Matt Chandler Used ‘Deconstruction’ in a Way I Don’t Like—and That’s OK

Have you ever tried to read a Shakespeare play? Not the Sparknotes or contemporary paraphrased versions, but a well-preserved script of, say, King Lear or Hamlet in its original wording. Modern readers understandably furrow their brows when deciphering the meaning of the outdated words and phrases in these plays. But it’s not the wherefores or the prithees that trip us up; we can always reference a dictionary for those. Instead, it’s the more common, recognizable words that have simply changed meaning without asking our permission. Words like “brave” (handsome-looking), “retire” (to go to sleep), and “mate” (to confuse) can mislead us into thinking we’ve understood a line when we’ve really missed the point.

This is a tricky, but lovely, thing about language. It’s democratic, it’s evolutionary, and it has a lifespan. A word or phrase today doesn’t owe us the same meaning  it had a century ago, or even a week ago. And those who cling to old meanings, new meanings, or just personal favorite meanings usually impede the very discourse that these evolving words are servicing.

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I learned this lesson firsthand the other day watching Americans on Twitter go to war over a clip from a Matt Chandler sermon where he derided the trending phenomenon of “deconstruction” as a “sexy thing-to-do” and equated it with apostasy. Scores of people claim a personal process of “deconstruction” that really enriched their faith; plenty of others only hear the word from actual apostates who claim their journey out of faith began with that same thing.

The Debate over ‘Deconstruction’

So to no surprise, a megachurch pastor got dragged on Twitter for not watching his language carefully enough. (To the credit of his critics, he did also insinuate that apostasy confirms an invalid faith to begin with, but that’s a theological position he can defend for himself.) My interest was with the tug-of-war that surfaced over what “deconstruction” really means and whether it was appropriate to mention in the context of Chandler’s sermon that is so obviously responding to apostasy. Senior editor at Relevant Magazine, Tyler Huckabee, took it as an opportunity to remind everyone that “Deconstruction Doesn’t Mean Deconversion.” This article was well-timed, since the Relevant staff had released an initial article on that same topic just five days prior.

I admire the intentions of Huckabee et al. They seem to take a middle-of-the-road position on a fairly volatile term, offering compromise both to those undergoing “deconstruction” and to those fearing a mass exodus from the American church because of it. If anything, this looks like peacemaking front and center. But I’m sorry to say that it probably won’t have the effect the Relevant team is hoping for. A word like “deconstruction” in the minds of many of its apologists implies a subsequent “reconstruction” of better beliefs—Chandler himself made this exact point in 2014 on a preaching podcast. It’s half of a phenomenon that really edifies the Church within the lives of its members. But that same word, in the minds of many others, has only been used in conversations that criticize, belittle, slander, and decimate the church within the lives of its (ex-)members. Can we fault either group for developing an emotional attachment to a word with so much baggage—good or bad—within their silos?

I contend here that all the compelling arguments that Huckabee and others make about how we should use “deconstruction” will fail to reverse the divergence of this one word into two different terms. It’s becoming a contronym (a word that has two opposite meanings such as “to cleave” or “to dust”), and that makes it especially dangerous for discourse about one social phenomenon. When we say that swaths of young evangelicals, for example, are “deconstructing,” do we mean that they’re trying to get at the DNA of their faith, uprooting everything that shouldn’t have seeped in? Or do we mean they’re ripping the entire enterprise to shreds and leaving? The sad truth is that enough people are doing each of those things under the same banner to lay at least partial claim to the term.

But that’s what’s so silly—and serious—about this whole misunderstanding. Appealing to someone else’s proper or better use of a word will not jostle enough speakers into changing how they themselves understand it. It’s noble but futile. Huckabee rightly notes in his article that “deconstruction” was coined by French philosopher Jacques Derrida. Chandler, in a recent Instagram post, claims that he used the term with Derrida’s own definition in mind. (In fact,  Derrida developed several in the course of his writing, none of which pertained at all to questioning one’s theological upbringing. We have Richard Rohr and countless unnamed seminary professors to thank for that development.)

So now, readers of Relevant Magazine will be well-informed on the history of this new buzzword. But even if every single one brings this history lesson to their interlocutors, it won’t easily get everyone on the same page. Because in many cases, a term like this one has already acquired a meaning that won’t easily be undone–especially by an opponent in discourse.

The Biblical Approach to Word Wars

So how on earth do we navigate an honest and painful conversation about several simultaneous phenomena with identical labels, especially when talking to people who probably disagree with us on what’s best for the American church? Most evangelicals would probably look to the Bible and come up shy of an example to follow there. But actually, I think there are several that sneak by us. See, what’s happening with “deconstruction” is more common than you’d think. It’s a universal sociolinguistic phenomenon. And though our current issue is complex and emotionally charged with many competing voices, I believe it can be humbly navigated in a manner patterned after that of the biblical authors. This cannot be a final word on the debate, which needs to run its course, but hopefully it inspires an approach more likely to bring consensus than division. To see this approach, I’d like to  explore how the biblical authors handled arguments over an ambiguous and contentious word they used every day: ioudaios.

The Greek word ioudaios (“Jew,” or “Judean”) first appears in the Septuagint’s translation of Hebrew yehudi in 2 Kings 16:6, referring to inhabitants of the Southern Kingdom of Judah. At this time, the Northern Kingdom of Israel hadn’t yet fallen, and we can imagine there was frequent discussion about who among the two kingdoms were rightfully acting as the chosen people of Abraham’s God: “Israelites” and “Judeans,” respectively. Up until the fall of the Northern Kingdom, this term fought for precedence in referring to the chosen people of Abraham’s God. After the fall of the Northern Kingdom, though, it lost its main competitor.

Fast-forward through the return from exile, the rebuilding of the Temple, the invasion of the Greeks, the Maccabean revolt, and the Hasmonean dynasty. In all this time, ἰουδαῖος is widely used to describe anyone descended from Abraham, whether living in Judea proper or in the Diaspora. It takes on political, regional, ethnic, and religious facets of meaning.

That meaning then starts to fracture in the Roman period. With the fall of the Hasmoneans and their Hasidean faith practices, several new factions arose and competed for inheritance of the term ioudaios. Pharisees, Sadducees, and Essenes each had sweeping claims to make about what really defines a ioudaios, and their most adamant apologists tried to strip each other of the term. Depending on who was speaking, it could have any of the aforementioned facets of meaning, but now with a competitive braggadocio or derision too. 

All the while, the Samaritans had similar claims to a meaning of ioudaios (insofar as it connoted “chosenness” and “faithfulness to Abraham’s God”), but they didn’t want the term itself. This is the context in which we find Jesus of Nazareth speaking with a Samaritan woman. Jesus, born in Bethlehem of Judea, raised as a diasporic sojourner in Egypt, then a Galilean youth, must have heard ioudaios in very  different contexts all his life. But he is almost never recorded saying it. In fact, the Synoptic Gospels almost never use the term apart from the phrase “King of the Jews.” But John’s gospel makes use of it on every page. In almost every instance, the opponents, naysayers, and plotters against Jesus are called ioudaioi.

This shocking use of the term has led many to presume that John at some point became antisemitic. And for much of the last two thousand years, it inspired shoddy theological defenses for Christian antisemitism. But some scholars contend that this is rooted in a misreading of the term ioudaios in context. Eli Eyzenberg, author of The Jewish Gospel of John: Seeing Jesus, King of all Israel, asserts that John’s term was metonymy for “i) Judean authorities, and ii) affiliated members of this authority structure living outside of Judea.” In other words, John says ἰουδαῖοι where Matthew, Mark, or Luke would talk of scribes, lawyers, and Pharisees. Why might John do this? Because, “[t]he Gospel of John was initially written for a particular audience consisting of a variety of intra-Israelite groups, one of the main ones being the Samaritan Israelites.”

If Eyzenberg is correct, and there was a stigma around the term ioudaios for his audience, we should return to Christ’s own encounter with the Samaritan woman to see how he handles a stigmatized conversation. This will be one of the only two times he is ever recorded saying the word. When he asks her for water, the woman replies, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask for a drink from me, a woman of Samaria?” And John comments for the reader that “Jews have no dealings with Samaritans” (Jn 4:9).

Later in their conversation, the woman draws attention again to their differences: “Our fathers worshiped on this mountain, but you say that in Jerusalem is the place where people ought to worship” (Jn 4:20). In response to this, Jesus offers his only commentary on the Jews: “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father. You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews.” We cannot suppose that Jesus or John had the scribes, lawyers, and Pharisees in mind here—even if that was the more common use within their silo. Rather, Jesus speaks to the woman on her own terms, and brings good news through them. Thanks to this conversation, we might imagine that the stigma attached to ioudaios lessened, or even flipped, for this woman, as she began to experience her own salvation through a Jew.

Take a few other examples from Paul. At times, the term is primarily ethnic, contrasted with “Greek” (hellenes) or the “nations” (ethne). At other times, it is primarily religious, contrasted with the new Christians. These different uses are most notable in Romans and Galatians. Curiously, Paul upholds ioudaios as an extremely important descriptor for both his brethren and opponents in Romans, and even qualifies it with his own theological convictions in 2:29. But in Galatians, he almost seems to disparage the term as a divisive one, because for his audience, it was (2:13–15 and 3:28).

Other texts contemporary with the New Testament confirm that, depending on who’s speaking, the term ioudaios had several—at times, antithetical—meanings. But the New Testament authors do not seem to  abandon it or forcibly define it for their interlocutors to streamline dialogue. They used it wisely, often bending to the presumptions of their audiences to establish agreement on some deeper, more important idea than the superficial meaning of a word. This might be a good model for how we approach divisive, ambiguous terms in the throes of public discourse today. In fact, it’s a model that aligns with Paul’s exhortation in 2 Timothy 2:14: “Remind them of these things, and charge them before God not to quarrel about words, which does no good, but only ruins the hearers.”

Again, I’m a firm believer that language is democratic. It follows the will of the people who use it. But when enough people take language in different directions, we get equivocal terms like these. Honest observers have to accept that these equivocal terms will be used in ways we don’t personally like. And if we want to talk to anyone outside of our silos, then like the biblical authors we need to be willing to speak in our interlocutors’ terms, even if briefly and superficially. Because through that, we might come to a substantive consensus on ideas, rather than the words chosen to represent them. And out of that consensus we may be able to find new, better verbiage going forward.

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