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Death to Deconstruction 3--What Is the Bible and How Do We Read It?

The other day, I got a text from my wife: “Zack’s art class ends at 5:45.”

What does this mysterious text mean?

Well, it depends. Perhaps it is just informative—my wife simply wanted to give me information so that I could better understand reality. Zack’s art class getting out at 5:45 is a truth about reality that my wife felt I needed to know. Perhaps, but not likely.

Maybe the text is metaphorical—“Art class” is a symbol for the stage of life when you are a learner, before you can create on your own for your own enjoyment. Perhaps “5:45” is a metaphor for “the time of day when work usually gets out.” Maybe the true point of the text is a deeper commentary on life:

“It’s only when we step away from work that we can be truly creative.” Again, perhaps, but not likely.

But what if you knew more about my relationship to my wife and the conversations between us not included in the text? What if I told you that one day a week, my son takes an art class that ends at 5:45. On these days, instead of leaving work to come home at 5:30, I leave work at 5:40 and go to pick him up at class. What if I told you my wife worries I will forget him?

With that information, the meaning of the text is obvious. It isn’t just information. It’s not a metaphor for a deeper spiritual truth. It’s a helpful reminder from one person to another that seeks to evoke a response. The “meaning” of the text is: “Don’t forget to pick Zack up at 5:45.”

The same phenomenon applies to the Bible.

In Death to Deconstruction: Reclaiming Faithfulness as an Act of Rebellion, Joshua S. Porter appeals to a generation abandoning the faith, urging them to choose a more nuanced faithfulness instead of outright rejection of orthodox Christianity. He structures his book around five “great predators”: biblical illiteracy, the problem of evil, a politicized Christianity, hypocrisy, and self-denial, laying out paths forward within orthodoxy avoiding each.

Over the next few weeks, I am going to work through Porter’s book and offer a response. The book is great—there is much I agree with. However, I sympathize with the deconstruction trend more than Porter does, and so I will also talk a little about how toxic streams within evangelical culture have contributed to the deconstruction movement and how often deconstruction is a rejection of American evangelicalism and not a rejection of Jesus. I also want to suggest a path forward for reform and paint a picture of what a post-evangelicalism could look like.

I my last post, I discussed Porter’s first “great predator”: biblical illiteracy. Porter insists that the Bible is not the obstacle to faith, but rather “biblical illiteracy.” By that he means that most American evangelicals don’t know what the Bible is. Usually, when I hear the phrase “biblical illiteracy,” I hear it used in the context of people not knowing the content of the Bible. But that’s not what Porter means by it—he means that most people don’t know what kind of book the Bible is or how it should be read. “The left” tends to downplay the authority of the Scriptures by elevating the interpreter as the arbiter of truth. “The right” tends to have woodenly literal interpretations. The solution, according to Porter, is a “mysterious” middle way. Porter writes:

“The left does not receive the Scriptures as truth from God. The right doesn’t enter into the complicated work of inspecting the Scriptures to discover what they actually teach. Mystery, for human beings, is uncomfortable. Mystery takes time. Ancient students of the Scriptures took this for granted, that the Bible gives up more of its riches across a lifetime of meditation, but we are the people of Amazon Prime. We like our mysteries resolved with ruthless efficiency. A book that is somehow both human and divine is mysterious, and we’d prefer it to be one way or the other. Jesus, on the other hand, accepted this mystic dichotomy as a given.” (70)

Before I offer my two cents on what the Bible is and what it isn’t, I want to point out that I love the Bible. I tell people “I traded my 20s for a better understanding of the Bible.” I spent ages 18–27 in Bible college and seminary. I have a Masters degree in New Testament Theology and I read it in the original languages. I read through the Greek New Testament twice per year and the Old Testament (in English) once per year. I love the Bible.

I tend to read the Bible as if I was reading wisdom passed down from the saints who have gone before. Further—the Spirit of God was active in creating the Scriptures so that their teaching is authoritative. We receive it from God. We don’t stand over it and judge it.

When I read an email or a text, I try to discern authorial intent—what is the sender trying to communicate and how does he or she want me to respond? What does it mean that “Zack’s art class ends at 5:45”? I do this with the Bible, too. Granted, it is more difficult, as the Bible was written thousands of years ago by people from another culture whom I have never met. But difficulties do not mean impossibilities. When Paul says, “Flee sexual immorality,” we can figure out what he means by that.

I think it would be helpful for more American evangelicals to understand that not all the Bible is meant to read the same way. Paul’s letters are mostly corrective instructions, written to churches to clarify matters of faith and worship. The Psalms are very different—they are art. The Proverbs are adages. All these books should be read differently.

I read the Scriptures like I would read any other letter written to me—I try to discern the intent of the text’s creator. What does he or she want me to do in response to their work? Why did he or she create this? What was he or she trying to say? Further, I recognize that God Himself was involved in the creation of the Scriptures, so that the words of the Bible aren’t mere suggestions or works of art that we stand over and critique, they are instructions for the life we are meant to live. Finally, the Scriptures are certainly more than just instructions for life, but they aren’t less. I’ll come back to this in a later post.

What is your relationship to the Bible? What role do you hope the Bible plays in the church of the future?

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