Dancing with Language: Derrida and the Emergent Church
(In this article I explore the relationship between the playfulness with language Jacques Derrida utilizes and the similar utilization employed by the emergent church. Many of you know I am greatly influenced by the emergent church and have increasingly been interested in Derrida's work. I am no Derridean scholar by any means but hopefully this article does him justice–whatever the hell justice means.)
Jacques Derrida, the enigmatic poststructural French philosopher, did not span his career without continual disapproving criticism. The “father” of deconstruction, Derrida was not shy of prodding at the system of language. Deconstruction was an attempt to critique the relationship between text and meaning. This definition of the concept is not meant to encapsulate the term for even Derrida; the word is impossible to define. Because of the nature of deconstruction, Derrida found the word impossible to define for it criticizes the very language needed to define it. Throughout Derrida’s career he wrote many essays about deconstructions, but these were largely not attempts to positively define the elusive term. Derrida opted to instead apophatically “define” deconstruction.
His own relationship to the word baffled other philosophers. For a concept he created, why was the term so fleeting to him? For Derrida, deconstruction and other concepts he conceived, such as différance, were not fleeting in that he attempted to grasp for their “true” meanings but that he seemed to have intentionally played around them–as if they were a game. Herein lies the critique many philosophers had of Derrida: his intentional playfulness of language not only dared irritated his critics but also antagonized the very structures of our existence.
For example, Dinitia Smith, a Times reporter, once asked Derrida to define deconstruction to which Derrida responded, “Why don’t you ask a physicist or a mathematician about difficulty?” Later in the same interview, after the pleading of Smith to define deconstruction, Derrida responded, “It is impossible to respond. I can only do something which leaves me unsatisfied.”
American philosophers Richard Rorty and John Searle also criticized Derrida of this obscurantism, or deliberately presenting information or ideas in a recondite manner to prevent full engagement with said information or ideas. Rorty accused Derrida of using undefinable words and defining words in such varied contexts that they are rendered useless to the reader. Searle is known for having a rather vicious dispute with Derrida, in which Searle accused Derrida of “the deliberate obscurantism of the prose, the wildly exaggerated claims, and the constant striving to give the appearance of profundity, by making claims that seem paradoxical, but under analysis often turn out to be silly or trivial."
Like Derrida’s playfulness at best and obscurantism at worst with language, the emergent church has also been criticized for a similar engagement with language. Many leaders of the emergent church were influenced by poststructuralist figures, like Derrida, whether directly or indirectly. Both conservative Evangelicals and mainline liberals have accused, like Derrida, emergents of dancing with language.
In a PBS interview D.A. Carson, a New Testament professor at Trinity Evangelical Divinity school, says this about the use of language from emergent church leader, Brian McLaren:
“It’s not because he doesn’t want to give any answer at all, it’s because he wants to give answers that are fuzzy. That is his intent. It’s not because he is a clever diplomat who is trying to avoid the toughest questions by using ambiguous answers of a diplomatic cast, but everybody who understands the language knows what he really means. He really does want all of these edges taken away. He wants to avoid what he perceives to be the angularity of confessional truth. And he’s very good at dancing around. He’s very good at it. At the end of the day, it seems to me that it avoids some of the angularities of the Bible itself.”
There seems to be an assumption by many critics of the emergent church that it uses language to dance, as Carson puts it. And their assumption would be correct. They do use it as a dance. They use language freely and playfully as indicated in one of McLaren’s books titled A Generous Orthodoxy: Why I am a missional, evangelical, post/protestant, liberal/conservative, mystical/poetic, biblical, charismatic/contemplative, fundamentalist/Calvinist, Anabaptist/Anglican, Methodist, catholic, green, incarnational, depressed- yet hopeful, emergent, unfinished Christian. The title alone is a dance of oppositions.
While Carson is a conservative Evangelical critic, even those who identify as mainline liberals are quick to criticize the language dance to which emergents tango. Emergents also dance playfully with their use of ecclesial language. My own “church,” Solomon’s Porch, for example prefers to refer to itself as a Christian community rather than a church. We have gatherings instead of worship services. We have covenant participants instead of members. The use of these alternatives often comes to the chagrin of mainline liberals. They posit it is a move away from traditional ecclesiology or simply re-framing traditional ecclesial concepts into sexier language.
Most emergents do not deny that they do, in fact, playfully and freely dance with language. However, the purposes behind the dance with language are misinterpreted by its conservative Evangelical and mainline liberal critics. While conservative Evangelicals interpret the emergent’s dance with language to be grounded on an avoidance “of the angularities of confessional truth” and mainline liberals interpret the emergent’s dance with language to be grounded on an avoidance of historical dominant ecclesiologies, the emergent’s dance with language is honestly grounded in a faithfulness to one’s present context. For many emergents the ever-free and ever-evolving dance with the use of language is not a way to avoid but rather a way to remain faithful to an ever-free and ever-evolving world with which they intentionally engage.
To call a “church” a Christian community is not an avoidance of the historical use of the term church but a faithful re-consideration of what that faith community truly means and what term most speaks that meaning into existence. To call their “worship service” a gathering is not an avoidance of the historical use of the term worship service but a faithful re-consideration of what it means for them to regularly gather together in community and what term most speaks that meaning into existence. To call their “members” covenant participants is not an avoidance of the historical use of the term member but a faithful re-consideration of what it means for them to steadfastly participate in the faith community and what term most speaks that meaning into existence.
Why has Derrida and the emergent church playfully engaged with language? I posit for both Derrida and the emergent church, dancing with language is a critical activity to faithfully and honestly speak the truth that they sense in their context. Language, for both, is an ever-evolving tool that varies from culture to culture throughout time. Therefore, dancing with language is a necessary activity to participant in the ever-becoming system of language.
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