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On Setting, deconstruction and narrative theology…

December 27, 2007

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The past is our definition.  We may strive, with good reason, to escape it, or to escape what is bad in it, but we will escape it only by adding something better to it.      

-Wendell Berry

I am thinking about the powerful influence setting has on character and the way story is framed.  In a series of posts I will attempt to explore how setting and the narratives embedded in setting influence our sense of self and community.  I want to explore how the stories we live in are shaped out of the soil of our setting.  This will be an exercise in postmodern deconstruction.  This is not a bad thing.  It is good to expose the Wizard of Oz as the man he is behind the curtain.  That is the task of deconstruction. 

Who I am has been very much shaped by living in various places.  Los Mochis, Mexico.  Dallas, Texas.  Tulsa, Oklahoma.  Quakertown, Pennsylvania.  Harrisonburg, Virginia.  Lancaster, Pennsylvania. 

I am married to a woman who grew up amidst the rice and soybean fields of southern Louisiana.  She followed her roots to Mennonite schools in the wheat fields of Kansas, the land on which her mother grew up.  So my story is now linked with Branch, Mowata, Crowley, Eunice, Lafayette…Hillsboro, Newton, and Wichita.  My story is embedded in these places.  Like the rings of a tree, these places are somehow inside me and continue to shape who I am. 

Where are you from?  I pause.  Where am I from?  I suppose I am from all these places to varying degrees.  Yet, I am never quite fully at home in any one place.  At least, not in the sense that many people are who have grown up and lived in one place their entire life.  This provides a different sense of place.  A sense of myself as an exile.  An interloper.  This is not all bad.    

I went to 2nd and 3rd grade in a Mexican public school.  I found ways to fit in and be accepted, yet I was always a “gringo.”  My tongue could move seamlessly between English and Spanish without a hint of hesitation.  Like two different houses, I came and went in both languages and felt at home.  Yet, I was aware of being an outsider at times.  Like when I was asked to take a lead role in the end of the year dance.  No doubt my “gringo” status as much as anything gave me an entre into this role.  I fled from the spotlight.  Perhaps it was my personality as a borderline introvert.  Perhaps it was because I was not ready for the attention as a lead character—especially alongside a girl.  I retreated to the margins, unsure of my voice, my place in this thoroughly Mexican script. 

At other times, I was unaware of myself as an outsider.  I played marbles, balero and trompo with my Mexican playmates.  I squeezed limones into my caldo, used tortillas as a utensil to pick up my rice, beans and panela cheese.  Behind my American face, underneath my missionary kid story, was a Mexican appetite, Mexican ways of playing.  My gringo mouth produced the language of the locals with native fluency and accent.  I was a local.  I was a native.  My story became interwoven with the Sinaloa soil. 

Postmodern thought has helped us see that our stories are inextricably shaped by our context.  How does our setting influence the way we engage texts, how we understand our own stories and how we frame the larger stories that answer the big questions.  The particularities of our character and setting influence the way we read and interpret text.  We don’t read the Gospel in a vacuum.  Our worship, our expressions of church do not exist on a platonic level outside the incarnational realities of culture.  Sociology and economics are part of the setting in which we encounter Jesus.  We read the Gospel, we encounter Jesus from a particular vantage point. 

Postmodern deconstruction is about uncovering the reality of our setting.  It is about pulling back the curtain.  It is about exposing the myth of objectivity.  It is about a rejection of insider certitude casting judgment on outsiders who don’t pass the mustard of our narrative’s rubric.  It is about epistemological humilty. How does our perspective change as we deconstruct, as we pull back the curtain. 

Patrick McCullough’s post illustrates this process.  As he was willing to deconstruct some of the false certitudes of the Fundamentalist construct, he was able to encounter the truth of the gospel afresh.  The truth of the written word of Scripture re-situated in the original setting.  Interpreted with an equal commitment to truth as the Fundamentalist approach. 

Brian McLaren is undertaking this same enterprise (deconstruction) in his book, Everything Must Change.  The goal is not to re-invent Jesus and/or the Church.  Rather, it is to expose the ways in which the Gospel has become distorted as it has become embedded in a Modern (setting) iteration.  He is particularly challenging the North American Evangelical iteration of Gospel and Church.  He is re-situating Jesus in his original setting–against the backdrop of Roman Empire.  He is saying that if we are to understand Jesus and his message, we must move beyond pithy platitudes.  An interpretation of text that primarily reads Jesus’ message and life as addressing eternal issues on a spiritual plane, but not really having anything to do with real issues in the real world in the here and now. 

This will have to do for the introduction of this thread.  Next stop:  Making room for U2 in the Christian narrative.

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8 Comments leave one →
  1. December 27, 2007 12:34 pm

    sounds good. i can’t wait to hear this develop.

  2. December 27, 2007 2:12 pm

    You write a seamless and appealing introduction. Looking forward to seeing where they trail leads…what happens as we go from deconstruction to construction is always interesting…how can we construct as an organic process that isn’t contrived?

  3. December 27, 2007 11:31 pm

    That is one of the reasons why, at a broader level, I have found Huntington’s Clash of civilizations thesis quite useful.

    Looking at the civilizational level makes it easier to compare my experience with others. When one narrow is from civilization to this country, or this town, or this school it emphasises the uniqueness.

    It is said that for crosscultural mission, one needs to be bicultural, and I’m not sure if I’ve achieved that, but I can say that I am triicivilizational: African by birth, Western by education and Orthodox by religion.

  4. pistolpete permalink
    December 28, 2007 4:35 am

    It interests me that where my folks come from – in the Appalachian region, conversations often begin with a sense of place (“Where you from?”) and relationship (“Who is your kin?”) Here on Long Island, conversations often begin with where we work – (“What do you do?”) I think this shift illustrates what Richard Neibuhr termed “human beings” to “human doings”. Great post. Stunning image. Where did you find it?

  5. just an apprentice permalink
    December 28, 2007 8:08 am

    Jemila,
    At the Emergent Theological (Philosophical) Conversation at Eastern last spring, I gathered from Caputo and Kearney that there is a stream in philosophy that is moving to a post-secular engagement with your questions. Deconstruction, even in its Derridian itiration, is about dismantling that which is artificial and false. Or, it is at least about uncovering the hidden foundations and assumptions providing a footing for truth claims.

    Christian deconstruction, then, presumes construction. It is a pattern inherent in our framing Story. Death. Resurrection.

    Christians in the Eastern Orthodox tradition put it this way. It is not that we are discovering anything new. Rather, it is that we are uncovering the already existing reality of God–truth, beauty, goodness and the gross distortions of all that in creation.

    I am in this camp. I am not a nihilist. I will address how this postmodern prophetic imagination can strike a balance between deconstruction and construction in my next post (U2 and the Christian community).

  6. just an apprentice permalink
    December 28, 2007 8:12 am

    Pistol Pete,
    I did a search on Google Images for “Americana Farm Scene Painting”

  7. thatremovedcousinagain permalink
    January 4, 2008 12:15 pm

    hey how did u do that …
    get my name here when i came from joel’s blog… thewholepeace.wordpress.com ..any ways …
    mainly it seems most christians feel that postmodern misses the sense of the true absolute beneath the human many devices..to use some nice king james language… me question be ifn u have found a vein of postmodern that is well tuned in to as said in ecclesiates 3rd chapter

    Ecc 3:14 I know that, whatsoever God doeth, it shall be for ever: nothing can be put to it, nor any thing taken from it: and God doeth [it], that [men] should fear before him.

    for me it has been a vein that has been hard to find and if attempted my experience has been…rather poorly done where often fundamentalists do a bit better …but me issues with most modern christian dogmas is thinking the bible makes a case for eternal damnation ..that that the fail to understand reincarnation as compatible with the bible.. .. anyways them be my 2 main bones to pick with most modern christian dogma :) u all take care now u hear :)

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  1. Setting & Narrative Theology, i.e. Context Is King | IAmJoshBrown

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