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.

It’s different for everyone who goes through it, and only after you’ve gone through it, only after engaging with the actual content, do you gain the kind of authority to speak to navigating it at all, and only then in anecdotes punctuated by “this was helpful for me but your mileage may vary.”

You can’t make a map to a place that is by its very nature un-map-able, especially if you’ve never spent any significant amount of time there.

If you’ve “asked the same questions,” that’s not the same as having felt profoundly lost in them for years. You are not a guide to the perplexed. Unless your world has fallen apart and you’ve had to tear it down to the bones and rebuild it brick by brick, you’re not an authority on deconstruction. Go home.

You can’t get a degree to mark yourself as an authority on a subject whose essence is the sudden understanding that everything you believed about authority was wrong.

Selling deconstruction guides to someone who’s deconstructing is like setting up a map shop in the desert to serve people who have suddenly realized that every map shop they’ve ever been to was selling them a neatly folded lie.

The worst of it is that the map shops and guides have kindly set up a map outside with a star labelled “YOU ARE HERE” and you went past that tree and drank at that oasis and actually you can still see them and you are definitely NOT “here.”

It’s a compass shop where all the needles are pointing every which way and the shopkeeper says they’re pointing true north.

The only way to gain any authority in the world of deconstruction is to tell the truth: That the maps are wrong. That there aren’t any dragons at that part, that what we have seen with our eyes and heard with our ears is real whether the map says so or not.

Deconstruction is profoundly disorienting.

4. Nobody signs up for this.

Nobody wakes up one morning and thinks to themselves, “You know what I’d like to do today? Ask questions that will make my community abandon me and lead me to question my dearest and most deeply-held beliefs.”

Nobody, ever: “You know what? I don’t really like obeying God, so I’m just going to stop believing in something I know to be true so I can do what I want to do.”

Like seriously, where are people getting this nonsense?

Anyway, if you could stop saying that, that’d be great. Thanks.

5. Deconstructing takes time, and it doesn’t have a universal “destination.”

Some pastors are very happy to tell you “how to deconstruct the right way,” which means “how to quickly get out of this confusing place and get back to believing what I think you should believe.”

The problem with that plan is that someone who is in the midst of deconstruction doesn’t know where they will end up, or even where they should end up. It’s a process that you can’t shortcut.

The question of deconstruction isn’t “How can I believe in all these things when they seem wrong?” A lot of people are happy to answer that question, and many seem to think it’s a question about deconstruction, but it’s not.

Deconstruction has already moved on past that question and decided “Yes, these things are wrong and I shouldn’t believe them. Where do I go from here?”

The questions of deconstruction look more like this:

“The Bible says God did some pretty horrible things. I can’t believe that a good God would do those things. Does this mean Christianity is just made-up?

“What do I do with the Bible if I can’t ‘take it literally’?”

“My church says God doesn’t want people to be gay, but I don’t believe that anymore. Can I still be a Christian?”

“Christians have hurt a lot of people over the millennia, specifically because of their Christian beliefs, including me. Is that a legacy that I even want anything to do with?”

“If so many people I know who are Christians are awful people, do I want anything to do with it?”

These are not questions that have good, bumper-sticker answers. Some are hours-long conversations. Some are questions that only the person asking them can answer.

Deconstruction is not faith seeking understanding.

Deconstruction is understanding seeking whether faith is even a good thing.


So to put together a course to help people go from deconstruction to faith when they don’t even know they want to end up at faith is to assume the answer to the question for which the process of answering it is the only way out.

Deconstruction is a dark forest, miles and miles deep, and deconstruction courses that assume “The answer is to be a Christian like me” are a cardboard refrigerator box set up in the middle with “TELaPORTATION MACHeeNE OUT OF DECONSTRUCTION-LAND” scrawled on the side.

Some people who go through deconstruction become progressive Christians. Some become agnostics. Some become atheists. Some become Wiccans, probably, or Satanists, or Buddhists, or some become mainline Christians, some become pastors like I did, and some just stop caring about religion altogether.

What’s often at the core of deconstruction, in my view, is

  • (1) the desire to be a good, kind person and
  • (2) the realization that the brand of Christianity you were taught explicitly forbids it.

In fact, what you were taught is “the One True Faith insists that to be a good, kind person in the ways you have come to understand goodness and kindness is incompatible with Real Christianity™.

So either you turn around and leave behind what you’ve come to know about goodness and kindness (and don’t deconstruct), or you go into the forest.

Along the way, you find other travelers who seem to be going the same way you’re going.

Eventually, maybe you get out of the Dark Night of the Soul. Maybe.

Maybe you set up a house at the edge, on the border between wherever you found your way out, whatever religion or not-religion you end up in. Maybe you get comfortable with the forest of unknowing, which is a thing you can only get by living there for a long time, not by studying or reading books about the forest by people who have never been there, or who only popped in for a minute but think it’s Dark and Scary.

Then one day you see a large cardboard box in the middle of the forest with the words, “TELaPORTATION MACHeeNE OUT OF DECONSTRUCTION-LAND.”

So you go at it with your hatchet.

David M Schell About David M Schell
I am a doubter and a believer. I have a Master's in Divinity from Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, but because faith grows and changes, I don't necessarily stand by everything I've ever written, so if you see something troubling further back, please ask! Read More.

Author: David M Schell

I am a doubter and a believer. I have a Master's in Divinity from Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, but because faith grows and changes, I don't necessarily stand by everything I've ever written, so if you see something troubling further back, please ask! Read More.

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