Deconstruction has been in the news of late — especially in the news surrounding Christian theology and practice. Christians, dissatisfied with the way things are going, have been pushing back against the status quo. And with good cause. For example, in just in the past year we have seen pushback against:
- The usefulness of borrowed theologies to the church.
- The Canadian Indian Residential School System and the church.
- Gender and the church.
- Race and ethnicity and the church.
So what’s the big deal? Why deconstruction?
Deconstruction is a push back against the idea that there is one standard interpretation of meaning in the world. According to the Oxford Dictionary of English, “Deconstruction focuses on a text as such rather than as an expression of the author’s intention, stressing the limitlessness (or impossibility) of interpretation and rejecting the Western philosophical tradition of seeking certainty through reasoning by privileging certain types of interpretation and repressing others. It was effectively named and popularized by the French philosopher Jacques Derrida from the late 1960s and taken up particularly by US literary critics.”
For example, I grew up in the era when martial arts didn’t exist. What we had was the karate chop. As time progressed, and as our knowledge grew, we came to understand that the term karate chop was problematic. First of all, karate is only one of many martial arts, each with their own methods and systems. Second, chop is only one of many martial arts moves. In fact today karate chops seem to be limited to striking boards with the side of one’s hand. They have also lost much of their coolness factor — I challenge you to find a karate chop in a Marvel movie! The meaning system of karate chop has been deconstructed from its dominant place and been relegated to one small part of the larger category of martial arts.
Deconstruction is a necessary process but it is challenging because it deals with the very basic definitions of “meaning.” Those raised with a concept of Absolute Truth find it hard to separate Absolute Truth from the truths that I believe at any given time. [For more of my thoughts on truth, see my posts, here, here, here, here, and here]. For example, it is Absolutely True that the karate chop is a thing. There are many experts in the technique in the world today. However, what isn’t absolutely true is that the karate chop universally identifies all forms of martial arts today. The term has been replaced with Martial Arts.
I should also point out that it is important to not simply deconstruct — one also needs to construct a new system that is more reflective of the basic realities of the world. Granted this has been a rather simple explanation of a very complex topic. If you want to understand it more you will need to read Derrida for yourself. However, I do believe that there are four myths, or false assumptions, that we need to be aware of when we engage in deconstruction. Without understanding these myths we won’t be very effective in our deconstruction-reconstruction process.
The myth of the noble savage.
There is an idea that pre-civilisation was an idyllic time of peace, joy, and happiness that was subsequently destroyed by the arrival of various civilising forces. The noble savage represents the people unsullied by civilisation and is often the person that we wish we were and that we sometimes deconstruct to become. Of course, we can’t deny that colonialism has wreaked havoc on the world but to say that pre-colonial cultures were perfect is also an error.
Often our ideas of deconstruction want us to return to this idyllic time of peace, joy, and happiness. How can I counteract this myth when I deconstruct? Rather than assume that all new things are bad and all old things are good, it might be better to find culturally appropriate ways to deal with all these bad things so that our new, reconstructed world, is a better place. Even though both pre- and post-colonial times are problematic, deconstruction seeks to find indigenous solutions to the problems.
The myth of the tabula rasa.
Tabula rasa means simply, “clean slate” and is the belief that all people are born as blanks that are slowly filled up over a lifetime.
Theologically speaking the only true tabula rasas were Adam and Eve, who had original righteousness. Once they began their slavery to sin — a condition that now affects the entire human race — their slates were no longer blank.
What we often also miss in this is that while we may be born blank, the influences around us are by no means blank. We are socialised and enculturated using specific systems, languages, structures, and processes that may or may not vary from other systems, languages, structures, and processes in the world. One key aspect to military training is battle school that is designed specifically to extract a person from as many of these influences as possible and reshape them into soldiers.
Often our ideas of deconstruction want us to return to an existence where all influences are removed and a whole new set of influences are written. How can I counteract this myth when I deconstruct? We often wish that we were blank slates. I myself have said many times that I wished I was able to read the Bible for the first time again. The reality is that we are not blank slates and no amount of hoping will change that. Rather we can embrace our previous experiences and seek ways of writing into the margins of what we have already done.
The myth of cultural purity.
No one is an island and no culture exists in isolation. All are impacted by cultural hybridity.
I remember when our class on Philippine Society and Culture at the University of the Philippines read Alvina and Madulid’s Flora Filipina: From Acapulco to Manila that talked about how Spanish trade introduced many botanical species that are popularly considered native to the Philippines. This is called the Columbian Exchange. Alfred W. Crosby coined the term and defined it this way,
“In 1491, the world was in many of its aspects and characteristics a minimum of two worlds—the New World, of the Americas, and the Old World, consisting of Eurasia and Africa. Columbus brought them together, and almost immediately and continually ever since, we have had an exchange of native plants, animals and diseases moving back and forth across the oceans between the two worlds. A great deal of the economic, social, political history of the world is involved in the exchange of living organisms between the two worlds.”
On a more local scale, the church is not merely a bunch of individuals who share some common beliefs. The church is a community — a body, a building, a vine, a nation, a people — that shares life, work, and wonder. That’s why none of what the church does is to be done in isolation — we need the input of others in our theologising.
How can I counteract this myth when I deconstruct? Rather than trying to remove all outside influences, it might be better to embrace cultural hybridity by engaging others to find new perspectives, new ideas, new world views, and new paradigms that will help us to see things in a more complete and complex way. For example, if my own experience with Jesus is framed around guilt-innocence then dialogue with those who have an honour-shame or power-fear framework would help me to see that salvation is a much more complete and complex thing.
It’s also important to point out that this is a two-way street because both parties in the exchange are impacted.
The myth of cultural essentialism.
Cultural essentialism is the belief that cultures must contain certain essential characteristics. A simple example would be, “Americans are rude and Canadians are polite.” The problem that neither of these statements is entirely accurate — there are many polite Americans and many rude Canadians. Furthermore, there is no law that says that in order to identify as an American I need to be rude, or to identify as a Canadian I need to be polite.
Essentialism a form of generalisation that doesn’t take into account the differences that exist within cultures and seeks to smooth them out into some kind of manufactured, easily defined, timeless reality that isn’t really real. Reality is more nuanced than that. The example of Americans and Canadians above also doesn’t take into account a vast range of other factors that can’t merely be smoothed over, including but not limited to, gender, socio-economic position, race and ethnicity, geographical location, and political bent.
I should point out here that the oft-mentioned idea of “colonial mentality” is related to this. The term is used in a pejorative way to indicate those who don’t think in an appropriately indigenous way (which is also used often in a pejorative way).
How can I counteract this myth when I deconstruct? The simplest way is to find ways of looking through Other’s eyes. For me, a middle-aged white male, that would mean developing relationships with people different than I. The Bible’s meaning may be clear to me but is that only a false clarity? Is there another perspective I need to see?
These are some of my initial thoughts on deconstruction so I am sure that I have missed something. What do you think? Is there another myth we can add to this list?
Your voice is important to me. That’s why commenting is open on this post. Please let me know what you think below.
Sharing is what friends do.
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