I’ve periodically mentioned the idyllic view from my study window. Lots of trees and wildlife, with a small opening revealing a picturesque bright red building attached to the house or garage of the house behind us, over 100 yards in the distance. I’ve assumed that the owner would certainly leave the building as is for my viewing pleasure.
Then two months ago a couple of men began removing the roofing shingles and red siding. The work continued for a few days and then stopped. So for the last several weeks I’ve been looking at a bland half torn apart building with a silver ladder leaning askew against the roof. I’d be surprised if any more work takes place before spring.
I can’t believe no one consulted with me first, or at least drove around the block to tell me what the heck is going on!
So as is my usual practice, I’ve gone into metaphor mode to see if there is a way to redeem this existential threat to my personal happiness, which leads me to this blog post. In evangelical and “exangelical” circles the word “deconstruction” has been in the spotlight these days. It’s defined in different ways, but basically describes the process whereby people gradually take apart their personal religious beliefs, and decide what they’re going to keep, if anything. This process has led to some prominent authors and musicians leaving the Christian faith altogether. Sometimes it’s been hard to distinguish between what beliefs people are deconstructing around Christ, and what they are deconstructing around Christ’s church, though these often go hand-in-hand.
I get it. I went through something similar in my thirties and forties, and to some degree it's been ongoing. Even with all the risks, there is something healthy about making sure what you believe is what you actually believe. The publicly aired moral failings and abuses of power of church leaders, and the strange association between evangelicals and Donald Trump and his ilk, have no doubt fueled this trend. I can relate to something Sarah Bessey wrote recently: "I love the church with my whole heart. Sometimes against my better judgment."
Like I said, there are risks to deconstructing your faith, but there are also risks if you don’t. Some people end up leaving the faith altogether. Some people jettison Christianity because they’ve re-examined what they believed, and found it wanting. Others wander away from the faith out of boredom or neglect, without trying to more deeply understand its tenets. The original disciples all had to go through deconstruction, by the way. They had to deconstruct their understanding of what a Messiah is and how the kingdom of God was supposed to come. Judas Iscariot never made it to the reconstruction stage, though the other disciples did, for which I’m grateful. Like Jesus’ first disciples, I’ve had to deconstruct my understanding of salvation, including who’s in and who’s out, and what salvation includes (i.e. not just going to heaven but the transformation of all things into New Creation). I’ve also had to periodically deconstruct how I read the Bible, which fortunately has actually led to my valuing it more, not less.
For example, the Bible is entirely comfortable with paradox, which I especially love. It doesn’t try to resolve its apparent historical and theological contradictions. It also doesn’t tell me to cut-and-paste when I apply its laws and stories and teachings to my society or situation. There’s very little cutting and pasting within the Bible itself, especially as we move from the Old Testament to the New Testament. The Bible itself models what it means to adapt and not just adopt. That reminds me of something Jesus said: “Every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old” (Matthew 13:52).
So for me, at this stage of my journey, instead of deconstructing my faith as I did earlier, I find myself diving deeper into Christian teaching, especially its teaching about God. That becomes a realistic pursuit if Jesus is who the New Testament says he is – both Son of God and God the Son – and if the death and resurrection of Jesus actually happened – which I have little reason to doubt. Taken together with Jesus’ healing and teaching ministry, it’s quite a story, especially if it happened, which I’m pretty sure it did.
Given that human beings are made in the image of God, I shouldn’t be surprised that they can be geniuses at arriving at truth, or at least something close to truth. But truth ultimately needs a context. What it ultimately needs is a story. Not just stories as illustrations and parables, but a Story that’s bigger than all of our stories, including the story we call history. Truths on their own may offer practical wisdom and material for thought-provoking Facebook memes, but they may also leave us floundering and flailing before life’s deepest questions, including what Paul Tillich believed was the dominant anxiety in the modern world – meaninglessness in the face of our mortality.
The story of Jesus is the only story I know that historically addresses our mortality. It’s also the only story that meaningfully and historically addresses our depravity. It’s because of this story that, in spite of my depravity and yours, I can be full of hope for a better world. A God who immerses himself in our personal and corporate guilt, shame, and suffering for the redemption of all of God’s creatures and creation. A God who takes the hit for us on the cross. This is no fairytale. It is more outrageous than any fairytale. It is also the Gospel described in four different gospels: it's a place to stand.
I’m always humbled when I see people living out the teachings of Jesus much more naturally than I seem to be able to do. Jesus’ parable of the good Samaritan is a reminder that God isn’t a respecter of persons, and doesn’t fault people for not getting their theological i’s dotted and t’s crossed. Let’s face it – when it comes to understanding God we’re all out of our league. “Anyone who claims to know something, does not yet have the necessary knowledge” (1 Corinthians 8:1).
Actually, all learning involves deconstruction, doesn’t it? Learning always involves taking things apart in order to understand them better, sometimes reconstructing them at least a little differently in light of personal experience and the perspectives of others, not to mention the Bible itself. When I read a parable of Jesus, for example, I seem to have to take it apart before its meaning, or its meaning for me, reveals itself – a process I’ve repeated hundreds of times as a teacher and student. All learning involves adding to or altering what we thought we knew.
Speaking of deconstruction and reconstruction, I've been reading Jon Meacham’s biography of Abraham Lincoln, And There Was Light, which came out a couple of weeks ago. Through all the deconstruction the Civil War created, Lincoln maintained his trust in and commitment to a more just society, whatever the cost. We too may have to persevere through some difficult years, given all that’s happening politically here and around the world. The same political polarization as well as the ongoing pandemic have, I suspect, permanently altered what some of us think of as the church. I’m hoping that the future contains a more just society and a more authentic church. But it may take a while, and things may have to get worse before they get better. I gather that’s what it takes to actually live history.
Lincoln wasn’t a Christian, though he knew the Bible better than almost all the Christians I know. He believed that a higher power was allowing and guiding the events Lincoln personally had a hand in steering. I also trust that same Power to get us through this mess. I believe that Power is the God who is love – the love that unites the three Persons of the Trinity, the love that became incarnate in Jesus Christ – who died, rose again, and is coming again – at which point death itself will be deconstructed and destroyed.
That's a deconstruction I'm definitely looking forward to, as well as the Reconstruction or New Creation on the other side.