An Ongoing Adventure with WWJD?

I first read In His Steps in a comic book version.

Growing up as an evangelical (and still living as one), comic books exposed me to the literature that many evangelicals then considered classic. Cartoons do not re-present this literature well, but In His Steps worked better as a comic than most classic Christian literature.

As a teenager, I read the entire book. The opening scene left a lasting impression. “What would Jesus do?” became (and remains) a viable question. Something about that question still seems right.

As I entered adulthood as a budding scholar and clergyman, however, WWJD lost much of its urgency and bite. Biblical criticism introduced me to legitimate questions about the authenticity of words and deeds attributed to Jesus. My exposure to broader Christendom taught me that the answers Christians gave WWJD depended largely on their individual, communal, and cultural presuppositions. I encountered many—especially in my own evangelical communities—who regarded every one of Jesus’ words and actions as eternal ethical absolutes capable of application to any and every circumstance. Other limitations in the WWJD mantra emerged.

John Caputo explores In His Steps and WWJD in his new book, What Would Jesus Deconstruct? I had such fun reading this book! He captures well both my intuitive fascination with WWJD?, as well as my frustrations with many answers given that question.

The best way for me to review this book is to write autobiographically (in case you hadn’t noticed!). My story begins with the comic book version of In His Steps, but it also involves my ongoing, often apprehensive encounters with Jacques Derrida.

I first encountered Derrida and deconstruction through Mark C. Taylor’s book, Erring: A Postmodern A/theology. The bewilderment that book induced led me to Derrida’s primary writings (in their English translations). The material I read comprised much of what Caputo calls the “early Derrida.”

Derrida (and Taylor) convinced me that words are ambiguous. Texts and contexts are crucial for interpretation, but no foundation exists from which to interpret inerrantly. Derrida introduced me to radical criticisms of language. He pointed to the problems of totalization and finalities. In the end, I was convinced that language cannot serve as an indubitable and certain underpinning. And yet I hungered for a constructive alternative.

I left my encounter with the Taylor and the early Derrida unsatisfied with deconstruction (which should, of course, be expected!). I wanted a reconstruct move to journey out on a life of meaning while simultaneously opposing what seems evil. While I acknowledged the ongoing necessity to criticize totalities, I could not live each moment in that world. And I came to believe that Derrida and his interpreters retained hidden presuppositions that were not themselves offered up to the challenge of deconstruction.

I took a second look at deconstruction thanks to John Caputo’s book, Prayers and Tears for Jacques Derrida. The book became a formidable conversation partner on my journey toward a better way to do and live theology. This second look led me to realize that a deconstruction could play a prophetic role in theology. Deconstruction could become the often-needed reminder that my favorite theological language must continually be evaluated and seen as less than fully satisfying. Some measure of mystery remains.

This autobiographically-oriented review of What Would Jesus Deconstruct requires another self-revelation: I have been deeply influenced by process thought in the Whiteheadian tradition. I know, I’m a strange beast: an evangelical who appreciates Whitehead.

As someone convinced of the value of process thought, however, I’m deeply aware that there are no dogmatic certainties from which to construct theology. And, more to the point of Caputo’s new book, I’m convinced that reality is best understood in terms of event. I’m very excited by Caputo’s positive references to the importance of the event in What Would Jesus Deconstruct? The book’s accent on real relations also warms the heart of this relational theologian/philosopher. I find many points of agreement between Caputo’s form of deconstruction and the process thought of Whitehead and others.

Here’s a short “laundry list” of what I consider some other important ideas in this book: I find valuable although expected Caputo’s emphasis upon being open to “the other.” This is as close to an ethics as I had found in deconstruction prior to reading Caputo, and it appears in this book as well. Caputo’s stress upon rejecting ready-made, prepackaged answers is refreshing. But I also expected this. His focus upon the spiritual life as a journey or adventure is helpful. And I was happy that he explicitly rejected nihilism. This was reassuring given that detractors frequently criticize deconstruction as nihilistic.

There were several claims in What Would Jesus Deconstruct? that were more constructive than I expected. For instance, Caputo claims that the church is deconstructible but the kingdom of God is not. His understanding of the kingdom is powerful, and I must offer a quote: The kingdom “is found every time an offense is forgiven, every time a stranger is made welcome, every time an enemy is embraced, every time the least among us is lifted up, every time the law is made to serve justice, every time a prophetic voice is raised against injustice, every time the law and the prophets are summed up by love.” I know reviewers aren’t supposed to gush with enthusiasm, but I can’t help but respond to this quote with YES!

If you haven’t noticed, I really like Caputo’s book. But there are some things that made me uneasy.

For instance, although I agreed with virtually all of his criticisms of the Religious Right, his rhetoric made me feel uneasy. Maybe I’ve got too many friends in that religious community—with whom I interact daily—and these friendships makes me wish Caputo had used different rhetoric. I don’t know. But the chapter was more abrasive than I prefer.

In the end, Caputo’s book made me think more deeply than I ever have thought about the question raised in the classic, In His Steps: What would Jesus do?

My answer today to WWJD? is simple: Jesus would love. And my answer to Caputo’s question, What Would Jesus Deconstruct? is also simple. Jesus would deconstruct that which hinders love.

I have learned to be wary of simple answers, even—or perhaps especially—when they’re my own. Deconstruction reminds me to be wary. I’m reminded of Whitehead’s wisdom on this: “Seek simplicity, but distrust it.”

Although Caputo doesn’t say it explicitly, this book reminds me that deconstruction has a role to play in how I think about love. Deconstruction destabilizes my most cherished love definitions. It reminds me that my formulations—however helpful—are incomplete and always in need of reassessment. And deconstruction urges me to think afresh what love might mean today—in this event.

With love in mind, let me offer an odd conclusion to this already odd review. I conclude with my favorite line from Caputo’s book: “Those who think that they are too smart or too sophisticated to talk about love are just the ones to be misled.” What Would Jesus Deconstruct? can help us not be misled.

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