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Darryl Tippens Introduces Jacques Derrida to Churches of Christ

By J. E. Choate

religion, articles, christianity

Darryl Tippens has rendered a service to the churches of Christ. He has done so by introducing the name of Jacques Derrida (b. 1930). He is a major world figure in philosophy and literary criticism at the Ecole Normale Superieur in Paris. His theories are best known as deconstructionism and poststructuralism.

Derrida is the "godfather" of deconstructionism, which is now the current craze of postmodern theology. Derrida maintains that the meaning of language is hidden and elusive, and that no interpretation can be established from the written text by exposing the linguistic and philosophical presuppositions concealed therein.

In Derrida's scheme for the deconstructionist, language is a social construct with no fixed "meaning outside the text, nor in the text." There are no "praxis," no "parameters" with fixed boundaries, and no hypothetical "paradigm" which are proposed.

The average "run of the mill" change agents such as Lynn Anderson are way in over their "philosophical" heads in Derridean deconstructionism. Deconstructionism has lost its bid to replace "existentialism" as the philosophical buzz word of the '9Os. However, the influence of Derrida in postmodern theology is deep and destructive as it reaches into our schools through postmodern theologians who are securely positioned in the Bible departments.

Derrida maintains that no definite interpretation can be established for a written text (including Scripture). His method is to deconstruct a text by exposing the linguistic and philosophical presuppositions concealed within the text. Tippens phrases this concept best for us: "For Derrida, language is non­referential; we can never be sure if it matches up to anything 'out there,' whether being, God truth, reality, and so forth; all readings are constantly variable."

The strangest twist of all has been the acknowledgment by our liberal avant­garde brethren of the significance of the postmodern theological concept of deconstructionism/poststructuralism. Deconstruction's project is to relativize the meaning of a biblical text by showing that the Bible has many other interpretations than that conveyed by the surface "meaning" in the text. Deconstruction's radical hermeneutics strikes mortal blows at the integrity of the Bible's claim to divine truth.

Derridean "Deconstructionism" Addressed

Tippens could not have been aware of the implications of his 1987 and 1990 Christian Scholars Conference papers in introducing the philosophical and literary concepts of Jacques Derrida. The papers are titled "The Ethics of Interpretation: Jacques Derrida and Christian Values" and "Postmodern Theories of Interpretation: What They Say to Restorationists."

Darryl Tippens has the scholarly credentials of an English scholar. This means that he has an adequate command of literary criticism and an adequate knowledge of philosophy which relates to literary criticism. There is an especially provocative statement in his CSC paper with questions which demand answering.

Just as 1859 is forever established as a critical date in European civilization marking Darwin's Origin of the Species - so in our time we may well look back upon 1967 as the date of momentous change in our civilization, for in that year Jacques Derrida published three philosophical works in the United States: Speech Phenomena, Writings and Differences, and Of Grammatology.

Dr. Tippens will have continuing cause to regret this statement because of a 1992 London Times article and a letter signed by 19 scholars around the world. It seems that Cambridge dons and world­class scholars do not show this enthusiasm for Derrida's importance as a man of letters. But they do recognize his notoriety in the world community of scholars.

And it is just at this point that "suspicion" of Dr. Tippens' analysis of Derridean philosophy kicks in. He is fully aware that deconstruction's radical hermeneutics strikes lethal blows at both conservative and liberal traditional exegeses of the Bible.

Dr. Tippens makes a most provocative statement: "reconstruction is maddening, but it is worth considering." Just what does Tippens mean that deconstruction is worth considering in light of the fact that Derrida regards Scripture as man-made religious documents - not the Word of God?

Then this puzzling statement: "In the academy, we need to answer Derrida (or reconcile Derrida) on philosophical grounds. This is the task for Christian scholars." How could this be so! Derrida does not need answering, but exposing.

The Judging of Jacques Derrida

The following information is extracted from a news story in the London Times, May 9, 1992, titled "A Storm in the Cloisters," and "Letters to the Editor." A campaign by the dons of Cambridge was underway to deny Derrida an honorary doctorate from Cambridge. Four dons stood up and cried non places, "You must be joking!" The dons charged that Derrida's brand of deconstructionism questions the very notion of truth and dances playfully on the shifting sands of language.

In the letter to the London Times, 19 scholars from around the world registered their objections to the tricks and gimmicks of Derrida which they claimed lacked the vigor and clarity of Anglo­Saxon thinking. Barry Smith, one of the signatories, said the honor would promote Derridean ideas, not least in the post­communist world, where the intellectuals were seeking a new guru to replace their fallen Marxist idiots.

The judgment of the scholars is that Derrida's work is irrational and nihilistic. Derrida is a charlatan who offers little more than semi-intelligible attacks upon the values of reason, truth, and scholarship. Had this writer inveighed earlier against Derrida in such a manner before the Cambridge dons, I would have been summarily dismissed as an uninformed conservative church of Christ "idiot."

We are confident that Dr. Tippens would not have read his learned papers on Jacques Derrida could he have known of the concerted efforts of the Cambridge dons to discredit the scholarship of Derrida. The CSC papers of Tippens will return to visit him in that all of his second thoughts cannot cancel out half a line.

Some Questions for Brother Tippens

We isolate particular statements of Tippens in order to raise pointed questions. We do not expect him to answer, but the reader will want to know why he does not.

1. You say, "I believe that some versions of post-structuralist philosophy are a serious threat to Christianity."

Question: Which versions are a threat, and which are not, and would you enlighten us further?

2. You say, "A full­blown deconstruction may well be the death of truth (if it exists)."

Question: Would you explain this odd statement in the light of inerrant Scripture? (Is Dr. Tippens questioning the existence of truth as, let's say, Pilate did? Just what is Dr. Tippens saying?)

3. You say, "In the academy [our scholars on the cutting edge of postmodern scholarship], we need to answer Derrida (or reconcile Derrida) on philosophical grounds. This is a critical task for Christian scholars today."

Question: Dr. Tippens, take a lesson from the dons. Why is there a need to reconcile Derridean deconstructionism to the inerrant Word of God, or to Chaucer, or Shakespeare, or any masterpiece of world literature? Why do you praise him?

4. You say, "We cannot ignore postmodernism any more than the church could ignore Galileo, Freud, or Darwin."

Question: We understand what Dr. Tippens implies here. But are you saying we can not ignore Derrida even after the Cambridge dons have trashed the validity of deconstructionism?

5. You say, "reconstruction is maddening, but it is worth considering."

Question: What part of deconstruction is worth considering? My view is that what is worth considering is the exposing of this nonsense as the Cambridge scholars did in less than genial language.

PostScript

I can fully appreciate brother Tippens' desire to be and to appear scholarly before our scholarly brethren who are now writing books on the "cutting edge" of postmodern theology. This is how the "paper chase" game is played. What I cannot stomach, just at that point, is why our liberal brethren start wallowing in sanctimonious piety right on the heels of their, less than subtle, deconstruction of Scripture?

Tippens concludes his CSC paper thus:

Ultimately we don't need a new hermeneutic or an old hermeneutic. We need a Savior, and we need a broken and contrite heart that confesses, 'I can't figure all this out. God, please rescue me from this Babel.'

To use a metaphor of Alexander Campbell, Dr. Tippens and his liberal brethren have rushed past Jerusalem and ended up in Babylon. Their present salvation is to confess their sins to their gullible brethren who have swallowed every word they have said and ask God for forgiveness. Their "glass towers" of postmodern scholarship offer no hiding places.

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Published March 1996