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In this episode of The Bible for Normal People, Jared explains the philosophical concept of deconstruction, where it came from, and three misconceptions about deconstruction as related to the Bible. Join him in exploring the following questions:

  • Who is Derrida and what does he have to do with deconstruction?
  • Who is Ferdinand de Saussere? 
  • Who is John D. Caputo?
  • What is deconstruction’s origin story?
  • What is deconstruction as a concept?
  • What are common misconceptions about deconstruction?
  • What does “auto-deconstructed” mean?

Tweetables

Pithy, shareable, less-than-280-character statements from Pete and Jared you can share.

  • Deconstruction is a set of practices that seeks to answer the two questions “What do words mean?” and “How do words mean?” This is, of course, a very important set of questions when it comes to the Bible—since the Bible is a collection of words.
  • Words always mean more than we intend. If you grew up like me, you were taught that passages of Scripture only mean whatever the original author intended it to mean. The problem of course, is that’s simply not true.
  • Words are not as stable as we think. They aren’t standalone entities that represent just one objective reality.
  • Deconstruction is to show that texts, institutions, traditions, societies, beliefs, practice of whatever size and sort you need, that things do not have definable meanings and determinable missions, that they are always more than any mission would impose, that they exceed the boundaries they currently occupy.
  • The longer we look at the Bible, the longer the truth of what it is comes to the surface. And truth isn’t sympathetic to our need for certainty or stability.
  • When people accuse deconstruction of “anything goes” relativism, they don’t see diversity as a strength, but as a liability. Diversity is the enemy. But within deconstruction? Differences, or diversity, is actually the path to seeing the fullness of truth. We need all contexts, all experiences to weigh in. 

Mentioned in This Episode

  • Books:
    • Romans for Normal People by J. R. Daniel Kirk
    • The Insistence of God: A Theology of Perhaps and What Would Jesus Deconstruct by John D. Caputo
    • Of Grammatology by Jacques Derrida
    • Jonah for Normal People by Jared Byas
    • Journey to the Common Good by Walter Brueggemann
  • Support: patreon.com/thebiblefornormalpeople

Read the transcript

Pete  

You’re listening to the Bible for normal people, the only God-ordained podcast on the internet. I’m Pete Enns. 

Jared  

And I’m Jared Byas.

[Music plays]

Jared  

Hello everyone and welcome to today’s episode, we’re excited to announce the newest title in the Bible for Normal People book series, Romans for Normal People. It’s written by our good friend, Daniel Kirk. He’s an award winning New Testament scholar author, who spent years engaging normal people about the Bible, and nerdy things through blogs, podcasts, books, speaking. This book is great, because it doesn’t just give you the historical literary context of the letter though, of course, it does all of that. But it also wrestles with what it means to read Romans well, and that’s important because reading Romans well is not always something we as Christians have done, well… Well. Romans is not just this collection of one liners that we can wield against those with whom we disagree. It’s Paul’s plea to the early church to put aside their petty squabbles, and get on with the business of living like Jesus, to stop waiting for the new creation and just start living it. So with our latest book here, Romans for Normal People you’re invited to, you know, think about Romans in a new way and engage with the text as it is. And of course, we couldn’t ask for a better guide than our good friend Daniel Kirk. So the book officially comes out on November 1st, but you can preorder Romans for Normal People today wherever you buy books online. You can also get a bonus gift when you preorder by going to TheBibleforNormalPeople.com/books. 

[Promo music ends]

Jared  

Hey everyone, welcome to this episode of the podcast. Today, we are talking about something near and dear to my heart: the idea of deconstruction. And by we, I mean me. It’s a solo episode. I’m going to be talking about it. Before you get too excited, let me explain. I want to go back to the beginning and talk about the nerdy origins of “deconstruction.” Before it became a popular term to talk about questioning our inherited traditions. Before publications like Desiring God or the Gospel Coalition warned us of the dangers of “Deconstructing our faith.” Before Matt Chandler called Deconstructing “some sort of sexy thing to do.” That is a direct quote. Yes, even before obscure Christian band Skillet’s frontman John Cooper superciliously “declared war against this deconstruction Christian movement.” He went on to say, “I don’t even like calling it deconstruction Christian. There is nothing Christian about it. It is a false religion.” 

Jared  

Before deconstruction turned to this life of crime, debauchery, and false religion, it had humble beginnings as an obscure philosophical concept that only dorks in tweed jackets talked about. And that’s my comfort zone, philosophy, dorks, and tweed jackets, so I want to explain some of that concept and how it applies to the Bible. 

Jared  

In other words, we’re going to look at the Bible through the lens of the philosophical term “deconstruction.” The current use of the term “deconstruction” means a million different things. And hear me when I say, I am not here to invalidate anyone’s use of the term or anyone’s experience of deconstruction. In fact, that goes to further the point I’m actually trying to make in this very episode. I recognize that words change meaning over time, and I’m okay with that. It’s kind of like how Arsenokoítai translated “homosexuals” in some English translations has changed meaning in English. It meant something very specific about same sex activities in the ancient Greco-Roman world of the New Testament but our modern understanding, while using the same English word, is completely different. So just like you can’t condemn modern practices of same sex relationships, just because we use the same word that the New Testament uses to refer to something different, I won’t condemn current uses of the word “deconstruction,” based on my understanding of its nerdy origin story. If you’ve ever shifted your faith in the past 20 years, then you know it’s a very personal experience. It’s your story. Call it whatever you want. I’m not the spiritual boss of you. And side note, neither is anyone else, by the way. 

Jared  

Okay, it’s time to get our thinking caps on. Get in, we’re going back in time. 

Jared  

[Teaser clip of Jared speaking plays over music] Deconstruction is a set of practices that seeks to answer the two questions, “What do words mean? And how do words mean?” This is, of course, a very important set of questions when it comes to the Bible since the Bible is a collection of words. Deconstruction isn’t something we do to the Bible, the Bible is subject to deconstruction because it’s written in human language. 

[Ad break]

Jared  

Okay, we’re gonna start with understanding the philosophical concept of deconstruction, where it came from, and then I want to talk about three misconceptions about the Bible and deconstruction in this sense. So what is deconstruction’s origin story? It comes from the brain of French philosopher Jacques Derrida. If you listen to my solo series called The Making of the Modern Mindset, you were introduced to Derrida in part four. While he was notoriously evasive when talking about what deconstruction is or where it came from, most folks will locate the beginning in his 1967 book Of Grammatology. But over the next 35 years, his writings and lectures would build on that book to expand and modify his philosophy of deconstruction, although he would not call it that. 

Jared  

But before we get to Of Grammatology, I have to mention two other thinkers here as well. And that’s because no one has ideas in a vacuum. Derrida didn’t make up deconstruction out of nowhere and others have carried it forward in important ways when it comes to the Christian faith. He is sandwiched between two other thinkers that will help us make sense of what deconstruction is and where it’s gone since.

Jared  

The first piece of bread in the Derrida sandwich is the Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussere. For simplicity, we’re going to call him Saucy. Derrida built deconstruction on the back of some important observations that Saucy made about language, so I want to start with him. But then the other piece of bread in the Derrida sandwich is American philosopher and theologian John Caputo, who taught at Villanova University down the road from us here at the Bible for Normal People from 1968-2004. So you see, after Derrida’s idea of deconstruction got more and more popular among academics in the 1970s and 80s, other disciplines started applying his principles. So there was a deconstruction movement in architecture, fashion, art, literature, and you guessed it, religion. The most important writer, in my opinion, to bring deconstruction to the Christian faith was John D. Caputo. I mentioned him as part of the origin story of deconstruction because you can’t really talk about the impact of deconstruction on modern day Protestant Christianity in America without talking about John D Caputo. If you want to dig deeper into what I’m going to say in today’s episode, there are two books by Caputo that I can’t recommend highly enough. His popular level book called “What Would Jesus Deconstruct” which came out in 2007, was probably the most important book in my faith shift. It helped me connect the dots between my philosophical training and my work as a pastor. Then, if you read that, and you want to dig even deeper, I recommend his 2013 book, “The Insistence of God: A Theology of Perhaps” — but major nerd alert on that second one. 

Jared  

And quick side story: I was presenting at a conference in 2011 in San Diego where John Caputo was the keynote speaker and I was there about two hours early because well, I’m me. But besides the organizers, the only other person there that early was John Caputo and I overheard him say to the organizer that he wanted some lunch before the event and he asked if anyone was available to take him. And the organizer was very busy, you know, getting last minute stuff in order and looked around to see if there’s anyone that could take John Caputo to lunch and I thought, “This is my chance.” So I walked over to them. I introduced myself to both of them. And I offered to take Caputo to lunch. And he gratefully accepted the offer. And as soon as we walked out of the door, I told Caputo, I needed to grab something back inside. At that point, I ran over frantically to the organizer and asked him if I could borrow his car. I didn’t have one since I had flown into San Diego for the conference. I left that fact out when I offered to take Caputo because I figured they would just find someone else who did have a car and I didn’t want to miss my chance to sit and have lunch with Caputo, so, he did. He let me borrow his car. And that’s how I ended up getting to sit at a Subway sandwich shop in San Diego for an hour with one of my biggest influences on my faith. 

Jared  

Okay, where were we? Yeah, Derrida’s brain. We know deconstruction came from Derrida’s brain. And then as it relates to American Christianity, John Caputo took the baton and ran with it. But what is deconstruction as a concept? Well, let’s get into it. Because deconstruction is such a large concept that was applied to so many different fields, I’m going to oversimplify here, so apologies to the nerdiest among us but for today, I’m going to boil it down to this: Deconstruction is a set of practices that seeks to answer the two questions “What do words mean?” and “how do words mean?” This is of course, a very important set of questions when it comes to the Bible since the Bible is a collection of words. Derrida was very interested in these questions. And he discovered that when we look very closely, words are way more complicated than we originally thought. It reminds me of the study of quantum mechanics. When I look at a table, it’s obviously very solid, very stable. But when physicists look very closely with the right math and the right tools, they see that at the subatomic level, the table operates by a different set of rules, which to us looks very chaotic. It turns out that at that level, when you look really close, the table is less solid and less stable than we thought. It’s not just a block of carved wood. It is that, but it’s also a bunch of molecules randomly and, not so randomly bumping up against each other with space in between. As the great Dr. Hank Pym says, “It’s a reality where all concepts of time and space become irrelevant,” which is ethereal and abstract compared to that very stable, solid thing we think we’re looking at. 

Jared  

In the same way when we look at words, they seem very solid and stable. But when Derrida looked closely with the right tools, what we later called deconstruction, he saw that at a deep level words operate differently than we thought. They are more chaotic than we had imagined. They’re less solid and less stable than we might wish they were. And one of his chief influences in this observation was our old pal Saucy. So what did Saucy recognize about language? Well, there’s two things I just want to mention briefly for today’s episode. 

Jared  

First, Saucy noticed that words only mean something in relationship to other words. For example, when you say or write the word, “cat,” it’s not like the English word is connected to the reality of a cat. And we say “cat,” but in Spanish, it’s “gato,” in German, it’s “katze”. If there was something intrinsic to the letters C-A-T in English that connected it objectively, with the animal that we see, that has a tail and disdain for humans, we would all speak the same language because we wouldn’t be obligated to use those same sounds or words, you know, C-A-T. But there isn’t any intrinsic connection, that’s why we can use different words in different languages to refer to the same object. In English, we could have all decided to call that animal “a crank.” And, of course, it would take some getting used to and adjusting, but it wouldn’t be the end of the world. However, if we did that, we would have to adjust what we currently mean by the word “crank,” because they are in relationship to each other. In other words, what Saucy recognizes that “cat” is only meaningful in relationship to all of English as a language, all the sounds and words that are connected to English as a language. We know what “cat” is in English, because it’s not “bat,” “frat,” or “horse,” or “crank,” for that matter. Without those other words, though, to compare it to, we wouldn’t know what it was referring to because language is this interconnected system. It’s like money. A $10 bill is just a piece of paper unless it’s connected to an entire system of symbols; pennies, nickels, $100 bills, and a collective trust that the bill means something outside of itself. A $10 bill has no intrinsic value. Only inside the system. The word “cat” has no intrinsic meaning. Language is only as meaningful as it relates to other languages, not necessarily because it’s connected to reality. This is what Saucy called a synchronic approach to language. What words mean right now is dependent on what all other words in that language mean, right now. Tracking so far? I told you, this is gonna get a little nerdy, but we’ll tie it to the Bible in a minute, just hang on.

[Ad break]

Jared  

The second thing Saucy noticed is that to truly understand what a word means, we would need to know what it means in relation to what that word has meant in the past, and how that has changed into the present. So, for example, let’s look at the word gay. Its origins go back to the 14th century, to refer to something that was full of joy. However, it quickly became used to also refer to something shining, glittering, beaming vivid. So it takes this extra meaning on and around the 1630s, so you know, 300 years after we first see the word, we recognize in Chaucer that it picks up this sense of “promiscuity.” It’s almost like this joyful, playful, promiscuity. Around the turn of the 20th century, the term “gay” definitely took on a more promiscuous sense, it was actually starting to lean mostly that way. It was implicitly starting to get connected to sexuality. Around 1920 men who were attracted to other men began to use the term for themselves as a self identifier, while the popular culture kept using it to mean happy or joyful for a lot of the 20th century. So there were these two different cultures using it in two different ways. And then by the 1980s, it became a way for the popular culture to identify homosexuals, as they would have called it at the time, in the popular culture. And that happy or joyful meaning eventually just almost completely disappeared. And then by the 1990s, it did become a popular slur. So what was positive within the community to self identify became negative toward that community. That negative connotation led the word “gay” to become a teenage slang in the 2000s to refer to something as bad or inferior and for a lot of people that connection to sexuality had almost become tangential to the to the meaning that they were trying to convey. Then around the 2010s, the LGBTQ community reclaimed it as a self identify as something to be proud of and positive. Again, all that to say, when we ask what “gay” means there’s a sense in which we can’t answer that question without that history. And for some, that may seem like we’re overcomplicating it, or we’re making a mess of something that’s supposed to be simple, but Derrida’s point is that it is messy inherently. What “gay” means now is in some sense, dependent on what “gay” has meant in the past. And this is what Saucy calls the “diachronic” approach to language. 

Jared  

So, Saucy noticed that words only mean something because they are different from other words. We can’t define a word without looking at how it’s used in context. How it’s different from other words in the language, and how it’s different from the historical use of that word. And this leads to two very important insights from Derrida. One, words always mean more than we intend them. There are no law-givers that tell us what a word or a phrase or a sentence has to mean. So words always mean more than we intend. And two, words always refer to other words. And this is where that famous phrase of his that we talked about in the Making of the Modern Mindset: Part Four comes in, there’s nothing outside the text. So let’s take a minute to understand each of these and then let’s focus on ways it might impact how we see our Bible. 

Jared  

So first, words always mean more than we intend. If you grew up like me, you were taught that passages of Scripture only mean whatever the original author intended it to mean. The problem of course, is that’s simply not true. When we read the word “church” in the New Testament, we are bringing thousands of years of baggage to bear on that word—We might picture cathedrals from medieval Europe, we might picture our own nondenominational megachurch with a is rockin band, we might picture a group of people in first century Corinth, trying to figure out what this Jesus thing is all about. All of that is wrapped up in the meaning of the word “church.” On top of that, some of us would privilege one of those meanings over the others. We can’t keep all of those in our mind all at the same time. Some might say the true meaning of church is that first century picture. Some might say it’s the megachurch picture, others might say it’s Catholic, polity, and procedure, and so on, and so on. 

Jared  

Words are not as stable as we think. They aren’t standalone entities that represent just one objective reality. I think here of the double edged sword of what Fundamentalist Evangelicalism is asking for from the Bible. On the one hand, they will say the Bible’s clear, simple to understand that we don’t want to overcomplicate things. That is, they will argue that there is one true meaning to a verse or a passage in the Bible. And yet, at the same time, they produce hundreds of commentaries on each book of the Bible. There’s thousands of sermons on the same passages of Scripture. If there’s only one true meaning, why so many different words and avenues to explain it? Because the Bible generates meaning upon meaning, Sunday upon Sunday, commentary after commentary, we don’t have commentaries, conversations, small groups on things that are clear, direct, straightforward, have only one meaning. Their communities and practices betray their own beliefs about the Bible. No, it’s precisely because the Bible is ambiguous and diverse and contains, not just 66 books, but all of the history of interpretations. Because of all that, we have the opportunity to have the Bible be meaningful in our faith practices today, it’s because of that, that the Bible is still relevant today. And that’s not special because of the Bible. It’s because it uses words, and that’s what Derrida’s insight is. 

Jared  

So that beautiful thing about the Bible, that it contains multitudes of meanings, is also risky and scary. When we have one meaning we can control it, we can get closer to the reality of what is meant. But what Derrida points out is that’s just not how words work. Meaning is always kind of seeping out from the edges of that one meaning that we think it has there’s always more to the story. Of course, words can’t mean just anything. But if you put enough of them together, they will almost always mean more than you intend them to me. And that’s just the nature of language. The other insight from Derrida that I want to mention is that words always refer to other words. So imagine a five year old sees his friend riding a brand new bike, and he asked his mom if he can have one. And she might say, “It’s too expensive.” So he might ask, “What does expensive mean?” And she might answer, “It means that it costs too much.” And then he thinks about he might ask, “Well, what does cost mean?” And she’ll answer, “Well, we have to exchange money for the bike, the amount of money we have to pay is what it costs.” “Oh, okay,” the five year old nods, of course, waits a second. And then you know, as five year olds do, asks another question, “What does exchange mean?” Again, the point here is, would we say something is too expensive, we’re assuming an understanding of dozens of other concepts, dozens of other words. Most importantly, this example illustrates that we can only ever define words by using other words. Talk to any five year old for a while, and you’ll realize that our understanding of words depends on us understanding other words in a loop forever. When I look up a word in the dictionary, what do I find more words, when I define a word, I can only ever use words. In this sense, we’re trapped in language. We can’t think ourselves out of it because we think in language. The only definitions we can ever give for reality, will themselves be encased in the language. And a language is a system as Saucy taught us, that only means things in relationship to itself. 

Jared  

So we can’t ever escape language and the meaning of language depends on other parts of that language. Ugh! It’s so frustrating. In other words, all language is a metaphor, or it’s a symbol that stands in for other language. When I say “bike,” there’s a sense in which that’s a shorthand for that thing over there with the two wheels and the handlebar. The problem, of course, is that when I say that, that’s also words. So when I say “wheels,” we could say that’s a shorthand for the round thing with the spokes and the rubber on the outside. And then we can say, “spokes” that’s shorthand for, on and on, and on, right, you get the point. 

Jared  

So what does this have to do with how we read our Bible? Well, before we get there, let’s sum up what we’ve said so far, using our friend John Caputo. We kind of went into the weeds but let’s pull it back out. And he takes these insights from Derrida and applies them broadly to human culture and society, because human culture and society is built on the back of language, and he defines deconstruction this way. Deconstruction is to show that things, that’s texts, institutions, traditions, societies, beliefs, practice of whatever size and sort you need, that things do not have definable meanings and determinable missions, that they are always more than any mission would impose, that they exceed the boundaries they currently occupy. For Caputo, anything that language touches is cursed or blessed, depending on how you look at it, with the same fate as language. For him, it’s not just text like the Bible, but institutions like the church, traditions, societies, beliefs, practices, they all have the same problem. Or we might say the same richness. They do not have definable meanings because language is too slippery once we think we have it something slips out from under us. 

Jared  

Okay, let’s get practical about this. Let’s pull ourselves up from the weeds. I want to organize the rest of our time around three misconceptions about deconstruction in the Bible. And remember, as a cultural movement, deconstruction has taken on a life of its own and I celebrate a lot of what’s happening in that space. But for those of us who also want to keep an eye on what’s happening more technically, I want to talk about these misconceptions around deconstruction in the Bible. I also hope that it will help people better respond if someone says one of these three misconceptions to you in your faith transition. So the first misconception I want to address is that deconstruction is something we do to the Bible. I’ve heard people say that we should avoid deconstructing the Bible, but for Derrida and Caputo people don’t deconstruct things. That’s like someone looking at a colander and asking why someone has poked holes in a bowl, which we shouldn’t poke holes in bowls. Well, no one poked a hole in the bowl, the holes were already there. You just didn’t notice, it is a bowl with holes in it. Let me quote Caputo, again who says this, “In deconstruction, things are made to tremble by their own inner impulse, by a force that will give them no rest that keeps forcing itself to the surface. Forcing itself out, making the thing restless. Nobody has to come along and deconstruct things, things are auto deconstructed by the tendencies of their own inner truth.” 

Jared  

For those of you who have gone through a faith transition, this might resonate. A calling deconstruction, “a sexy thing to do,” like Matt Chandler did, completely misses what the experience has been like. We didn’t deconstruct the Bible, we just looked closely at it, like the table. What used to look solid now looks unstable. In my book, “Jonah for Normal People”, I describe my own faith shift like this. I said, “It truly felt like I was running away from God, but I wasn’t in control of my own legs. It felt like my beliefs were a spouse who had fallen out of love with me. She was packing her bags as I was on my knees, begging her to stay.” Or as Caputo just said, things are auto Deconstructed by the tendencies of their own inner truth. 

Jared  

How does this relate to the Bible? It is not deconstructing the Bible to say that Genesis 1-3 contains two different creation stories that can’t be reconciled together in their details. It is not deconstructing the Bible to say that the Torah contains two different iterations of the law. I mean, the word Deuteronomy means, among other things, second law. It is not deconstructing the Bible to say that the Hebrew Bible contains two different stories of the kings, one in Samuel-Kings and one in Chronicles. It is not deconstructing the Bible to say that the New Testament contains four different stories of Jesus that don’t line up completely. This diversity is built into the Bible itself, it’s baked into our own religious tradition. Again, as Caputo says, “Things are auto-deconstructed by the tendencies of their own inner truth.” The longer we look at the Bible, the longer the truth of what it is comes to the surface. And truth isn’t sympathetic to our need for certainty or stability. Truth as we learned from the prophets in the Bible often comes to disrupt what we thought was stable, because truth is always bigger than us. And that truth erupts outside of our language when we look close. So the misconception is that deconstruction is something we do to the Bible. But it’s probably more accurate to say that the Bible is subject to deconstruction, because it’s written in human language.

Jared  

This reminds me of a scene in the most recent Charlie in the Chocolate Factory movie with Johnny Depp. Grandpa Joe tells Charlie about an Indian prince who asked Willy Wonka to build him a palace made of chocolate. Willy Wonka goes to India, and builds a chocolate palace for Prince Pondicherry when he finishes it. Prince Pondicherry says it is perfect in every way. And Willy Wonka response. Yeah, but it won’t last long. You better start eating right now. And Prince Pondicherry says dismissively, “Oh, nonsense. I will not eat my palace, I intend to live in it.” Of course, a hot day comes and melts the palace. The Bible is perfect, as long as we realize it’s made of chocolate, and we start eating it, rather than preserve it and try to live in it forever. When someone says that people are wrong to Deconstruct the Bible, they are pretending that the Bible isn’t made of chocolate, and they’re blaming close readers of the Bible for tearing it down. Again, as Caputo says, “Things are auto deconstructed by the tendencies of their own inner truth.” For many of us, it’s our close reading of the Bible that has led us to the conclusion that it’s made of chocolate. It’s constantly melting and hardening over and over again. It takes different shapes and means different things to the centuries and generations. We aren’t against the Bible, we’re learning to accept it for what it is. So deconstruction isn’t something we do to the Bible. The Bible is subject to deconstruction because it’s written in human language.

[Ad break]

Jared  

The second misconception I want to address is that deconstruction is anything goes relativism. When Derrida talks about language, he’s not saying that language has no meaning. He’s not a nihilist. He’s the opposite. He’s saying that there’s always more meaning to something than one thing. It’s like when you put too many popcorn kernels in the pan. Fundamentalist Evangelicalism keeps trying to hold that lid down tightly, but the pressure keeps popping the lid off and the popcorn keeps spilling over. It’s not that there’s no popcorn. It’s just that once it starts popping, there’s too much to be contained in the pan. The pan is our systematic theology, the pan is our limited understanding of God. The pan in my tradition was white Modernist Evangelical presuppositions about what the Bible is or can be, it kept trying to contain the truth, contain the meaning, and yet the popcorn kept spilling over. deconstruction doesn’t tell us that there is no truth, it’s that there’s always more truth than the people in power want you to believe. Truth is always bigger than our personal and cultural conceptions can grasp. This for me is a high view of truth, not a low view of truth. The assumption that truth can be contained by a small group of white dudes is a low view of truth. The point is that deconstruction shows how our interpretation of the Bible has been dominated by one context: white European dudes, and that we have shut out other contexts. When people accuse deconstruction of anything goes relativism, they don’t see diversity as a strength but a liability. Diversity is the enemy. But within deconstruction differences, or diversity, that’s actually the path to seeing the fullness of truth. We need all the contexts, all the experiences to weigh in. By only allowing certain perspectives to count and calling anything else “anything goes relativism,” Fundamentalist Evangelicalism is saying that their perspective on truth is the only truly valid perspective. Or to put it another way, they are saying that absolute truth is relative to their perspective. But deconstruction just opens up to other perspective, it asks us to see the Bible from another angle, and another and another, on and on we go. 

Jared  

Deconstruction keeps us from resting in our own certainty. It’s a deeply humble approach to the Bible that says the words always contain more truth than I can keep up with. So to keep up with truth, I always have to hold my conclusions lightly. Ready to drop them when another dose of truth comes my way. It’s a way of saying that truth is always bigger than my understanding and so I always have to be learning and to learn, I have to not know and I have to listen to others. No one has ever learned something they already know. That’s not anything goes relativism. That’s a humble acknowledgement that the truth is always bigger than me. And so if the Bible contains any truth at all, it also must be bigger than me. Or, as Caputo so poetically puts it, “We sing songs to the truth, as if it were a source of comfort, warmth, and good hygiene. But in deconstruction, the truth is dangerous, and it will drive you out into the cold… The truth will make you free, but it does so by turning your life upside down.” 

Jared  

This leads to our final misconception, that deconstruction has an ending. It’s popular to talk about reconstruction or making sure we don’t take deconstruction too far. But the reality is that technically deconstruction is an ongoing process built into the limitations of language. If we have the patience, we’ll always find that language is adequate for communication, but inadequate for certainty about objective reality. All of our concepts are deconstructible it’s not that God is deconstructible, it’s that our language about God will never quite capture the fullness of God. And that includes the Bible, because it’s in the language as well. Which brings us back full circle. So does that mean we find ourselves forever in turmoil? That we will always be sliding down that slippery slope of deconstruction? I can’t say for you, but I wanted to talk a little bit here about my story. 

Jared  

For me, the answer was yes, I was in turmoil for years. But that’s because I kept looking for the palace that wasn’t made of chocolate. I kept looking for the Bible to give me certainty, a sure foundation. In other words, I kept looking to put my trust in a book that I could control that I could understand, I could analyze that could have settled ideas about. But once I accepted that the world is less stable than I thought, then I realized it wasn’t the end of the world like I was taught it would be. Just because our justice system isn’t right 100% of the time doesn’t mean we stop pursuing justice. Just because our relationship with our children isn’t right 100% of the time, doesn’t mean we stop pursuing relationships with our children. If anything, recognizing the limitations of human language has helped me to break my idealization of the Bible and words, and helped me to focus more on my actions. In other words, when I first realized the palace was made of chocolate, yes, I was in despair. But once I accepted it, I started eating, or, as Caputo says about Jesus, and I’ve taken this phrase to heart as part of my own faith expression. He says this, “Jesus kept one thing uppermost in his heart, the love of neighbor and of God, which was unconditional, the sum and substance of Torah, and he treated everything else, however sacred it was in people’s eyes, as human-made, conditional, flexible, Deconstructible. His periodic flashes of anger are reserved for those who confuse the ladder with the former.” 

Jared  

So to sum up, we talked about three misconceptions about deconstruction as a concept. One, deconstruction is something we do to the Bible. Two, deconstruction is anything goes relativism. And three, deconstruction has an ending. And maybe against all three of these I’ll end this section with this statement: deconstruction in the Bible is an ongoing process inherent in human language that generates More and more meaning. And just like the physicist who looks closely at the table, once you see beneath the surface, you can’t unsee it. The Bible becomes more vibrant and more alive, but also more chaotic, and in some ways more risky. So now in the spirit of not letting the words be the last word, I want to end with a few ways. This view of the Bible has changed my faith. So here are four ways that recognizing that the Bible is Deconstructible has helped me to be a better person and find more life in my faith. 

Jared  

So first and foremost, these insights have helped me to be more humble. In my past, my confidence was in my ability to get things right. But once I saw that the Bible was full of language, that’s Deconstructible, that’s helpful and adequate, but never perfect. It no longer made sense to me to think about getting God accurate or getting God right. I would never fully understand God. That brought me to a place of learning, which I found as a posture of humility. No matter what. When it comes to God and the Bible, I am open to the possibility that I could be wrong. Now, some call that being wishy washy, but that’s from the vantage point of someone who evaluates things from the perspective that being right about God is not only possible, but urgent and important. From my perspective, humility doesn’t involve being wishy washy. I still have plenty of conviction and my convictions motivate me to act in certain ways, but it is conviction without certainty. Now, when I read the Bible, it’s to find ways to be wrong so that I can learn and grow not ways to confirm my rightness, so I can feel good about myself. 

Jared  

Second, and I already hinted at this before, understanding how deconstruction applies to the Bible has forced me away from putting my faith in getting the Bible right. It’s common for Fundamentalist Evangelicalism to equate the Bible with the Word of God. And so it’s equally common for it to equate faith in God with faith in the Bible. But my faith is not in the Bible. Nor is it in me getting the Bible, right. I grew up thinking that the whole point of Christianity is to go to heaven when I died. And the way to do that was to believe the right things. And the only way to believe the right things was to read the Bible in the right way. Now, I trust that God is love. And the Bible was a means to help me in community become a more loving human that follows in the example of Jesus. 

Jared  

Third, recognizing that the Bible is Deconstructed will help me truly appreciate diversity. If there’s only one right way to read the Bible, and diversity is just many wrong ways to get to the right way, or worse, a threat to the right way. But if every reading of the Bible was only partially right, and always misses something that can be added. Then the more readings we get from different perspectives, the better every context, perspective and community adds to the richness of the Bible’s meaning. It doesn’t dilute it or distort it. So I actively seek to hear from people not like me. 

Jared  

Fourth, it helped me learn to find meaning in the process, not the destination. When I first realized the Bible was deconstructed, it felt like a freefall. I grieved the loss, the feeling of security and being in control, the loss of feeling like I had arrived. I quickly went to work building toward a new destination. Yeah, maybe the faith tradition of my youth wasn’t quite right, but if I worked hard enough, I would eventually find my way to that right destination. But every time I felt like I had arrived, new holes would develop and the ship would start sinking again and this is the problem with deconstruction. 

Jared  

In closing, then, I want to share a Bible story. According to the biblical account, Israel was called out of slavery and oppression to set up a new social order, where through the Israelites “all the families of the earth would be blessed.” Right Genesis 12 and 28. God calls Israel out of Egypt and marches them to the Promised Land, which was described as “a land flowing with milk and honey,” and a place where God will see Israel as a treasured possession and will give Israel “praise, and fame, and high honor.” This is in Deuteronomy 26. It’s utopia. The challenge, of course, is that if you keep reading in the story, it’s never utopia. The vision of Israel as a blessed city on a hill, a light to the nations never becomes a reality. What seemed like a reachable destination. As the Israelites entered the Promised Land quickly became a mirage, something that can be seen when it’s far off, but seems to evaporate when it’s right in front of you. Walter Brueggemann in his book “Journey to the Common Good” brilliantly points out that Israel escaped suppression in Egypt, just to become the oppressors in Jerusalem. The very thing they were running from was the thing they became. This passage helped me realize an important truth: Arriving at a destination is what we want, because certainty and security provide safety for us. But in the history of certainty and security, rarely does it bode well for other people. Once we feel like we have it. Once we feel like we understand God. We start to do whatever we can to remain feeling safe and certain. We begin to manipulate our understanding of God to keep what feels good to us. And so I began to think that the best place for me is the desert. It’s accepting that I may never arrive at certainty in my understanding of God, or the ultimate meaning of life. And accepting that not only is that inevitable as a human being with limited understanding, but it’s actually preferred to keep me in the most open and loving place I can be without the need to defend my territory, my castle of safety that I built for myself. We all know, the best place to be isn’t in Egypt, being oppressed, but perhaps it isn’t in Jerusalem, either, becoming the oppressor maybe. It’s coming together to walk the desert in community, all of us following and trusting that mysterious pillar of smoke and fire that’s often guiding us, but never telling us quite where we’re going.

Outro  

You’ve just made it through another episode of the Bible for Normal People! Thanks to our listeners who support us each week by rating the podcast, leaving a review, and telling others about our show. We couldn’t have made this amazing episode without the help of our producers group: Ryan Brueckner, Drew Nelson, Emma Wyatt, Mark and Karen Boer, Craig Ayling, Hannah Siegmund, Jamie Ernesto Rodriguez, Ron Spizzirri, Kyle Miller, and Dave Phifer. As always, you can support the podcast at patreon.com/theBiblefornormalpeople, where for as little as $3 a month you can receive bonus material, be part of an online community, get course discounts and much more. This episode was brought to you by the Bible for Normal People team: Brittany Prescott, Savannah Locke, Stephanie Speight, Tessa Stultz, Nick Striegel, Haley Warren, Jessica Shao, and Natalie Weyand!

Pete Enns, Ph.D.

Peter Enns (Ph.D., Harvard University) is Abram S. Clemens professor of biblical studies at Eastern University in St. Davids, Pennsylvania. He has written numerous books, including The Bible Tells Me So, The Sin of Certainty, and How the Bible Actually Works. Tweets at @peteenns.

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