Richard Beck asks a question about “exvangelicals” and “deconstruction.” So to answer that question, we first need to talk about what “deconstruction” means and what it does not.
This is a case where a new-ish word is now being applied to a not-at-all new thing. The term “deconstruction” comes from 20th-century philosophy and literature. The thing it’s now being used to describe is a biblical imperative that’s older than the English language.
And it’s not at all what Beck seems to think it is — what he describes as “real dark night of the soul journeys.” That’s what Beck is looking for when he hears post-evangelicals use the word “deconstruction,” something like the deep crisis of faith famously described by St. John of the Cross:
St. John of the Cross called it the dark night of the soul, where immature and idolatrous conceptions of God are burnt away in a painful, disorientating process. During the dark night of the soul we feel God-abandoned, not because we are abandoned by God, but because the idol that we took to be God is “deconstructed.” This purgation leaves behind a void which we experience, for a season, as the death or loss of God.
That’s a thing too. But it’s a different thing entirely. It’s not at all this thing. The “deconstruction” referred to by these post-evangelicals — believers or non-believers alike — may be disorienting and initially overwhelming, but it’s not painful. It doesn’t usually feel like death or loss or a fathomless void. It feels like liberation. It is not burdensome, but an unburdening. It is energizing, delighting, transforming.
Ask me to describe it in two words and those words would be “woo” and “hoo!” Limit me to just one word and I’ll go with “Wheeeeeee!”
This isn’t St. John’s dark night of the soul. It’s more like a bright dawn of the soul.
I referred to this as a “biblical imperative” because it is one. It’s a bona fide commandment in a verse that may be familiar to readers of this blog. “Test everything. Hold on to the good.”
What are we to test? Everything. What are we to keep? Only the good.
The word “deconstruction” never appears in Charles M. Sheldon’s all-time best-selling novel In His Steps, but that’s what the whole book is about. It’s about the transformation that happens when we test everything and hold on to the good.
I liked Sheldon’s novel, but not nearly as much as my favorite literary portrayal of “deconstruction” and of what it looks like to “Test everything; hold on to the good.”
That, of course, is from Huckleberry Finn:
I about made up my mind to pray; and see if I couldn’t try to quit being the kind of a boy I was, and be better. So I kneeled down. But the words wouldn’t come. Why wouldn’t they? It warn’t no use to try and hide it from Him. Nor from me, neither. I knowed very well why they wouldn’t come. It was because my heart warn’t right; it was because I warn’t square; it was because I was playing double. I was letting on to give up sin, but away inside of me I was holding on to the biggest one of all. I was trying to make my mouth say I would do the right thing and the clean thing, and go and write to that n—-r’s owner and tell where he was; but deep down in me I knowed it was a lie — and He knowed it. You can’t pray a lie — I found that out.
So I was full of trouble, full as I could be; and didn’t know what to do. At last I had an idea; and I says, I’ll go and write the letter — and then see if I can pray. Why, it was astonishing, the way I felt as light as a feather, right straight off, and my troubles all gone. So I got a piece of paper and a pencil, all glad and excited, and set down and wrote:
Miss Watson your runaway n—–r Jim is down here two mile below Pikesville and Mr. Phelps has got him and he will give him up for the reward if you send. HUCK FINN
I felt good and all washed clean of sin for the first time I had ever felt so in my life, and I knowed I could pray now. But I didn’t do it straight off, but laid the paper down and set there thinking — thinking how good it was all this happened so, and how near I come to being lost and going to hell. And went on thinking. And got to thinking over our trip down the river; and I see Jim before me, all the time; in the day, and in the night-time, sometimes moonlight, sometimes storms, and we a floating along, talking, and singing, and laughing. But somehow I couldn’t seem to strike no places to harden me against him, but only the other kind. I’d see him standing my watch on top of his’n, stead of calling me, so I could go on sleeping; and see him how glad he was when I come back out of the fog; and when I come to him agin in the swamp, up there where the feud was; and such-like times; and would always call me honey, and pet me, and do everything he could think of for me, and how good he always was; and at last I struck the time I saved him by telling the men we had smallpox aboard, and he was so grateful, and said I was the best friend old Jim ever had in the world, and the only one he’s got now; and then I happened to look around, and see that paper.
It was a close place. I took it up, and held it in my hand. I was a trembling, because I’d got to decide, forever, betwixt two things, and I knowed it. I studied a minute, sort of holding my breath, and then says to myself:
“All right, then, I’ll go to hell” — and tore it up.
It was awful thoughts, and awful words, but they was said. And I let them stay said; and never thought no more about reforming. I shoved the whole thing out of my head; and said I would take up wickedness again, which was in my line, being brung up to it, and the other warn’t. And for a starter, I would go to work and steal Jim out of slavery again; and if I could think up anything worse, I would do that, too; because as long as I was in, and in for good, I might as well go the whole hog.
In the moments leading up to this, I suppose, Huck experiences something like the angst and emotionally fraught spiritual crisis Beck sees as the only valid signifier of a “real dark night of the soul journey.” But that’s just the last echoes of Miss Watson’s unsustainable, unsatisfying unreality. It doesn’t pass the test, and isn’t worth holding on to.
Once that stuff gets cast aside, the trembling and the confusion and the heaviness drop away. Huck is no longer full of trouble, but full of purpose and full of energy and full of the joy that comes from going whole hog.
That’s what they mean by “deconstruction.” Nothing long dark night about it.