Deconstruction is not the Problem: Why Matt Chandler Gets it Wrong

“You and I are in a day and age where deconstruction and the turning away from and leaving the faith has become some sort of sexy thing to do. I contend that if you ever experience the grace and mercy of Jesus Christ actually, that that’s really impossible to deconstruct from…To receive the mercy of God in your soul is to forever be changed…you can’t walk away.”

In this now viral video from August 2021, Matt Chandler attempts to answer a big question, “Are You a Christian?” becoming yet the latest prominent Evangelical to cause a stir around religious deconstruction, i.e.,  the act of taking apart one’s beliefs for the purpose of critical examination. Jonathan Leeman recently decried the “growing deconstruction project” aimed at evangelical doctrine (which he equates to “ sound doctrine” named in 1 Timothy and Titus). His article was tweeted out by Colin Smothers, Executive Director at the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, and subsequently by Southern Baptist scholar and CBMW President Denny Burk.

Named as ambassadors of deconstruction were scholars David Gushee, Jacob Alan Cook, Jemar Tisby, Kristin DuMez, Beth Barr, Dante Stewart, Andrew Whitehead, and Samuel Perry, representing a wide swath of varying disciplines, methodologies, and interests.

Chandler, a well-known conservative Reformed scholar, almost certainly makes his claim – that a faith built upon an encounter with Jesus Christ is not something that can be deconstructed – upon one of five-point Calvinism’s foundational doctrines: the belief that God’s grace is irresistible. Once God’s grace is extended to you, the doctrine goes, you have no choice but to accept and remain in the faith. God’s decision to reach out to you cannot be undone, reneged upon, or thwarted for God is sovereign and his will, immutable. Historically, Chandler stands in a long-line of accepted Reformed teaching and teachers. 

However, there are three significant issues with Chandler’s claim: 1) a fundamental misunderstanding of real-world deconstruction, 2) the moral damage of his comments in this historical moment, and 3) the biblical witness concerning the effect of Jesus’ life and ministry upon those he encounters. Let’s take a closer look at these three issues.

Deconstruction Follows Devastation

Deconstruction is not a neutral category for Chandler. Later in the sermon linked above, he shares that he and the church elders projected pictures of the top leaders of the Taliban and prayed that the Holy Spirit would “rot out from under them what they grew up learning…to disrupt and disunify what demons hold together” They prayed these two Taliban leaders’ beliefs would be pulled apart…that they would be deconstructed. Deconstruction for Chandler, then, is a wrecking ball used to level the beliefs of their enemies, but for many of us, undergoing our own deconstruction, Chandler’s description is off. For us, Deconstruction is not the wrecking ball that destroys a house of faith built (for many) over decades. Deconstruction is the unchosen task set before us after the wrecking ball has done its work and we are left with the impossible task of making those ruins habitable again.

Upon the foundation of gospel , we built into the walls tried-and-true stories and beliefs: a Creator who freely enters into relationship with men and women, a God who frees the enslaved, a Teacher who sends prophets and a Son to show us the paths of righteousness and justice, and a Redeemer who destroys the powers of this world in his resurrection. All of this under the protection of a God who showed up time and again. But, no matter how well built this house was, it could not stop the wrecking ball’s momentum. On the first pass, we lost the wall of egalitarianism as women were subjugated. One another pass, the wall built in praise to the Redeemer who destroyed worldly power was obliterated as we watched religious authorities use, and be used by, immoral politicians, and others stay silent as it happened.  In the final pass, we watch the walls of liberation and justice crumble as they were subjected to the force of white supremacy and Christian nationalism time and again.

You can’t build on cattywampus walls and a rackshamble foundation, so we were left to take down the pieces of what was left. After the wrecking ball comes through, the best you can do is salvage whatever memories and usable materials you can. Religious Deconstruction follows Spiritual Devastation that you did not plan or ask for.

That’s how religious deconstruction works, at least for many of us, and contrary to what Chandler, and others like him think, there is nothing sexy about sifting through this rubble. It’s not about leaving the faith, but sifting through the ruins of a faith that we, ourselves, did not destroy. No, the destruction was the work of others committed to keeping the powerful in power even if it meant the rest of us were left with dust, languishing, and labor with no idea of what, if anything, might be built in that place where our faith once dwelt. Deconstruction is not a trendy choice; it’s a survival technique.

Salt in the Wound

And with each comment like Chandler’s – which denies even the possibility of a prior relationship with God for those of us enduring deconstruction – we are left again to the callous whims of religious authority. My guess is Chandler would consider the pain and longing of deconstruction the natural consequence of our the heresy (from the Greek hairesis, meaning choice) of reducing Christianity “to a moral code.” Interestingly, following Christ has never been just a moral code for me. Following Christ – even now in the midst of deconstructing – has always been at the core of my faith, and I suspect that is the case for many others. Others I know deconstructing their faith aren’t doing it because they treated their faith too lightly, but because they took it too seriously. Too seriously to reconcile who they knew God to be in Jesus Christ with the actions of self-described Christians and their institutions.

Chandler’s ideological commitments prevent him from seeing that what led many to deconstruct was the trauma of that disjuncture. Even a quick look at the list of scholars in the conservative crossheirs reveals people who have been personally hurt, hounded, or oppressed by the patriarchy, white supremacy, and ungodly political syncretism that have plagued Christianity for centuries. Their deconstructive critiques, are not the shrewd movements of bad actors exploiting trends for personal gain, but honest scholarship and stories that demand change if we are to make Christianity look more like Christ by those who have been personally aggrieved. To reduce the efforts of the hurt and marginalized to an imagined relationship with Jesus, instead of as the fruit of a fidelity to God and neighbor is morally abhorrent and spiritually abusive.

To Know Jesus is to Know Deconstruction

Finally, I have no idea, biblically speaking, where Chandler gets the idea that “if you ever experience the grace and mercy of Jesus Christ,” deconstruction is impossible. Experiencing the grace and mercy of Jesus Christ in fact demanded deconstruction throughout the gospels. Chandler even mentions one of the most famous instances: the sermon on the mount, with Jesus saying to the crowds over and again, “you have heard it said…but I say unto you…” (Matthew 5). Jesus was calling into question the received religious teaching of the day, demanding a harder look at what constituted righteousness. They were taught divorce was permissible, but Jesus says that even unenacted lust is sinful. They were taught to take an eye for an eye, but Jesus tells them to turn the other cheek. They were taught to hate their enemies, but Jesus says to pray for them. Jesus is deconstructing their faith one teaching at a time. 

And can we forget his suggestion to the Pharisees to re-read the scriptures and rethink the relationship between people and the Sabbath (Mark 2:23-28). Pilate’s question to Jesus “What is truth?” shows he had even one of the most powerful men in Rome questioning what he thought he knew to be true (John 18:38). The centurion, the steward of the state religion who guards Jesus the insurrectionist comes to see him as something much more as he dies and creation groans: “Truly this man was the Son of God!” (Matthew 27:54).  Most apropos to Chandler’s claim may be the question Jesus poses to the disciples “Who do you say I am?”(Luke 9:20). Even disciples who had been with him for some time had (and I would argue even today, have) their beliefs questioned and reforged by none other than Christ himself. If scripture is to be believed, deconstruction is not what happens when you choose to turn your back on Jesus, but inevitably what happens when his grace and mercy touch your life, if only for a moment.

Chandler, Leeman, Smothers and Burke only prove the point that there is much to deconstruct in the modern, American iteration of “the church.” And it would be that task to which I would implore each of them instead of blaming those deconstructing for the damage that the powerful, like Chandler, have visited upon the unsuspecting. If we are to pick up the pieces of what the religious power-mongers have left us, if we are to lead morally, and be formed biblically, the we must undertake the task of deconstruction in earnest.

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