Politics of Discipleship for Our Present Tense

“Tower, Lindsey. Tower.” This was Logan’s last piece of advice to me as he got out of my car Saturday morning before my presentation. Though it was in response to my question about whether or not I should wear flats or these wonderfully high boots (clearly he suggested I go for the boots), I carried his words with me throughout the day.

Friday evening, I’d found myself insanely anxious about returning to the philosophy department at Cornerstone University. I never felt like I fully fit in the department during my undergrad nor did I feel like my professors quite knew what to make of me. I might have been a bit pugnacious back then (my former advisor, Dr. VanDyke, even introduced me to the new provost there with that description). It was somewhat daunting to go back and face the woman I had been and the men who’ve profoundly influenced me intellectually.

Though I was warmly welcomed, and had great conversations with VanDyke at dinner Friday evening, I still wasn’t perfectly at ease Saturday morning. It was the first time I would be publically presenting the method I came up with in my master’s thesis (positioned reconstructive deconstruction). How would it be received? And how would they respond to my interpretation of postmodernity? Would they object to the unobtrusive presence of the Church in my presentation? On and on my anxieties raged. “Tower, Lindsey. Tower.”  I just had to stand unapologetically tall.

Very much to my surprise, the room Mike and I presented our papers in quickly filled up with 15-20 attendees including VanDyke and my philosophy professor Dr. Bonzo. To my relief, Mike presented his paper (about how Mark Twain teaches us that the Church’s practices could use to allow themselves to be open to irreverence as a way of helping us learn where we need to reform) first. When I stood up to give my paper I was incredibly relieved that the podium was positioned in a corner.

“Since I’m somewhat unstable in heels and because I’d like to lend a relaxed feel to this presentation, I’ll be leaning against the wall a little as I speak” (in truth I was shaking). “It struck me during Mike’s presentation how well we’ve been paired together. While his paper dealt with the internal structure of the Church, mine is about how the Church can move into culture.

Before starting, it’s important to recognize that I realize my paper might come off as wildly optimistic. This is not because I don’t realize the potential problems with postmodernity but because I intend to leave you all with a sense of its possibilities. Hopefully as I speak you will hear the undertones of some of what Jamie Smith presented yesterday about the transformative power of narrative, that you will think of the prophetic imagination that Dr. Walsh talked about, and of Bonzo’s challenge to Empire. You might notice that the Church does not play a specific role in my presentation. This is because the Church, for me, is the dispersed church in culture. While this is something in my thought and writing that might need to be reformed, this is the position my paper takes.”    

After this introduction, I launched into my presentation beginning by reading Arthur O’Shaughnessy’s poem “Ode”  and flowing through my paper, adding in side notes and reciting some of it from memory (soon enough, I wasn’t shaking). Below is a somewhat abbreviated version of my paper. Sadly, I’ve had to leave out many of my illustrations. Please, feel free to comment or ask for clarification.

Positioned (Re)constructive Deconstruction: Following Christ as Music-Makers & Dreamers of Dreams  

We are the music-makers,
And we are the dreamers of dreams,
Wandering by lone sea-breakers,
And sitting by desolate streams;
World-losers and world-forsakers,
On whom the pale moon gleams:
Yet we are the movers and shakers
Of the world for ever it seems.

We, in the ages lying
In the buried past of the earth,
Build Nineveh with our sighing,
And Babel itself with our mirth;
And o’erthrew them with prophesying
To the old of the new world’s worth;
For each age is a dream that is dying,
Or one that is coming to birth.

 The final lines, from this Arthur O’Shaughnessy’s poem “Ode,” aptly describe our age in which the dream of Modernity has been slowly dying, and in which Postmodernity has been coming to birth. When answering the question, ‘What time is it?’ it starts here with Postmodernity in her early development and Modernity shuddering on his deathbed as his systems fail.

For us, Millennials born into the postmodern dream, the challenge is not to adopt a postmodern identity or adapt to the postmodern world, for we belong already. Instead, it is to engaging postmodernity as the music-makers, dreamers of dreams, world-losers and world-forsakers who will be the movers and shakers of our age, who will be the builders of our cities and authors of our story. And, for us as Christians, the challenge is for our identity as disciples of Christ, as participants in a covenantal relationship with Yahweh, to inform and direct how we live in and shape the dream of postmodernity.

In the process of teasing out the possibilities available to us as we accept this challenge, I will be presenting positioned (re)constructive deconstruction as a method for moving beyond criticizing the failing systems of Modernity to the challenging work of creating and revitalizing our communities, organizations and systems as Christians within postmodernity. 


Naming the Present

What does it mean to be living within the postmodern dream? This is a challenging question to answer because any living dream is in a constant state of change, of evolution.It’s best to begin by defining who we are within this dream. John D. Caputo’s observation about contemporary philosophers, in his work On Religion, is applicable to us. Our tendency is “more and more to unmask the modern unmaskers, to criticize the modernist critiques, to grow disenchanted with the disenchanters, to question modernity’s prejudice against prejudice, and to look around for a new Enlightenment, one that is enlightened about the (old) Enlightenment” (37). In short, we are critics of the Modern dream, of its optimism, its objectivity, its rationalism.

Interestingly, our criticism has opened up lines of communication between the modern and pre-modern world (which is why postmodernism is accused of being both hypermodern and pre-modern). As Caputo puts it, in the process of becoming critical of the critics, the position we inhabit is both post-critical and “interestingly like but importantly unlike the pre-critical position” (38). This can be seen in the revival of traditions: more people in their twenties and thirties finding themselves drawn to liturgy, a rival of agrarian values, etc.

If one were to describe the postmodern world, as a whole, is best to describe it in terms of broadening lines of communication, not only between our pasts and present, but between particular locals and the global, across economic, religious and cultural boundaries. It is a world not only of discourse in all directions but of intercourse and inter-dependency in all directions. Complete isolation has been both disillusioned and made impossible. As a result, we have broad identities as we belong to, depend on and discourse with these diverse communities.

Most importantly, we live in a world in which difference makes a difference. In which we are able to claim our diverse identities and allow them, allow even the contradictions between them, to influence the way we work, live and shape our communities. In which we are able to locate ourselves within our specific local communities, and our particular histories, but still speak into the broader culture. For the moment, the implication of this is that our Christian discipleship need not be closeted. Our identity in Christ is among the identities that our work, our art, our thought must be informed by even outside of our Christian communities. Even as we locate ourselves within the Church, we are not confined by that boundary but are able to speak across it.

Discipleship 101

Now that we have, at the very least, a sketch of the dream in which we live, we need a working definition of discipleship. As Stanley Hauerwas states, it is important that we meet the world on our terms. His definition of discipleship, though somewhat altered, helps to set those terms. To be a disciple of Christ means to share in his story and in the story of God I history and to participate in it.     

There are two primary implications that this has for us as disciples:

The first is that being a disciple means being a storyteller, sharing with family, friends, neighbors and strangers this narrative that informs us about the truest nature of ourselves, the created universe and our relation with God. Pay close attention to these words I am using: story, narrative. We are not bearers of cold hard facts called to lecture undynamic, dehistoricized, uncontradictory and uncomplicated truths to the masses. Like any good story, this one is full of challenging paradoxes, of complicated answers and a host of wildly imperfect but lovable characters. The truths imparted are layered and cannot be so easily, at least not responsibly, subtracted from context.

The second is that we are characters within this story of God with the world. As Pastor Rick McKinley states in his sermon series “Living into the Story of God, “The fabric of creation implies that actually holiness is meant to show up in hours and weeks, in clocks that keep ticking and months that keep passing.” Every aspect of our lives, our relationships, our careers, our hobbies, are included in this story and have a subtly religious purpose to demonstrate the character of God and witness to the power of this narrative. The primary attributes of God that we are meant to model are His justice, mercy and love.

Both as storytellers and as characters within a broader story, we have a distinct identity as followers of Christ. The result of the nature of this narrative is that the past is always present in our future. This is where our conversation about postmodernism and our conversation about discipleship come into dialogue with each other. Modernity told us that our religious identity was only relevant in religious settings. Modernity told us to leave the past in the past, or at the very least to neutralize it through oversimplifying it-eradicating it’s contradictions and dynamism. Modernity told us that if we located ourselves within the church we could only speak to the church about church-y things. Postmodernity removes these constraints. As a result, the barrier between the Secular and the Sacred is now permeable.

We are able to claim all of our identities not only as Christians, as Americans, as Anglo-Saxons or Asians or Africans, as male or female, etc. Like the artist in Hall’s illustrations, these identities are differences that make a difference, that must make a difference in how we act, live and relate. While our national and cultural histories are becoming more complex as postmodernity allows voices from the margins to disillusion previous presentations of the past, we have been reclaiming the narrative nature of our faith. We are grasping our story of God with us through desire, memory and reconstruction. As narrative, it is becoming a more vital and living resource for our present. Though we are located in the church, we are able to speak across this boundary.

Therefore, the conditions of our postmodern dream have the potentiality of helping us to deepen our discipleship. These conditions open up the church to the world and the world to the church. They are helping us to reclaim the knowledge that the purpose of discipleship is that all aspect of life would be consecrated to God. Here is where we come to our final question, “What do we do now?”

  Positioned (Re)constructive Deconstruction

As disciples called to consecrate all of life to God, intended to exemplify justice, love and mercy and in such a way as to help God’s Kingdom to erupt through our reality, we must play a part in this postmodern dream as music-makers and dreamers of dreams who will move and shake this world. At the beginning, I said that as the dream of modernity dies its systems are failing. It is easy to see how our inherited systems (such as our economy, our political system) and our anonymous, objectively structured institutions and utilitarian communities are becoming increasingly unstable and inadequate. No longer confined to our churches, it is our role and responsibility to be a part of restructuring, repairing and revitalizing these systems, institutions and communities.

How can we do this without committing the sins of the radical right (who happen to be radically modern in their imperialism)? How do we do this on our own terms, without compromising our Christian identity and commission? The answer that I am proposing is to use positioned (re)constructive deconstruction as a method to guide us, to help us utilize the potentialities of postmodernism without pandering to its tendency towards despair or becoming disciples of the world and not God.  

What is positioned (re)constructive deconstruction? The best way to explain it is to dissect and define it word by word. Though deconstruction is listed last, it is at the heart of this method. Deconstruction, here, does not mean to simply dismantle a construction. The definition at work in this method is both like and unlike French philosopher Jacques Derrida’s deconstruction. It is unlike his deconstruction in that it is not an endless academic game playing with the infinite semiosis of meaning in language. That type of deconstruction is not capable of ever moving into construction. Its purpose is purely to play, to break apart systems and reveal hidden connections. As a result of its oversensitivity to contingency, it is destructive.     

Our deconstruction cannot be uncoupled from (re)construction. it is like Derrida’s affirmative deconstruction that he speaks of and sees at work in the inauguration of a new doctoral program in philosophy at Villanova University. There he and Caputo argue that deconstruction is not destructive, it is affirmative. He states,

However affirmative deconstruction is, it is affirmative in a way that is not simply positive, not simply conservation, not simply a way of repeating the given institution. I think the life of an institution implies that we are able to criticize, to transform, to open the institution to its own future…That is what deconstruction is made of: not the mixture but the tension between memory, fidelity, the preservation of something that has been given to us, and, at the same time, heterogeneity, something absolutely new, and a break (5-6 Deconstruction in a Nutshell).

Deconstruction in this sense brings the past into the present and opens up the present to the future. It is a way of structuring an institution or system or community in a way that is necessarily risky because it is necessarily open, open to questioning itself, opening to changing directions, open to the radical other.

Like Betonoie in Ceremony, we must keep traditions alive by reinventing them not simply repeating them. Our reinvention must be guided by justice. Justice must be the force that breaks open our systems to the future. Where our systems are inhumane and unjust, they must be rethought and restructured. The rules of play, of deconstruction, necessitate that we create in relationship with what is given. Within a text the given threads are language, words at play, within a system or institution the given threads are history, are the conditions of its positioning and ours.

Positioning is the last element of our method. It refers to place, time and culture. It refers to the history of an institution, community or system. But these terms do not denote uncomplicated, uncontradictory, undynamic things. For what we are learning in postmodernity, as more voices immerge from the margins, is that place and time and culture and history are complicate, dynamic and layered. What we have also learned is that all of our systems are by necessity affected by their positioning. Modernity didn’t believe this, it thought that one system could fit all times and places and people. We know now this is not only false but also often fatal.

Positioned (re)constructive deconstruction is intentional about its positioning. Intentionally in that it avoids the arrogance and violence of Modernity’s imperialism by not claiming to be a solution or system for all times, all places or all people. It recognizes that it is a construction for a particular place, at a particular time, for a particular culture. This is not to imply that others might not benefit from it, or that within a week or a year it will necessarily be irrelevant, but it recognizes its own contingency. In this way, it is a positioning that is preparing to be unpositioned.  

It also purposeful participates in time, place and culture. Meaning that the richness of our local, cultural and personal resources intentionally inform our reconstructive deconstruction. They are, in fact, essential for the viability and vitality of the systems, institutions and communities we  (re)create. The repetition of this “re” is a reminder that we cannot create out of nothing. The systems that we have inherited are a part of our positioning that we must wrestle with even as we revise them.

I propose this method for us as disciples because it is compatible with our commission without being confined to it. Through it, our positioning within the church, within the story of God, is able to be one of the resources that we bring into a conversation that extends outside of the church. The narrative nature of reconstructive deconstruction, its source itself in text and language, complements our narrative calling. The concern for justice motivating deconstruction, is our concern as well. Therefore, I propose that through participating in and initiating positioned (re)constructive deconstruction of the systems, institutions and communities to which we already belong (including but not limited to our churches) we are able to be disciples in our broader culture.       

            Frankly, I am not telling you this to help you sleep better at night. To point you in the direction of the systems or institutions or communities I believe you need to constructively deconstruct. That is for you to determine and for each of us these will be different. I am not here to give you a pat path to follow Christ down and negotiate through this postmodern dream. I do not intend to tell you exactly what songs to sing or dreams to dream in order to move and shake this world.  The broadness, fluidity and inexactitude of this discourse is purposeful. My hope has never been to present the answer for you but to lend you guidance, hope and a sense of the possibilities of the impossible future within this postmodern dream. To leave you with the knowledge that you are storytellers and characters within the story of God with the world which comes with a commission to ourselves act within the world.  My goal is to leave you with the question, “What will you do now?” 

The presentation was well received and ended with a question and answer period, which is almost always something of a dialogue. Instead of recapping the questions asked, I would love for you all to share your thoughts and questions with me in the comments.

*Note that the material on my blog is copyrighted. I do not mind if you quote or reference my ideas, simply give me credit.

One thought on “Politics of Discipleship for Our Present Tense

  1. Well I think a congratulations is definitely in order here! It sounds like your presentation went superbly (although I expected nothing less) and I’m going to be sharing this with Scott – he likes Haurwaus. I think my favorite lines were: “…we must keep traditions alive by reinventing them not simply repeating them. Our reinvention must be guided by justice. Justice must be the force that breaks open our systems to the future. Where our systems are inhumane and unjust, they must be rethought and restructured.” Very powerful! And I really resonated with your idea that we need to take what we’ve learned out into the world, into the institutions we’re a part of. I think most people see this as discipleship but it rarely happens. Congrats again! And I wish I had been there!! :)

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