Deconstruction! Ironic Learnings of “Pastor” for Make Benefit Weak Faith of Post-Pandemic

Deconstruction! Ironic Learnings of “Pastor” for Make Benefit Weak Faith of Post-Pandemic November 9, 2021

I’ll start here with a bit of auto-biography. Back in 1994-1995, I took a senior seminar in philosophy on postmodernism. We had this fantastic professor, Richard Ylvisaker, and he assigned relatively accessible texts.

Nevertheless, to be honest I had no idea what I was doing.

The most memorable book we read and discussed in that course was Charles Taylor’s Sources of the Self. To be honest, I can’t remember the thesis or the main points of the book, which is likely an argument it’s time for me to pull it off the shelf and re-read it, but I do remember it changed my thinking.

That’s funny, right? That something can change you and you can’t remember it very well? Kind of like our infancy and toddler years. I don’t remember how my parents treated me exactly, but they must have done okay. I’ve developed into a relatively functional adult self.

Anyway, the book summary tells me the book was about modern notions of subjectivity, and how ultimately these developed in pursuit of “the good.” I’ll take the book jacket at its word for now.

The other book we read that semester was Prophets of Extremity: Nietzsche, Heidegger, Foucault, Derrida by Allan Megill. All I can tell you about that book is it’s the best book I’ve ever read on those four philosophers, and I had absolutely no business reading it at the age of 21.

I did, however, in that semester, pick up a little bit of what philosophers, Derrida in particular, meant by deconstruction. During my seminary years, we kept talking about deconstruction, especially in relationship to (again, like Derrida), the reading of texts.

I have a certain level of facility these days in postmodernism and deconstruction, although I will admit that the intentionally obtuse writing style of much of post-structuralism means it’s difficult work grasping what could be clearer if the authors didn’t want to be obscure on purpose.

In the last couple of months, that word, “deconstruction,” has risen in popular use among North American Christians. At first, I heard from some clergy colleagues that it was a popular Twitter term. Then I started hearing about TikTok deconstruction videos.

More recently in our congregation we have started a weekly Zoom gathering (it’s growing in participants every week) who are coming from traditions in which they experienced religious trauma, or from whom they learned habits of thought they wish to “deconstruct,” and now I’m seeing this term “deconstruction” all over the place, sometimes daily, and it made me think to myself,

“You should write a blog post about this because it’s good copy and if you optimize your SEO maybe a lot of people will read it!”

Okay, that’s actually true. But it’s also true that I thought it might be helpful to disambiguate what is and isn’t meant by deconstruction, and then offer just a couple of overtures toward my growing respect for the deconstruction movement.

So, here’s what deconstruction is NOT. It’s not pure relativism, it’s not people abandoning their faith, it’s not a deep dive into that fascinating Algerian philosopher of the 20th century, Jacques Derrida, and it’s definitely not people writing post-structuralist jargon-laden texts that only academics will glance past while walking the stacks at the library.

What deconstruction IS is quite simple: it’s taking apart something.

It’s like kids who take apart watches, or gamers who decide to dig into the code. It’s people curious to know what engine of religious faith is under the hood, and how it runs, and whether it needs or tune-up, or whether it’s time to trade that wreck in for something newer, or get rid of it altogether and start riding the light rail.

I also think deconstruction comes out of a space of self-care, frequently a first step into recognizing and respecting one’s own viewpoint. Deconstruction is about trusting one’s own judgment rather than accepting that certain people in authority get to tell everyone else the right things to believe.

And quite often, deconstruction is a shift away from reliance on doctrine and authoritarian systems of control, and toward the Jesus encountered in community and Scripture.

Often deconstruction allows a lot to fall away so we can fall in love with Jesus again.

Now, I’m not a formerly conservative evangelical Christian emerging from traumatizing systems like many of the people I know and love. So in that sense my experience is different. I did have a Rush Limbaugh phase in high school, listening to him on the regular while driving tractor in the fields in the fall and spring. And I did have to disabuse myself of a variety of assumptions I learned, raised as I was in a very white and fairly conservative rural Iowa culture in the 70s and 80s.

But my own religious tradition was capacious enough for that searching. Heck, way back in 1995 when I was the campus congregational president we led a process for the campus ministry to become fully affirming of LGBT students and members.

But I’ve now been in Arkansas long enough to have gathered in our little community of faith those finding their way out of rather stifling spaces: Church of Christ, Jehovah’s Witness, Mormon, Southern Baptist, Wisconsin Synod, “free” churches (and the rule about free churches is that any church with “free” in its name actually isn’t), and even no church at all but just family cultures steeped in patriarchal Christian nationalist assumptions.

All of these folks come to our church for approximately the same reasons (I think… I’m over-generalizing, they’ll tell me if I’m wrong). They come because we have a lot of rainbows. They come because we speak out about social justice. They come because they still love Jesus and just dislike some of how Jesus gets distorted into justifying harmful systems and doctrines.

But now, with the rise of the “deconstruction” movement, more and more people are gaining a language to name the journey they’re on. And I think they also have a larger push-factor than ever before, what with conservative Christianity now almost 100% co-opted by the cult of Trump and Qanon.

So what are the overtures? I only have a few, and I hope they’re helpful. I plan to continue to listen, and learn, and grow, because our Zoom gatherings are teaching me so much, and because I see Jesus in these conversations. But here they are, a few ironic learnings about deconstruction.

  1. Don’t pay anyone to shepherd you in deconstruction work. It’s like the ones who want to get paid are the ones who got paid to do the harm in the first place.
  2. I’m not “the” or even “a” primary authority. I’m just in the mix. Which doesn’t mean I have no authority at all. It just means you get to have a network for discernment rather than a pyramid of top-down truth purveyance.
  3. If someone taught you to distrust the deepest parts of yourself (like that you love someone of the same gender, or are trans, etc.), fuck that shit.
  4. It’s good to take things apart and even reject them for a time. I can understand why anything, from the presence of a pastor, to crossing the threshold of a church, to the use of Scripture, etc., can be triggering. Take all the time you need. But also keep in mind that old Latin saying, Abusus non tollit proprium usus. The abuse of something does not disallow its proper use. Or another way to say it, “I don’t think the Bible’s inerrant, but I sure do love that ancient codex.”
  5. Find your people.
  6. Rainbows really are a good dousing rod. Pretty much anywhere you go that centers the queer experience is probably relatively well down the path you are wanting to walk.
  7. This is the Great Recalibration right now. Go for it. There’s no rush, and also, way wait?
  8. I think a lot of the folks doing deconstruction work are also the ones who had been the very active church people. It’s probably a deep part of who you are, this desire to be in community in hopes of experiencing the presence of G-d. So trust the Lutheran vocational notion that our primary callings are in our daily work and family, etc., but also, if you like church stuff, go find yourself some fun church stuff to do in a community that aligns with where you’re at. Doing things is therapeutic.
  9. Except if that doesn’t feel good to you, then don’t do that.
  10. Have fun. Like, can we just not be so serious all the time? Except when we need to be. then be serious.

Okay, I made that because I like to make top ten lists. I hope it helps. Drop all your deconstruction related links to TikTok’s in the comments, and let’s do this.

And yes, that is a photo of Jacques Derrida with his cat.


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