Saturday, January 24, 2009

Evaluating Deconstructionism Using Responsible Hermeneutics

Five years ago on this very date, I sat with a now deceased laptop computer in the University of Texas Library, writing an essay. I'd been asked to present how thought reform played into the Vision Forum mindset from the vantage of one who attended a Presbyterian church with the followers of Doug Phillips and, on rare occasion, with Phillips himself.

I believe that I watch the world from an interesting and unique vantage. Though I was born in the first year of Generation X, I don’t bear all of the same qualities as most Xers. Perhaps because my parents missed the hippie mentality by what probably amounts to a few months and owing to slower life in a rural community, both my parents and I think much differently than our peers of the same age. I identify more strongly with Baby Boomers born later in that generation, as though there is a bridge period between Boomers and Gen X that theorists never define or capture. My most comfortable niche places me in an category with those born roughly somewhere between the early fifties and mid-sixties. I tend to march in tune to that drum rather than the drum of my same-aged peers. Though I am Christian first, I think like and communicate best with a modernist and tend to relate to others like a postmodernist living in a postmodern world.

Mark Noll proposed the concept of “theological innovation,” a process that I describe as one by which Christianity tries to adapt in order to remain culturally relevant. Each generation adapts to the demands of their culture, profoundly impacting the articulation of philosophy and theology within each unique age. Leaning very heavily on Noll’s concepts as I wrote my essay, and without naming any particular group, I identified Doug Phillips' ideas and many other variations on what amounts to the next-generation ideology of the Shepherding/Discipleship Movement as a theological innovation or a reaction against the tensions postmodernism posed for Christians. The very first handful of posts on this blog addressed and defined elements of postmodern thought because I see patriarchy as an extreme reaction to posmodernism. The relationship between patriocentrism and postmodernism seems as complicated as my personal relationship to the characteristics of those of Gen X.

I believe what I now identify as “patriocentricity” seeks to take away the sting of the profane elements of the Christian living in a postmodern world, while it also simultaneously capitalizes on postmodernism as a vehicle of communication. Patriocentricity becomes a very postmodern theological innovation that uses its own Christian version of kitsch, simulacra, and the hyperreal to protest select elements of postmodern relativism, actually demonstrating what seems to me an ironic process that Jacques Derrida would likely admire. Derrida focused on the language elements of the evolution of thought and culture which derive meaning through synthesis, and Vision Forum’s effort to mix a variety of ideologies together seems to me to be a fine example of this process of postmodern amalgamation. Vision Forum demonstrates an Hegelian dialectic that merges the thesis of Christianity with the antithesis of postmodernism, resulting in the synthesis wherein the medium of communication (“He is a godly man with a lovely family,” the language of evangelical Christianity, and photo shopped faces online) becomes as important and convincing as the message itself (the special purpose religion of homeschooling).

When I wrote for Sandlin, I had no idea that there was actually a more openly postmodern version of Christianity, what I now understand to be embodied in the “emergent church.” I knew of Gadamer's Hermeneutics of Trust, but frankly, I didn’t believe that a serious, Bible believing, committed, and evangelical Christian could possibly accept this hermeneutic, primarily because it cannot be applied to Scripture and remain true to Scripture at the same time. One cannot approach the Word of God using Derrida’s deconstruction of language wherein each idea that language represents typifies meaninglessness. Meaningfulness comes through a dialectic comparison of one meaningless element to another in a never-ending evolution of an individual’s personal experience, and this is what it means to be human and a little above other animals, setting us apart from them. As I understand Derrida, his approach of deconstruction and this hermeneutic cannot be used to interpret Scripture if one believes that it is God-breathed, effective and sufficient for doctrine.

After observing this dialectic of opposites and commenting on “deconstruction” elsewhere online recently, more than a few people requested that I revisit this topic again here on this blog. There is concern that many have left patriocentricity and reactively rebelled against too many aspects of it, swinging from authoritarian interpretations ascribed to the Word of God without Christian liberty into something that calls itself Christianity but actually simultaneously argues that the language of the Word of God cannot really convey much meaning at all. Some might say and apparently use the Creeds of the Church, not as a representation of the Word with the Word being the fixed center, but rather as man’s ascribing of meaning to the Word of God through existentialism. Faith then, for some of these reactionaries, begins with the meaning man gives to God through language rather than from the meaning and structure that man derives from the fixed objectivity of the all sufficient Word of God. It is a subtle but powerful distinction.

Though it is fresh in my own mind, I realize that it has been 18 months since I specifically discussed what I understand of “deconstruction.” Some look at the word “deconstruction” and interpret it as *a simple compound word* that represents the opposite of construction, thus defining it as what I would call the examined life. We all mature and recapitulate our ideas as we grow in wisdom, and those who follow the principle of the examined life will constantly re-evaluate the usefulness and validity of their ideas. As Christians, we are called to do this, and one might call this examined life the process of a Christian’s “fear and trembling.” But it is feared by many that the use of the term “deconstruction” in Christian circles is *greatly misunderstood* and not seen for what the “emergent church” actually means when they use Derrida’s and Bultmann’s language. Language can be confusing, and it is ironic, as one of the tenets of postmodernism maintains that the meaning of words comes from one’s individual esteem of them rather than their fixed definition. But note that Derrida fixed the definition of deconstructionism and defined it well. The emergent church uses Derrida’s definition and Bultmann’s interpretation, not this simple understanding of a compound word.

Let me offer you an example of what is meant by “deconstructionism” of language. As someone who enjoys British literature, I love to learn of their terms and how they differ from our American vernacular. Let me offer to you an example of some of this language that I like to use to describe what deconstructionism means: “The randy old sod smoked a fag.”

If you are a “blokey bloke” who is familiar with British expressions, this statement refers to a lecherous person (randy) who may or may not be a bloke, obnoxious or someone that might actually be a sodomite (sod), but he does not necessarily have to be a sodomite. They are indicated to be old, so this could just be describing what we Americans often call a “dirty old man.” Concerning his activity as described in the statement, he is smoking a cigarette (fag).

According to a professor that taught one of my English classes and was a poet himself, he believed that poetry conveyed meaning in such a way, and he taught his students that “these words in this precise order convey only one set meaning.” I argued with him that unless I understood the meaning of the words themselves and the context in which they were written, I agreed with him, but without that understanding the words were actually vague and meaningless. The person who receives the communication has a responsibility to discern the meaning, otherwise the communication is ineffective. One who takes this approach to language observes the context through what is known as the grammatico-historical method. This is the approach that the Baby Boomer modernist takes to literature (along with odd young fogies like me who should be more hip like the rest of the Xers). For the modernist, defining one’s terms and agreeing upon their set meaning is essential for true communication. Not so for the postmodernist.

For someone who is a postmodernist (most all Gen X and Gen Y “Mosaics” as they are called, definitely those born after 1970), the meaning of any language is based upon their own esteem, knowledge and experience. For an American who is completely unfamiliar with Brit Lit, they read “the randy old sod smoked a fag” and may understand this to mean “An aging man named Randy who is a landscaper (laying turf for a living) used a gun to shoot a male homosexual.” When using this example to explain deconstruction to a friend of mine this past week, they thought that the example described a man named Randy who was performing fellatio on another man. The modernist and a displaced GenXer Christian would state emphatically that these specific words represent only a limited number of possibilities based upon fixed definitions and usage of language as true to the context wherein the writer applied the terminology. We would say that these two examples of a man named Randy who is described as performing either of these reprehensible acts could not possibly be more wrong in their meaning. The postmodernist who embraces deconstruction has every right to argue that they are right and the true meaning is not necessarily true, based upon their own perspective and nothing else. Because the postmodernist assigns the true meaning of language on a relative basis based on individual experience and emotion, they believe that they possess true meaning and that the modernist might actually be wrong. They can tell the modernist, ever so rudely if not profanely, to take their objective meanings and “sod off” (leave).

Until the next post, please consider how this “deconstruction,” just as the term is used by authors and speakers in the emergent church, might affect the interpretation and meaning of the Word of God.

In an upcoming posts, I hope to explain how our understanding concerning the objectivity of the meaning of language changed, and just why and how deconstructionism and “true for you but not necessarily for me” springs not from any kind of Christian perspective but from evolutionary dogma and the humanistic religion of men like Nietzsche and Hegel. I hope to clarify how the postmodern approach to language can do nothing other than emasculate the Word of God with human perspective, making the sacred unavoidably profane.

It is my hope and purpose to encourage others to see the postmodern tendencies that affect us deeply by nature of our culture for what they are so that we can more sharply distinguish its inherent trappings from the faith that all Christians must have in Christ in order to be what James Sire defines as a Biblical Theist rather than a Theistic Existentialist. (The theist derives meaning from God by virtue of experience and the existentialist ascribes meaning to God by virtue of experience.)