A Review of “What Would Jesus Deconstruct?”

In What Would Jesus Deconstruct?, John Caputo swings his postmodern wrecking ball – deconstruction – against all the cherished forms of religious thought and practice that masquerade as definitive and absolute. Not only is he willing and able to question all representations of statuesque, codified faith, he does so in the name of Christ and claims that his is good news. Caputo presents deconstruction as a loving tool that frees the Church for authentic metanoia – “a fundamental change of heart”[1] – in its own life and ministry. In his words, deconstruction is the “possibility of the impossible” and is therefore the “hermeneutics of the kingdom of God” – a kingdom where the unlovable are loved.[2] While it may seem risky and a little frightening, Caputo believes that the deconstructive way, the via negativa, is the only way forward if the Church is to embody the good news of the kingdom of God in our world today.

Caputo begins his discussion in an unexpected, yet familiar place for most evangelical Christians: what would Jesus do? After revealing the origin of this well-known question in the 1896 book by pastor Charles Sheldon entitled In His Steps, he suggests that the Church should begin asking this question of itself. As it does, it will necessarily be disturbed as it begins to see the “irreducible distance… between itself and Jesus.”[3] This disturbance is the essential work of deconstruction and is absolutely necessary if the Church is to “proclaim and enact and finally disappear into the kingdom that Jesus called for.”[4]

From there, Caputo plays on the phrase “in his steps” to frame the human condition as a journey. For Christians, Jesus’ steps are the ones to follow, but His steps are not easy to follow in everyday life. His steps, while not abandoning reality, always lead beyond it – to the “hyper-real.”[5] In this sense, the journey of a Christian is less about knowing the way and more about finding it; the way of Christ is by faith and not by sight. Caputo shows that deconstruction is a way of being that enables the Christian to stay “under way” on this journey where each step contains a misstep. Next, Caputo presents deconstruction as “a prayer for the impossible.” After introducing the idea of the postmodern event – “something that has already happened but is still arriving”[6] – he names four events for which deconstruction prays: justice, gift, forgiveness, and hospitality. Caputo explains how deconstruction calls the Church to dream about a future where the event becomes reality, to remember the suffering endured for the sake of the event, and to be made responsive to the event in the present day. In justice, gift, forgiveness, and hospitality, the overarching theme – the main event – is love. Contrary to what may be expected, deconstruction is about following the way of love.

At this point, Caputo begins to hone in on the question posed by the title of this book by offering a “theo-poetics of the kingdom”[7] evidenced by the life of Jesus in the New Testament. This theo-poetics is characterized by powerlessness in the form of nonviolence, mercy, and compassion. While Caputo denies that a direct path exists from the “theo-poetics of the impossible to the politics of the possible”,[8] he nevertheless calls the Church to imagine concrete political structures that “make the weakness of God stronger than the power of the world.”[9]  Finally, Caputo makes an attempt at answering the question of “What would Jesus deconstruct?” by addressing five issues concerning the Church today: economic injustice, militarism, patriarchy, abortion, and homosexuality. He makes a compelling demonstration for the implementation of the poetics of Christ into faithful praxis by combining hermeneutics and deconstruction. He concludes the book by presenting case studies of two churches where “deconstruction is being employed under the name of the kingdom.”[10]

Caputo presents an accessible and holistic view of deconstruction as the postmodern good news for the Church. While building on the work of academic and philosophical heavyweights like Jacques Derrida, Emmanuel Levinas, and Soren Kierkegaard, he does a very good job of explaining their thoughts in ways that even a philosophical novice can understand. The abundance and diversity of perspective on the topic also adds to its accessibility. Caputo includes several “deconstruction is” statements that tease out the subtlety inherent in this slippery and shape-shifting topic. Before he even begins to answer the question posed by his title, he takes more than half of the book’s pages to introduce the reader to deconstruction and some of its distinctive qualities. Only after this thorough introduction does he begin to put his deconstructive mind to task on several relevant issues for the Church. When he does, there is something for everyone. His discussion covers a broad spectrum of topics: economics, violence, gender, sexuality, and reproductive rights. Finally, Caputo gives his readers two detailed and divergent accounts of real-life, working churches where deconstruction is happening on the ground. These stories provide the reader with a lasting image of deconstruction at work in the world. With a lengthy and careful introduction to deconstruction, a wide-ranging discussion of a few things Jesus might deconstruct, and two striking examples of embodied deconstruction, Caputo gives his readers a highly nutritious and easily digestible feast of postmodern delight.

While his presentation of deconstruction is both accessible and holistic, and even humorous, it is sure to alienate a specific group of people: the Religious Right. Caputo admits that he is only a philosopher – not a pastor – and this is quite clear from the text. He does not even attempt to hide the fact that that he is intentionally provoking the ire of the Religious Right, along with most conservative evangelicals. He does make some attempts at hospitality to their reservations, but his overall tone remains highly critical. This explicit use of political categories makes deconstruction out to be a tool of “the Left,” which will result in increased resistance and division. Further, by failing to offer any meaningful critique of the Religious Left, Caputo seems to endorse one side of the US political spectrum over another. Without discussing the egregious amount of simplification that is employed when categories like Religious Right and Left are used, Caputo’s political bias drags his readers back into an old, tired battle that many are ready to put behind them, if they have not already.

Flaws aside, What Would Jesus Deconstruct? is an essential text for any Christ follower yearning to see the kingdom of God come on earth as it is in heaven. While many conservative Christians may struggle with Caputo’s political overtones, they should not write off this work – or the theory of deconstruction – as some liberal scheme. Readers with little interest in philosophy may find this book too dense or boring; they should skip to chapters 5 and 6. Finally, this work will not be well received by those who are comfortable or pleased with the status quo. Pharisees beware! Caputo is out to dethrone the authorities of the Church with their oppressive claims of absolute truth. Loved by some and despised by others, What Would Jesus Deconstruct? is a compelling primer to the liberating, life-giving, and loving work of deconstruction the Church desperately needs.

[1] p27

[2] p84

[3] p32

[4] p35

[5] p39

[6] p58

[7] p81

[8] p87

[9] p88

[10] p118


3 comments on “A Review of “What Would Jesus Deconstruct?”

  1. AWESOME. Well written, Joe. I’m excited to read it. If you enjoyed that then check out James K.A. Smith’s “Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism.” And if you’re into that whole concept of the “hyper-real” and the “openness of the advent of the impossible, etc.”… I highly recommend Moltmann’s The Coming of God.

  2. Issachar Habu says:

    Caputo, is a gift to the church. teaching on kingdom truth.

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