I hesitate to wade into these waters. But it’s a risk worth taking. Plus there’s a Disney analogy ahead, so there’s that.
Some see a threat to evangelicalism in the trend of “deconstruction”. I use quotes because the term has been appropriated by so many people to describe so many different reactions. Ironically just like “evangelical”.
In general, I can’t bring myself to see the deconstruction trend this way, as a “threat”. I pastored college students, and I’m not an outsider to evangelicalism. For me it’s an interpretation that doesn’t seem to fully grapple with all the variables.
I’ve noticed some prominent takes on deconstruction fail to acknowledge just how disoriented US evangelicalism has become. The in-house problems get a passing admission, but then a turn is made towards the real problem: it’s with those jettisoning orthodoxy under the label “deconstruction”. From this posture, the “deconstruction is a threat” rhetoric can serve us as a powerful defense mechanism. One that implies US evangelicalism is good as is – “nothing to see here!”
Running a “full court press” on the threat of deconstruction while refusing to admit the disoriented state of US evangelicalism is gaslighting. It hurts way more than it helps. I’ve found people’s pain and their desire for theological integrity are not opposed, but rather bound up together in ways we cannot always parse.
Upstream of our takes on deconstruction is our view of American evangelicalism. And it matters, a LOT, whether we perceive evangelicalism in America as an ideal set of abstract theological principles, or something more. Something that is theological but at the same time historical and cultural. This makes it less-definable as a theologically bundled socio-cultural “way of life”, a living expression of theology in history.
But it’s reasonable to suppose holding to evangelicalism strictly as theological principles (which isn’t necessarily out of bounds, I’m sensitive to this understanding). The problem is when such a rendering serves to negate any and all criticism of the cultural expressions of said principles. Then of course the “problem” is with those who deconstruct. (Or whatever term you prefer.)
But sharing this view increases the disorientation people have already come to experience—and sadly expect—from certain evangelical corners in America.
To illustrate this, I want to reference an early Disney/Pixar movie, Monsters Inc. Forgive me here, but hey, I’m a PhD candidate and dad of 3 young kids. This is my modus operandi. I promise it’ll make sense—I think.
Remember when Mr. Waternoose blames the lovable duo of Mike & Sully—for everything? Waternoose is the CEO of said Monster’s Inc., and villain of the movie. When an energy crisis hit Monstropolis, he decided to cut corners and kidnap kids. “I’ll kidnap a thousand more kids if I have to!” he says. But then he’s exposed.
At that moment, he turns. Waternoose says Mike & Sully destroyed the company. He even blames them for the energy crisis. “BECAUSE OF YOU” he screams as he’s locked up. But in the end, it was all Waternoose. He tried to save Monsters Inc. by betraying it. But he pointed the finger at Mike & Sully. They were the “threat”.
Running a “full court press” on the threat of deconstruction while refusing to admit the disoriented state of US evangelicalism is gaslighting
Some talk about deconstruction is a bit like this dynamic. There’s finger pointing at people who are deconstructing, labeling them as “threats”. But we sound like Waternoose if we can’t admit or address how a disoriented evangelicalism might have pushed them there.
American evangelicalism has betrayed itself in trying to save itself. Some wrestle with this by crossing the boundary of Nicene orthodoxy. Others see deconstruction as a necessary stop on the journey of faith. But if it’s heresy we’re concerned about as evangelicals, maybe we should look inside first. This doesn’t mean jettisoning the Scriptures. This posture is the precedent we find in the Scriptures themselves.
I’m thinking of how God promised and called Gideon to rescue Israel from their foreign oppressors, the Midianites. But not until Gideon tore down the idol that his dad had built in his hometown. We mustn’t live by a plot that always sees the problems “out there” and never “in here”. The early church learned this again with God, over the sudden deaths of Annanias and Sapharia in Acts. They lied about the circumstances surrounding their donation to the common fund of the church. God has revealed himself as one who cares about the inside of the house.
I’d ask those calling to defend the faith against the “deconstructionists”: does “defending the faith” mean gaslighting the faithful? Blaming the ones who had every reason to expect evangelical orthodoxy from American evangelicalism but got partisan politics? Or heads in the sand on sexual abuse? Or an anemic ethic towards justice? Churches that gesture towards justice, but never adopt a posture for it? Defending evangelicalism from deconstructionists should not be a distraction from attending to our faults and failures.
If it’s heresy we’re concerned about as evangelicals, maybe we should look inside first.
I get the “evangelicals are bad” is a tried and true way to draw a crowd. But first, that’s not what I’m saying. I’m pointing towards what is better. Second, I hope at least to speak here as a family member. This was my house as a kid. I sat, studied, and served in spaces marked by Moody, Falwell, and Southern Baptists. I’m not an outsider, but a son of the house. Some who are deconstructing are, too.
Deconstruction as a trend is hard for evangelicals if only because we can’t control it. And we shouldn’t try to. This urge for control is partly why I think some are trying to draw some borders around it. It’s easier to control what we can understand. Many of the critiques of deconstruction I’ve read describe in detail an entire deconstruction industry: coaches you can pay to assist deconstruction, classes, groups, etc. This is basically a mirror of some of our own apologetic or Bible Study networks.
Evangelicals shouldn’t set up our own cottage industry in opposition. We can freely admit we can’t control the process or the outcomes of those who are so-called “deconstructing”. We can’t select the doctrines people choose to put on the autopsy table to dissect. We don’t get to define terms up for negotiation. Some leave a disoriented evangelicalism and move towards deconversion. Others wrestle towards a reimagined faith. And still others will be burdened by pain, unable to take a step in either direction.
We mustn’t live by a plot that always sees the problems “out there” and never “in here”.
We need to explore the possibility that those who are deconstructing are not turning away from something good, but rather can’t tell the difference between what is real, and what is fake. And a disoriented evangelicalism might have forced that question on them.
If we’re not careful, we run the risk of sounding like Mr. Waternoose, denying the role American evangelicalism might have played. In all our labeling and generalizing people as a “threat”, we need to realize they might be like Mike and Sully. Some of these people have simply traveled far enough and seen enough inside the company to realize it’s not what they thought. They realize, as Philip Yancey put it, “many who speak of God do not speak for God.” There’s a very real pain that attends this realization, and loss too. We’d do well to acknowledge that reality in our talks on deconstruction.
If we want to talk about deconstruction we need to understand it—not just intellectually, or by the shape of its burgeoning industry—but personally and particularly. This appeal to the personal and particular shouldn’t bring out charges of moral relativism. We need to be curious over what people are deconstructing from, and—as they feel safe—the pain they carry. It means being open to examining our own evangelical disorientation, and be willing to confess it and yes, change it.
In all this, we are free. Free in Christ to love the other, free to be curious, free and open to the questions, critiques, and doubts of all people. Free to examine our own faults and failings. Free from the urge to build checkpoints on the prodigal paths back to God.
There’s no evangelicalism to “defend” or “save” that demands a betrayal of the evangel in our name. When that happens, we give people reason to think twice about what it means to be not just an evangelical, but what it means to follow Jesus.