Deconstruction is a word that is growing in popularity with groups like the ex-vangelical, post-christian, and even younger evangelical crowds.
As with many concepts that get diluted for mass dissemination, the popularized version of the term is more generic, palatable, generous or even hopeful that the original.
Said another way – deconstruction in its more raw form is difficult, critical, suspicious, and subversive.
Why am I bringing this up? I have noticed two trends within evangelical (or post-evangelical) types when talking about deconstruction.
- Many use the word to simply mean “asking bigger questions for the first time”. Now, asking bigger questions and examining ones tradition or beliefs is fantastic. I just want to be clear that asking bigger questions is a good first step but is not all that deconstruction is about.
- Others have taken to always pairing deconstruction with reconstruction. I have even seen it given the initials D/R (or De/Re) as if they go together.
Neither of these is the best development and so I thought I would just speak up in favor of the original impulse or sense of deconstruction.
I would like to say something in the positive and then in the negative (which is appropriate for the topic)
Positive: Deconstruction is love. It is not destruction. It is not demolition. Think of deconstructing an old barn. It is taking it apart timber by board, one nail at a time, in order to see (or show) how it is put together and how it stays together and works (functions). It wants to expose how it is assembled and where the various parts come from and where it fits in the function of the whole farm. Deconstruction may or may not ‘salvage’ what could be useful (or repurposed) in a different format.
Deconstruction is neither knocking the barn down with a bulldozer (demolition) nor is it setting the barn on fire (destruction). You have to love the thing to justify the time and painful energy to painstakingly pull it apart in an orderly and examined way.
If you didn’t love it you would either smash it in anger or just walk away and abandon it.
In the past I have used a plant analogy about how potted plants can get rootbound when they have been in the same pot too long and how it not only stunts their growth but how the roots will circle back and grow in on themselves. Institutions are like this. I still use the root-bound analogy for organizations, denominations, and groups … but it doesn’t have enough bite (or teeth) for the task of deconstruction.
Negative: You will never get the original thing back. You deconstructed the barn because there was something structurally flawed and deeply unsafe about it. You didn’t deconstruct the barn simply because it was old or outdated or had outlived its usefulness. There was something troubling, suspicious, and unusable.
This is the limit of the plant analogy. You might pull at the roots of a plant and repot it in a more spacious vessel in order to sustain its life and let it grow. This is the re/construction impulse that hopes to prune the vine in order to stimulate new growth.
I love the plant analogy and embrace the pruning for new growth mentality … I just want to be clear that this is not what deconstruction means.
I wrote several years ago about deconstruction and I still hold to much of my outlook from back then.
The one thing that has changed is that deconstruction is come into more common usage and its popular version is safer and less edgy than the non-diluted original. So I want to be clear about something:
Deconstruction is not repairing the broken elements of something or tweaking the outdated parts. Call that renovation or restoration.
Just to be clear:
- Destruction and demolition have their time and place.
- Renovation and restoration have their time and place.
- Even reconstruction has its time and place.
None of them are the same as deconstruction.
Deconstruction interrogates, second-guesses, mistrusts, speculates, and may even subvert that which is being investigated.
Deconstruction may come from a suspicion that something is fundamentally wrong.
Why does this matter? There is a growing tension between the increasingly common-use of the term deconstruction amongst parishioners and seminarians versus the agitation that term causes those in institutional leadership. It is obvious to see why those who run churches and seminaries don’t like deconstruction: they are inherently preservationists and conservationists. It is the nature of the job!
Evangelicalism is construct. It is a loosely configured constellation of loyalties. The boundary has to be highly guarded and aggressively defended because it is so fragile and temperamental. So those in charge of its unstable institutions don’t want their members and participants poking around at the foundation, calling everything into question, and pulling at every loose thread to see if it holds together.
Of course church leaders and seminary administrators are not big fans of deconstruction – it feels like sawing at the very branch you are standing on. It is somewhere between unsafe and unwise.
Having said that, it might be a good reminder that deconstruction is neither demolition or destruction … but it is also not renovation, restoration, or reconstruction.
I know that all terms are prone to drift and migration from their original intent (just look identity politics or ‘me too’) but wanted to be clear that deconstruction is more than just asking big question about the inherited tradition and it is not primarily for the purpose of reconstruction.
The danger with deconstruction is that the thing you loved enough to spend energy on will never be the same. You can’t just rebuild or refurbish it back to its original condition. Both you and the thing you loved are trans-formed.