On Deconstruction and “Reconstruction”

I’ve spent a long time in deconstruction circles. I was deconstructing before it was cool. I was deconstructing before deconstruction was even a thing. In some ways, I still am.

I won’t belabor points I’ve already made elsewhere about faith deconstruction not being about Jacques Derida and how it’s hard to guide somebody else through a place when they already know the maps are wrong.

But for this post, I think it’s important to say (repeat) straight from the get-go that I get twitchy every time somebody acts as though the reconstruction of one’s deconstructed faith is God’s intended outcome of deconstruction, as though it’s where everybody is supposed to end up.

You still believe in everything you believed in before; you just have better reasons, or you’ve let go and let (somebody else’s idea of) God.

I’m not okay with that. I’ve said in the link above that deconstruction is a wilderness and a desert and everybody comes out in different places (yes, that’s the same link).

But I was talking to a friend today about the whole “reconstruction” idea, because I have been building.

I’ve been wrestling with something (I don’t think I’ve posted about it, but maybe I have), and it’s an idea that I pulled from Matthew Paul Turner and Rachel Held Evans about not just tearing down, not just saying “Evangelicalism bad!” (though to be clear, a lot of stuff in evangelicalism is bad, but I’ve written about that elsewhere) but also about… what are we going to teach our kids about faith?

So this isn’t about reconstruction in the sense of rebuilding something that was there again the same way. It’s about building something new in its place.

To be clear, if you’ve come out of the woods of deconstruction in a place of atheism or agnosticism or some other religion besides Christianity, or a different branch of Christianity has become home for you in a sense that it really is home and doesn’t still feel kind of strange or off, and it’s resolved your concerns, at least as best you think they can be resolved, if you think they should be; if that’s what makes sense for you and is giving your life whatever meaning you think it can, wonderful.

If you’re still lost in the woods and don’t trust that any of the maps are right, stay there as long as you need to in order to find your way to somewhere that feels true. I’m not going to try to drag you out, and I don’t have any magic boxes that will teleport you out. No one does. Sorry. That’s not how this works.

This is for those of us who have found ourselves on the edge of the wood in a patch of good land.

And it’s not a guide so much as an idea:

I don’t think faith reconstruction is, or should ever be, about reconstructing things the way they were.

You left for a reason. You didn’t walk away from your faith community because it was inconvenient, or because it was too difficult to obey your truth, or because your faith wasn’t real, or because it really just only needed a few minor tweaks.

You left – and so did I – because it was rotten at its inerrant core, because it was a house of cards waiting to collapse on itself, and because you realized it had caused unfathomable harm, not just to you but to others.

You can’t reconstruct that. And you shouldn’t. It’s dangerous, unhealthy, and harmful.

To borrow from Paul in Galatians 2:18, “But if I build up again the very things that I once tore down, then I demonstrate that I am a transgressor.”

In my “reconstruction” conversation with my friend today, I said that maybe if reconstruction was reconstruction in the post-civil-war-south sense, or at least how it was supposed to be, that might be okay.

I’m not a historian and I don’t really want to look it up because I’m not super concerned about it, so the analogy might be completely flawed, but from what I remember, when the USA rebuilt the south, it was (supposed to be) rebuilt in ways that completely rearranged how society worked.

People who had formerly been enslaved were granted the right to vote at the point of a gun and promised 40 acres and a mule. (That check came back insufficient funds, to quote MLK, but it was promised).

The goal of that reconstruction wasn’t to leave the same people and ideas in power. It wasn’t to make sure white people kept running stuff, or to return all the formerly enslaved people to the plantations where they had been enslaved.

It was not to put Jefferson Davis back in charge, to rebuild the armies of the southern states so they could go to war again and the south could rise again and fight for States Rights To Keep Owning Other People.

No, they decided those things were Bad, and that was not how reconstruction was going to go.

The way things were reconstructed was (supposed to be) a way that kept certain elements that were core – life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, I guess – but also a way that fundamentally changed the social order.

I realize that not only is that illustration not the way it happened, it may not be the way it was even supposed to have happened. But you get the idea.

We can’t go back to the place we came from. We’ve wandered around in these woods for a long time, but there’s a clearing here. We’ve been here a while and we’ve decided we’d like to stay, actually. We’d like to stay and build something here.

Something that has elements of the place we came from – the love and goodness of God; grace, scripture, some of our favorite songs and hymns that shaped us into who we’ve become

We don’t want to build in the authoritarianism, the hellfire and damnation, the penal substitutionary atonement, etc.

Which is good because we don’t want that stuff anyway. No more rickety floorboards, lava in the basement, or razorblade saws in the kitchen walls.

And there’s some good stuff we found on our way through the woods – maybe we’re bold enough to say God revealed it to us through the voices of the Other – that we’d like to integrate, too – stuff about social justice and pacifism and universalism and the like.

There are some churches nearby that we’ve visited, and maybe we’re not fully there, but they seem safe. Safe springs to drink from the water of life; safe construction materials we might use to reconstruct our faith (in the post-civil-war-intention sense).

So, if you’re on this journey and have been slowly reconstructing (not rebuilding the same way!), maybe this blog post will help give you language for what that’s like. It has for me.

MAY GOD BLESS YOU with discomfort,
at easy answers, half-truths,
and superficial relationships
so that you may live
deep within your heart.

May God bless you with anger
at injustice, oppression,
and exploitation of people,
so that you may work for
justice, freedom and peace.

May God bless you with tears,
to shed for those who suffer pain,
rejection, hunger, and war,
so that you may reach out your hand
to comfort them and
to turn their pain to joy.

And may God bless you
with enough foolishness
to believe that you can
make a difference in the world,
so that you can do
what others claim cannot be done,
to bring justice and kindness
to all our children and the poor.


A Non-Traditional Blessing, by  Sister Ruth Marlene Fox, OSB.

A Few Less-Cynical Thoughts about the #AsburyRevival from a Progressive Christian Pastor

In my experience, God is incredibly, even frustratingly generous when people are looking to experience God’s presence.

People who have absolutely no business experiencing the love of God experience the love of God.

This is a post about what has been branded “The Asbury Revival.” If you haven’t heard about it or don’t know what’s going on, this link is as good a summary as any. I didn’t think I had any opinions about it, but then I started thinking about it and apparently do I ever.

1. Something is clearly happening. That’s obvious.

2. That’s not the same thing as “God started a revival there.”

3. But a good number of people there are clearly having experiences that they are identifying as being from God. I have no snarky opinions about that.

4. That’s not the same thing as not having snarky opinions about when people try to manufacture “revival.” I have lots of snarky opinions about that.

But by the accounts I’ve read, this isn’t that. People are having genuine experiences that do not appear to have been manufactured by people with fancy lighting equipment or fancy emotional manipulation about hellfire and damnation. I don’t know for sure if that’s true, but that’s what I’ve heard.

Questions literally nobody asked

Q. But what about a moral transformation? Is this a real revival if there’s no moral transformation?

A. As someone who’s

  • fairly cynical about even the whole IDEA of “revival,” and
  • has some very strong, cynical opinions about previous events that were branded as revivals, and
  • has exactly no stock in the whether previous revivals were of any value whatever,

I’m not the least bit interested in doing any gatekeeping of whether what’s going on at Asbury “counts as a revival” or not based on the social justice outcome or lack thereof, or any other criteria.

I don’t know if it is a revival, and I don’t have an opinion about that. Because I don’t care.

Q. So you don’t think this is from God?

A. I didn’t say that. I think these people at Asbury, or at least many of them, are having a genuine experience of the presence of God.

From personal experience, I suspect there are some there not having any experience of the presence of God whatsoever who wish they were, and maybe a few others aren’t having any experience of the presence of God and are perhaps faking it for clout, but I have no way of proving whether that’s true, and those experiences aren’t the experience I’m particularly interested in for the purposes of this blog anyway.

But in my experience, God is incredibly, even frustratingly generous when people are looking to experience God’s presence.

People who have absolutely no business experiencing the love of God experience the love of God.

People with terrible theology feel validated by these experiences, and people, (uh, me), who had these experiences when they had more deficient and exclusionary theology end up very confused because it seems like that experience of something good from God while believing something harmful somehow either

(a) validates those harmful beliefs, or
(b) means the experience of something good from God wasn’t real.

I don’t think either of those is the case.

I think of it like this: I have two kids. I love my kids a lot. They also frustrate me a lot, and do things to each other that hurts each other.

But if they are up for snuggles, I am up for snuggles. And while I do hope their security in my love will help teach them to be more loving and kind to one another, my snuggles are not contingent on that.

In the same way, I hope that this experience people are having at Asbury will lead them to be kinder, more just people who love God and others more and take action to live out God’s kin-dom on earth as in heaven, but if it doesn’t lead to those things, I don’t think that means their experience of the presence of God wasn’t real.

If we had to be right about everything and doing everything right for God to connect with us, nobody would have ever experienced the presence of God at all, least of all me.

While Mary Slept: A story for Christmas Eve

By David Schell
Originally written for the Christmas Eve service at Fairplain Presbyterian Church in Benton Harbor, Michigan, and originally read in the Christmas Day Special Message.

Joseph stood over the manger looking at his baby boy. Well, his in every sense but one.

After all the fussing over him from his Bethlehem family, Aunt Elizabeth had finally chased them all to bed and given him and Mary a moment’s peace – a moment that Mary used to crash very hard into a dreamless sleep on the bed of straw some niece or nephew had made when he wasn’t paying attention.

It was late. How late, he didn’t know, but it seemed the sun had set hours ago.

He was glad his cousin had cleaned up all the blood. He was so exhausted from supporting Mary all night he wasn’t sure he would have been up for it now.

He knew he should have been adoring, but his mind wandered. Not to the birth, or the surprise of the placenta coming after, or how bloody the baby looked when he came out until they cleaned him up with some cloths, or how the baby hadn’t cried at all – not until the midwife hit him to clear his lungs, and then the little Lord Jesus lots of crying he made, until the midwife placed him on Mary’s chest and he wiggled up to a breast for his first tiny meal..

No, Joseph’s mind was somewhere much more mundane and not very adoring at all.

He was thinking about where *his* next meal would come from.

More to the point, he was thinking about the job offer his cousin Saul had given him, the gig building the wooden frame for a new stone bridge the Romans were maybe or maybe not going to build. It wasn’t a sure thing, and who knew what he’d do after.

Cursed census. It had made him miss a really good job to have to be out of town this long, and, sure, they were understanding about it, but the work had been drying up some in Nazareth. He’d had to take jobs further and further away from home, which was all fine enough when he was a single man and could sleep in his robe wherever was warm and dry, but now – he looked over at his sleeping new wife and their – her – finally sleeping firstborn son, and somehow managed to feel both love and worry at the same time.

No, the cold hard ground would not do for them. He had promised her father he would care for them properly, but he wouldn’t have dreamed of not doing it even if he hadn’t promised.

The baby in the manger woke up and started fussing. Joseph, still exhausted, looked over at his new wife and scooped Jesus up.

It was strange. Before he had always been awkward around babies, uncomfortable holding them, but this one was different. Not because it was holy, but because it was his – again, asterisk – and because after those hours of labor Mary needed all the sleep she could get.

He was still crying. He tried walking around, but this seemed to only make him angrier.

Mary stirred and a female voice from further inside the house whispered loudly, “BURP THE BABY!”

“What?” He whispered loudly back.


Right. That was something they had told him how to do. He was definitely a grown adult and could do that.

He cautiously held baby Jesus to him, held his mouth over a cloth for burping, and tentatively tapped his back.

His Aunt Ruth appeared in the dark.

“A little harder than that, Joe,” she half-whispered. She always called him Joe. He tapped a little harder.

Ruth gestured that he should hit harder. He did, and was rewarded with a puddle of partially digested milk on the shoulder of his robe, and a silent baby.

“Good job,” Ruth said, and went back to bed.

He could not have known he was far from the first and very far from the last father to have his child intentionally miss the burp cloth.

As a man of the first century, Joseph would also not have known the phrase, “life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans,” but as he paced the dirt floor with Mary’s child in his arms and fresh spit-up on his robe, despite his best-laid burp cloth, he considered that maybe this unplanned trip to Bethlehem was, in some way he did not understand, God leading him.

He placed the baby, still securely wrapped, back in the manger.

He didn’t know what would come of the job with Saul. He only knew whatever came, he had to take care of this little family, and that God had always helped him to get by.

Babies don’t smile, you know, at least not on purpose, until a few weeks after they are born, but sometimes their facial muscles spasm just right and it looks like they are.

Baby Jesus smiled, just then, and mercifully went back to sleep.

Joseph laid down in a soft looking pile of hay he had been eyeing while burping the baby, and did the same.

Thoughts About Tradition, Scripture, and Authority

I was thinking a lot about how I relate to tradition over Thanksgiving break, and I kept getting interrupted when I talked about it, so I decided to make it a blog post.

Over Thanksgiving break, I learned something about myself: I talk about faith traditions as faith traditions… a lot.

And my current faith tradition, the Presbyterian Church (USA), has turned out to be more important to me than I knew, particularly related to how and why I consider the Bible authoritative.

Why the Bible is Authoritative for Me

My wife and kids and I drove to Pennsylvania where I’m from, and Thanksgiving night, one of my brothers sat down between my father (still a fundamentalist) and me (a progressive Christian pastor) and tried to stir the pot a little.

I’ll save you the fascinating boring details where my brother thinks it’s going to come as a faith-shattering shock to either of us that Some Guy in a Youtube Video said the Biblical canon was put together at the council of Nicea in 325.

Aside from Youtube Guy With a Faith-Shattering News Flash being rather predictably wrong – Catholic.org says the canon was set at the Council of Rome in 382 – even the correct answer (382, Council of Rome) isn’t faith-shattering for me any more than it was for my fundamentalist dad, though for different reasons.

Continue reading “Thoughts About Tradition, Scripture, and Authority”

Lest They Do to Us What We Did to Them

Belated thoughts about the Ark of the Covenant and the 2016 election.

I had an idea for a sermon, but it didn’t really make sense for my church, so I’m publishing it here.

In I Samuel 4, Israel fights the Philistines. They lose, badly, so they decide to take the Ark of the Covenant into battle. They lose worse, the ark is taken, and the priests are killed.

But what’s interesting to me is I Samuel 4:8-9:

 Woe to us! Who can deliver us from the power of these mighty gods? These are the gods who struck the Egyptians with every sort of plague in the wilderness. Take courage, and be men, O Philistines, in order not to become slaves to the Hebrews as they have been to you; be men and fight.” (NRSV)

The Philistines are afraid that if Israel defeats them and gains liberation, Israel will do to them what they did to Israel.

That’s white fear: if white people in the US are outnumbered, white people will be subjected to the same ill treatment white people have subjected Black and Brown people to.

Nevermind that the goal is liberation for everyone, and that privilege is not a zero-sum game: someone else gaining privilege does not necessarily mean I lose mine.

But that fear that you’ll get treated the way other people with less privilege have been treated? That says that at some level, we already know it’s wrong.

That fear is a powerful thing. Look at that quote again:

 Woe to us! Who can deliver us from the power of these mighty gods? These are the gods who struck the Egyptians with every sort of plague in the wilderness. Take courage, and be men, O Philistines, in order not to become slaves to the Hebrews as they have been to you; be men and fight.” (NRSV)

That fear of being treated propels the Philistines to action, and in verse 10, Israel is slaughtered and the Ark of the Covenant is captured.

But… Israel had the Ark of the Covenant when they started this battle!

In theory, at least, God is supposed to be on their side. They have a righteous cause. And they get absolutely crushed by the Philistines.

When I saw that, it reminded me of the 2016 election and how every pollster thought Hillary Clinton was going to win. She would’ve been the first female president, and Trump was absolutely terrible. (Yes, Clinton probably also would’ve been terrible, but not as terrible as Trump, or at least not so obvious and celebratory about it).

All the polling showed Clinton was going to win easily, but it failed to take into account the fear the oppressors had of the people they’d been oppressing.

Take courage, “real Americans,” so you won’t find someone else’s religion pushed on you as you have pushed Christianity on them.

Take courage, men, so women won’t start trying to control your bodies.

Take courage, white people, so that you won’t find your kids unable to get into a good school because someone else has an unfair advantage; so that people won’t assume you did something wrong just because of the color of your skin.

Take courage, cishet people, in order to not have someone else shove their ideas about gender and sexuality down their throat as you did to LGBTQ people.

Take courage, people who have a little money in your bank account because of capitalism, lest a socialist come and take what you have and give it to someone who has less.

I’m not saying everyone who voted for Trump had that fear. I personally know a number of people who voted for him because of his stance on abortion (which is a whole other thing) and for no other reason – at least as far as I know.

But I can’t help believe that what the Philistines say they’re afraid of is relevant for some, if not many voters: That they will do to us what we did to them.

(Double that fear if you stack it with the white American evangelical persecution complex).

It’s possible – if not likely – that Israel might have actually subjected the Philistines to forced servitude as they did to Israel, but in the US, people who are less privileged don’t want to harm people who currently benefit from privilege, antifa hoedown and occasional talk about guillotining the rich notwithstanding.

I don’t think that’s the whole answer to “Why did Trump win in 2016,” but I thought it was interesting and wanted to share.

It also makes me a little anxious for other upcoming elections, because, as this story shows, a righteous cause is not always a match for fear that you’ll be mistreated the way you’ve mistreated others.

The First Evangelist

A version of this sermon was originally preached by me at Fairplain Presbyterian Church in Benton Harbor, Michigan on Easter Sunday, April 17, 2022.

CW: brief mention of the death of an adult child, unjust execution, self-harm, mention of the idea that demons cause mental illness.

It wasn’t supposed to end this way.

Mary Magdalene stood at the foot of the cross with a few other women – the cast changes depending on which gospel you read – John includes Jesus’ mother – who can imagine how she felt watching her son be executed?!

Only John’s gospel includes any of the disciples at the foot of the cross, and then it’s only John.

They stood beside the cross, not really knowing what to do or where to go from here.

Mary had been a true believer, probably ever since Jesus cast out seven demons from her, probably in her hometown of Magdala, just a few miles from Capernaum.

Continue reading “The First Evangelist”

What if Judas…

Content warning: Suicide, betrayal. It’s about Judas, after all.

Was a thief because he was desperate?

Maybe he had a sister, a mother,
a little brother,
a former or current lover,
held in slavery
to someone with power.

Maybe he was trying to buy their freedom
A little at a time.

Or maybe he needed a miracle
that Jesus, somehow, couldn’t
or wouldn’t

Maybe the sum of money he needed
was a little too big
To find in the mouth of a fish.

Maybe Jesus noticed,
Maybe they all noticed,
but didn’t say anything.

Maybe when the woman
broke the alabaster vial
worth $17,000 or more
his face fell
right along with his heart
and as the nard poured over Jesus
he thought to himself:

That could’ve saved them.
Maybe “the poor”
it could’ve been given to
had names for him.

What if his betrayal
Was because he knew nothing would come of it?
Or wait –
What if Jesus was in on it?

Continue reading “What if Judas…”

The Last Battle

“If you really trust God, one day he’ll [sic] show you that my problematic theology is right.”

If you’ve followed this blog for any amount of time, you probably have seen pieces of my deconstruction journey.

I’ve wrestled with whether God will save everyone, whether Jesus’ death on the cross was to appease an angry God, how God feels about LGTBQ people (love), how to read the Bible, the nature of God, God’s love and God’s judgment, whether Jesus would be a Republican, creation and evolution, the rapture, pacifism, feminism, socialism, whether I believe in the resurrection

Until this past week I thought everything was shaken that could be shaken, but that’s a different story.

But in spite of it all, I still wrestled with a narrative that I picked up from talking to people who still hold many of the beliefs I had long since abandoned:

That if I really trusted God and was in relationship with God, eventually I would come to understand why the things I’ve come to believe are horrible are actually loving and holy and righteous and good.

Continue reading “The Last Battle”

Running Errands for the Devil

When I was 21, I got swept away by the love and goodness of God. I felt that God loved me and I was undone and swept into a kind of alive faith that was all about the love of God and that was super reckless because I was ready to do whatever God wanted.

There’s a scene in the Bible where Jesus has this huge moment where God says “You are my beloved son, and I’m so pleased with you” and then Jesus immediately gets hauled off to the desert to be tempted by the devil, and I feel like that’s pretty much what happened to me.

Two of the temptations went along the lines of, “If you are the son of God, do this random hard thing because I said so.”

Jesus quoted Deuteronomy and avoided running errands for the devil.

Me? Less so.

I read a book called Under Cover that said I was supposed to submit to any and all authority because God put authority over me, which (according to the CREEPY author) meant that even if my dad was abusive and I was literally 21, God put my dad in authority over me and I needed to move back in with him and obey him. (Yeah, YIKES.)

But since there were Bible verses that got stitched together to indicate that this was exactly what God wanted, God who loved me – that is, because I was God’s beloved son… I did it. (Non-spoiler: it was terrible).

And then I found that one verse where Jesus told the rich man to sell everything he had and give it to the poor and come, follow me.

I had some money saved up that I was thinking of using to put a down payment on a house, and I felt like God was telling me that I needed to give it all away. I felt it was not as important where I give it away as that I needed to not have it.

Thanks be to God, a friend pulled me back from that ledge.

I later used that money for my freshman year of college.

It was only much later that I came to realize that these things I was doing (or being tempted to do) “for God” weren’t actually things God wanted me to do.

They had nothing to do with loving my neighbor. There was no kindness in them for me. There was nothing good for the world in it. It was brought on by anxious navel-gazing.

There was no good reason for this other than some fancy philosophizing and randomly stitching verses together to build some kind of creepy cultish theology.

It just turned out to be harmful to me and useless for the world, at best, and harmful to me and the world, at worst.

Now to be extra-clear here, I don’t think it makes me a bad person to have fallen for that. It happened because of a sincere faith. Misguided, but sincere. It took me a long time to identify that as “running errands for the devil” rather than just “I’m being obedient to God.”

It’s been super transformative to identify it as busywork I got sent off on rather than what God wanted me to do, because I don’t have to worry anymore that God will send me off to do something like that, and the fact that I can identify it as such now makes me more likely to be able to identify similar tactics in the future.

Anyway, what errands have you run for the devil?*

*I don’t have strong opinions about the existence of a personal devil. Maybe there is, maybe there isn’t, but if there is I’ve always been inspired by this story about Smith Wigglesworth:

He claims to have awakened one night and seen the devil himself sitting in a rocking chair by his bed. He was alarmed until realized it was the devil. Then he said “Oh, it’s only you,” and went back to sleep.

The Maps Are Wrong:

Five Things You Need to Know to Guide Someone Else’s Deconstruction Journey. Step 1: Don’t.

1. Don’t.

Unless they explicitly ask you to.

That’s it. That’s the post. You’re welcome.

Okay, fine, yes, I actually have a lot more to say about this.

Every time I have encountered someone authoritatively saying, “this is how you SHOULD be deconstructing,” I just think to myself that this person doesn’t understand deconstruction. At all.

But first, let’s get this out of the way:

2. Jacques Derrida Has Nothing To Do With This.

JD is the guy who originally coined the term “deconstruction” however long ago he coined it, to mean… something, my academic friends know what,. But he’s dead and when people say they’re deconstructing, they don’t mean what he meant when he made up the word.

And they’re not wrong in using it that way. Dictionaries track usage, not some abstract meaning that God handed down to English speakers. People know what they mean.

From my research, David Hayward was the first person who used it to mean what people who say they are deconstructing their faith mean by it.

So if someone tells you they’re “deconstructing” and they’re not an academic who has ever read or even heard of Jacques D, knowing what he meant by it will probably not be helpful in you having a clue what they’re talking about and you should probably just yeet Mr. Derrida’s definition straight out of the discussion.

3. What People Mean by “Deconstruction”

It means different things to different people. Personally I like Greg Boyd’s illustration of the House of Cards, where all your core, most important beliefs are like a house of cards and if one falls, the whole thing collapses.

I’m also fond of my illustration of a snow globe: you start with a worldview where everything is connected, or a web of knowing, and how a certain professor of mine kept trying to crack my worldview and I kept patching the pieces together and trying to make it hold together until a classmate suggested I just… let it break and see what happens.

Deconstruction, for me, means calling your most core beliefs about reality into question. The existence and nature of God, heaven, hell, who goes where and why, whether arbitrary rules about morality have anything to do with faith in God, and what these pieces have to do with each other.

It’s the undoing of authority, the questioning of the most important things you believed to be true.

It’s a vast desert of lostness, an Escher painting, it’s the staircases in Harry Potter that change orientations and destinations at random.

The reason you can’t guide someone else’s deconstruction is that deconstruction by its very nature is a thing that can’t be guided by the old authorities.

Continue reading “The Maps Are Wrong:”
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