ent isengard

On Deconstruction & People Who Look Like Trees

“Deconstruction” has recently become a familiar term among American Christians. Over the last few of years, we’ve seen famous pastors and authors and musicians who have begun to look back on their faith with a critical eye and discover they don’t really believe what they used to believe. Sometimes it comes from processing personal experiences of shame or grief or abuse. A lot of times it happens because of changing social and political beliefs about sexuality or gender or some other form of inequality. Sometimes it leads to a different kind of faith–say, a more progressive form of Christianity. Sometimes it leads to no faith at all. But… whatever the details, the basic pattern is: things which seemed so firm and true when we were, say, teenagers, start collapsing like a house of cards once you put them under the retrospective microscope. And we are calling this phenomenon: “deconstruction.” 

And, again, somewhat recently, we’ve seen some dramatic cases of this, where famous Christian leaders have “come out” and announced they’re not Christians anymore. But there’s a less dramatic version of deconstruction, which I think, actually, many of us are prone to, especially younger adults. It’s a quieter kind of deconstruction, which isn’t getting as much attention. And that’s what I want to talk about here.

So a question: Are you in the process of deconstructing your faith in one way or another? Maybe you have been for some time without paying much attention to it. Maybe it’s just starting to come to a head and you don’t know what to do with it. Doubts and frustrations which weren’t there a year or two ago are making themselves known on an almost daily basis. 

Or maybe it’s not you, but a close friend or family member. Come to think of it, why does it seem like so many people are going through this right now? Is it a new phenomenon? 

Yes and no. Yes, “deconstruction” has a fashionable, contemporary feel to it. Why deconstruct? Because that’s how you see what things really are, of course. It’s the spiritual equivalent of that modern scientific assumption that nothing can be truly understood until it is dissected and put under a microscope. Personally, I find this notion of “deconstruction”–especially, as it applies to faith–less than compelling. Yes, we have learned a great deal in our modern age through dissection and isolation. But there’s also been a cost. We have gained one type of knowledge at the cost of another. Sometimes we have even gained knowledge at the cost of wisdom.

The idea of the microscope itself is a helpful analogy: In order to see anything through the lens of an actual microscope, you have to close your other eye. Yes, you may see one specific thing very clearly, but at the cost of becoming blind to everything else. For instance, how did you choose what to put under the lens in the first place? Of course, I’m not saying that dissecting certain aspects of your past faith and putting them under the proverbial microscope is always a bad idea. By all means, look through the lens. You will definitely see things you hadn’t seen before. What I’m saying is: you won’t find the meaning there. Only the fact. The meaning comes in the re-integration, when you tilt your head back up and open both eyes again. In a word, the problem with a lot of our deconstruction is that it’s being done with one eye closed.

But whether or not “deconstruction” is the right word–or the right method–for dealing with the tension we feel about our faith, the tension itself is not just a modern phenomenon–it’s universal and timeless. You are not alone if you feel this tension. You are not alone in your doubts, in your confusion, in your shame and discomfort. In fact, it’s a tension that’s right at home in the Bible itself. Jesus’s teaching is filled with it–almost like he wants people to feel it–like he’s poking people until they feel it, until they ask: “Are the things I’ve believed still holding up? When the storms come, do I find that the house of my faith is built on a rock or on the sand?”

So there’s no shame in asking these kinds of questions. For example, when certain passages in Scripture start to feel offensive to you; when memories of your past faith community start to feel problematic to you; when you find you no longer believe things you used to accept whole-heartedly…you don’t have to be ashamed or hide your thoughts. God is in that tension. He has a purpose for it. In fact, some things he can only do in you…in that place of tension. 

Of course, the devil’s in the tension too. The difference between the two is simple. Whereas God asks you to stay–stay in the tension–trust and abide, the Enemy tells you to move on. “Nothing to see here. You know what you believe, and it isn’t this.”

But the question is: do you know what you believe? Maybe you feel like you used to know. Now you’re not sure. That’s okay. It’s more than okay. It’s healthy to know you feel that way. Even if the complications of life didn’t make you feel that way, the Bible itself would have. The Bible isn’t there just to give us information which we’re supposed to submissively download. The Scriptures speak to our HEARTS. And our hearts don’t just download things. We have to wrestle. God understands this. He actually named his people “those who wrestle with God.” So…let’s wrestle a bit. 

The scary thing about deconstruction–and it can be a good thing, if you can survive it, and grow from it–is that it’s dealing with things that are deeper than we know. One of the most important questions we can ask about our lives is: “What story am I living in?” We are meaning-making creatures. That is, we make the world into stories, and we understand ourselves according to our place within the story (or stories) in which we’re living. And, for many people–even if they might say it’s all about science or politics or sexuality–this story-level is where the doubts and the deconstruction are really happening. So it’s where we have to begin.

When Jesus first enters the scene in the Gospel of Mark, he comes with a new story, so to speak, which he calls “the kingdom of God.” (Well, actually it’s an old story, but now, he says, that old story is coming true. The word is becoming flesh.) “The time is fulfilled,” he declares. “The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent and believe the good news!” In other words, there’s a new kind of world invading the world you thought you knew. Narnia has come through the wardrobe to us. This is the true Narnia, and Aslan is on the move. 

For many of us, when we became Christians, we experienced something like this: like…Narnia was invading our world. God was really on the move. We finally found the true story, which goes something like this: Jesus came to earth and died for our sins, so that we could be set free! 

It was a story about Jesus, but also about us–about our identity: I used to be like this, but no longer. I once was lost but now I’m found; was blind but now I see. And we might have added: He can do the same for you!

This is, more or less, the story many of us received. And we really believed it. I mean, we still believe it, and yet, somehow, we also don’t. At least, not in the same way. Over time, we struggle to experience with our lives the thing that seemed so real in our heads and hearts when we first accepted it. Over time, we start to wonder: “If Jesus set me free, why aren’t I free? If Jesus came to break every chain, why do the chains still feel very real? In fact, why do I see chains everywhere I look? I even see Christians heaping chains on people, while they are still bound themselves. They don’t look free. I don’t feel free either. So…maybe the story wasn’t as true as I thought.” 

Maybe you haven’t thought all of those things. But you’ve probably felt some of that tension. The growing stormcloud of complexity overshadowing the faith of your childhood. The feeling that the simple gospel of your teenage years is not enough to withstand the complexities of life anymore. Not enough even to withstand the complexity of your own heart anymore. Again, if Jesus set you free, why aren’t you free? 

Am I stressing you out? Don’t worry. Don’t be ashamed. Stay with me. God is in the tension. Somewhere in the tension. But where? He’s not obvious, is he? In that family tragedy. In that untrustworthy spiritual leader you had trusted for too long. In the shame about your past. In the anxiety about your future. In the incessant grey fog of modern existence…God is not obvious. In fact, that may be my whole problem with Christianity in one sentence: God is not obvious. Why isn’t he? It seems like, if he’s real, that’s the one thing he would be. 

Maybe. But, since we’re talking about the stories we live in…let’s consider a story for a moment. I already mentioned it: Narnia. In C.S. Lewis’s story, The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe, when the children first pass through the wardrobe into the new world, they wonder at the place. Talking animals, fauns, enchantments, prophecies. The magic and beauty of the place is undoubtedly real. Yet over time they discover Narnia is…not so different from home. Sure, Aslan–the good creator-king–is said to be on the move, but is he really? It isn’t clear. In fact, not much about the kingdom of Aslan–if, indeed, it is his kingdom–is quite as straightforward as it once seemed. Nor is it straightforward to believe in Aslan, especially when the powers of darkness seem to be the only obvious reality. Shouldn’t Aslan be just as obvious? So what happens to the children? Confusion sets in. Doubt. Temptation. Within the first few chapters, one of them has already betrayed the others (and Aslan) for the price of a piece of candy. All this in the magical kingdom of Narnia! How could it be? 

As it turns out, it takes time to learn how to live in Aslan’s world. The meaning of it all isn’t nearly as obvious as it first seemed. When you enter, you think you understand what it is. Good and evil. Right and wrong. You think you can see it. But you’ve hardly begun to open your eyes. Or rather, you’ve opened them just wide enough to see someone bribe you with Turkish Delight–which, of course, you accept–and therefore prove just how blind you still are. In other words, it takes time to see things the way they really are.

There’s an odd story in Mark Chapter 8 about Jesus healing a blind man. Of course, Jesus is always doing things like that. But see if you can tell what’s particularly odd about this occasion: 

22 And they came to Bethsaida. And some people brought to [Jesus] a blind man and begged him to touch him. 23 And he took the blind man by the hand and led him out of the village, and when he had spit on his eyes and laid his hands on him, he asked him, “Do you see anything?” 24 And he looked up and said, “I see people, but they look like trees, walking.” 25 Then Jesus laid his hands on his eyes again; and he opened his eyes, his sight was restored, and he saw everything clearly. 26 And he sent him to his home, saying, “Do not even enter the village.”

So…a blind man is begging for Jesus to touch him. And we all think we know what’s going to happen next. Jesus spits on the man’s eyes (little strange) and then touches him. And…all should be well. Except, what? 

“Do you see anything?” he says.

“I see people, but they look like trees walking.” 

What? (I mean, hilarious response. I’m sure the disciples were laughing.) But…it didn’t work? Really? To be clear, Jesus does it again and it seems to work fully the second time. But this is God in the flesh, and he has to have two tries? 

Maybe. Or maybe he has some other purpose in mind. Maybe a partial, incremental healing is exactly what Jesus wanted to do. But why? The answer to that question, in a roundabout sort of way, is what I want to explore for the rest of our time. 

In truth, we might have never known what Jesus was up to. Just an odd detail: “One time it took him two tries.” Except…it was the genius of Mark (and the Holy Spirit) to place another, more famous story directly after this one, which will end up–in a roundabout sort of way–shedding some light on the half-healed blind man. So, be patient with me. Let’s read on to the next few verses of Mark 8…

27 And Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi. And on the way he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” 28 And they told him, “John the Baptist; and others say, Elijah; and others, one of the prophets.” 29 And he asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Christ.” 30 And he strictly charged them to tell no one about him.

31 And he began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes and be killed, and after three days rise again. 32 And he said this plainly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. 33 But turning and seeing his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.”

Okay, so just to give some context: this is the climactic passage in Mark’s Gospel so far. If you had been reading since Chapter 1, you would have been waiting for this moment: for this specific question about Jesus’s identity to come up. Because…in chapter 1, verse 1, Mark lays it all out there: “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus, Messiah, Son of God.” There it is: the naked proclamation of Jesus’s true identity. But after that, what happens? For eight straight chapters, Jesus seems absolutely intent on making sure no one really knows who he is! He’ll do a miracle or have an encounter with someone, and then he’ll say, “Don’t tell anyone.” In fact, it even happens after Peter’s confession of faith (“Don’t tell anyone!”) and also with the blind man before that (“Don’t go into town!”). I mean, he’s not just being mysterious. He’s being downright secretive. 

Quick tangent: If you’ve ever taken a generic college course in the New Testament, you may have noticed that modern scholars have a word for this phenomenon: they call it “the Messianic Secret.” Some of them have actually concluded from this that Jesus didn’t believe himself to be the Messiah. They argue that it must have been his followers, after his death, who declared that Jesus was much more than just a man! Basically: If he was the Messiah, he would have clearly said he was. Since he didn’t, he wasn’t. You have to give them credit for the simplicity of their argument! And I get it. Like I said, this has been my main frustration with God, in general. If he’s God, why doesn’t he make himself obvious? And for someone who already feels that frustration with God, Jesus in Mark’s Gospel is just…insult to injury. Even when God comes to the earth and walks among us, he’s still painfully un-straightforward.

The trouble with this line of reasoning, though, is that it’s basically a way of saying: “My main problem with God is, he doesn’t do things the way I would.” Ok, but what if he’s up to something that’s just deeper and subtler and cleverer than you could imagine? After all, he’s the only obscure Middle-Eastern carpenter I know who managed to change the course of human history. Maybe he had a reason for his un-straightforwardness. I think he did. But more on that in our next talk…

Anyway, for eight whole chapters, Jesus goes around healing people, casting out demons, and telling strange parables about this thing he calls the kingdom of God: For example: “The kingdom of God is like a tiny mustard seed that grows into the largest tree in the garden, so that even the birds can perch on its branches”–what the heck does that mean? The disciples cannot figure out what’s going on. He calms a storm and they’re like, “Who is this man, that even the wind and waves obey him?” They don’t get it. Of course, Jesus is like, “You of little faith. Come on, can’t you see?” But the reader is like, “No, Jesus! They can’t see! Because you won’t tell them a single straightforward thing about yourself! Mark told us who you are in chapter 1, verse 1. Why don’t you tell them? Then they’ll know. Then they’ll believe.” But of course, he won’t. It’s very frustrating. 

Then comes the end of Mark 8, right after the odd, partial healing of the blind man:

“Who do you say that I am?” Jesus says.

“You are the Christ!” Peter declares. Finally, we think, somebody gets it. They’ve been bumbling around saying, “Who is this man?” Well, now they know. Great job, Peter.

But that isn’t Jesus’s response at all. Instead, he immediately introduces complexity. He tells them he’s going to be rejected by the elders and chief priests. He’s going to be killed and after three days rise again. And, of course, Peter rejects the whole notion. No way the Messiah is going to die! That’s not at all what Peter meant when he proclaimed that Jesus was the Christ. 

And what is Jesus’s response to Peter? “Get behind me, Satan, for you are not setting your mind on the things of God but the things of man.”

So, within a couple of verses, you have someone who finally proclaims correctly that Jesus is the Christ. And then that very person is called Satan. It just doesn’t seem fair. Again, if you’ve been reading since chapter one, you are now just screaming at the text: “Come on! Peter’s the guy who finally got the right answer to the most important question of all. And now he’s being called Satan?” 

What’s going on?

Was it not true that Jesus was the Christ? It was true. But…it wasn’t true enough. At least, not the way Peter understood it. After all, Peter was envisioning a king who would conquer their enemies, not one who would be humiliated and die at the hands of those enemies. Except, what Peter could not see…was that in dying, this king would conquer every enemy, even the greatest enemy, Death itself. See, Peter’s story was true, but it wasn’t true enough. It was true, but it wasn’t big enough. Peter’s story was too small. Was Peter blind? No. But could he see? Not very well. He could see the Messiah, but he looked like a tree walking around. (That’s a bad joke. But you can see where I’m going with this…)

To bring it full circle, I think the deconstruction phenomenon is a similar kind of thing. You start with a very simplistic notion of the Christian story, say, the one you received as a teenager. Back then, you made a decision, and everything changed. It was so simple then. But the problem is: life goes on. So what do you do with the rest of your life?

“Help others to make the same decision!”

Ok, that might work for a while. Until…the complications set in. You begin to realize that your own life still has a lot of gaps and wounds and doubts. You still need a lot more “saving.” Your world is growing and complexifying, but your teenage version of the gospel hasn’t changed at all. It’s that same small world, and it feels like it’s about to break. So what are your options? Well, you can live in the past tense, as many Christians do. Revert back to your teenage enlightenment, and insist that that one simple formula can answer every complex problem you face for the rest of your life. In other words, you can shrink your world for the sake of your faith. Or, you can let your world keep growing and leave your teenage Christian faith behind. Turns out that gospel was wrong. Now you’re truly enlightened. Now you see things clearly. 

But again, Jesus doesn’t allow Peter to go down either of these roads. He doesn’t say: “You’re exactly right, Peter. I’m the Messiah. Now go tell everyone else, so they can be just as enlightened as you are!” Nor does he say, “No, Peter. You’re wrong. I’m not the king you were hoping for.” 

Why not? Both statements would have been true in a sense. But the problem is: both roads lead to a kind of false-enlightenment. In fact, the two roads are not that different from one another. Peter managed to swing from one to the other in a few short verses. First it was: “I know who you are! You’re the Christ!” And then it was: “Well, if that’s the kind of Christ you’re going to be, then never mind.” They aren’t that different.

But Jesus gives him a third way? He takes Peter’s simple statement of faith, and he introduces complexity to it. Not in order to disprove it, but in order to make it bigger. Peter’s version of the gospel was simplistic, but it wasn’t wrong. (In fact, he mostly got his expectations from the Scriptures themselves.) It was just too small. He believed the true king would come, but now he was beginning to see that he had no idea what shape that king might take in a complex and sinful world. 

Likewise, as our worlds grow more complex, many of us are growing out of the gospel story we received, not because it’s untrue, but because it’s too small. The complications of the world cannot fit into it. The complications of our own hearts cannot fit into it. 

Of course, it’s not really that the story is small. There is no bigger, truer story than the gospel. No bigger world than the kingdom of God. But our version of it is too small, just like Peter’s was. And there’s no shame in that. In fact, there’s no escaping it anymore than one could escape crawling before walking or walking before running. It has to start small, because where else would it start? You can look back now at whatever ministry helped you to come to know Jesus, and you can say, “That was so simplistic and naive.” And maybe it was. But that’s no different than saying to your mother, “Why did you treat me like such a child when I was a child?” Because that’s what you were. When you were young, your parents told you, “Don’t touch the stove. Don’t go into the street.” When you get a little older, you notice that grown-ups do both of those things all the time. Those liars! But then you get a little older still. And you realize that people can only learn things a little bit at a time. “When I was a child I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways.” That’s a quote from Paul, speaking about his faith. 

What I’m saying is: The Christian story is a growing story. It starts with whispers of the kingdom of God squeezing their way into the tiny cracks of our hard hearts. We only get a little, though it feels like everything. Like rain on arid ground, it can only go so deep. We get a little, because that’s all we can handle. And then a little more and a little more. 

What was that mysterious saying about the kingdom? Ah, yes. “The kingdom of God is like a mustard seed, the smallest of seeds, which grows into a full tree, and the birds come and perch on its branches.” It has to grow in order to be what it is: to grow in us, as we grow. Or, more properly, we have to grow in our ability to see it. Which leads us to another mystery, which I promised I would come back to: 

Why does Jesus heal the blind man partially before healing him fully? “I see people, but they look like trees walking.” Of course they do! You’ve never seen before! It takes time to see clearly. Let Jesus touch you again. Come to think of it, even once the man is healed fully of his blindness, is he really fully healed? Just because a blind man can be made to see, doesn’t mean he can see very much. At least, not right away. True vision takes time. That’s the lesson of Mark 8, both for the blind man and for Peter: incremental vision

Likewise for you and me. Jesus may have touched your eyes, but what you see now of the kingdom may be only a hazy glimpse. Let him touch you again. Then look again. And again. Once you’ve been in Narnia for a while, you begin to think you’ve seen it all. That’s all there is. Might as well go back home. The trouble is: even if you could find a way back, you wouldn’t feel any more at home on the other side. The good news, though, is that you don’t have to stay where you are either. There’s so much more to see of the kingdom of God–more than you could possibly imagine. After all, the goal of Aslan’s country is always: “Further up and further in.” 

In conclusion, let me combine two of Jesus’s more mysterious sayings: The kingdom of God is like a mustard seed, which grows into the largest tree in the garden. Yet unless the seed falls to the ground and dies, it remains what it is. But if it dies, it bears much fruit. 

So, again, don’t be ashamed of the tension you feel in your heart about the faith you thought you knew. There is always more to see. Only stay and listen. God is in the tension. Some seeds of your faith may need to die, not because they are wrong, but because they were never meant to be only seeds. Seeds are trees in the making.

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