Deconstruction: A look at a popular and polarizing conceptWritten by Subby Szterszky
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“Deconstruction is a buzzword these days,” writes Tish Harrison Warren in Christianity Today. “The term exvangelical has emerged as an identity marker and an activist movement. People’s faith stories – and their “losing faith” stories – are often emotional and vulnerable. They grow out of biography and experiences, so Christians struggling with faith need love and listening ears, not merely argument.”
Warren is right. While not a new idea, deconstruction has taken hold as a popular – and polarizing – concept among Christians of late, especially on social media.
Chances are that someone you know, a friend or family member, is thinking about deconstructing their faith or has already embarked on that path, possibly even unaware that they’re doing so. Perhaps your own faith has been challenged by the discussions about deconstruction and you’re not sure what to think or what to believe.
As followers of Jesus, it’s imperative that we engage with this difficult subject with grace and wisdom, not just for the health of our own faith, but for the sake of our brothers and sisters who may be struggling with theirs.
What is deconstruction?
Deconstruction was originally an approach to literary analysis, developed by the French philosopher Jacques Derrida in the 1960s. Its purpose was to lay bare the hidden assumptions behind a text, based on the belief that objective meaning was impossible to discover. In a broader sense, deconstruction sought to pull apart the assumptions of one’s cultural background and to question their certainty, and it became one of the core principles of the postmodernist movement.
With respect to Christianity, apologist Alisa Childers offers this definition: “In the context of faith, deconstruction is the process of systematically dissecting and often rejecting the beliefs you grew up with. Sometimes the Christian will deconstruct all the way into atheism. Some remain there, but others experience a reconstruction. But the type of faith they end up embracing almost never resembles the Christianity they formerly knew.”
Despite formal definitions, there is considerable confusion and disagreement over what deconstruction looks like in practice, and the word means very different things to different people. For some Christians, deconstruction is the process of disentangling from harmful and toxic cultural attitudes that have filtered into the church and embracing a purer biblical faith that better reflects the Gospel of Jesus. This is admirable, something all followers of Jesus should pursue. But in other cases, deconstruction involves redefining or rejecting core doctrines of the Christian faith to bring it in line with current cultural values. This is deadly to one’s spiritual health and often leads to total abandonment of the faith.
Reasons for deconstructing
Just as there are varying definitions of deconstruction, so there are also a variety of reasons for deconstructing. Some people have been deeply hurt in the church. They’ve suffered spiritual, emotional or physical abuse, endured toxic church environments, and have fled for their lives and their sanity.
There are those who come from strict, legalistic backgrounds where every detail of their lives – the clothes they wear, the books they read, the interests they pursue – were all micromanaged. For them, church isn’t a safe place to express doubts and struggles, or to ask difficult questions. In some cases, they’ve sat under bad teaching and have absorbed faulty views of God and the Scriptures.
Younger believers especially, but others as well, are concerned about the unbiblical attitudes they see within their own corner of church culture – misogyny, racism, political tribalism, lack of interest in social justice. When they express these concerns or try to advocate for change, they find they are ignored, rebuffed or told they’d be more “comfortable” at a different type of church.
In each of these scenarios, there are those who’ve become so discouraged that they’ve left the church and their faith behind. Some of them have maintained a vestige of their faith while finding solace among those on a similar path. But there are also those who, despite their hurt and confusion, have clung to Jesus and his Word, and have sought out more biblically faithful church communities where they can heal and thrive. Their faith may be flickering, but it is kept alight by the grace of God and his Holy Spirit.
Not all cases of deconstruction are born out of a bad church experience. Influenced by prevailing cultural attitudes, some churchgoers have rejected key Christian teachings – the authority of Scripture, the exclusive claims of Jesus, the biblical sexual ethic, the existence of hell, the atoning sacrifice of Christ for sinful humans – as being unpalatable and even harmful. They adjust their faith accordingly, or abandon it altogether, to better fit in with their surrounding culture.
Deconstruction or reformation?
Given the varieties and blurry boundaries of deconstruction, it would be unreasonable to think of each case the same way. The word itself has come to mean so many things that it creates confusion and misunderstanding. Hence, it may be helpful to use different terms to describe what type of deconstruction we’re talking about.
The most extreme form of deconstruction, which denies core doctrines of Christian orthodoxy, is synonymous with deconversion or apostasy. It might be better described as destruction or demolition of the faith, seeking to “burn it all down” or twist it into an unrecognizable shape. Needless to say, such a practice is never endorsed in Scripture.
It’s a different story when the intent is to remove cultural baggage and pursue a stronger, more biblical faith in Jesus and his Gospel. Such efforts are commendable, encouraged by Scripture, and shouldn’t be weighed down by the negative associations of deconstruction. A more apt term might be reformation. Contrary to the deconstructing principle, the Protestant Reformers weren’t trying to rid Christianity of its culturally unsavoury bits. Rather, they were shearing away cultural and traditional accretions and seeking to return to the source – the scriptural faith once delivered to the saints. They knew this wasn’t a one-and-done but a continuing process; the church is to be semper reformanda, always reforming. Followers of Jesus are on a lifelong quest to refine and renew our faith in community with our sisters and brothers, growing in our knowledge and love of God.
Using the analogy of a house, one Christian podcast contrasted deconstruction with renovation. When renovating a home, you might knock down a few walls to create more space and allow more light in, but you should never demolish a load-bearing wall, which would bring the entire house down. Renovation removes unhelpful elements and lets us build up our house of faith. Deconstruction all too often swings the sledgehammer indiscriminately at the load-bearing walls of core Christian belief.
Grace and mercy for our doubts
The discussion among Christians about deconstruction, especially online, has often turned angry and uncharitable, to put it mildly. Believers gaslight and talk past each other, accusing one another of ignorance and the worst possible motives. They engage in mocking personal attacks against those who disagree with them.
It scarcely needs noting that brothers and sisters in Christ ought not treat one another – or anyone else – in this way. To be sure, those who disparage the faith need to be answered, but with humility and patience. For many others, their deconstruction isn’t trendy but heartbreaking. They’ve been wounded and rejected, their questions and struggles minimized and ignored. Despite it all, they’re fighting a lonely battle to hang on to their faith, if only by their fingertips. As Tish Harrison Warren said, “Christians struggling with faith need love and listening ears, not merely argument.”
God welcomes our questions and even our doubts. The Scriptures, especially the Psalms, are filled with stories of lament, of people asking God, “Why?” and “How long?” and pleading with him to see their suffering and their loneliness. And God answers them; he receives the brokenhearted, walks with them in their pain and assures them of his love.
As daughters and sons of God, we’re called to reflect our Father's heart in this, as in all things: “Welcome anyone who is weak in faith, but don’t argue about disputed matters” (Romans 14:1, emphasis added). Jude, the brother of the Lord, was even more succinct: “Have mercy on those who doubt” (Jude 1:22).
Above all else, look to Jesus
It might be that you or someone you know is struggling with their faith. They’ve experienced hypocrisy, legalism or abuse in their church background. They see racist and misogynistic attitudes and toxic political squabbles that have harmed individuals and divided many churches. There are parts of Scripture they find hard to accept, and their questions about these have gone unanswered.
The best advice for anyone experiencing these struggles is to look to Jesus. He invites us to bring our pain, our questions and our doubts, and he’s kind and compassionate beyond our imagining. This isn’t to suggest we ignore the parts of our faith we find difficult to fathom, but rather that we bring these to him. We may not get all the answers we seek – after all, God’s ways and thoughts are far above ours – but we can trust in his goodness, wisdom and love. Jesus is God in the flesh, God with us, full of grace and truth. As with doubting Thomas, he will meet us in our need. And like the father of the demon-possessed boy, we are always invited to pray, “I do believe; help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24)
Like the good shepherd he is, Jesus is gentlest with the sheep who need it most and he’ll welcome those with the weakest and most flickering faith: “He will not break a bruised reed, and he will not put out a smoldering wick, until he has led justice to victory. The nations will put their hope in his name” (Matthew 12:20-21).
For anyone caught up in deconstruction or perhaps considering it, tempted to redefine their faith or leave it behind, not knowing what to think, what to believe or where to look, the first step can’t be repeated often enough. Look to Jesus.
Sources and further reading
Cory Alstad and Matthew Price, “Deconstructing Faith,” After Sunday podcast, April 15, 2021.
Alisa Childers, “No, Martin Luther was not a deconstructionist,” author’s blog, February 15, 2022.
Alisa Childers, Another Gospel? A Lifelong Christian Seeks Truth in Response to Progressive Christianity, Tyndale Momentum, 2020.
Tish Harrison Warren, “The church needs reformation, not deconstruction: A short guide to the exvangelical movement,” Christianity Today, October 19, 2021.
Aimee Joseph, “Don’t toss ballast with baggage,” The Gospel Coalition, November 10, 2021.
Rebecca McLaughlin, Confronting Christianity: 12 Hard Questions for the World’s Largest Religion, Crossway, 2019.
Ivan Mesa, editor, Before You Lose Your Faith: Deconstructing Doubt in the Church, The Gospel Coalition, 2021.
Russell Moore, “The most dangerous form of deconstruction,” Christianity Today, February 9, 2022.
Barnabas Piper, “Deconstruction, destruction, and faith,” author’s blog, December 31, 2021.
James Walden and Greg Willson, “What would Jesus deconstruct?” The Gospel Coalition, February 14, 2022.
Subby Szterszky is the managing editor of Focus on Faith and Culture, an e-newsletter produced by Focus on the Family Canada.
© 2022 Focus on the Family (Canada) Association. All rights reserved.
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