I must confess, I wasn’t not particularly enthralled by the lections appointed for today. Some long excoriating passage from Micah, Paul telling the Thessalonians what to do, the Usual Psalm, and then Jesus explaining to all and sundry what, exactly, is so wrong with the Pharisees. There is no miraculous healing of anybody, today, nor some bright image to capture my imagination. The end of the Old Testament expressed this discouraging sentiment:
Therefore because of you
Zion shall be plowed as a field;
Jerusalem shall become a heap of ruins,
and the mountain of the house a wooded height.
This is very bad of me, I know, because all of the Bible is useful, as it says somewhere, for rebuking and building up and so forth. But in the wee hours, while I was moaning to myself that there wasn’t anything particularly gripping anywhere, I happened to repeat what Jesus said, and something clicked that’s been bothering me lately–that deconstructors promise freedom, but, however unwittingly, they tie up heavy burdens and load them on to the unsuspecting.
Since the days of Rachel Held Evans and the now mostly discredited Jen Hatmaker, a lot of the busy work of Christian deconstruction has trickled into other corners. There are people like Sheila Gregoire, who self-identifies as an ordinary Christian just trying to help other Christians have better sex, but who is nevertheless listed here amongst some of the best podcasts to listen to if you want to deconstruct your faith. There are the out-and-out deconstructors on Twitter like Kevin M Young and the Naked Pastor. And the ones who write academic-sounding books that claim to merely be doing research, and breathing new life into old tropes (Women and the Gender of God). And then there are the Anglicans who name their books things like The Bible Is Not Enough. Some of these writers and thinkers are honest enough to state their agenda on the front end, some less so. But all of them protest loudly that they aren’t trying to take anyone’s faith away. They are just trying to make life easier for everyone.
One way they do that is by insisting that there are no consequences to taking all the pieces apart and spreading them all over the floor to see what they look like separately. If you want to put the pieces back together, eventually, you can. But as you go along listening to the sayings and beliefs of those dismantling the Christian faith, you discover that there is already a coherence at the back of the work, and that the pieces that have been taken apart reassemble themselves almost immediately to resemble not the Christian faith, but something much older.
Another way, many deconstructors go about their work is to talk a vast deal about the Cross and about Jesus. There is a sort of miasma filling the spiritual air, so persistent that it can be difficult to pin down what exactly they are dismantling or deconstructing. Scot McKnight adopted this latter approach. Take this passage for example:
Both righteousness and love become concrete social reality when Jesus teaches about the cross and then endures the cross for others. We need to connect two terms—kingdom and king. The nature of the kingdom is shaped by the nature of the king, and the earliest Christian story narrates a crucified king. Not a conquering, sword-flashing king. The king of Jesus’s kingdom was conquered by the empire’s king. The nature of the king shapes the nature of the kingdom. Discipleship to Jesus the king and into his kingdom becomes a cross-shaped life. Jesus’s kingdom imagination is improvised by him into a cross-shaped kingdom and a cross-shaped life. Here one finds both the radical edge of Jesus’s kingdom vision and a radical reorientation for improvisation in our world today. Here we find an even fuller vision of his something new becoming something more.
And this bit:
The Christian tradition of following Jesus, often called the imitatio Christi, is at the heart of the Gospels. Imitation also prompted ancient biographies. One wrote a biography of a person worthy of emulation. However, the pattern of Jesus’s life diverged from other patterns of life because Jesus’s biographers concentrated their narration on the last week. A last week that narrated his suffering and crucifixion. The nature of the king shapes the nature of discipleship. Mark’s Gospel probably first formulated a something more kingdom discipleship when he put smack-dab in the middle of his Gospel the following words: Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.
McKnight’s stated hope in this book is that the reader will be persuaded by a pacifistic vision for the Christian life. There are no circumstances, he says, under which it is acceptable to go to war. I doubt very many people who have the power to send a nation to war will read his book. I’m not sure what I, the reader, am supposed to do–and that, I think, is the very point. I, a Christian, am supposed to begin to be uneasy about what I believe about Jesus, about how I live my faith out in the world. McKnight, under the guise of much Christian sounding speech, wants me to question what I know about the Scriptures, and then look at his version of the cross, which is missing something essential. In this place of insecurity and lack, McKnight then admonishes me to imitate Jesus, to adopt an imaginative view that allows me to “improvise” something new, namely peace.
It’s quite different from the clarity and precision with which Jesus speaks about the kingdom of God. Here’s what he said this morning:
Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat, so do and observe whatever they tell you, but not the works they do. For they preach, but do not practice. They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to move them with their finger. They do all their deeds to be seen by others. For they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long, and they love the place of honor at feasts and the best seats in the synagogues and greetings in the marketplaces and being called rabbi by others. But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all brothers. And call no man your father on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven. Neither be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Christ. The greatest among you shall be your servant. Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.
There are no phylacteries worn today amongst leftward-leaning Christian elites, but other than that, the app formerly known as Twitter provides many of the occasions for honorifics and self-exaltion. The habit of making sure the “Dr.” or the “Ph.D.” are listed in the profile surely falls under this rubric. But that is not really what caught my attention. No, it was the burdens and the bit about not being quite perfectly honest about what they do.
That is, they say they are deconstructing, or opening up the question, or showing you a way forward into some new, bright thing, but they are really only bending the path back, twisting it round so that you can’t see well enough to climb up that dark hill to grasp the feet of our naked, cursed, alienated Savior hanging on the tree. The work of “deconstruction” turns out to be the usual old-time religion, the one where you–not Jesus–you have to save the world.
What else is telling people that the Bible–that strange path that leads the reader, the weary, the sinful, the wretched relentlessly to the one place and the one Person who has the power to lift the burdens up and put them away forever–is somehow “not enough?” What does that even mean? Not enough for what? To pass a bio-chemical engineering course? To be loved and admired by all? Or to be saved unto eternal life?
Observe how the person who determines to be a spiritual expert is so often the person who gives you more work, more catastrophically impossible work, like stopping war or reversing climate change. In the old days, it was things like halting the spread of AIDS or solving poverty, or inventing affordable housing for the homeless. Those are all really bad things, why aren’t you fixing them? And yet, no mention is made of your own despair at being unable to know and feel the presence of God in your life, of the guilt you endure because you said something ugly to someone, or the shame you hide because you did something so foolish that there is no human remedy and you just have to live with the consequences. In the worst twist of all, you are actually supposed to suffer like Jesus as a way of bringing peace to the world, to be willing to die–for what? Yourself? Others? Global Warming?
No, Jesus died for you because you are a sinner. He wanted you to be restored to the relationship you were created and designed to enjoy. He wanted you to know him and be found in him. He wanted to cover you with his pinions. He wanted to rescue you from the arrow that flies by day. He wanted you to know what kind of love the Father has for you. He did it all himself. When you walk in the way of the cross, you are running after a kind, merciful Savior who does not condemn you or make you carry any burden you were not designed to bear.
So anyway, go to Church now.
And check out my substack if you like.