On Constructive Deconstruction

I love demolition videos. The punctuation of explosions; the half-second silence before buildings crumble. They’re more fascinating than fireworks on the Fourth of July. Seriously. Just watch a greatest hits reel. Tell me these aren’t amazing.

Sometimes my civil engineer dad and I will pull up Controlled Demolition’s YouTube channel and analyze their explosions for hours. (Stop reading this post and watch one!) We’ll discuss the timing and math and structure, the need to understand every brick and window and pillar, all the details that go into efficiently dynamiting buildings.

But, as Dad often reminds me, not every dilapidated building needs to be razed to the ground.  The foundation and supporting beams are often solid even if the trimmings aren’t.  Utter destruction is unproductive when all you need is a remodel.  Don’t rush to knock something down, unless you have a clear vision of what will replace it.

I think about this civil engineer’s mindset whenever I dive into the Bloggernacle and other online Mormon forums. Their constant exploration and deconstruction of all things Mormon serves an important purpose. Asking hard questions about theology, listening to difficult facts about history, and wrestling with the real pain present in our community is absolutely necessary to my experience of Zion. Participating has flooded me with new insights and perspectives, as strangers-turned-friends share their vulnerable truths.   During the hopeless months leading up to my divorce, this community encouraged and sustained me. It validated my experiences and helped me heal.

But for the last couple of years, I’ve increasingly found myself tuning out my “Mormon” RSS feed and unsubscribing from Facebook notifications. [1] Many forums I used to patronize daily have simply stopped working for me.  Maybe I’m alone in this, but it feels like their once-dynamic conversations have … stalled.  Every thread, every news story, even efforts to inject positivism, rapidly devolve into tearing apart the myriad individual and historical and structural and doctrinal and hypocritical causes of each member’s utterly justified pain.  I crave new knowledge and robust dialogue, but I can’t handle the constant anger.

Anger doesn’t teach me how to build the Church back up again.  Demolition serves no purpose unless we have a vision for what comes next.  I don’t need dynamite-blasts of bitterness, crumbling the pillars of my faith.  Those pillars – love, hope, grace, peace – are the core of who Christ is and who I aspire to be.

This is my vision: to scrutinize an imperfect Church in order to make it stronger. To understand my fellow saints’ pain so that, in mourning together, we construct Zion. To explore all of Mormon and Christian history so that we can both frankly repent for our errors, and reinvigorate our eternity. I will never help the Church become more loving and forgiving if I can’t love and forgive it first.

It is with that vision that I always re-read my talks, lessons, and blog posts prior to publication. Does this story build up, or destroy? If this criticism is necessary, does it come from a place of love? The self-examination constantly hurts my pride, forcing me to question my own motives and ruthlessly cut snide remarks.

In Searching for Sunday, evangelical-turned-Episcopal blogger Rachel Held Evans describes a similar journey from disaffection to Christ. Angry at the evangelicals, she began church-hopping, looking for some angelic body of already-perfect Christians.  They didn’t exist. As she confessed (and my goodness this sounds all too painfully like me):

I girded myself with a sense of smug detachment wherein I could observe [church] proceedings from the safety of my intellectual superiority, certain I could do a better job at running the show thanks to my experience as, you know, a Christian blogger.

Oh, I talked a big game about the importance of ecumenicism and the beauty of diversity within the global church, but when I deigned to show up at one of these unsuspecting congregations, I sat in the pew with my arms crossed, mad at the Baptists for not being Methodist enough, the Methodists for not being Anglican enough, the Anglicans for not being evangelical enough, and the evangelicals for not being Catholic enough.

I scrutinized the lyrics to every worship song; I debated the content of every sermon; I checked the bulletins for typos.

Deconstructing was so much safer than trusting.

The only way out of that spiral, criticizing everything and alienating everyone, was to love.  To accept the radical gospel of Christ’s love for all.  To frankly acknowledge everyone’s human fallibility and celebrate the gift of grace. To befriend all of God’s children, including those whose spiritual welfare is better served by migrating over to the church-next-door.

I want to love.  I want to heal others.  I want to build Zion.  That requires me to understand history and listen closely to pain.  But it does not require explosive anger.  We need humble remodels, not grand demolitions.  We can throw away rotting trimmings and tear down corrosive policies, while still preserving the pillars of Christ.

* * *

[1] I’ve made an exception to my Facebook-unfollow rule for two relative newcomers. Mormon Women for Ethical Government is doing an incredible job advocating for compassion and empathy across the political spectrum.  And Aspiring Mormon Women is matchless at building women up as they pursue education and careers.

Comments

  1. jaxjensen says:

    You are right… those are amazing to watch.

    You are also right that watching/reading people trying to do that to the church is upsetting. But we seem to think that in our cyber communities that anyone with a differing opinion is therefore worthy of scorn/ridicule and must be an evil/terrible person. I’m glad it hasn’t (yet) creeped into my physical/personal community {knock on wood}.

  2. I got one celebrate different opinions. They’re so so so valuable. I just don’t like an over abundance of angry ones. I hope that’s not a contradiction in terms…

  3. Everyone feels this way after a few years of reading the bloggernacle/attending Sunstone symposiums/subscribing to Dialogue/going to Exponent retreats. You don’t stay because it’s working for you, you stay because the newly arrived refugees need someone besides other starving, hurt people to help them get on their feet.

  4. Anger is a symptom. Look deeper.

  5. I disagree with you. Anger, even explosive anger, is every bit as valid an emotion to feel about The Church as love. I also don’t agree that it is incumbent upon the membership to have a vision for The Church when no such vision would ever be honored at the highest levels anyway.

    I love God. I love Jesus. I love The Gospel. I do not love The Church. I won’t tell others how to manage their pain. If anger and tearing down walls is how they deal with all the hurt then it isn’t wrong.

  6. I tend to agree with you, Carolyn. Anger is tough. I don’t usually find it constructive. I try (try) never to speak or write from a place of anger. What I say when I’m angry doesn’t tend to help anyone.

    I also agree with Kristine. The corners of Mormonism I hang out in see a lot of newly (and, as you say, Carolyn, justly) angry people. I’m not angry (not much anymore), but I get it. Oh, do I get it. And I want to be there for them. The anger of these folks so often comes from a sense of betrayal, which, in my opinion, is some of the hardest anger to bear.

    Moving from anger to whatever good can come next is especially hard when, as EOR says, one feels no hope of making meaningful change.

    How do we begin to feel that our actions matter? That our agency really means something in this organization and culture so many of us have invested so much in? I don’t have a lot of good answers.

  7. Leona said beautifully exactly what I was going to write. I can be kind. I can be compassionate. I can choose not to get caught up in judgment. But I have zero power to change the culture or institution of the church. That no longer leaves me angry, but it doesn’t leave me hopeful either.

  8. Anger is a warning. It tells you that there is something utterly wrong somewhere. The proper response to anger is: Thanks for the insight. Now I will take over and do something positive.

    Action while in anger is almost always destructive.

  9. Paul Ritchey says:

    We could all use a reminder like this. Serious challenges to faith should prompt anger (it should matter that much to us), but that anger in turn should prompt reflection, temperance, humility, repentance, and charity. It’s really hard, but it’s the right way to be.

  10. “Anger is a warning. It tells you that there is something utterly wrong somewhere.” True. Sometimes the something wrong is with the angry person or his perception — that has been the case sometimes at least with me.

  11. “Let your anger be.a gas station, not a destination.” – Carol Lynn Pearson.

    I agree with you, deconstructing is intellectually lazy compared to constructing.

    I think that part of our collective anger comes from a system that is so correlated, so out-of-the-box, so prescribed, that we struggle to apply our unique selves. We’re bored little worker bees. We don’t focus on millennial tasks and have lost our urgency to usher in an era of peace devoid of poverty, hunger, hate, materialism, enmity. That lack of engagement creates a context that does not foster learning, relationship-building or the necessary sacrifice to produce the type of results-the spiritual depth and transformations we yearn for. Sorry, it ain’t gonna happen over crafts or setting up chairs, or re-teaching a lesson we’ve all heard a gazillion times.

    I used to be jealous of GAs and local/regional leaders (largely men) as they are the only ones who actually “build” temples. They are the ones who engage with our humanitarian efforts…I just send a check into the abyss and the machine takes over.

    Yes, there are opportunities all around to serve, and our duty is to find them, but the majority of my resources went to SLC.

  12. Bro. Jones says:

    At the risk of falling into your assessment about negativity in the bloggernaccle: There’s a grand old building here with beautiful bones, but there needs to be more light, we need more women’s restrooms, and even though we took down the “Whites Only” signs we need to stop pretending we don’t have other exclusionary rules at work.

    The problem is that leadership (for the most part) insists that not only don’t we need any remodeling, but the structure is perfect and always was. And it’s heresy to suggest even the most benign of changes, automatically painting you as someone demanding a full demolition.

    I completely feel your fatigue with those who do want to blow everything up. I’m still here because I want to work with the tools before us, but it’s getting increasingly frustrating.

  13. This post makes me think thoughts like those I think after reading Philip Larkin’s poem, “Church Going.”

  14. I recently unsubscribed to Rational Faiths for this exact reason. Some interesting stuff that I will miss, but the anger was getting to be too much.

  15. it’s a sad and pervasive problem/ It’s unfortunate that most of the response has been, “I agree, but it deserves to be torn down because of X^n”. Too many good blogs have fallen to this. Most of the few that are left end up either highly biased or highly moderated.

    Anger may be cathartic, but it rarely inspires to improve. It may be satisfying to watch all the people agree with you, but it rarely builds a conversation.

  16. FWIW, I don’t reads Carolyn as denying the legitimacy of anger as much as saying that it has a place, but can’t become a permanent mode of interacting with the word/the church. There is “a time to break down, and a time to build up.” Ecclesiastes 3:3.

  17. jlouielucero says:

    I have been feeling the same way for a while and disengaged from a lot of other blog reading because of it. From what I can see, one of the biggest challenges is trying to empathize with the people who are being hurt directly and those who fit the mode and don’t see a need for change. Those who can do that make the biggest differences in people’s lives but it comes at a cost of being in constant turmoil. However, I think if that is what you desire then the cost is worth it.

  18. JKC: Exactly. It’s hard to convey that complex sentiment well, so thanks for scripturally backing it up. At least in my professional life, I “deconstruct” all the time. I take arguments and purported facts and shatter them into teeny little pieces — but the point is to then regroup all the facts and write a new story and a new argument that supports my client’s position. So I’m all for people having their “utterly justified anger” — I just want them to then ask “what now?” For some that means “I need out, I need to be somewhere more healthy for me.” But I hope for many it means “I must become the change I wish to see in the world.”

  19. I’ve liken-ed this song from The Eagles as my anthem for this approach:

    And the more I know, the less I understand
    All the things I thought I’d figured out
    I have to learn again
    I’ve been trying to get down
    To the heart of the matter
    But everything changes
    And my friends seem to scatter
    But I think it’s about forgiveness
    Forgiveness
    Even if, even if [I] don’t love [the same way] anymore

  20. This reminds me of a point Bruce Hafen made in his BYU devotional address “Love Is Not Blind: Some Thoughts for College Students on Faith and Ambiguity.” He talked about three kinds of people: optimists, pessimists, and improvers. Optimists do nothing productive because they hide flaws with willful blindness. They can’t even see the problems. I would guess most active Mormons fall in this category. Pessimists do nothing productive because they see only the problems and take joy in pointing them out. Most disaffected Mormons end up in this category. Improvers see the problems but work to bridge the gap between the real and the ideal. They have to learn to deal with cognitive dissonance and don’t let their disappointment turn to either anger or apathy. It’s not easy to be an improver because you have to not only point out faults but also offer solutions, which can be frustrating when rigid-minded leaders won’t listen. Change takes time.

  21. MikeInWeHo says:

    This interesting conversation reminds me of an old therapy expression: Depression is anger turned inward.

    In my observation, Mormon culture encourages anger suppression on an epic scale: Put a smile on your face! Do what is right, let the consequence follow!

    Well sometimes, the consequence is major depression. So is it really a surprise that when people finally have an outlet to vent their anger, it tends to be very hot indeed?

  22. Just Don Henley, Carey F. Not the Eagles.

  23. Wally, thank you for the reference to Elder Hafen’s devotional talk. His thoughts are some of the best ever posted on this website. Quite a bit to think about.

  24. This is where I am with politics in 2108. I just want to unsubscribe from everyone; it’s easier to get through life.

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