There has been a lot of talk over the past twenty years or so about “deconstructing” the Christian faith (especially its evangelical versions). The problem, however, is that sometimes there is no substantial reconstruction that aims to recover the authentic, classical faith tradition—beyond its distortions.
I Began Deconstruction as an Undergraduate Theology Student
Although I would not have described it that way at the time, I was engaged in deconstruction (and reconstruction) of my faith from the very start of my undergraduate theological studies in Jamaica. I was blessed with a pastor at Grace Missionary Church and with professors at Jamaica Theological Seminary who welcomed healthy questioning and modeled an open and generous—fully orthodox—Christianity.
I have come to realize that this openness to questioning inherited traditions was also a function of doing theology in the Majority World, since both professors and students were vividly aware of the need for contextualization of the faith for the sake of the Caribbean church. We were thus prepared to challenge received versions of our church traditions, especially when they were shaped by Eurocentric or American biases. Professors and (especially) students in my Jamaican context were unafraid to dismantle what we thought was unhelpful, while seeking to be grounded in a better version of the core tradition of our faith.
As a result of my formative theological education in Jamaica, the deconstruction-reconstruction dialectic has been central to all my teaching and writing over the years.
Deconstruction and Reconstruction in My Writing
As a biblical scholar, committed to the renewal of the church, I have typically challenged received interpretations of Scripture in my books and articles. My approach has been to try and show that these interpretations are not rooted in a best reading of Scripture nor are they helpful for faithful living in our complex world.
To that end I have written books on a holistic Christian worldview (The Transforming Vision), the relevance of the Bible in our postmodern context (Truth Is Stranger than It Used to Be), humanity created in God’s image (The Liberating Image), new creation eschatology (A New Heaven and a New Earth), and Abraham’s silent attempt to sacrifice Isaac in the context of the Bible’s prayers of vocal protest (Abraham’s Silence).
In each case, I have attempted to propose better interpretations of these topics than what I found in the received tradition—better in that they arise from more careful reading of Scripture and that they have transformative implications for human life in the real world.
Deconstruction and Reconstruction in My Teaching—Toward a Christian Worldview
This dialectic of deconstruction and reconstruction is at the core of a signature course on a Christian worldview that I have been teaching (and constantly developing) for many decades, focusing on biblical theology in dialogue with the contemporary world.
The early versions of this course (which I taught when I was a campus minister in Southern Ontario, Canada) led to a co-authored book with Brian Walsh, called The Transforming Vision: Shaping a Christian World View (IVP, 1984).
Next year I will begin working on a new version of that book, based on the way the course has evolved over the years. My tentative title for the new book is Shaped by God’s Story: Christian Worldview in a Global Key (also with IVP, set to be released on the fortieth anniversary of The Transforming Vision).
The course challenges students to rethink their orientation to life by re-reading Scripture as a grounding story that takes seriously our pain and our hopes. The course combines engaged biblical interpretation with historical analysis of the church’s sacred/secular dualism, the western myth of conquest and progress, and the postmodern condition, while encouraging students to explore their calling in God’s world.
I’ve been teaching this course since 2002 for undergraduates at Roberts Wesleyan University under the title “Exploring the Christian Worldview.” I’ve also taught a version of the course since 2011 for graduate students at Northeastern Seminary, where it is called “Being in the Story.”
More than any other course, this one often leads to student disorientation. As the course progresses, it is common for students to exclaim with dismay, “Oh no, I need to unlearn everything I have been taught!” I usually point out that they may need to unlearn some things, but that they typically have a pretty solid and stable core of faith to build on.
Starting with Trust, before Deconstruction
I have learned not to begin with deconstruction. A hermeneutic of suspicion is an important second step in the learning process; but we need to start with a hermeneutic of trust (and trust is where we end too). First, I offer students a more excellent way; then comes the critique of unhelpful tradition.
The metaphor that I use to explain my pedagogy is as follows: I begin by offering students the rich, plush carpet of biblical faith, then I gently begin to pull the threadbare rug of bad theology and inadequate biblical interpretation out from under them. They usually step quite eagerly onto the plush carpet.
At the end of one memorable course in Old Testament theology, which I taught at the Caribbean Graduate School of Theology in Jamaica while on sabbatical, a student stood up on the last day of class and said (with a huge smile on his face): “Professor, you destroyed my theology!”
Of course, he had found something better. That’s the way deconstruction ought to work.