more common Christian stance when it comes to deconstruction is that it opposes the foundations of the faith.

What if the common understanding of deconstruction is not what Derrida actually had in mind? What if deconstruction could be used as an advocate of Scripture rather than its opponent? In order to answer these questions it is important to explore beyond the one line slogan that has been so often been misunderstood. James K. A. Smith explains:

Thus, just before making his famous claim that “there is nothing outside the text,” Derrida says that a reading or interpretation “cannot legitimately transgress the text toward something other than it, toward a referent…or toward a signified outside the text whose content could take place, could have taken place outside of language, that is to say, in the sense that we give here to that word, outside of writing in general”…Interpretation is not a series of hoops we jump through to eventually reach a realm of unmediated experience where we don’t have to interpret anymore. Rather, interpretation is an inescapable part of being human and experiencing the world. So even this blue cup sitting on my table, from which I am drinking my coffee “firsthand,” as it were, is still a matter of interpretation.[4]

Derrida believed that all of life is a text (not a literal book). Everything that we do requires interpretation and that language serves as the medium for such. In every act, a person is interpreting the world based on the various presuppositions that are brought to the particular experience.[5] If all of life requires interpretation, the modern notion of objectivity is confronted. From the perspective of many Christians, this threatens our view of the Bible as an authoritative book. For instance, if the gospel is merely an interpretive understanding, then its objective truth is now threatened.[6] But as Christians, do we really need to buy into objectivism? Is that not merely a philosophy in the same way that deconstruction is? It should not shake the believer from faith if objective knowledge is challenged in this way. The modernist longs for something that cannot be attained from a human perspective, absolute certainty. Assurance that the Bible is authoritative should not rest on objective reason, but should come from a deep conviction from a relationship to the Spirit of God. In a deconstruction, we are enabled to wrestle with pre-established constructions about the Bible, in order to search out what may lie beneath inherited beliefs.[7]

In order to properly interpret the texts we encounter, not only do we need to deconstruct the dominant interpretive structures, but we also need to listen to the voices that have been silenced by such authoritarianism. By embracing the “other,” we now can begin to search out to find uncontainable truth; or perhaps truth seeks us out. Postmodern Philosopher John D. Caputo explains:

Deconstruction is organized around the idea that things contain a kind of uncontainable truth, that they contain what they cannot contain. Nobody has to come along and “deconstruct” things. Things are auto-deconstructed by the tendencies of their own inner truth. In a deconstruction, the “other” is the one who tells the truth on the “same”; the other is the truth of the same, the truth that has been repressed and suppressed, omitted and marginalized, or sometimes just plain murdered, like Jesus himself…[8]

How does deconstruction apply to biblical authority? Does not the very word “authority” describe the oppressor of the “other?” How could someone use deconstruction and cling to a book as having authority? What if we suggested that the Bible represents the story of a people who were the “other?” The New Testament tells the story of a community of people whose message subverted the empire of the day: “Jesus is Lord and Caesar is not.”[9] The Roman Empire oppressed, persecuted, and killed Christians; but the voice of the other is still experienced today via the Scriptures. The Roman metanarrative was an oppressive force, but the church movement continued to grow in spite of being the marginalized voice in the empire.[10] Perhaps it could be said that from the perspective of deconstruction, the Bible is authoritative precisely because it is the story of a people who auto-deconstructed Rome. If the Bible can be viewed as the proclamation of the “other,” then it is able to reveal the truth that has often been left in the margins of modernism.

[1]. James K. A. Smith, Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism?: Taking Derrida, Lyotard, and Foucault to Church, ed. James K. A. Smith, The Church and Postmodern Culture (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2006), 34.
[2]. Ibid., 34-35.
[3]. The Art of Reading Scripture, ed. Ellen F. Davis and Richard B. Hays (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2003), 117.
[4]. Smith, Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism?: Taking Derrida, Lyotard, and Foucault to Church, 38.
[5]. Ibid., 39-40.
[6]. Smith, Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism?: Taking Derrida, Lyotard, and Foucault to Church, 42.
[7]. Ibid., 51.
[8]. John D. Caputo, What Would Jesus Deconstruct?: The Good News of Post-Modernism for The Church, ed. James K. A. Smith, The Church and Postmodern Culture (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2007), 29.
[9]. Wright, The Last Word: Scripture and The Authority of God– Getting Beyond The Bible Wars, 115.
[10]. The Art of Reading Scripture, ed. Ellen F. Davis and Richard B. Hays (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2003), 51.

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