Among the prominent buzzwords in Christian social media are variations of the word “deconstruction.” The word has been used to describe the deconversions of Kevin Max (from DC Talk) and Joshua Harris (of I Kissed Dating Goodbye fame), the soul searching of Derek Webb, and the theological revisionings of Jen Hatmaker and Rob Bell. When used descriptively, it helpfully describes something that has become a common feature of evangelical celebrity-ism.
Increasingly, however, the term “deconstruction” is being used prescriptively: recommended to believers, especially those questioning what they’ve grown up with, as the courageous thing to do. This recommendation lands somewhere between unhelpful and dangerous.
It’s one thing to describe doubting, questioning and, ultimately, shifting faith commitments as “deconstruction.” It’s another to prescribe it as the means of coming to terms with the unpopular truth claims of Christianity or the baggage of a Christian upbringing. Simply put, the word “deconstruction” itself carries too much worldview baggage to be helpful.
To be clear, Scripture (especially the Psalms) not only creates plenty of space for doubting and questioning, but makes it clear that God meets us in our questions and doubts. If all that is meant by deconstruction is asking tough questions about God or faith, that’s a normal part of the Christian life and need not mean deconversion. Or, if it is used to refer to untangling politics or other elements of American culture that have been corruptively bundled with Christian identity, deconstruction may simply mean discernment.
At the same time, deconstruction is not the best term for either of these contexts, especially given the much better words available. Conversion, reform, and renewal are words provided in Scripture and church history to keep God’s people squarely within a Christian vision of truth: that truth is revealed, not constructed, and objective, not subjective. More importantly, because God takes on Himself the burden of making truth known (and does not author confusion), real knowledge about God and self is possible.
At the risk of committing an etymological fallacy, “deconstruction” carries too much of the philosophical baggage of postmodernism, particularly the denial that truth can truly be known. It carries the assumption of permanent doubt, and the culture-wide skepticism of authority. That’s why, when applied to Christian faith, so much deconstruction has to do with severing the links between the Church and Jesus, Christianity and Jesus, moral teaching and Jesus, and (especially) the Bible and Jesus… as if the Church isn’t His Bride, Christianity isn’t His worldview, morality isn’t His teaching, and the Bible isn’t His Word. That’s why, when applied to Christian faith, so often deconstruction means taking apart the faith and keeping only the palatable (like Jesus’ love and compassion), while discarding the difficult (like sin and penal substitutionary atonement).
Deconstructing faith rarely ends at rejecting corruption or jettisoning historical baggage, and instead culminates in the integration of what is culturally acceptable into an entirely new faith. Dropped along the way are essential doctrines of Christianity (like the deity and exclusivity of Christ or the authority of His Word), or ethics (especially those having to do with sexuality and abortion).
Shaped as it is by a commitment to skepticism, “deconstruction” presumes that truth is an illusion and knowledge is impossible. On the other hand, words like “reform” and “renewal” point us back to things once held but now lost. We remember what our memory lost, retake what we once held, revisit places we’ve been before.
Reform and renewal assume that faith and knowledge are rooted in something outside of ourselves. The New Testament is full of appeals by the Apostles to recover the truth once believed and the faith once loved. The Old Testament prophets continually called for people to restore the right worship and ethics they’d received at Sinai.
“De-” words, on the other hand, are very different from “re-” words. Deconstruction is about tearing down, never building up; it’s about rejecting, not returning; moving away from, not towards anything or Anyone.
Francis Schaeffer, among others, offered and embodied a better way in his own life and ministry. He took seriously the questions of those disillusioned and skeptical, and wrestled deeply with the challenges to Christian faith that were contemporary to his time and place. Along the way, he found that it was possible to give good and sufficient reasons for the Christian worldview. He offered “honest answers to honest questions,” guiding those with doubts and wounds toward Christ: the Way, the Truth, and the Life.
The question of whether or not we live in a world in which it is possible to truly know Truth and its Author makes all the difference for those struggling through existential crises. Describing deconstruction is, tragically, sometimes necessary in our skeptical age. Prescribing it is not, because Truth does exist. In fact, I know Him.