Deconstruction: I do not think it means what you think it means.

Dear Christian World,

Deconstruction. ‘You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.’

What it doesn’t mean

It seems that Christians often use the word ‘deconstruction’ to describe an experience when assumptions and beliefs seem to come to pieces, where questioning and doubt become more natural than certainty, where grief or pain make simplistic suppositions seem naive. Using a word like deconstruction lends some hope and possibility that it might not be an altogether dark experience, that some positives can be found in the process. Perhaps it reminds us of a vaguely remembered line from Ecclesiastes

For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: … a time to break down, and a time to build up…
Ecclesiastes 3:1,3 (ESV)

It’s often put in some sort of opposition to whatever came before and to ‘rebuilding’, it’s seen as an intermediary process, a necessary but painful one that will lead those who endure it to a better place.

I read this kind of understanding most recently on Kathy Escobar’s blog, where she describes deconstruction as

where much of what we believe shifts.
where things we once held dear unravel.
where the number of questions begin to overtake all of our past certainties.
where we find ourselves saying “uh oh, our faith might be in big trouble.”
where we lose the safety of familiar communities because we’ve changed.

I have no problem with describing this kind of experience or wanting our lives to be built up after it seems they have been broken down. I think it’s essential that the doubts are taken seriously and that we have safe places to work through them and even past them.

But that’s not deconstruction.

What it does mean

Deconstruction sounds ‘cool’ because it’s part of the whole postmodern thing. It must be a good thing because it’s so ‘up to date’ (ignoring the fact that it came out of thinking from the 70s and 80s…) It must be real because it’s contemporary and slightly dangerous.

I think deconstruction is an essential tool for the church to take if we’re to take the issues of our contemporary world seriously, but on its own terms, not as a word applied to something we want it to.

One source of confusions over what deconstruction is comes from the fact that with the hyper-individualism of postmodern thought comes the conclusion that nothing is completely fixed, own-able or definable. So in some senses, deconstruction means whatever we think it means. But if we’re to have serious conversation with postmodern thinkers outside of our Christian bubble, we need to agree on shared language.

Deconstruction is a pulling apart, but it certainly isn’t destructive, and nor is it an intermediate state. It’s a thoughtful, analytic process of exploring an idea from every angle, looking at its limits – how far can we stretch this before it becomes something else – looking at its origins, looking at the directions it could possibly go in, exploring inversions and challenges to it. It’s critical rather than criticising in the sense that it’s trying to understand and evaluate rather than express purely negative emotions – forensic rather than destructive. Deconstruction brings us to a more profound and positive understanding of a term than we started with, not a tabula rasa to begin again.

Deconstruction is the rebuilding process.

An end in itself

When we see what deconstruction really is, we see it as an end in itself, not a disaster to be recovered from. It’s a way of life, not an interruption of all that is good.

Deconstruction is something that we all (as individuals and communities) need to actively and deliberately participate in if we are to take a postmodern approach to faith. It takes nothing for granted and does not presuppose the outcome, so it’s dangerous. It’s highly subjective – personal and contextual rather than private – but  this makes it unrepeatable and unpredictable as each different individual involved will alter the trajectory. Deconstruction is an ongoing process, not something that’s ever concluded and moved on from. We keep deconstructing and exploring, looking for new ways of understanding and living.

Maybe we would start with church. We’d look at the blurry differentiation between building and congregation(s), the biblical origins of the word and the historical evolution. We’d look at what it meant to be excluded from church – heresies and splits – as well as what it meant to be inside – creeds and conferences of bishops. We’d look at contemporary churches – what you can not do and still be a church, what you can do in addition and still be a church. We’d look at other surrounding words – temple, chapel, mega-church, cathedral, shrine, congregation, community, coven, synagogue – and try to understand the differences, the lines of definition. We’d look at inversions – what it means to be an un-church, an anti-church. We’d look at differences in churches and try to understand what works in our situation and why – liturgies, leadership structures, worship bands, teaching styles. We’d look at contemporary and historical cultural differences, bringing in insights from Coptic, Orthodox, Catholic, Protestant, Pentecostal – from the global north and south, from developed, emerging and developing nations. We’d look at relationships with the state – both collusion and opposition. We’d find the unique expression of church that works and resonates with us right now – and keep looking and keep changing as we change and learn more.

Maybe we’d look at Scripture in that way, maybe we’d look at individual facets of Christian faith – worship, prayer, evangelism. Maybe we’d discover that deconstruction is a way of life, an attitude towards the world. Maybe we’d discover elements of it in Jesus’ teaching – his refusal to take the status quo as a given or as a fixed point, challenging and inverting assumptions about God and about faith. Maybe we’d discover the prophetic voice of deconstruction, calling us to an examined life that is not accidental but deliberate in how it relates to both past, future and the present moment.

Meltdown and de-contamination

Fukushima Workers - image from

I think we need to choose better language or different metaphors to describe the real and painful process that Kathy Escobar and so many others are talking about. I think it’s right and good that she and others are charting it, looking to recovery from pain and brokenness. But it does a disservice to deconstruction to call the dark period by that name, and makes any engagement with postmodern thought much more difficult when a fundamental word like deconstruction has been wrongly appropriated.

Maybe we could use nuclear language instead. That dreadful time is like a reactor meltdown, uncontrollable and dangerous, a complete break from normal reality. But reality will and does return, through the slow and arduous process of de-contamination. Look to Fukushima for how this works, look at the forests that surround Chernobyl now. Life goes on, there is a way through the dark times.