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Jacques Derrida’s philosophy of deconstruction has become the foundation of many postmodern ideas today. Deconstruction centers on the idea that texts contain oppositional relationships, where one part is dominant over and entirely different than another (e.g., male/female). It is the deconstructionist’s goal to examine those binary oppositions and overthrow them. However, this philosophy is nothing new; elements of it are found even in the account of the Fall in Genesis 3. Deconstruction has found its way into the thinking of many Bible scholars and Christian leaders today.
The unbelieving world continues to advance its agenda using academia as a platform. In this series, the influence that various postmodern philosophies have had on many churches, Christian colleges, and seminaries is being fleshed out and discussed. Biblical hermeneutics especially has been negatively affected by postmodernism, as a plain reading of Scripture is challenged regularly by some leading Bible scholars using postmodern principles of understanding the text. Robertson McQuilkin, former president of Columbia International University, and Bradford Mullen, a professor at Columbia Biblical Seminary, summed up the result of postmodernism when taken to its logical extreme—and it should be alarming to us all:
The result is radical relativism. The role of the interpreter, the knowing subject, is being redefined not merely for how meaning is to be understood and communicated but actually for how the interpreter participates in the creation of meaning and even, for some, the creation of whatever reality there is. . . . Added to these complications is the fact that postmodernism, as most describe it, is an antiphilosophy, radically relativistic, holding no creed and espousing no particular methodology.1
As mentioned in the earlier articles in this series, those who espouse a postmodern worldview are not seeking to establish a world free from all morality. In a recent interview, Michael De Dora, the director of the Office of Public Policy at the Center for Inquiry and a professing atheist, said, “Each human being has the duty and the obligation to treat their fellow creatures as best and as nicely as possible.”2 De Dora, logically, should not be able to claim that humans have any “duty” to be even the least bit moral, because his worldview technically does not account for any type of absolute morality. However, he and others who do not share a biblical worldview still hold to some sort of moral code (further evidence of how God has revealed Himself to us per Romans 1).
McQuilkin and Mullen’s statement that postmodernism has “no particular methodology,” in the formal sense, is true. Deconstruction, the theory this article is examining, does not claim to be a methodology. However, the thought behind many of the theories and ideas in postmodernism centers on a specific theme: injustice. But it is not “injustice” based on scriptural moral codes; rather, the injustice is defined purely by what society and individuals in that society see as just or unjust. Literally, man is left to create, or “construct,” the meaning of justice.
How is this carried out? In the process of interpreting Scripture, those who espouse a postmodern view often read Scripture not to discover what it says, but to either point out the injustices present (as a reason why the Bible should not be trusted) and/or to make the Bible stand for something it does not (often to justify a sinful behavior). Whether or not that was ever the goal of deconstruction, what this theory did was set the stage for the serious questioning of morality, gender roles, and authority in Scripture.
Jacques Derrida (1930–2004) was the founder of deconstruction. Derrida was born in Algeria and studied philosophy in Paris. He introduced his philosophy in three books, all published in 1967: Writing and Difference, Speech and Phenomena, and Of Grammatology. It is in these works that he uses the word “deconstruction,” and it remains today as a description of his philosophy.3
Like any philosophy, Derridean deconstruction is complex and nuanced, far too much to give it a full treatment here. However, deconstruction was the basis of some later theories, particularly gender theory, which makes it worth examining. Deconstruction primarily looks at relationships between opposing words or ideas, highlights the injustices present, and attempts to “overturn” them. Derrida presents some exceptions to this rule of overturning authority structures, particularly in the area of justice.4 Following that, deconstruction criticizes those relationships and examines their differences. The concept of “difference” (différance, as Derrida wrote) is very important in deconstruction.
Derrida’s explanation of “the principle of difference” may be confusing to those unfamiliar with his terminology, so I will explain it below. He wrote the following:
This principle compels us not only not to privilege one substance—here the phonic, so called temporal, substance—while excluding another—for example, the graphic, so called spatial, substance—but even to consider every process of signification as a formal play of difference. That is, of traces.5
While Derrida was originally dealing with language in this passage, he has highlighted a common topic in postmodern works: the tendency of man to privilege one person/trait/position to the detriment or exclusion of another. Some theorists propose that the thing excluded is “Other”; that is, those doing the excluding somehow fear that thing or have a strong desire for power and want to subordinate the Other. A classic example of this is seen when the term homophobic is applied to all those who state that homosexual behavior is sinful.
The primary goal of deconstruction is to examine binary oppositions (i.e., a relationship between two parts that are opposite in meaning) and contrast their differences. These terms are typically considered mutually exclusive (e.g., man and woman) and in the Western mindset, there is often an authority relationship associated with them.
The deconstructionist will look at a binary opposition, such as husband and wife, and see not a biblically ordained relationship between coequals with certain assigned roles and responsibilities, but rather a situation where one person (e.g., the wife) is being “subordinated” by another (e.g., the husband) because one truth (e.g., Scripture) is being held up in authority over all other claims. Since this appears to be an injustice to the deconstructionist, he would seek to “deconstruct” that binary, which would likely consist of redefining the categories and terms surrounding the marriage relationship, leading to a “liberation” of women from the supposed shackles of biblical authority.
While the above example is admittedly simplistic, it well demonstrates where theorists have taken postmodern thought. Everything comes down to social structures and who is being oppressed. Scholars can take the idea of deconstruction and dress it up with technical terms and definitions, but it still looks all too familiar. In fact, there are even elements of the thinking behind deconstruction present in the account of the Fall.
Scripture tells us that man’s natural bent is toward sin and deceit—he is rebellious in his very nature:
The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked; who can know it? (Jeremiah 17:9)
When Adam and Eve ate from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, their choice resulted in sin, death, disease, and suffering coming into the world. A natural consequence of that was a darkening of the mind, so that man does evil more readily than he does good.
Scripture presents some binary oppositions that cannot be deconstructed without consequence. In the Genesis account alone, there are at least three binary oppositions: God/man, good/evil, and male/female. Would deconstruction challenge these? Absolutely.
Moving from the last to the first, the male/female binary is challenged through feminist, queer, and gender theories on a regular basis in both secular and Christian institutions. Egalitarian Bible scholars like Gilbert Bilezikian reinterpret the plain meaning of Scripture regularly in an effort to find support for their view that there is no distinction between men and women when it comes to gender roles. Furthermore, organizations like Christians for Biblical Equality (C.B.E.) play the postmodern language game by branding their egalitarian ideas as “biblical equality,” thus implying that the conservative Christian perspective (called complementarianism) is inherently unequal and unjust.6 (These arguments will be discussed in more detail in a forthcoming article.)
Secondly, man in his sinfulness has been pushing the boundaries on good and evil since the Fall. In fact, Scripture comments on the danger of embracing evil over good:
Woe to those who call evil good, and good evil; who put darkness for light, and light for darkness; who put bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter! (Isaiah 5:20)
Deconstruction’s subtle influence on society’s thinking can be seen in the acceptance of homosexual behavior and same-sex marriage, particularly in the church. Some Christian leaders are either ambiguous about whether homosexual behavior is sinful, or they support homosexuality outright.
For instance, Brian McLaren, a former pastor and a self-proclaimed “public theologian,” recently affirmed his son’s “marriage” to his same-sex partner and even performed a “commitment ceremony” between them.7 When he was interviewed about his son’s homosexuality, McLaren explained how he came to see homosexual behavior as acceptable:
I was a good kid, I believed what I'd been told. And as a pastor, I started having gay people come out to me and what became clearer and clearer to me is that their experience was not explained by the theology I inherited. . . . And that it would be unjust to continue to uphold what I'd been taught. Maybe I could say it like this: My call to love God and love my neighbor was in conflict with what I'd been taught the Bible required me to say and do.8
Additionally, McLaren has published a number of writings on homosexuality, but the following quote (written in response to a home schooling mother) from his website is telling:
I think that both gay and straight folks have two moral options—celibacy and fidelity in the context of a committed relationship. (I'd call it marriage, but others would rather not call it that for gay folks.) . . . I'd make sure to welcome gay folks in our home so our kids can get to know them as family friends. I'd tell them how some people tease and make fun of gay people, and I'd urge them always to stand up for people who get teased . . . because God loves everyone and wants everyone to be safe and respected.9
Sadly, McLaren does identify himself as a postmodernist, and his response above fits well within the postmodern worldview. He does not take the words of Scripture literally when homosexual behavior is condemned; rather, he redefines the biblical definition of love. First Corinthians 13:5 tells us that love “does not seek its own,” meaning that those who are truly loving seek the best for others. McLaren’s embrace of homosexual behavior, however, is the exact opposite of the biblical definition of love.
Encouraging others to continue in sin is not seeking the best for them; rather, it is a hateful and neglectful disposition toward one’s neighbor. For example, imagine that your neighbor’s house is on fire. Would you alert him to it? Or would you refuse to tell him, claiming that it would not be loving because it might hurt his feelings or upset him? So it is with McLaren’s view of homosexuality. Believers have a responsibility to kindly speak truth into the lives of others. McLaren's refusal to speak the truth about homosexual behavior is unloving and unhelpful to those lost in that lifestyle
McLaren, like numerous others in the church, has constructed a new meaning for love, one that fits better with his own view of what is just and unjust. Operating on that definition, he has deconstructed the biblical definition of good and evil and exchanged the truth for a lie.
Finally, the God/man relationship was challenged in the Garden of Eden. God is not man, and man is not God; and insofar as authority is concerned, without God, man does not exist. Satan, however, as the serpent in the Garden of Eden, challenged this relationship:
Now the serpent was more cunning than any beast of the field which the Lord God had made. And he said to the woman, “Has God indeed said, ‘You shall not eat of every tree of the garden’?” (Genesis 3:1)
After leveling that first criticism of the God/man relationship, the serpent continues, “For God knows that in the day you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil” (Genesis 3:5). Essentially, the serpent has promised that Eve could cross that boundary and become “like God.” The serpent performed the first deconstruction in the garden, Adam and Eve disobeyed God in a bid for autonomy, and the consequences are still felt today.
In our culture, the authority of God’s Word continues to be eroded as people exchange good for evil and light for dark. The impact of worldly philosophies such as Jacques Derrida’s deconstruction is felt even now as new ideas are presented, founded not on the Bible, but on deconstruction, relativism, and atheism. Undoubtedly, Derrida was a highly intelligent and gifted man, but his contribution to philosophy has been utilized to oppose the clear teachings of Scripture. The similarities between Satan’s attack on God’s authority and the deconstructionist critique of the Bible’s authority today are uncanny.
When deconstruction enters the arena of biblical interpretation, the plain meaning of Scripture is easily lost. As believers, our foundation when examining any philosophical system must be the ultimate truth found in the pages of God’s Word. The Creator has revealed Himself through Scripture—and Christians have a responsibility to stand against that slippery slope of doubting any part of what God has said.