My wife recently confided to a friend that “she couldn’t talk to me about the Bible anymore.” I was a bit surprised, as we talk about the Bible all the time. I think she meant that the things I am studying about the Bible are way too technical or perhaps delve into areas that she’d prefer not to think about. More often than not, she humors me like a mother listening to her kid jabbering about something that just happened. She humors me with a smile, pats me on the head, and encourages me to go back to my toys. Whence, I merrily trot back to my study and immerse myself in the ever-growing mountain of books and binders of journal articles.
As I enter into my 4th year of graduate-level biblical studies, I’ve experienced some things that I didn’t expect. For example, I find myself reading a lot of things I disagree with. That’s not to say that I disagree with everything and everyone, now that “I have a degree.” Instead, I try to read scholars on all sides of an issue. I examine their arguments and do my best to think critically to formulate my own view. That invariably means I’m going to disagree with someone—and often a lot of someones. However, even when I might disagree with a particular scholar, I often gain new and vital insights from their work, for which I am grateful.
For all of its immense rewards, graduate-level biblical studies can have some potential adverse consequences. It’s something that is discussed among my peers and professors at every university I’ve attended. While these consequences can have negative impacts, I find many are beneficial to the growth and development of a more solid faith foundation.
Sitting in the Tension
Graduate biblical studies involve dwelling in a state of tension. I’m not referring to the stress of deadlines or exams. I’m talking about the tension stemming from having long-held understandings and beliefs pushed, prodded, stretched, and (sometimes) stripped away.
Very early in my studies in Israel, I was exposed to the difference between our Western mindset and the Middle Eastern mindset. As children of the Enlightenment, we in the West like to have answers. We want certainty with minimal exceptions. There are right answers and wrong answers—and preferably only one correct answer.
However, this black and white mindset is not the view of rabbinic Judaism or the people(s) to whom the biblical texts were written. I’ve written something about this in an early blog post (see: The 70 Faces of Scripture). There are often tensions within the text that careful readers of scripture have observed for 2,000 years and likely much longer. Rabbinic Judaism does a great job of examining these and looking for answers (note: I didn’t say “the answer.”)
Deep biblical study involves tension. A careful reading of the biblical texts brings these tensions to the surface and forces you to consider their implications. In preparation for a class next semester, I’m reading through the book of Judges in Hebrew. Recently, I read the story of Jephthah in Judges 11. I won’t retell the whole story, except to say that Jephthah makes a very foolish oath to God and ends up offering his daughter “up in smoke” to the LORD. It’s graphic and horrific. If reading this story doesn’t cause you to sit in some tension considering the myriad of questions and problems it raises, then you aren’t reading it very carefully. I know there are some scholars and commentaries that propose Jephthah didn’t really torch his daughter. They offer that she lived the rest of her life as a virgin “in sacrifice” to God. However, the text is explicit that Jephthah followed through on his oath.
Along similar lines is the more familiar story of God’s command that Abraham sacrifice his son, Isaac, in Genesis 22. God’s request seems counter to everything God had promised to Abraham. Even though God prevents Abraham from going through with the offering, the text implies that the fallout from this “test” was significant. Isaac does not appear to leave the mountain with Abraham (who would blame him). In fact, when Isaac next appears in the story, he is coming from Beer-lahai-roi, the home of Hagar and Isaac’s half-brother Ishmael (again, who would blame him? “fool me once…”). Worse yet, the text seems to imply that when Abraham’s wife (Isaac’s mother) Sarah heard what had transpired, the shock killed her. Interestingly, Isaac is not mentioned as being in attendance when his mother is buried.
The Jewish Rabbis of the first and second centuries wrote about these tensions. It’s also evident this Genesis text was bothersome to early Christians. The New Testament book of Hebrews went so far as to put thoughts into Abraham’s head, not evident in Genesis 22 (Heb 11:17–19). There are countless other texts which, when considered very carefully, result in tension. I suspect that’s on purpose. Without the tensions, we’d get bored very quickly and move on to something else. The tension keeps us engaged. It keeps the questions flowing.
Sitting in tension is a natural and necessary part of graduate studies of the Bible. You are regularly faced with new data and information that changes how you understand the text. It forces you to challenge, refine, and sometimes remove long-held beliefs. I had a Systematic Theology professor who was a master of asking seemingly simple, straightforward theological questions. When some brave student offered their answer, he would carefully lead them down the path with more questions to show the heretical (and sometimes immoral) conclusions their fundamental beliefs might lead to. I can assure you there was lots of tension in that class—and lots of growth.
The Deconstruction Zone
In most cases, sitting in the tension causes minor beliefs or understandings to fall away. These might be more “cosmetic” ideas. They are quickly replaced with something better, more substantial, and more complete. This happens so often that it’s almost unremarkable.
However, when the tension hits a sufficient level or hits a particular weak point, a significant fracture in one’s beliefs results. The fracture might penetrate to the very foundation of your beliefs, bringing everything down around it. There’s a term for this. Deconstruction.
At its worst, deconstruction can make you question everything. It can shake the very foundation of your faith. I’ve heard people say, “I don’t know what I believe anymore.” It’s painful and unsettling. It might leave you with a sense that you have no faith—at least for a time. However, deconstruction is not the end goal. It’s an interim step into building a stronger faith.
Some have described seminary as controlled deconstruction and reconstruction. While I think that’s generally true, it doesn’t make it any less gut-wrenching. While not everyone experiences deconstruction to the same degree, almost everyone in my graduate programs has experienced some. Many of my professors have openly shared their deconstruction experiences. One doesn’t have to look very hard to find any number of books written by Christians who have undergone deconstruction. I’ve written about my personal encounter with some minor deconstruction in The Trouble with Jericho.
At the universities I have attended, the faculties have taken great care to work with students through deconstruction. At JUC, the president and his wife hosted weekly dinners in their residence to discuss topics of concern. At ACU, graduate students were assigned to small mentoring groups with a professor. These groups met regularly throughout the semester, and attendance was mandatory. Not only did these groups develop closer bonds between the students and faculty, but they provided forums to share concerns and crises of faith.
Deconstructing poses the most significant risk when it happens on its own without the support of a community properly equipped to listen and assist. What do you do when your beliefs are in shambles, and there is no one to come to your aid?
I’m convinced deconstruction is at the heart of why so many young people quit practicing their faith during college or shortly after that. I think many of them have built their faith on shaky views about God, the Bible, biblical interpretation, and/or the Christian experience. I think discrepancies between science and their understanding of the Bible are a significant culprit. But I also see a more practical conflict: hypocrisy within their faith community. Where teachings about how they should live don’t align with the practice of their leaders. Deconstruction is most tragic when it is the result of abuse or trauma from within the faith community. Sadly, within Christianity, these abuses are far too common across the denominational spectrum.
Tragically, many interpret deconstruction as “losing their faith.” I’ve come to dislike that term. I don’t think it accurately reflects their situation. The deconstruction happens because their faith was in the wrong things. Unfortunately, when not surrounded by people who understand what they are going through, they risk abandoning the work necessary to reconstruct their faith on a more solid footing.
Reconstruction is not merely trying to piece the broken pieces back together. It requires discarding the bad parts, restoring the critical components, and fitting them together more firmly.
Truths about Deconstruction
Dr. Pete Enns is a professor of biblical studies at Eastern University outside of Philadelphia. He has written extensively about his personal experience with deconstruction. He’s also interviewed others with similar experiences on his podcast, The Bible for Normal People. Recently, Pete posted a series of short videos on social media entitled “Five Truths about Deconstruction.” He prefers the term “disorientation” over deconstruction because it describes the feeling. I’ll stick with deconstruction because I think it better describes the process. Here are his five points:
- We don’t bring it on ourselves; it just happens.
- You aren’t failing at your faith; you’re expressing it.
- Deconstruction comes from within.
- It sucks.
- It does something positive for your faith that nothing else can do.
Dr. Enns is one of those scholars with whom I don’t always agree. But he always makes me think and see things from new perspectives. On these five points, however, we are in complete agreement.
Pete notes that deconstruction is biblical. The Old Testament books of Lamentations and Ecclesiastes describe God’s people struggling with their faith as they seek to make sense of what is happening to them. The book of Acts in the New Testament tells the story of the Christian persecutor, Saul of Tarsus. He experienced a rather abrupt deconstruction on the road to Damascus. He then spent several years in the desert working to rebuild the foundations of his faith. Through this deconstruction/reconstruction, he eventually became the Apostle Paul—but his transformation took years to complete.
The Proper Response
Pete Enns’s five truths are an excellent starting point for responding to deconstruction, whether you are experiencing it or know someone who is.
If you know someone going through deconstruction, don’t write them off as having “lost their faith.” Job’s friends are good examples of what works and what doesn’t. They were most helpful when they sat with him in silence. It’s when they opened their mouths to diagnose his problems that they got into trouble. Don’t try to do the work of reconstruction for them. Be available to listen. Pray for them and with them. Know that God’s timetable is not your timetable.
If you are experiencing deconstruction, know that, no matter how much it sucks, what you are going through is still an expression of faith, not a failure or abandonment. Stick with it. Continue to question. Never stop seeking. Find others who have gone through similar experiences. Reconstruction doesn’t happen quickly. But the end result will be a more healthy and complete faith.
Questioning is not a sign of weak faith. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote, “We are closer to God when we are asking questions than when we think we have the answers.” May we continue to sit in the tension, asking difficult questions—stripping away faulty beliefs—and in the process, draw closer to God.