On Deconstruction and Reconstruction of the Christian Faith

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.

J. Richard Middleton (Northeastern Seminary): 30 OT/HB Scholars to Read and Follow

Here is a blog interview that New Testament Professor Nijay Gupta did with me last year for part of a series he was posting on Old Testament scholars.

NOVEMBER 9, 2020 BY NIJAY GUPTA

Richard Middleton, Professor of Biblical Worldview and Exegesis, Northeastern Seminary at Roberts Wesleyan College

Why do you love teaching and researching about the OT/HB?

I find the Old Testament to be rich, complex, and textured—in its literature, its theology, and its earthy spirituality. The literature is so varied (from creation texts to prayers of lament, from wisdom treatises to narratives about the ancestors of Israel and the rise and fall of the monarchy), it’s impossible to get bored with it. One of the great challenges for those who teach the Old Testament is that it is impossible to “master” it. You develop various areas of expertise, but there is always so much more that you have to learn.

The earthiness of the Old Testament is also a great antidote to some of the otherworldly spirituality that has become embedded in the history of the church. Since the Old Testament was the Scripture of Jesus, Paul, and the early church, it was the story and symbolic world in terms of which they mapped their lives and God’s plan of redemption for the ages. This means that it is essential for us to understand the worldview of the Old Testament, since it shapes the New Testament in a fundamental way. So my study of the Old Testament has led me to become a better reader of the New Testament.

What is one “big idea” in your scholarship?

I think I have two big ideas, or at least two emphases, that I hope I have been able to communicate in my teaching and writing. When I started teaching at Northeastern Seminary, the Dean suggested I take the title Professor of Biblical Worldview and Exegesis, since these were my twin emphases.

The first emphasis that I want to communicate is the big picture, the story of the Bible from creation to eschaton, which is the story that ought to make sense of our lives (the trouble is that many in the church have “lost the plot”). So the big picture can help reorient the church to its vocation (the missio Dei), how it is called to contribute to the unfolding of God’s purposes for the world God loves. For me, this has meant a focus (initially, at least) on creation texts, whether in Genesis, the Psalms, Job, or the prophetic literature. Creation is the founding moment of the biblical story and studying these texts helps us see God’s original intentions for humanity and the world, which have something to say about the telos or goal of salvation.

The other big idea that I want to communicate (and model) is that careful reading of the biblical text yields wonderful theological and ethical results. I’ve tried to show precisely that in exegesis courses that I teach on Genesis, Samuel, Job, and the Psalms. This means reading with an inquiring mind, wondering why the text says what it does, and why it says it in the way that it does. It means bringing the entirety of who we are to the study of the Bible, including our hopes, our doubts, our assumptions, our questions, and being willing to challenge the text—so long as we are willing to be challenged in response. The Bible is not a safe book; it can radically change us.

Who is one of your academic heroes and why do you admire them?

My first academic hero is Walter Brueggemann. Although I haven’t always agreed with Brueggemann (I’ve written an article critical of his creation theology, and he graciously accepted my critiques), his attempt to bridge the gap from the ancient biblical text to the contemporary world has inspired me to try and do the same. He particularly opened up to me the riches of the prophetic literature and the Psalms.

What books were formative for you when you were a student? Why were they so important and shaping?

When I was an undergraduate theological student, I was profoundly affected by George Eldon Ladd, The Pattern of New Testament Truth. In that book Ladd tried to sketch the Synoptic pattern, the Johannine pattern, the Pauline pattern, and also to address the Old Testament pattern that undergirded the New Testament. Whether or not I would fully agree with his analysis of the New Testament today, his attempt to show both diversity and coherence in the New Testament text was very helpful. But most helpful of all was Ladd’s chapter called “The Background of the Pattern: Greek or Hebrew?” where he did detailed textual study of Plato, Philo, and the Old Testament to address whether the Old Testament pattern was human ascent from the world to God or God’s descent from heaven to earthly existence.

When I was a graduate theological student, it was Brueggemann’s books that deeply impacted me—first The Message of the Psalms: A Theological Commentary, then The Prophetic Imagination. I still assign them in courses.

Read Middleton’s Work

The Liberating Image: The Imago Dei in Genesis 1

A New Heaven and a New Earth: Reclaiming Biblical Eschatology

If you ran into me at SBL, and you didn’t want to talk about OT/HB studies, what would you want to talk about?

I would probably talk about music—especially reggae (both from my home country and “world reggae”) and the music of Bruce Cockburn and Leonard Cohen.

What is a research/writing project you are working on right now that you are excited about?

I am now finishing the final chapter of a book on the Aqedah (Genesis 22) for Baker Academic. It’s called: Abraham’s Silence: The Binding of Isaac, the Suffering of Job, and How to Talk Back to God. It’s a theology of prayer for a time of suffering, developed through interaction with biblical texts (the only way I know how to do theology).

Update: Abraham’s Silence is now complete (published November 2021). For information, see the Baker website.

For those interested, there is a recent review of Abraham’s Silence, called “Revisiting the Sacrifice of Isaac.”

Beyond Eurocentrism—A Future for Canadian Biblical Studies

On May 31, 2021 I had the privilege of giving my presidential address to the Canadian Society of Biblical Studies (CSBS). This is something every outgoing president does at the end of their term.

A Delayed Presidential Address

I was in the unusual situation of being president of CSBS for two consecutive years (2019–21), something unprecedented in the eighty-eight year history of the Society (which was formed in 1933). In every previous case, a person is elected to become vice-president for a year, then serves as president for the following year, then gives their presidential address.

However, the COVID-19 pandemic resulted in the cancelation of the 2020 annual meeting, at which we would have had the election of new officers (those whose terms were up) and at which I would have given my presidential address. Without a formal election of new officers, all the elected officers whose term was up continued pro tem until the next annual meeting.

The executive decided that despite the ongoing pandemic we couldn’t go another year without an annual meeting. But because of the pandemic, they decided that the 2021 annual meeting would be purely virtual.

Since I hadn’t been able to give my presidential address in 2020, I gave it (virtually) in 2021.

A Different Presidential Address

However, it was on a different topic from what I had originally planned.

In 2020 I had planned to focus my presidential address on the Aqedah (Genesis 22), in anticipation of the book I was writing, entitled Abraham’s Silence: The Binding of Isaac, the Suffering of Job, and How to Talk Back to God (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2021).

However, new issues arose in the CSBS, along with some external prods, which resulted in me giving a presentation on the past and future of biblical studies in Canada.

In “Beyond Eurocentrism: A Future for Canadian Biblical Studies,” I traced the history of biblical studies in Canada and challenged biblical scholars in Canada to explicitly bring their social and religious context to bear on their academic work, while allowing the Bible to speak to their context.

Here is the abstract of my paper:

The history of Canadian biblical studies, like biblical studies south of the border, has been defined by the attempt to protect academic study of the Bible from religious and ecclesiastical control. Although legitimate in its time, this has resulted in the fictitious ideal of an academic discipline uncontaminated by the contemporary contexts of the interpreter. Not only is such an ideal unattainable (since everyone brings their contexts, explicitly or implicitly, to their academic work), it is ethically problematic, since it has legitimated the Eurocentric orientation of the field as normative, resulting in the marginalization of alternative voices and perspectives.

Thankfully, biblical scholars have begun to take cognizance of how we read the Bible in terms of existential questions arising from our social and ecclesial locations. Besides many publications on the subject of contextual biblical studies over the past thirty years (perhaps beginning with Stony the Road We Trod), the Society of Biblical Literature sponsored two seminars in 2020 called “#Black Scholars Matter.”

Canadian biblical scholars, however, have been slower than our American counterparts to recognize the importance of the interpreter’s context for our field. The question this essay raises is whether we can envision a future for Canadian biblical studies beyond Eurocentrism.

Although I was addressing the Canadian context, I drew significantly on my Jamaican background (including Jamaican traditions of resistance to power) in order to make a particular proposal for the practice of biblical studies in Canada.

You can watch the video of my presidential address here.

The text of the address is being published in the Canadian-American Theological Review. I will post a link here when it is available.