A postmodern paraphrase of Philippians 2:5-11

The Incarnation is the mad story of the undeconstructible God who did not consider undeconstructibility as something to be grasped, nor did he despise deconstructibility, but rather taking the “human, all too human form” of a servant, he humbled himself to the point of inhabiting the very deconstructible structures of human law and culture—even to the point of suffering death at the hands of these institutions. But he did so not with a view to eviscerating the deconstructible, but rather to rightly ordering it such that the contingent, particularity of this deconstructible creation might reach its proper telos. — James K.A. Smith, What Jesus Did: The Incarnation as a More Radical Hermeneutic

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What Would Jesus Deconstruct? 2

In the last installment of What Would Jesus Deconstruct? I looked at Caputo’s brief account of Charles Sheldon’s book In His Steps and the question of “What would Jesus do?”. He finished the section by saying the question hinges on the one word, “would”, and the “would” draws us into the realm of hermeneutics. It is at this point he calls upon deconstruction, which he has called “radical hermeneutics” in other works.

Caputo points out that the heroes of Sheldon’s book are people who “renounce the profit-making motives that drive capitalism and give up luxury and success for the sake of living among and working on behalf of the poorest of the poor” (p. 25). While the current atmosphere of globalized capitalism recalls the “Gilded Age” in which Sheldon wrote, “the original force of Sheldon’s question has been turned upside-down in the barrage of bracelets and televangelists preaching personal wealth as a sign of God’s approval.”

With this in mind he recalls the opening scene of Sheldon’s book, a fairly pastoral scene (literally) in the church where “the best dressed, most comfortable-looking people” of the town have gathered – when a destitute, dying bum breaks onto the scene, turning the situation upside down – turning harmony into cacophony.

Caputo asks “what would Jesus do – if he ever showed up some Sunday morning? Turn things upside down.” The last first, the meek and poor inheriting the earth, the hungry given good things and the rich sent away empty. Peace? Not peace, but the sword. Family values? No, rather hating father and mother for the sake of the kingdom. Instead of confirming us in our ways and congratulating us for our virtue “we would stand accused” having ignored the plank in our own eye for the speck in that of our neighbor.

Or, to put things in deconstruction terms, “into the sphere of the ‘same’ (the familiar, the customary, the business-as-usual of Sunday services) bursts the ‘advent’ or the ‘event’ of the ‘other,’ of the ‘coming of the other,’ which makes the same tremble and reconfigure” (p. 26). Sheldon opens the novel with a scene of deconstruction.

Caputo says the “event” of Jesus is that of a deep deconstructive force. Whereas deconstruction has been called the hermeneutics of the death of God, he presents it as the hermeneutics of the kingdom, as an interpretive move that helps get at Jesus’ prophetic nature. Jesus breaks into the 1st-century Jewish scene and takes a stand with the “other”. Deconstruction delivers the shock of the “other” to the forces of the “same”, which could also be put in terms of delivering the good, the “ought to be” to the force of being, the “what is”. In this sense, Caputo says deconstruction brings good news to the church – one could say it brings the Gospel to us in the form of that which turns our world upside-down.

The other in deconstruction is not a devil, but rather a figure of truth. “Things get deconstructed by the event of truth that they harbor, an event that sets off unforeseeable and disruptive consequences”, which may be enough to get the event of truth labeled as a devil (or, for that matter, crucified).

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.