What Would Jesus Deconstruct? 1

Before beginning a discussion of the book proper, it’s worth mentioning that What Would Jesus Deconstruct? is the second book in the Church and Postmodern Culture series from Baker Academic. Caputo’s volume comes after James K.A. Smith’s quite helpful and eminently readable (that is, intended for a non-specialist audience) Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism? Taking Derrida, Lyotard, and Foucault to Church. Smith undertook a brief analysis of key aspects of the three philosophers on whose symbolic shoulders stand the philosophical and cultural movement(s) known as postmodernism/ity and how, rather than undermining it, their ideas can actually support the church – particularly in helping to reveal the ways the church has become captive to modernism/ity.

From the Series Preface, by Smith:

“Current discussions in the church – from emergent “postmodern” congregations to mainline “missional” congregations – are increasingly grappling with philosophical and theoretical questions related to postmodernity… Postliberalism – a related “effect” of postmodernism – has engendered a new, confessional ecumenism wherein we find nondenominational evangelical congregations, mainline Protestant churches, and Catholic parishes all wrestling with the challenges of postmodernism and drawing on the culture of postmodernity as an opportunity for rethinking the shape of our churches” (p. 7).

With that in mind, it is worth recounting here that the subtitle of Caputo’s book is “The Good News of Postmodernism for the Church”. For Caputo (and unlike many believers, both “conservative” and “liberal”), the postmodern challenge to modernity is good news, challenging the ways the church has become entrenched in narratives that carry it away from its calling as a people faithful to Jesus.

Caputo opens the book with Charles Sheldon, a turn-of-the-century Kansas pastor. Sheldon is little-known among modern evangelicals, but they’re likely familiar with the subtitle to his 1896 book In His Steps: “What Would Jesus Do?”. It may surprise people today to discover that this book, whose subtitle has become an epitome of Christian cliché, was one of the major inspirations for the Social Gospel movement in the early 20th century. Caputo notes that this flies in the face of the Christian Right’s tendency to use the question as a kind of weapon against those who disagree. It also goes against the question’s having been made a bastion of Christian consumerism, since the question of what Jesus would do repeatedly comes up when people in the book are faced with a situation that requires them to deal directly with the needs of the poor and destitute, those who had been left behind by the spirit of progress and the ideals of capitalism and individualism that were prevalent at the time.

For Caputo, the question is “a very tricky two-edged sword” (p. 19), and one that should just be used against others but, citing Levinas, “put with ourselves in the accusative”, question ourselves and our relationship to the suffering world, instead of using a “beam, as in a two-by-four, to slam others” (p. 24). “Everyone wants Jesus on their side”, he says, instead of the other way around. Caputo argues that the question itself has no bite unless it is also biting us – otherwise it tends to be a way to get others to do what we want them to do, but doing so under the cover of Jesus.

Caputo then takes a brief look at the word “would” within the question. “Would”, he says, carries all the weight in the question, and draws us into the question of hermeneutics. He quotes Nietzsche, who said “there are no facts, only interpretations” (p. 25), and says the question itself poses another question – that of how much work can actually get done once the question’s complexity is considered. It is here that he calls upon deconstruction for help.

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2 Responses

  1. “Caputo notes that this flies in the face of the Christian Right’s tendency to use the question as a kind of weapon against those who disagree.”

    Excellent. I always hated the question “WWJD?” because it seemed silly to try and act like Christ. He has authority that we do not have. Whenever people would say “WWJD?” they always seemed to think of him driving the money changers out of the temples with whips (and equating money changers with ALL sin or types of sinner). But in the context of charity, of giving of oneself completely, of healing, it makes perfect sense.

  2. It’s not often I find a website which makes us want to read more. You use a good writing style so I will continue and read more.

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