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How I stopped worrying and learned to love Deconstructionism

deconstructivist building

During one “prayer group,” at my fundamentalist college, a woman asked us to pray for an assignment she was working on called (commence boom-y announcer voice) “The Annotated Bibliography!” She was incredibly frustrated with it, called it a stupid, pointless waste of time, but it was an assignment that required a lot of time and and an exacting, precise level of dedication. When I took Advanced Grammar and Bibliography, I was handed the same assignment, and I realized the hellish nature of what she had been describing. The instructions for the assignment were four pages long, 10 pt font, single spaced. When the professor handed it out, she explained that the assignment, if done well, would take a minimum of forty hours’ work.

And what was this assignment you asked? Reading dictionaries and usage manuals.

Not just reading, really– we also had to evaluate them based on a very specific set of criteria. My professor explained the rationale thusly:

It may seem obvious, but the Bible was given to us in the form of language; [H]e also promised to preserve [H]is [W]ord, so in order to preserve [H]is [W]ord effectively, [H]e was required to preserve all words, in general. That is why it is every Christian’s duty to use language correctly to the best of their ability. If language were allowed to lose meaning and clarity, then we would lose the ability to read Scripture properly.

And yes, to my everlasting shame, I bought this explanation hook, line, and sinker. I even managed to end up in an argument with several of my graduate students my first year, for what are now obvious reasons. It was a humiliating conversation for me, simply because the gaping holes in the argument were glaringly obvious to my fellow graduate students, but not to me. To me, this line of reasoning was solid– unshakable even. I even went up to my professor after the class was over and thanked her for showing this to me. She hugged me and told me she was glad I’d understood the “true purpose of class” because “so few” did.

I completely missed the fact that this argument can only be effective when it is sitting on top of a huge ideological web– a web so interwoven that it’s impossible to talk about it to another human being coherently. To a sane person, this argument leads to “bad grammar” = “sin” which is . . . ridiculous. It also cannot function in a world of change. Cultures progresses, adapts, accommodates– and language changes with it. Meanings of words change; we create new words as we need them. Our language describes the world we live in, and it can do nothing else.

The fundamentalist point of view is also the ideological enemy of anything remotely post-modern or deconstructionist. Deconstructionism, to fundamentalist educators, represents some of the worst evil that can possibly exist. Deconstructionism is the tool of Satan, and he has used it to destroy people’s lives and bring nations to their knees. Every time I heard it discussed while I was in college, it was accompanied by a call for students to defend Absolute Truth at all costs. As long as we had Absolute Truth, we could not be “taken unawares” by post-modernism or deconstructionism or moral relativism. The Bible, as long as we believe in Absolute Truth, is utterly impervious to any of these things.

My first semester in grad school, I enrolled in Advanced Literary Criticism. It was a difficult class to adjust to, because I had no experience in literary theory or literary criticism. I’d never even heard those words before– and for someone who studied English in college, this is a massive oversight. It’s like a nursing major not studying anatomy– it’s that important. My professor was throwing words and terms around that I had zero context for, so the first few weeks, when we were studying phenomenology, I struggled mightily. The second area of literary theory we studied was Deconstructionism, and after my professor explained how it is performed on a text, he asked us to deconstruct Genesis 3:1-7.

I went into the assignment with confidence, but also not quite sure how I was supposed to do the assignment. It’s theĀ Bible. It can’t be deconstructed.

After I finished the assignment, I was in tears. Horrified. Dismayed. And suddenly, on very shaky ground philosophically. Deconstructing the passage had been ridiculously easy. Child’s play. The only things that deconstructionism, as a theory, does is help the reader identify binaries in the text. It’s not that complicated once you start doing it. And once you find the binaries, you identify the tension between the opposites in the text.

The funny thing is– applying deconstructionism didn’t change anything about that passage. It revealed binaries and tensions, that’s all. It revealed the same kinds of binaries and tensions that exist in any piece of writing ever recorded on stone, or paper, or animal skin. Binaries, on a textual level, don’t point to inherent contradictions in the text. Deconstructionism’s purpose as a literary theory is just another tool– it’s just another way to look at writing and language and figure out what it means– or doesn’t mean. Ultimately, it is a more honest way of approaching a text, because the basic premise of deconstructionism is: the reader doesn’t understand what this means.

That’s why fundamentalists can’t exist in a world where meaning in language is a fuzzy, fluid thing. If the meaning of a text is fluid, it cannot be applied universally to Every Single Last Human Being on the Whole Planet for All of Time. Admitting that what a passage means to one person may not be what it means to another completely destroys fundamentalism. They cannot be flexible– everything about their approach to faith is rigid and unyielding– being “steadfast in the faith” (i.e.: purposely blind to other points of view) is the very essentialness of what being a fundamentalist is. If there is not one meaning–their meaning–then they cannot be the Only Authority on the Interpretation of Scripture. They cannot control your life with their legalistic, Pharisaical, back-breaking religion. They lose their basis for teaching doctrine.

In short– post-modernism and Deconstructionism rebuilt my faith–because it allowed me the liberty and freedom that Christ promised.

Bet you didn’t see that one coming, didja, oh ye fundamentalist college?

ps. as an interesting side note, you can’t identify as many binaries in more modern translations of the Bible, like the English Standard, that you can in the King James. Curious.