With all this talk of deconstruction these days, one problem is that very few people mean precisely the same thing when they use that word.
For some people, deconstructing means losing their faith altogether—becoming atheists, agnostics, or spiritual-but-not-religious nones. For others, deconstructing means still believing in Jesus but struggling with how religious institutions have failed.
And there are also many for whom deconstructing means maintaining an ongoing commitment to orthodox Christianity, as well as a robust commitment to the church—but without the cultural-political baggage associated with the label “evangelicalism.”
On one level, these divergent meanings may suggest that the term deconstruction doesn’t signify any one thing specifically—not without a great deal of qualification, that is. This is true, come to think of it, of the word evangelical these days as well.
But that doesn’t mean that deconstruction is a lesser phenomenon than we think. As a matter of fact, I think the case could be made that all of American evangelical Christianity is deconstructing—at least in some sense of the word.
It’s just that I believe there’s more than one way to deconstruct.
At one level, we can see deconstruction happening in terms of institutions. Someone asked me a few weeks ago what percentage of churches or ministries I thought were divided by the same political and cultural tumults ripping through almost every other facet of American life. I answered, “All of them. One hundred percent.”
I don’t mean that every church is in conflict; many aren’t. But even the churches and ministries that are not descending into warfare are aware of the conflict, and many are vigilant—wondering if one word said, or an event scheduled, might set it off.
Beyond that, at the level of individuals and leaders, we are perhaps not aware that the most dangerous forms of deconstruction are not the people we know who are doubting, scandalized, or traumatized by what they’ve seen in the church. There’s a different form of deconstruction that that could actually destroy us.
I always thought of “burnout” as a rather banal way of communicating exhaustion from overwork. “Make sure you take a vacation,” one might say. “You don’t want to burn out.”
In his new book, The End of Burnout, though, Jonathan Malesic argues that burnout is something else entirely. It is instead “the experience of being pulled between expectations and reality at work.” To illustrate his point, he uses the metaphor of walking on stilts.
Walking on stilts, he writes, is the experience of holding both one’s ideals and the reality of one’s job together. When the two stilts are aligned, one can keep them together and move forward. That doesn’t mean it’s easy, but it’s possible for one to walk. However, when the stilts are misaligned—that is, when the ideal and the reality are radically different—people find different ways to cope, which can lead to a kind of burnout.
Some, he argues, might cling to their ideals while the reality swings away from them. In his case, the metaphor has clear limits—because his point is that we place too high of expectations on our work and careers, expecting them to give us meaning and purpose in life, which they cannot deliver.
In the case of the church, however, we have not expected too much, but too little. The church is meant to shape our character and, if not to grant meaning to our life, then to at least to point us toward the meaning—through worship, mission, and teaching.
Yet some have seen behind the veil to a kind of Christianity that does not even aspire to holiness, love, gentleness, Christlikeness, renewal of mind, bearing of burdens—the kind of church found in the New Testament. These people are often led to the point of exhaustion at the incongruity of it all, perhaps questioning if they were lied to all along.
For some, Malesic contends, the stilt walking falters when they ignore the reality and hold on to their ideals anyway. This is the sort of coping mechanism we see in those who wave away the current crisis in the church by saying, “Well, think of all the good things happening” or “Most people aren’t like that” or “The church was never meant to be made up of perfect people.”
Those things are easy to believe, because there’s a sense in which they are all true. But often, in times like these, what they really mean is “Don’t talk about these matters in public; we can handle them on our own in private, but we don’t want to give Jesus a bad reputation.” The problem is, Jesus never asked his church to protect his reputation, especially by covering up when something wrong or dangerous is done in his name.
But what’s more is that, as Malesic points out in the workplace, the “If we don’t talk about it, it will go away” mentality cannot hold. If our moral ideals are strong but we reassure ourselves with a false version of reality, we will end up seeing through our own delusions—and others certainly will.
And when that happens, it results in a different kind of burnout—frustration. That is, we begin to despair that anything ever can or will eventually be done to fix things.
The most dangerous form of deconstruction, however, is what we see happening in the lives of people who would never see themselves deconstructing. Many of them seem to believe what they’ve always believed, and they still belong to or lead the same institutions they always have.
In fact, they are often the ones heatedly denouncing those who are deconstructing—or the ones still left wondering how and why so much awful fruit could emerge from systems and institutions they presumed to be godly, trusted, and “confessional.”
For some of these people, there’s an entirely different kind of deconstruction or type of burnout.
Malesic argues that this form of burnout happens when their ideals and reality are so divergent that—having to choose one of the stilts on which to cling—they abandon the ideals to settle for the reality as it is.
At first, they can find all sorts of reasons why their former ideals are too unrealistic, even if these reasons are completely incongruent with what they once stood for. People who expect the church to live up to what Jesus demanded of it are said to be “currying favor with elites” or “not realistic about how the world works” or “not seeing what’s at stake if we don’t circle the wagons around ‘the base.’”
In following this strategy, people begin to depersonalize those around them. This leads to cynicism. Once the institution is all that’s left—or “the movement” or “the cause” or the “theology” or, even worse, their own position and platform—they have ultimately torn down their individual character, which is needed to protect and build those institutions.
Even worse, they have deadened the personal conscience needed to hear the call to repent. One can be a hack easily enough in the marketplace or in the political arena. But playing to whatever “the base” wants or expects from the church of Jesus Christ year after year does something far worse—and not just to the institution or the lives of those harmed, but to the very souls of those who play the game.
Once they have whittled down their moral principles to only those that are useful in maintaining their own place of belonging—they have essentially deconstructed themselves.
As we watch evangelicalism in the United States deconstructing in various ways, I wonder if what we should do is not avoid burnout but rather seek the right kind. After all, God’s most miraculous work seems to come at the point of our greatest frustration, helplessness, and even despair.
The prophet Elijah was not crazy to believe that he had encountered a hopeless situation. In his time, the people of God were captive to idols, and to vicious, predatory, narcissistic leadership. But Elijah had to get to the point where he could hear God saying to him, What are you doing here, Elijah?
John the Baptist was not being unreasonable when he sent his disciples to ask Jesus, “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?” (Luke 7:20) And when the disciples on the road to Emmaus said to their traveling companion, the recently crucified Jesus, “We had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel” (24:21)—Jesus revealed to them that their hopes has been met in ways they couldn’t have imagined until that very moment.
The question is not whether we will deconstruct, but what we will deconstruct.
Will it be the wood, hay, and stubble that is destined to burn up and burn out? Or will it be our own souls? Sometimes the people we think are “deconstructing” are just grieving and asking God where he is at a moment like this. That has happened before.
By contrast, sometimes the people who appear most confident and certain—who are scanning the boundaries for heretics—are those who have given up belief in the new birth, in the renewal of the mind, and in the judgment seat of Christ. For them, all that’s left is an orthodoxy grounded not in a living Christ, but in a curated brand.
And that may be the saddest deconstruction of all.
Russell Moore leads the Public Theology Project at Christianity Today.