Tony Jones is the national coordinator of Emergent Village and the author of The New Christians: Dispatches from the Emergent Frontier (coming out next month!). This post is the next in a series that interacts with Jack Caputo's What Would Jesus Deconstruct? The Good News of Postmodernism for the Church. Here Jones reflects on Chapter Five, "What Would Jesus Deconstruct? Or, Whatever Happened to the Sermon on the Mount?"
I'm on the record. I like deconstruction I think it's fun and, truth be told, I don't think that church people are fun enough. I'm also on the record liking this book -- and its author -- and I wrote one of my best blurb lines yet for it: "Caputo is a sheep in wolf's clothing."
But I was a little bummed when I got assigned chapter five for my reflections. It's my least favorite chapter of the book, and I told that to Jack when I read a review copy about a year ago. So I guess it's only fair for me to examine my ambivalence about this chapter. And what better place to do so than on the slog where I once almost swore about the Bible.
Here's what I don't like. I don't like that Jack lands the plane. I like it when deconstruction flies around at 30,000 feet and drops cluster bombs of intellectual TNT on church ladies and M.Div. students. That's fun. I should know, since I do a fair amount of it myself. Shockingly, church groups often pay me to come into their places and deconstruct them. I go Jesus on them, you might say. Or, to avoid a messiah complex, I go Isaiah on them.
Jack does a lot of that in the first four chapters, and he even does it in chapter five when he suggests using Jesus against the Bible. What kind of crazy hermeneutic is that?!? I love it!
But then Jack has to go and climb out of his ivory tower and start walking the streets. No longer safely ensconced in his Derridean cloister, Caputo weighs in on real-life topics: war, women's rights in church, homosexuality, and abortion. He rails against the Bush administration, berates the "Religious Right," and steers us all toward the social teachings of the Catholic church.
Now, I don't begrudge Jack his First Amendment rights. He can write about whatever he wishes. In fact, he should. What he's done takes some courage for an academic, to speak publicly about the issues of the day. Junior faculty are rarely afforded this luxury, but Jack's earned his soapbox.
So why is it so disconcerting to me that Jack would pronounce a verdict on gay rights or abortion? Well, this is where it stops being Jack's problem and becomes my problem. I realize that I like it more at 30,000 feet. It's easier to be a deconstructionist in that rarefied air. Up there I can constantly defer questions that I'm asked. Sure, I'll speak publicly about some things, but others fall in the category of always-answer-a-question-with-another-question. Up there, it pays to be subversive and witty and smart-alecky.
But you can't do that at Walmart. No, in aisle seven at Walmart you have to answer the questions that you're asked. Or at Thanksgiving dinner. Or across the pillow to your spouse. There comes a time when deferral is not deconstructive, it's deceitful. It's a way to keep getting speaking gigs and book contracts and hoping that people from both sides of the theological aisle will listen to what you have to say.
What I'm most afraid of, I suppose (and I fear this for Jack, too), is that someone would hear my answers to a few of the hot questions of the day and call me a "liberal." Or a "conservative." In my mind, I'm clearly neither, and I want to be neither. I want to be "beyond liberal and conservative" -- a phrase I both use and hear a lot -- whatever that means.
But, having re-read Jack's fifth chapter, I wonder: Is it possible to move beyond these damned antitheses, false though they may be?!?
Or is deconstruction's answer to ethical dilemmas, moral dilemmas, all dilemmas always nigh unto liberalism's?