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Deconstruction Part 2

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If you have not done so, I urge you to read my first post on Deconstruction before continuing (reading time: 4-5 minutes).

“Deconstruction” is a popular term in some places (on and offline) referring to the coming apart of one’s belief system. In my first post on deconstruction, I highlighted it as a positive, normal part of growth – we experience things that do not fit with the belief structure inherited from what we consider our highest authority, and our reliance on that highest authority breaks down; later, possibly, we begin to honour ways that others express our core beliefs in significantly different ways; and so our journey continues…

As a teenager, I valued the experiential focus of a Pentecostal church, but reading the Bible from Genesis 1, I didn’t last a week with their fundamentalist framing as the leader of the youth group had no reply when I informed him that “a friend of mine” had a question about the difference in order between Genesis 1 and 2! Much later, when I was already a priest, the founder of this particular church came and chatted with me – he wanted to bring more theology to that church. They had done some statistical analysis and were finding that people were staying on average for 5-7 years, and when they left, they generally did not go to a different church or denomination. They left church, full stop.

For those who left, important prayers were not answered, or the loved one was not healed, or finances did not improve with tithing, or simply actually reading the Bible (as teenage I did) found stuff that had no simple, ready answers. To be fair but generalising, Anglicanism may be great for the long haul (“Catholicism for Adults”) but it really struggles to enthuse falling in love with Jesus. This Pentecostal church (and others) was great at helping people fall in love with Jesus, but they didn’t have the resources to build the infatuation into a life-long committed relationship. Anglicanism can be a church mainly full of older people. Pentecostalism can be a church mainly full of younger people.

A lot of the deconstruction that I have observed ends up in atheism or strong agnosticism. A lot of the deconstruction that I have observed abandons American-style evangelicalism and fundamentalism without paying much attention to majority, contemporary, quality Christian scholarship. And when such scholarship is acknowledged, it is often misrepresented and weaponised. It is exactly following the pathway described by my Pentecostal pastor friend.

A recent discussion online illustrates this. Savannah Carreno has nearly 28 thousand followers on Instagram and posts dynamic, interesting videos:

…All four gospels were written about 100 years after Jesus had died so most of their contents is the result of a very committed game of telephone. Imagine writing about the life and death of someone who died in 1923 and nothing had been written about them before and you’re just going off of stories that have been passed down from generations of people that aren’t their relatives…

Savannah Rae Carreno

I agree with a lot of what Savannah is saying, but there is a sting in her tale which completely disconnects the scriptures and Christianity from any real, incarnational connection to a historical Jesus. And it is done by feigning usage of majority contemporary scholarship and gaslighting anyone who challenges any of her points.

The dating of the four Gospels to all be after 130 CE is simply what people post-Trump call an “alternative fact”. Not long ago it would be called false.

I commented to Savannah, “I always value what you say … But my main point: that all 4 gospels date to after 130 CE is a surprising assertion of yours. Which reliable scholarship would say that? Your points would not be lessened by following a more scholarly dating. All the best. & thanks.”

Savannah responded, “I have most of these dates memorized from grad school, but Columbia University does a great article on the breakdown of these dates for each specific Gospel if you’re interested. Here’s the link you can copy and paste in your browser. https://www.college.columbia.edu/core/node/1754

That link essentially presents the majority contemporary position that I would hold to:

The four canonical gospels—Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John—were all composed within the Roman Empire between 70 and 110 C.E (± five to ten years) as biographies of Jesus of Nazareth. Written a generation after the death of Jesus (ca. 30 C.E)

Historical Context for Luke/John by Unknown

When I pointed this out to Savannah, highlighting that contemporary scholarship has the gospels written 35-75 years after Jesus’ death, she doubled down that some of the gospels were “written 100 to 150 years after his death”.

My response to this included: “So, it is not like your suggestion of us writing about something that happened in 1923. Mark would be like writing something now that happened in the 1980s; Matthew and Luke base their (later) work on Mark. The point of your video is unchanged – your video just comes over badly when you make assertions like the gospels being written more than 100 years after Jesus’ death; and then even more so when you become defensive about your error.”

I also want to underscore that oral cultures pass on stories in a way that (we) white people have mostly (but not totally) lost. The claim that the four gospels result from a 100-150 year “game of telephone” simply belittles oral cultures (as well as, in this case, spreading misinformation about the gospels’ age and process of formation). I remind those who need this that the North-American term “game of telephone” refers to: “Players form a line or circle, and the first player comes up with a message and whispers it to the ear of the second person in the line. The second player repeats the message to the third player, and so on. When the last player is reached, they announce the message they just heard, to the entire group.”

Most memorably, as a “Telephone” example, was the statement that started, “Send reinforcements. We are going to advance.” This concluded, after being passed on orally, as, “Send three and fourpence. We are going to a dance.” The point is: calling the gospels the result of over a hundred years of a game of telephone is saying that there is nothing left of historicity within the gospel genres. Not only has Savannah stretched the timeline beyond any eye-witnesses possibly being alive, she explicitly denies any contemporarily accepted theories of written texts as being used in any of the four gospels we now have.

Reducing all truth to security-camera type footage misunderstands that other genres can convey truth differently and also express historical events in a different way.

Living in the Pacific, one becomes acutely aware of indigenous people who expertly navigated this vast ocean and passed on history and important information orally; the vast Inca Empire functioned without writing; the Aboriginal peoples are the world’s longest continuous culture, passing on their culture and stories orally.

That the gospels are not security-camera type footage of the life of Jesus, majority contemporary scholarship would underscore. But the struggles that white people have to memorise and pass on things orally should not be taken as the determining lens for examining the gospels. And imagining a white American 100-year game of Telephone is nothing like the process that resulted in our four gospels.

In her responses to me, Savannah pointed to some of her faith history. Until relatively recently, she was a pastor in an American Pentecostal church. She has simply continued her same engaging Instagram presence, morphing from enthusiastic preaching of an American Pentecostal message, with its necessary apologetics, to earnest exhortation of her many followers to deconstruct as illustrated above.

It is a common experience when devout Christians, innocent of contemporary scholarship, encounter such scholarship that there is a faith crisis. If one thread in the tapestry of beliefs is pulled, the whole cloth can unravel. If Genesis 1 is not history and science, to pick up the example I used above, what truth is there to the rest of the Bible… The experience of many who study theology is of dismembering a body and studying and analysing the different organs and so forth; but what many of them end up with, when they attempt to, Frankenstein-like, stitch all back together again to form a living body of spirituality, can be a rejection of such contemporary scholarship and shoring up of fundamentalist-style tendencies, or abandonment of the devotional life that led them into such theological study in the first place.

I have long advocated for the value of strong contemplative and liturgical foundations that facilitate and enable a strong core with soft edges. I have long advocated for a spiritual year as a foundation for theological study and ministry training and formation. And I abhor preachers and church teachers who “shield” congregants from the truths that shocked them in their seminary or theological studies. Christians – in the pew and in the pulpit – need contemplative foundations, acceptance of contemporary scholarship (in all fields), as well as agility online, and confidence as they face their own, and others’, ongoing deconstruction.

To round out today’s reflection: Christianity, the church, followers of Jesus well deserve the critique and criticism of fragmentation, contradictions, dishonesty, falsity, and outright evil that deconstruction highlights, but those who encourage and facilitate deconstruction are also not immune to criticism.

Deconstruction Part 3 is here.

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5 thoughts on “Deconstruction Part 2”

  1. I’ve been closely following a US podcast called ‘Heretics Anonymous’ and its associated FB page Heresey After Hours. Aslo a number of other US commentators – eg: https://www.facebook.com/jacobmawright, https://www.facebook.com/keithagiles, and of course Nadia Bolz Weber. I believe at least the first two would use ‘deconstruction’ terminology and Nadia may too.

    I’ve observed that the base reference (deconstructing from what) is a toxic, Calvinist, Evangelicanism. What is being rejected is almosr always a combination of some or all of the following:
    – A Christainity that is focused on the after-life, whose primary purpose is getting to heaven, and a notion of ‘salvation’ that is also enirely other-worldy
    – The notion of Hell as a place of eternal conscious torment (ECT), aka ‘infernalism’
    – A theology of exclusion, in favour of an inclusive approach, so certainly
    – Homophobia and Mysogyny
    – and. often the institutional church. This seems to follow from personal experiences in toxic environments that render people incapable of seeing anything good about institutions that foster or encourage the rejected belifes and attitudes. As you say, sadly, this leads many to reject christian faith entirely.

    But there are attempts at reconstruction. I see many requests for advice on finding churches or parishes that are inclusive or more radical or liberal in their theology. I have never encoutered the kind of ignorance you cite (Gospels written in the seconf century!!) and people like Wright and Giles are theologicaly astute and encouraging.

    My own background was Catholic (I was a teenager as Vatican II was impelemented) but I shfted to Anglicanism in the 90s, largely because of the impact of the betrayal of Vatican II by JPII. I’ve been stufdying theology and would characterise my own journey as a progressive evolution, rather than a deconstruction. But I’ve come to sit where many of thise fleeing toxic Evangelicanism have ended up, viz:

    – Christian Universalism/Ultimate Redemption (see David Bentley Hart, Robin Parry, Keith Giles….and Gregory of Nyssa) – the view that God saves only through Christ but that Christ does indeed save ‘all’.
    – A rejection of Penal Subtitutionary Atonememtn as both blasphemous and Herectical, as the Eastern church has always held
    – A rejection of the notion of ECT as morally unintelligible and utterly inconsistent with the God revealed in Jesus
    – an inclusive Christianinty, freed of homophobia and mysogyny.

    I’m firmly of the view that this is the future of the Church.

    1. Thanks, Phil – you description has many parallels with my own journey and one that I hope that people can feel they can safely undertake. Blessings.

  2. Whilst you probably have another decade or two left, as i may I, If you cark it first, i will truly mourn your passing, & not just as smeone whose company i enjoyed @St Johns in the “90’s;

    But very much for your oh so valuable site, wit and thoroughly enjoyable stands on the truths of orthodoxy in our enormous long winding miserably failing and falling life journey.

    As his people who ought to know better and be doing a far far better job of letting the Holy Spirit led us to those who are hungry and thirsty for kai and moana of all forms, and are thirsty and don’t even really know it, for awareness of something, someone who can point them to One who is truth and life and bread and etc.

    A very succinct and helpful subject Bosco.
    & as we say in west africa
    Blessing blessings
    Paddy and T

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