Journal

Contemplative Life

Defining “Deconstruction”

This reflection is part of our 2022 Doubt, Deconstruction & Redemption Series.  If you are on a deconstruction journey or caring for someone who is, we hope these spaces, programs, and resources will be a blessing!


“To ask hard questions about whether the version of Christianity we are following is consistent with the Scriptures, or with historic Christian beliefs through the centuries.”
Micheal J. Kruger

“What happens when a person asks questions that lead to the careful dismantling of their previous beliefs.”
Karen Swallow Prior

“The process of systematically dissecting and often rejecting the beliefs you grew up with.” 
The Gospel Coalition

“The struggle to correct or deepen naive belief.”
Kirsten Sanders

“The thoughtful, honest, and serious evaluation and questioning of one’s current beliefs in God, the Christian faith, and the Church.”
Bill Haley

As you can see, there is no definitive “definition” of deconstruction.  We read some respected voices claiming it is an inherently problematic, even spiritually destructive, term.  Others make the case that it is simply a new term for what has always been a natural and necessary part of the Christian journey.  Still others fall somewhere in the middle, concerning themselves less with the term (which they often acknowledge is slippery and imperfect) and more with the experiences and questions driving people to resonate with the term.   

We (Coracle) find ourselves most at home in this third group—holding spaces and offering resources intended to help us understand these questions and experiences and care for those wrestling with them.  While we would certainly not claim to be “deconstruction” experts, we have observed a few important dimensions and dynamics that we hope will be worth identifying as simply as we can.  I pray this overview will help all of us inhabit a posture of humble discernment as we seek to care for others (and ourselves) moving through this difficult process—listening well, asking helpful questions, and seeking to embody Christ’s love.

Dimensions of Deconstruction

Fundamentally, deconstruction occurs whenever our status quo faith receives a major shock to the system.  I will lay out a handful of the primary “shocks” that are in the water right now, but first, I’d like to offer a distinction between two dimensions of deconstruction (vertical and horizontal), adapted from the Good Faith Podcast with David French and Curtis Chang.

Personal Deconstruction: 

The first type of deconstruction captures the experiences of doubt, questioning, and reevaluation that are natural parts of Christian growth.  The activity is primarily personalwhat do I believe about this?– and verticalhow should I relate to God now?  I encourage you to reflect on your own faith journey and identify some of the questions or other circumstances through which you have wrestled.

Deconstruction Questions from My Own Life:

How do I know if I’m saved?
Why did God let my friend die?
How does Christianity relate to science?
Is Jesus really the only way to God?
What is the purpose of the Christian life after I’m saved?
Why does it seem like suffering is distributed so unequally and capriciously?

Notice:  Any of these questions can prompt someone to walk away from their faith, or they can be the catalysts driving someone towards a deeper faith.

Tribal Deconstruction: 

This type of deconstruction takes on a horizontal orientation as we reassess our participation in a particular church, subset of Christianity (Evangelicalism, for example), or in Christianity more generally.  You might sketch this deconstruction journey this way:  “I thought these were my people, but given what I’ve just witnessed or experienced, now I don’t know.”  Many people are seeking to separate the essentials of following Jesus from the non-essentials of American Christian culture as they have experienced it.  While horizontal deconstruction is by no means a new phenomenon, it is what primarily sparked 2021’s many insightful analyses of the “state of Evangelicalism,” whether in Mere Orthodoxy, Christianity Today, or The Atlantic.

Note:  In our Soundings Seminar on “A Closer Look at Deconstruction,” an audience member wondered whether a word like “disentangle” could function as a good substitute for deconstruction.  On the horizontal plane, this works very well, as much of the wider conversation focuses on disentangling what is truly the way of Jesus from simply the ways of our culture—political, racial, consumeristic, or otherwise.  This process can be painstaking and uncomfortable (especially if there is significant cultural entanglement), but the renewal movements in Scripture and church history bear witness to the beauty and goodness that can flourish on the other side of it.

Reasons for Deconstruction

Now that I have covered two major types of deconstruction, I’d like to offer some of the primary “shocks” that prompt the deconstruction journey.  You’ll notice that some of these will fit one type of deconstruction better than the other, but there are no hard and fast lines.  I will be drawing a lot from John Mark Comer’s insights from this Q Ideas conversation (starting at 16:30), but I have added a primary distinction between “internal” and “external” instigators, which I hope is a helpful nuance to maintain.  What I particularly like about Comer’s list is that it demands discernment.  For those of us seeking to care for folks on a deconstruction journey, it calls us to ask good questions and listen well before jumping to conclusions; for those of us currently deconstructing, it calls us to interrogate our own motives and maintain a posture of humility.

 

Internal Reasons:  You respond to something you witness

1) Poor Teaching:

G.K. Chesterton describes the church’s pursuit of orthodoxy like “the equilibrium of a man behind madly rushing horses, seeming to stoop this way and to sway that, yet in every attitude having the grace of statuary and the accuracy of arithmetic.”  In every time and age, the church faces various temptations to fall too far to one side or another, and it is always a painful thing to recognize when that has happened in communities of which we are a part.  A few examples might be a particular view of Scripture that treats the Bible like a science textbook, or the belief that violence is permissible in order to preserve “church unity.”

2) Failures of Formative Christian Leaders

When someone we respected and who shaped our faith is revealed to be abusive or predatory, it prompts serious introspection.  Sadly, this is all too common in our day.

3) Desire to Live in Sin without Guilt

While this may not be a primary reason someone chooses to deconstruct their faith, Comer raises it as a helpful prompt for self-evaluation:  what are my motives in this journey of deconstruction?  The call to follow Jesus in a broken world always requires counter-cultural sacrifice, and we are all tempted to exploit whatever means are at our disposal to live more comfortably with our own particular sin patterns.

 

External Reasons:   Something happens to you and you respond

1) Wounding Experience in the Church

This is the most painful and, sadly, also among the most common reasons for deconstruction.  French and Chang rightly call abuse or marginalization at the hands of church leaders or representatives of Christ a “demolition” or “shattering” rather than simply deconstruction.

2) Overwhelming Social Pressure

Comer raises this as a prompt for self-evaluation:  how are the people and voices that fill my life influencing my approach to this issue?  Perhaps especially for younger Christians, there are a number of influential voices normalizing and even promoting deconstruction.  Whatever the intent behind this, Comer wants us to recognize that our actions are affected by the environments in which we live.

3) Satanic Influence

Comer’s choice to include the influence of the Evil One is unique among other analyses of deconstruction I have read, but his logic is straightforward:  If you were a demonic power seeking to subvert allegiance to Christ wherever possible, wouldn’t you want to use any of the above reasons to encourage someone to walk away from their faith?

These factors have been operative in various ways throughout the history of the church, which begs the question— What (if anything) is unique about this “deconstruction” moment?

I believe the explosion of technological advancement in the last 40 years makes this moment in the life of the church truly unique.  No doubt there are many doctoral dissertations being written on this topic at the moment, so I will simply offer three ways I see this working itself out in the deconstruction movement.

Technology Reveals

It is very challenging for sin to remain hidden in a digital world.  One reason among many for this is that most of us walk around with a high-definition camera in our pockets and the ability to share what we witness with potentially millions of people in seconds.  What might have been “local incidents” 30 years ago can now become international flashpoints with the right hashtag.  Christians can rejoice when evil and injustice is brought to light because, ultimately, “there is nothing concealed that will not be disclosed, or hidden that will not be made known” (Lk 12:2).  Even so, the waves of revelations rolling over us these last few years, paired with our natural bias for bad news, have enabled us to fixate on the brokenness.  Sometimes, we can forget that God knows our world’s brokenness more completely than we ever can, and he still chooses to love us and is still actively at work through his people to bring justice, healing, and new life.

Technology Isolates

Social media offers us virtual community even as it isolates us from incarnate community.  In the past, a person’s honest questions about faith would likely have led him or her to a pastor, family member, or friend.  Today many (especially young) Christians are turning to social media for community in their questioning.  They gain a sense of connection and camaraderie with others asking similar questions, but they miss out on the opportunity to grow alongside the people of God in their midst.  And, as we have seen in our politics, these digital tribes often end up being swayed by the most extreme voices, pushing tribe members more and more towards those extremes.

Technology Saturates

A Barna study in 2020 found that committed Christian millennials consume twenty times more non-Christian digital content than Christian content.  Whether news, Netflix, or the NFL, we (and I am certainly no exception) do not often appreciate the formative effect this saturation has on our spiritual lives.  It is worthwhile to ask how our media consumption habits set us up to wrestle from a Biblical perspective with the profound challenges and mysteries we all encounter in this life.  As Dr. Curt Thompson and many others have argued, “You become what you pay attention to.”

Obviously, there is so much more that could be explored here.  Hopefully, this broad-brush description of deconstruction and its various causes will help us ask better questions of one another and to dig deeper into the scriptures, into prayer, and into communion with God’s people.  We are grateful for the opportunity to continue on this journey with you, and if you’d like to ask a question or discuss any of this, you’re welcome to shoot me an email!

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