by John Ellis
This week, I read with interest the two competing articles about deconstruction published on The Gospel Coalition’s website. The first, “What Would Jesus Deconstruct?” by James Walden and Greg Willson, argues for deconstruction’s ability to be a “positive reconstruction” of faith. The second article, “Why We Should Not Redeem ‘Deconstruction’” by Alisa Childers contains the entrenched thesis that positive uses of the word “deconstruction” are dangerously foolish; Childers calls the Walden and Willson TGC article “irresponsible.” Somewhat ironically, these competing articles reflect an unhelpful dualism at The Gospel Coalition that reflects the growing divide in (white) evangelicalism and that actually speaks to the need for deconstruction within (white) evangelicalism.
About a year ago, I read a tweet that, while reductionistic, as tweets tend to be, I believed (and continue to believe) accurately pinpointed an important aspect of white evangelicalism’s cultural moment. The Twitter user, a fairly well-known figure within the reformed (white) evangelical world, claimed that reformed evangelicalism was splitting into two competing movements. The one side, reflected in the views and teaching of the likes of John MacArthur, James White, Founders Ministry, CBMW, et al., is moving towards a full-on embrace of Christian nationalism. The other, reflected in the views and teachings of Tim Keller, Andy Crouch, Karen Swallow Prior, Mike Cosper, et al., is moving towards a neo-Kuyperianism characterized by what the other side pejoratively calls “woke Christianity.” While many of those I listed above would (rightfully) quibble a bit with my categorization, I do believe the prevailing mood and overall sentiment is accurate. (White) evangelicalism is dividing; possibly in multiple directions, but the overall trend is an increasing separation with overlapping subsets faced off across the main divide. The two “deconstruction” articles on TGC each reflect one of those generalized perspectives within this reformed (white) evangelical “civil war.”
Usually, when the word deconstruction is bandied about within the wider evangelical world, my response ping-pongs between slight bemusement and slight irritation. Often, the term is used so colloquially that it’s stripped of most of its content. And it’s often employed in specifically polemical ways that belie its complexity. By and large, I’m fine with colloquial uses of terms, but I do wish that more people understood that deconstruction is a dense concept that resists caged definitions, which is an unironic pedagogical claim.
Unfortunately (or expectedly), most people’s interaction with Derrida is through the statement that “there is nothing outside the text.” A statement that often elicits fearful kneejerk reactions within evangelicalism because, as philosopher James K.A. Smith puts it, “One of the reasons postmodernism has been the bogeyman for the Christian church is that we have become so thoroughly modern.” Our responses to postmodernism (deconstruction) usually aren’t reflective of a desire to preserve the purity of the Christian faith; those responses are often reflective of our desire to defend modernism/classical liberalism. And therein lies much of the meat of the reformed (white) evangelical divide. But before that “meat,” we must first understand, as best we can, what deconstruction is and is not.
When Derrida claimed that “there is nothing outside the text,” he was critiquing “On the Origin of Language,” an essay by Rousseau. According to Rousseau, language is a sort of obstacle between the perceiver and the thing perceived. This means that interpretation is required to discover the truth (what is being communicated), and this is where the (almost) sacrosanct goal of uncovering authorial intent comes from. The reader needs to navigate through the words on the page to get to what the author meant – interpretation that leads to objective (neutral) truth. Now, and this is where stuff tends to become more and more opaque, in the latter half of the 18th century, Rousseauian romanticism met and married Scottish common-sense realism.
However, if Rousseau is right, aren’t the postmodernists correct that interpretation is up for grabs? Well, not so fast, according to John Witherspoon, Thomas Reid, and their Scottish common-sense realist buddies.
Taking the autonomous individualism torch from Locke and company, Thomas Reid and friends threw more fuel on that torch’s fire by embracing the belief that nature has given every human the same access to knowledge – the democratization of knowledge as I’ve termed it (and, no doubt, as have others). This, of course, creates an antagonism between the individual and society; the belief is that our inner self determines truth, but that raises the question, what happens when someone else’s inner self determines a different truth? The way to alleviate that antagonism lies in the common-sense epistemology that declares that truth is not only accessible but is objective (neutral) and objectively accessible. We can all reach the same truth because we all have the same tools to do so. This requires a very modernist view of language.
In common-sense realism, language is mostly (if not completely) static. In the language of contemporary linguistics, Scottish common-sense realists believed and taught that value can be (is) reduced to meaning. As a way to aid in elucidation, this is largely why word studies are so prevalent in contemporary Bible studies. In overcoming the Rousseauian language obstacle via determining synonyms, it’s believed that authorial intent can be revealed. Another way to think of it is the platitude “facts speak for themself.” If the author uses the word “love,” for example, all that’s necessary to overcome the Rousseauian language obstacle and reveal authorial intent is determining the synonyms for “love.” Language is as language does – facts/synonyms speak for themself.
Derrida, on the other hand, recognized the irony in this program; it actually denies the need for interpretation in interpretation. Language is reduced to an objective algorithm making authorial intent accessible and largely undebatable. This may be why your high school literature teacher put a red X next to your answer to the question, “What does the whale signify in Moby Dick?” According to Scottish common-sense realism, the answer to that question is either right or wrong because we have access to Herman Melville’s intent. Within this epistemic framework, the red X next to your answer might have been an “objective” recognition that you were either too lazy or too stupid to interpret the book correctly. Or, it simply might be reflective of the fact that, like me, you find the book dull and a waste of time and didn’t bother to do the assigned reading.
However, some of you reading this may be thinking, “Hold on a minute, John, this Witherspoon dude and his buddies were on the right track – I mean, common sense tells us that we can know what people mean by the words they use.”
Okay. Fair enough. But hear what Derrida had to say. And know that my objective with this article isn’t really to persuade anyone from moving from one side to the other. My objective is primarily twofold: 1. to demonstrate that the divide exists by showing what the divide is via the TGC articles’ competing theses (obviously, my commitments are readily apparent). 2. To encourage those on the one side to go about the work of deconstructing their faith.
Moving forward, an important question to ask is what was deconstruction, well, deconstructing? And, in the main, the answer is modernism (classical liberalism). Hence the popular moniker postmodernism. For many, I think, and reflecting their modernist epistemological commitments, the word “modern” is a trap. So, for them, “modern” has “contemporary” as a synonym. Post-contemporary has a dystopian ring to it that allows the straw man of “relativism” to gain more traction than deserved in the minds of those who are taught to be afraid of postmodernism.
To really understand Derrida requires (at least) a cursory understanding of Martin Heidegger, specifically the German phenomenologist’s “dasein” – we can’t separate our questions about being from our experiences of being. Dasein contains a Kierkegaardian view that we don’t just exist but are invested in our own existence. And, according to Heidegger, our being – our existence – is also being-with; our being is social. We do not possess being apart from others. So, the existential question of authenticity, something Sartre missed about Heidegger, is a social one. “Be yourself” is stripped of its expressive individualism baggage and imbued with a social character and responsibility.
If this – dasein – is true, and I believe it contains much truth, the question then becomes do we have objective neutral access to the things we perceive. Can we separate the things we experience from how we experience them? For Derrida, the answer is a resounding, “No!” There is nothing outside the text because there is always text. As Van Til once said, there are no uninterpreted facts. Furthermore, our interpretations are largely products of communal commitments that we are often unaware we hold. The texts we “discover” behind the text amount to a reinforcement of our communal worldview/definition of flourishing, which is why deconstruction is necessary.
Our attempts to determine Melville’s authorial intent can never move past the text. And while the meaning of words has an objective character, their value is subjective. The (largely) unshared value of words means there can be no universal access to truth because we have different entry points, and those entry points are often communal in ways that we fail to perceive. For Derrida, a modernist linguistics that sees objective unity between the sign and thing signified (and the perceived and perceiver) is a dogmatism that hinders the ability to appropriately interpret. Derrida wasn’t saying that there is no such thing as truth, he was denying the modernist idol of autonomous (expressive) individualism that tells us that we all have unfettered access to truth because the I can get past the text to that truth. Deconstruction aids us in illuminating the ways that our interpretations (the continued texts) are controlled by forces outside of ourselves.
I understand that this may be somewhat confusing, but this is where the strangeness of Foucault helpfully enters the picture.
One of the criticisms of deconstructionism is that it imprisons us within our private interpretations. “I get to decide truth,” is commonly believed to be the endgame of postmodernism, which, ironically, is what the unintended consequence of modernism is because modernism believes that knowledge is power. Ultimately modernism, including the (white) evangelical variety, reduces to a form of solipsism because we can’t fail but to continue in the antagonism between self and society, and in that antagonism, we inevitably choose self. Contradicting that (correcting that), the primary boogeyman phrase of Foucault is “power is knowledge.”
Francis Bacon wrote the famous platitude “knowledge is power” in Meditations Sacrae and Human Philosophy. Most people are not only familiar with it but accept its validity without question. The problem with it, though, is that it assumes an objectivity in language and society in general that does not exist. As Foucault argued and demonstrated, knowledge (what counts as knowledge) is not neutral; it exists as a product of societal controls – power. The famous book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions gets at this with Thomas Kuhn’s “paradigm shifts.” In fact, in an example of unintended irony, the Intelligent Design movement actually uses the Foucauldian argument that power is knowledge, even if they don’t use that phrase (and even reject that phrase), when they claim that the Academy had decided a priori in support of Darwinism and rejects a priori the arguments of the ID movement.
Again, like how Derrida wasn’t saying that correct interpretations aren’t possible, only that correct interpretations are still interpretations – hence, still text – Foucault wasn’t claiming that truth is completely relative and doesn’t exist. He was deconstructing modernism’s claim to epistemic neutrality. Modernism has its own presuppositions and culturally-shaped perspectives, and this means that there is the great risk that some, if not much, of what is considered (allowable) knowledge is a product of the prejudices of those in power – what/how those in power need the populace to epistemically interact with the world to retain the power structures (I could get into Augusto Boal’s theatre theory here, but I won’t). While gaining knowledge, we are never just looking at something; we are also looking from somewhere.
Of course, deconstruction can be (and has been) weaponized in open rebellion against God. But at its core – at its best – deconstruction can be a helpful tool. However, this is where the (white) evangelical divide is exposed: Deconstruction calls into question the validity of modernism. It’s only a helpful tool if you’re willing to have modernism/classical liberalism upended. And since our definitions of flourishing are dependent on our worldview (are our worldview), those who hold modernism dear reveal that their definition of flourishing includes autonomous individualism. For example, the battle cries of “liberty” and “freedom” are not from the Bible; they’re from modernism/classical liberalism. Deconstruction comes along and undermines their (liberty and freedom’s) definition of flourishing.
I understand that the warnings about “redeeming” deconstruction aren’t specifically pointed in that direction, but those warnings do reveal modernist commitments. I also do not find it merely a coincidence that Alisa Childers has achieved much of her esteem and success via the modernist discipline of Christian apologetics (you can read what I mean by that accusation by clicking here).
To help explain what I mean by “those warnings reveal modernist commitments,” I offer my encouragement to readers to deconstruct their faith:
Deconstructing your faith means (can/should mean) examining how your cultural presuppositions have shaped, if not control, your faith. Take the word liberty, for example. When you talk about Christian liberty, do your definitions (what’s considered knowledge) come from the Bible or from your culture? Asking that question poses a significant danger to how much of if not most of (white) evangelicalism defines flourishing; it’s a threat.
When done correctly, deconstructing our faith reveals idols in our heart; it reveals the places where we are more a product of our society than the work of the Spirit. Towards the end of their article, James Walden and Greg Willson offer a helpful diagnosis of (white) evangelicalism in the United States of America via a comparison with believers in England. As the lead planter for Redeemer Church in Manchester, Willson has a front row seat to the contrast, and he writes, “The most conspicuous difference I’ve noticed is that Christians in the UK, as a minority group, seem to have more fully come to terms with their identity as elect exiles in the world (1 Pet. 1:1). Living as ‘a faithful remnant’ within a non-Christian context, with little expectation of recognition, is a powerful antidote to a consumeristic faith.”
Are we aware of how consumeristic our faith is? Does that question cause us to bristle? Because doing so – bristling at the question – is likely a sign that our faith is far more consumeristic than we realize. Furthermore, it likely reveals that we worship a way of life more than we worship Jesus. Deconstructing our faith can be a helpful diagnostic tool as we seek to shed the dead weights of modernism/classical liberalism that hinder us from running our race well.
Soli Deo Gloria
 James K.A. Smith, Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism: Taking Derrida, Lyotard, and Foucault to Church (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2006), 23.
 I’m not claiming that I offer a full-throated explanation of deconstruction with this article. I’m merely trying to … oh, never mind. If I have to defend myself, I’ve already lost you.
 I’m using somewhat anachronistic language here. My terms reflect how I’ve been shaped by the evolution of linguistics and philosophy of language since the mid-18th century.
 I once had a self-professed common-sense realist tell me that there is no such thing as context. That’s an extreme example, but not so extreme as to not be instructive about the system as a whole.
 The astute reader may pick up on shades of Acts 17:28.
 I often say this same thing about CRT. Christian nationalists are correct in their assessment that CRT is a threat to their way of life. The question becomes, though, is that a good thing? Should our way of life be “threatened?” Often, how that question is answered (in both directions, to be fair) reveals idols. As I’ve heard from countless pulpits, the things that make us angry and/or frightened often point us to our idols.