What Would Jesus Deconstruct?

Review
You Have Heard It Said
Caputo’s What Would Jesus Deconstruct? sends us to take another look at Jesus.
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It’s a nice idea to think you’re doing what Jesus would do — until you start to think about what Jesus actually would do — and did. Would you really want your child ditching you without so much as asking in order to hang out with the religious leaders of the day? Or how about a son who says to his mother, “Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come” (John 2:4)? If that’s not enough, immediately after quoting Jesus saying just that, John describes a rather memorable incident in which Jesus turns up wielding a whip in the temple.

If it’s never safe or predictable to ask what Jesus would do, it may be even riskier to ask what he would undo. Yet in What Would Jesus Deconstruct?, John D. Caputo charges boldly ahead. He continually reminds us that unpredictability is what characterizes Jesus’ action throughout the Gospels. You never quite know what — or how — Jesus is going to deconstruct, since he takes on both the religious and political powers of his day.

Even though, according to Caputo, it’s the Religious Right that has championed the WWJD question, he insists that if Jesus the Deconstructor were brought back to question the church today, he’d end up surprising — rather than confirming — those on the Right.

Caputo takes particular aim at the ecclesiastical establishment, whether Protestant or Roman Catholic, arguing that their claims of following Jesus have been all too easily assumed. Jesus constantly rebuked the religious establishment of his own day. For example, Jesus’ stinging rebuke of the Pharisees was that they burdened the people by substituting their own laws for those of God: Jesus says, “For the sake of your tradition, you make void the word of God. You hypocrites!” (Matt. 15:6 – 7). These are strong words of deconstruction. And Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount is full of Jesus’ refrain, “You have heard that it was said … but I say to you.” So Jesus was constantly deconstructing prevailing views regarding the law, as well as expectations about what the Messiah was to accomplish.

But wait: Isn’t deconstruction the problem? I remember a chapel speaker at my institution who proclaimed that “deconstruction is the theory that says you can make texts mean anything you want them to mean.” I admit that’s a fairly standard definition of deconstruction, a French term resurrected and redefined by Jacques Derrida. Notoriously difficult to define, deconstruction is not a method or technique. Instead, insisted Derrida, it is the movement of truth coming to the surface. The movement itself is neither negative nor nihilistic, although there’s no doubt that a great deal of mischief has been conducted under the banner of deconstruction, some of it simply silly and some downright evil.

But deconstruction in its simplest meaning is the breaking apart of concepts or texts that reveals their component parts and structure, and allows for reconstruction. Deconstruction questions assumed interpretations and the presumption of institutions to be the rightful arbiters of meaning. As to his own deconstructive readings, Jacques Derrida is a model — if sometimes controversial — reader, and Caputo follows his example.

Applied to Scripture, deconstruction would most helpfully take the form of, “This is what we always assumed that passage was saying, but let’s take another look at it to see if our assumption is right.”

Appropriately enough, Caputo begins with Charles Sheldon’s late nineteenth-century novel In His Steps (with the subtitle “What Would Jesus Do?”). It’s the story of a well-to-do congregation visited by a vagrant who arrives at the Sunday service one morning just after some particularly pious singing (“where he leads me I will follow”) and a stirring sermon, and who asks the uncomfortable question: “What do Christians mean by following the steps of Jesus?” The visitor dies a few days later, but Pastor Maxwell is so taken by the question that he assembles a group of parishioners who all agree to do nothing for an entire year that isn’t preceded by the WWJD question.

Although it’s hardly great literature, the novel shows the characters who agree to live by that question as they discover how much it actually demands of them. One might suspect that Caputo is going to use deconstruction as a way of lessening Jesus’ demands on us, but his strategy is designed to be just the opposite. As long as we’ve tamed Jesus’ teachings, his demands seem high but relatively attainable. But, once we submit ourselves to their full force, then all hell breaks loose.

In fact, a possible criticism of Caputo’s deconstruction is that it is all too demanding, for Caputo reminds us of Jesus’ most uncomfortable teachings. Following Derrida, Caputo emphasizes the “impossibility” of these demands (“for mortals, it is impossible”) rather than the biblical attenuation of those demands (“but for God all things are possible,” Matt. 19:26). If one is to show true hospitality, says Jesus, don’t invite your friends but “the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind” (Luke 14:13) — in short, the people who can’t repay you. When asked about forgiveness, Jesus suggests that there should be an endless supply. So it is Jesus who should be blamed for the hyperbole — assuming it’s really meant as hyperbolic.

Of course, asking such a question and getting a firm answer are two different things. When a parishioner asks Pastor Maxwell, “How am I going to tell what He would do?” he replies, “There is no way that I know of, except as we study Jesus through the medium of the Holy Spirit.”

It comes as no surprise, then, that Caputo’s answers may or may not be exactly like yours or mine. For example, Caputo concludes that Jesus would have supported Alabama Governor Bob Riley in his conviction that the state income tax should favor the poor over the rich, despite the fact that the Christian Coalition (evidently getting a very different answer to WWJD) vehemently opposed him. Likewise, Caputo, although no proponent of abortion, questions why abortion foes seem so concerned about the 1.3 million abortions in the U.S. and considerably less moved by the 10 million children who die of hunger each year. He also has questions regarding homosexuality, male patriarchy, and what he calls “scriptural literalism.”

Asking the WWJD question (in either its “do” or “deconstruct” variants) doesn’t produce uniform responses. Still, both Maxwell’s question and Caputo’s variant are well worth asking. For having the boldness to push his deconstructive reading as far as he does, Caputo is to be commended. Whether one agrees or disagrees with Caputo is less important than that his deconstruction will force anyone who takes it seriously to think more carefully about why they’ve answered the WWJD question in the ways they have. And being pushed in that direction can hardly be a bad thing.

Bruce Ellis Benson is professor and chair of the philosophy department at Wheaton College.

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