Joshua Harris got me dumped in college. Kind of. Harris had written a book in 1997 called “I Kissed Dating Goodbye.” This was the apex of weird 1990s evangelical purity culture. Honestly, I don’t find a lot that is objectionable about fostering a culture of holiness and purity – it certainly beats the alternative which we see in our culture today – but purity culture relied on repression, shame, and a whole lot of legalism. Anyway, a very nice girl I was dating at the time asked me to read the book. I declined. I rather liked dating, so with enthusiastic sarcasm (and not a little immaturity I should add) I rejected Harris’ version of neo-Puritanism. The relationship didn’t survive.
Flashforward over twenty years. Joshua Harris very publicly rejected his earlier work and apologized for any harm that he had done. Additionally, Harris left his ministry, left his marriage, and left his faith. He did this all under the banner of “deconstruction.” Maybe you’ve heard about deconstruction, or maybe you haven’t. It is one of that growing number of things that young-ish very online people tend to know a great deal about while other people know almost nothing about it.
Harris defines deconstruction very simply as questioning all of those things that he had built his life around. For him, this questioning led to abandonment of those things. Until very recently, he was committing to help others through this process of deconstruction…for a small fee of course. For 275 dollars you could sign up for a course with Harris called “Reframe Your Story” which included a deconstruction starter pack. In promoting the class, he said, “I wanted to create something to help people reframe their thinking and to be able to decide for themselves what things they want to hold onto and if they want, to let go of certain religious ideas.”
Not surprisingly, this idea was not received warmly by anyone. It seemed apparent that Harris after profiting off of purity culture in the 90s was now riding the popular deconstruction wave towards greater profits twenty years later. Carl Trueman offered a scathing indictment in First Things:
He may have abandoned the religious sales pitch, but he has not reframed his life at its most fundamental level. It remains driven by that which places him at the center and presents him as the solution, not the problem. While it would appear that he is now selling a different message, that conclusion would miss the reality of the situation. From purity culture to therapeutic gibberish, there is remarkable underlying consistency here. Harris may have glued a different label on the bottles of life’s elixir that he is hawking, but he is still selling exactly the same product: Josh Harris.
Within just a couple of days of announcing the course, Harris shut it down. I do give him credit for that. He at least showed the humility to listen and respond to the criticisms, but this post isn’t really about Harris. This post is about the difficulty of defining what we mean by the word “deconstruction.”
Harris’ definition is very simple, but various nuances are added to this term depending on who you ask. Trueman and others have noted the philosophical origins of the term, but he also recognizes that most people who use the term aren’t fully informed about the actual history of the term. People generally don’t know or care about a philosopher like Derrida even if they are nominally being influenced by some of his ideas. My own understanding is that deconstruction involves questioning the content of faith but routinely goes well beyond doctrine. The perceived culture that surrounds faith is also deconstructed. In fact, the boundary between culture and doctrine becomes very blurry to many who are deconstructing. Further, negative and occasionally abusive personal experiences weigh heavily on the deconstruction process. I also understand that many who deconstruct will say that there are no rules or “processes” guiding the process at all. It looks different for each person and has radically disparate outcomes. I personally know some people whose deconstruction has led them to abandon pretty much everything. Their story looks a lot like Harris. They have abandoned not only their faith but even their families and friends as a consequence of their deconstruction. But I had a conversation recently with another person who had deconstructed his faith, and while he no longer considered himself an evangelical, he does still consider himself to be a (non-evangelical) Christian. In fact, he claims his faith is now stronger and deeper because of the process.
I’ve grown frustrated with the word deconstruction. Everyone seems to understand the word differently, and so talking about it veers into a debate about terms instead of a discussion of substance. I’ve been told that if I say I’m against deconstructionism (because of people like Harris), I run the risk of alienating or offending those who understand or use the word in a more constructive way. I honestly don’t want to do that. The philosophical deconstructionism of Derrida works like an acid on language. It challenges whether words actually mean anything stable at all, so it is a little funny that spiritual deconstructionism has become a basically meaningless term with no stable meaning from one person to the next.*
So here’s what I’m doing. I’m kissing the term deconstructionism goodbye. I will no longer use this term because it doesn’t really mean anything. It has become useless and faddish. It is like twenty years ago when young evangelicals became fascinated with “emerging.” (Remember that?) Instead of using a nonsense term like deconstruction, I’ll use terms with more stable meanings like “questioning” and “abandoning.”
Questioning, I believe, can very often be a healthy and helpful thing. I always tell my students that they should care enough about their faith to actually think about it and even ask questions of it. If God is a God of truth, then He is honored when we passionately and honestly pursue what is true. A healthy faith is one that is exercised with struggles and even at times, doubts. Jesus reminds us in John 15, a healthy faith is a faith that is pruned in order to be even more fruitful. This here is an important point however. Pruning is something that is done to us and for us by a loving Father. Pruning is not pleasant, but it is something that we submit to. Most of those I’ve talked to about deconstruction use the active and not the passive verb. I am deconstructing. This individualist mindset immediately sets the person off on the wrong path as it places him at the center of all inquiry. If I am the one who is deconstructing, then I am the sole arbiter of what is good and right.
We know that questioning can lead to abandonment. There is ample evidence of this from scripture and from our common experience. I teach apologetics which is a discipline oriented towards asking good questions. I also teach the book of Hebrews which is a book that warns us of the real consequences of falling away from the faith. I will help and encourage and even cheer on those who are processing through their struggles in constructive ways. I will, however, not cheer on those who are abandoning their faith. I will not applaud and congratulate you on “finding your true self” when you’ve found that self outside of Christ. Are you kidding me? Why in the world would I congratulate a person for making the worst possible decision they could make? Are we so concerned about causing offense? The accommodation of this type of abandonment even among believers is evidence of what some scholars have labeled moralistic therapeutic deism infiltrating our midst. If a person is abandoning their faith, I will lovingly and firmly explain to them why this is the wrong choice and plead with them to allow me to help them find their way back.
So there it is. From now on, no more talk about “deconstruction” from me.
*I have a similar frustration with “Critical Race Theory.” Every time the topic gets brought up, most of the debate revolves around accusations that neither side understands what CRT actually is. CRT has also become a useless phrase in this way. We just go round and round debating the definition of words and never actually talk about anything of substance.