Sometimes book titles obscure their interior message. An attention-grabbing, provocative title might wrap around a rote interior of boring, uninsightful ideas.
But Death to Deconstruction: Reclaiming Faithfulness as an Act of Rebellion by Joshua S. Porter delivers, with chapters like “Cocaine meltdown somewhere in middle America,” detailing the high-octane lifestyle of the author when he toured with his punk rock band. Or how about, “My father was a racist and I loved him,” where he recounts growing up in a racist church in Georgia?
Porter’s band Show Bread was no joke. Playing gigs meant donning eyeshadow, spitting fake blood, and using fire in creative ways (in addition to the indispensable screaming and shredding). He grew up as a Christian and even used his experimental band to spread the gospel. Eventually, however, the faith of Show Bread’s band members frayed. Porter tore himself from the church, experiencing all the darkness and hurt that came with leaving the faith of his childhood.
So, how did he end up as a teaching pastor in Portland?
Death to Deconstruction gives a glaringly honest account of Porter’s personal deconstruction of the Christian faith, including his suicidal thoughts, how American culture made him despise the church, and his dark grapple with God.
Where did Porter’s road of deconstruction lead? You probably wouldn’t predict the answer: Orthodoxy. By the end of Death to Deconstruction, he writes affectionately of liturgical readings of the Apostolic Creed in his church.
Porter’s beautiful writing delivers gut punches. Make no mistake, something in this book will offend you. Like me, you will probably bristle at his jabs against patriotic American Christians that supported the war in Iraq (Porter is a pacifist). While I disagree with him about pacifism, his writing forces readers to a reckoning with painful irony, humor, and depth.
And in the to-be-released podcast episode in The Denison Forum Podcast where I interview him, his soft-spoken demeanor reflects his true heart.
This kind of authentic, dark book that by the end returns to orthodoxy is the kind of creative outreach we need when more and more young people weighed down by cynicism.
Christianity is a rebellious revolution
Porter wants to reframe our understanding of following Jesus by highlighting the radical nature of Jesus’ call. He does this without abandoning orthodoxy. Jesus rebelled against the religious institutions of his day: The Roman cult of the Emporer that worshiped a man as a god incarnate, and the hypocrisy of the Jewish religious leaders.
Porter wants us to understand that the truths Jesus taught were subversive enough in themselves, we don’t need to deconstruct Christianity to feel rebellious. Jesus said some extreme, dark things, like telling his disciples to “deny themselves” and carry a first-century torture device called the cross. (Luke 9:23) But he also treasured his Father’s laws from the Old Testament, he taught his followers to love, and showed deep compassion for the vulnerable.
Jesus calls the rebellious teen and the religious person, offending both in different ways along the way.
Porter deconstructs the bad and keeps the good
Porter argues that orthodoxy is like a countryside where Christians set up camps. In other words, people deconstructing Christianity need to understand that sometimes, they are healthily deconstructing the denomination or local church of their upbringing. This doesn’t give them a license to throw out the baby with the bath water.
He writes, “The church world of my formative years was unthinking, cruel, violent, hateful, addled by lazy, racist nationalism…Christians followed rules. We followed the rules we liked and explained away the other ones (the ones that were hard for us or that called our comfortable way of life into question). God didn’t have much to say about our wealth and wars, our idols and disobedience, but he was absolutely incensed over gay sitcom characters and R-rated movies.”
Despite this searing paragraph, Porter does not blast his church upbringing as a loose cannon but dissects it as a compassionate, careful thinker. He continues by critiquing his own part in the deconstruction movement, “The other side of the aisle looked almost exactly like the one I’d left, just with a different outfit… We were aimless and hypocritical, telling ourselves only what we wanted to hear. We dismembered Jesus, Buddha, Nietzsche, and New Age only to sew them back together with all the graceful expertise of fast food and reality television. On whose authority? Ours!”
He sympathizes with the rebellious, youthful spirit wanting something more, something better. He understands the deconstruction movement because he lived it and yet urges everyone to follow Jesus.
Orthodoxy is like a countryside
If those dismantling their faith recommit to following Jesus, they may end up in a different camp in the field of orthodoxy. They may begin by believing the earth is ten thousand years old, and end up moving their tent to a non-literal reading of Genesis. They can still look across the field of orthodoxy, waving to their brothers and sisters in Christ, unified by their citizenship to heaven.
Good and bad churches exist in this countryside, and Christians move between them. Some camps are walled off, with barbwire and missile defenses, while others feel inviting and gracious. Sadly, some people will pack their bags and walk away from the bad (or sometimes good) churches, move countries, and never return.
Read this book if you feel like left behind by other Christians who trust blindly, without understanding your deep-seated, emotional doubts. Read it if you feel misunderstood in your deconstruction. Porter genuinely sympathizes. Or, gift this book to someone in the dark, hurting place of deconstructing their faith.
Porter concludes that Christ is our solid rock upon which orthodox belief is built.
“Thus, deconstruction wants no master beyond itself, creating a colossal arrangement of near-impenetrable hyperindividualism. This is a very American thing to do. As theologian Greg Boyd once put it, “If the fall is about humans wanting to be independent lords of our own lives, then America is the fall on steroids!” (32–33)
“Sometimes I thought I wanted to be alone, but I couldn’t seem to find whatever “alone” was—I couldn’t escape the distant, singsong, whispering closeness of Jesus, like one of those bad poems you see inscribed on an oil painting in your grandma’s bathroom. I’d read that one about the footprints in the sand, and I’d roll my eyes, but inside I was thinking, yeah, that’s spot-on. Inside I was sniffling, a lump in my throat.” (53)
“If you make really divisive art and enough people experience it, you’ll find them in want of answers. I often write songs and stories when I’m upset. I didn’t know this about God, that he did it too.” (58)
“And Jesus opens his manifesto by brilliantly setting himself against both the literalists and the deconstructionists. Am I picking and choosing my own version of the Bible? No. Am I committing to a black-and-white, literal, letter-of-the-law slavish obedience to the text? Not that either…(Matt. 5:18) Jesus loves hyperbole and wild imagery. When will the Scriptures be invalidated? When pigs fly. When will the Bible become irrelevant? When hell freezes over. Not a single iota will be lifted from these pages. Not one dot of an i. Not one cross of a t.” (61)
“The story of Jesus speaks to me because, in one scene, Jesus is lovingly blessing little kids, and in another, he’s calling religious leaders a bunch of snakes. Jesus’s paradigm for God is of a gracious, loving Father who kisses the faces of his sinful, rebellious children, but the seriousness with which he regards evil is so intense that he says it’s better to gouge your own eye out than to objectify women.” (62)
“[In the Bible] There are poems about sex, poems about murder, God making bets with Satan, a guy living inside a sea creature for three days, and other miracles including but not limited to water turning into wine, sticks turning into snakes, rivers turning into blood, and dead people turning into people who are not dead at all.” (98–99)
“A racial tension ornamented everything like beige wallpaper, familiar to the point of invisibility. This is the world that raised and reared my father, and it was the enabling permission slip of the Southern Christian. “They don’t know any better,” people would say in order to keep the racism alive rather than endure the painfully invasive surgery necessary to remove it.” (192)