Some Parts of Evangelicalism Do Not Need To be Deconstructed ... They Need To Be Destroyed!
A Response to Jon Leeman
Jonathan Leeman - a nice guy I’ve interacted with - has an article on Defending Sound Doctrine Against the Deconstruction of American Evangelicalism over at 9Marks.
In a nutshell, Leeman rejects the complaint that Christian doctrine, evangelical doctrine, is culturally conditioned and self-interested. Some people, realizing this situatedness and self-interest have been led to question, doubt, re-think, and “deconstruct” their faith.
Now, deconstruction is the latest fad, and deconstructing can mean leaving evangelicalism for liturgical churches or else leaving the Christian faith altogether.
I have mixed feelings about this.
First, I believe in evangelical doctrine, I literally wrote a book called Evangelical Theology. But one change I made in the second edition is that I stressed that we need to be very self-aware of how much of our theology is truly biblical and catholic and how much of our theology is a product of our own perspective, position, and the prevailing philosophy of the day. Are we truly rooted in Scripture and the Great Tradition, or are we merely interpreting it through the lens of Platonism or Postmodernism, Marxism or Modernism, American libertarianism or Aussie egalitarianism? How does my language, my ethnicity, my socio-economic position, and my geographical location shape my Christian belief? We need to be self-aware in theological interpretation.
This is important, because the temptation is always to read Scripture in a bubble, intellectually, culturally, and socially, and to think that my bubble is the geosphere of divine truth.
Second, some people are wrestling with doubt, regret, and wondering if their whole faith was tied to their social location, inheriting a conservative culture from their parents, a faith that made use of Jesus rather than actually following Jesus. I understand that complaint and I’m interested in listening to those stories and talking to those people. Cause I wanna say that the Religious Right and Atheists-R-Us are not the only two games in town.
Leeman refers to an article by David Gushee about deconstruction and post-evangelicalism. Now, I disagree with Gushee on a few things, like evangelicalism is just fundamentalism 2.0. I think American and global evangelicalisms are far more complex than that. But Gushee is right about one thing, biblical texts require biblical interpreters, and those interpreters can be myopic in their view of the Bible and malicious in their use of the Bible.
Gushee refers to five books about gender and race in relation to white evangelicalism which Leeman notes.
Jesus and John Wayne, by Kristen Kobes Du Mez, argues that white evangelicalism is characterized by patriarchy, toxic masculinity, authoritarianism, nationalism, anti-gay sentiment, Islamophobia and indifference to Black people’s lives and rights.
The Making of Biblical Womanhood, by Beth Allison Barr, argues that the teaching of female subordination is a historical construct rather than the “clear biblical teaching” her opponents claim that it is.
The Color of Compromise, by Jemar Tisby, traces the long history of how white racism and evangelical Christianity have been fully intertwined in U.S. history, and how every effort to challenge white supremacism has been opposed—theologically, politically, morally—by white evangelicals.
Taking America Back for God, by Andrew Whitehead and Samuel Perry, focuses on what the authors call “Christian nationalism” but which they more precisely shorthand as (white) “Christian nation-ism.” They demonstrate through sociological studies that a major factor driving our politics is the hunger on the part of a substantial minority for an America dominated by white Christian native-born men.
Worldview Theory, Whiteness, and the Future of Evangelical Faith, by Jacob Alan Cook . . . shows quite powerfully that what white evangelicals have labeled “the Christian worldview” bears a striking resemblance to “whiteness,” that is, white-centered and white-hegemonic ways of viewing and arranging the world and responding to human difference. In other words, all those worldview conferences and seminars really may have been about teaching us how to think like white people, not like Christian people.
This is where Leeman’s complaint comes in. He states:
[N]one of these books emerge from biblical studies departments, like the egalitarian critiques of complementarianism did in the 1980s. The deconstruction project doesn’t begin as a conversation about the Bible. Rather, the above books represent the work of three historians, two sociologists, and one theologian, if I understand correctly from online bios. The books may or may not offer a few claims about the biblical text, but the primary burden is historical or sociological—less “here’s what 1 Timothy 2:12 actually means” and more “complementarians have interpreted or even translated passages like 1 Timothy 2:12 to preserve the patriarchy.”
In other words, the name of the game is not my understanding of the Bible versus your understanding of the Bible. It’s my understanding of the Bible versus your Story. And by Story, I mean people’s personal stories, their lived experiences, as well as those stories writ large in the histories of a people and documented by social scientists (historians, sociologists, political scientists looking at the polling numbers, and so on). Deconstruction doesn’t begin with exegesis, but with exegeting the exegete.
I understand Leeman objecting to arguments where the punch line is, “Therefore, white male heterosexuals are the root of all evil.” Look, I’ve read ridiculous pieces about the white supremacist origins of maths. I get it.
But what Leeman doesn’t get, is that these stories which he rallies against are stories that show how the Bible has been used to institutionalize and justify racism and abusive male power. That is a valid point!
I’m not competent to adjudicate on matters of religion, race, and power in the USA, so forgive me for stepping out of that one. In the interim, check out Esau Macaully’s book Reading While Black: African American Biblical Interpretation as an Exercise in Hope, best thing I’ve read on it. But let’s focus on the patriarchal and political side of things.
First, on patriarchy, remember those certain leaders who have said that wives should stay with abusive husbands because it is biblical. Remember those leaders who said that women cannot be police officers or hold political office because it is not biblical. But was it though? Is it really biblical required for a woman to suffer violence and sexual abuse for years? Is it really unbiblical for a woman to be a mayor?
You don’t have to be a POMO rainbow flag-waving ACLU-card-carrying anti-Christian zealot to ask: why would someone say that and who benefits from that?
For me, the big revelation was when I learned that Christian complementarianism was really just a post-World War II sociology of gender for white suburban churches. It wasn’t biblical and it had more prohibitions about what women could do than found in Catholic and Orthodox churches.
If a man is hitting his wife or spiritually abusing her, the solution is not for the wife and seven male elders to sit down and discuss the syntax of 1 Tim 2.12, the solution is church discipline and an arrest warrant, and to reconsider what is the theology that made this man think that this behavior was okay.
Second, let’s do politics. I have an email box full of American friends telling me how Trumpism is tearing their churches apart. Half the congregation is all in on Trump being American’s Messiah, the new Cyrus, the election was stolen, God wants Trump back. The other half think the first half are out of their flipping minds and can’t tell Jesus apart from a Golden Calf. White evangelical churches are split between those who see Christianity as a prop in their white political culture and those who see Christianity as about service to Christ and his kingdom. That alone should tell you that half of American evangelicalism has a cancer that needs to be surgically removed.
The problem is not that these stories of lived experience by Du Mez, Barr, and Tisby lack biblical interpretation, the problem is that these stories of lived experience expose the inequalities, the injustices, and abuses which were perpetuated and justified by biblical interpretations that were somewhere between absurd and authoritarian and were never allowed to be questioned.
I mean, read Wayne Grudem’s book, God and Politics, and tell me that this book is based on unbiased and coherent exegesis and does not derive from Grudem’s own privilege from a wealthy family, his perspective as a white man, post-World War II modes of patriarchy, and parochial American ideas on everything from healthcare to gun rights. Grudem’s book is the smoking gun that so much of the American evangelical movement is not only unbiblical it is anti-biblical because the “exegesis” in that book shows that the Bible is just a reflection of their own conservative culture which, to the rest of the world, looks neither Christian nor even civil.
If your version of Christianity means waving a confederate flag, saying that Trump is the new Cyrus, complaining that free healthcare leds to death panels, arguing women can’t be police officers, CRT is nothing more than Marxist race-baiting, and you’re doing that with a Bible in your hand, you will create deconstruction and more than that, you need an intervention to explain that your Christian faith is more cultural and political than religious.
To his credit, Leeman does try to offer some pastoral discernment about things like listening to grievances, acknowledging relational power dynamics, temptations to power, a correspondence model of truth, the value of learning history, and warns about hermeneutical anarchy. Let us give credit to his sensitivity to those things. We have grounds for a conversation here!
But what he doesn’t get is what if the system, the institutions, the networks, the culture, and the biases that prevail in predominantly white evangelical churches use the Bible in such a way as to codify and justify practices that are harmful, divisive, and overtly political. What if this so-called evangelical American Christianity turns out to be just a cog in a bigger machine, the type of machine that Grudem provides the schematics for in his God and Politics? And yet, and yet, Grudem and others claim with the passion of a televangelist that this is what “The Bible says!” How do you argue with someone about the Bible when their Bible is a mirror?
The stories of Du Mez, Barr, and Tisby are confronting, even subversive, because they take the mirrors out of the American evangelical Bible, they expose the naked self-interest that was at work, they narrate the consequences of those self-interested interpretations, they demonstrate different ways of reading the Bible, different ways of looking at oneself, and that is confronting precisely because it is revealing! Because you may think you preached like Billy Graham, but turns out there are some Jim Crow quotations in your sermon notes that you didn’t even notice. Because you thought you were a fatherly figure like Cliff Huxtable, yet the men who attended your Bible study acted like Bill Cosby.
Leeman I suspect would acknowledge this and say that we need “better exegesis.” But that’s like saying we need a better cancer. It’s the culture that the Bible is enmeshed in that is the problem. In some places, not everywhere for sure, the culture of biblical interpretation is rigged towards propping up whiteness, patriarchy, and xenophobia. The Bible needs to be unrigged from that culture and replaced with a practice of biblical interpretation that is global, catholic, consensual, and responsible.
So let me be clear, some parts of American evangelicalism do not need to be deconstructed, they need to be destroyed.
Where American Evangelicalism is just a prop for male domination and a license for male abuse, let it be anathema.
Where American Evangelicalism is a place for segregation from other ethnic groups and a safe space for racism, hand it over to Satan.
Where American Evangelicalism is just an after-dinner mint in WASP society, kick over the dessert table.
Where American Evangelicalism sponsors systems where the rich get richer and the poor get poorer, let those hearts be fattened for the day of slaughter.
Where American Evangelicalism builds golden calves and tells us that they are monuments to Jesus, may the idolaters be forced to eat and excrete their god.
Where American Evangelicalism is merely religious capital for any political faction, left or right, stick a Jael nail into its head.
Let’s make Evangelicalism about the evangel again!
While you’re here, check out the book by Mike Bird and N.T. Wright, The New Testament in its World available on Logos (affiliate partner).