Deconstructing on the Road to Emmaus

There’s a story in the Gospel of Luke about how two of Jesus’ lesser-known followers are returning to their hometown of Emmaus after they’ve just seen their reform movement crushed at the hands of their religious leaders and the occupying Roman government.

On the road, described as a seven-mile trek, the two encounter a stranger who at first appears not to be aware of the dramatic events of the past few days. But then, as their journey continues, he reinterprets their collective national narrative and reveals deeper meanings than they previously had been aware of.

As the story unfolds, the trio arrive in the disciples’ hometown close to dinnertime, so they invite the stranger to stay the night with them. Suddenly, as the stranger blesses and breaks the bread for the meal, they recognize him as Jesus…and he promptly disappears.

The two react with a sudden sense of epiphany…instantly, it all made sense to them.

So they rushed back (7 miles, mind you) to where some of Jesus’ other followers were still gathered in Jerusalem to tell their story. When they arrive, they discover that their compatriots too have seen Jesus resurrected.

For years, I have heard this story interpreted as little more than proof of Jesus’ bodily resurrection and the obligation for his followers to believe in it.

I’m not here to dispute that.

But as always, I think there’s way more going on here than meets the eye.

And I think it has to do with deconstruction.

Deconstructing deconstruction

Now, I realize the term “deconstruction,” while fairly recently released into the spiritual lexicon, is already starting to lose some of its luster.

I get it. Any term that gets used as often and as broadly as deconstruction eventually seems to become little more than a trite buzzword.

On the other hand, the term has become a target for fundamentalist/evangelical types, for whom it is just one more work of evil secularists trying to undermine the authority of the church and scripture. Which of course is little more than protectionist bullshit from people heavily invested in certain types of power dynamics. But whatever. I don’t feel the need to give that argument any space.

But, as I’ve noted before, some type of deconstruction, or whatever word you want to use for questioning and challenging a set of assumptions, is fundamentally necessary to any kind of authentic spiritual formation.

Spiritual deconstruction, in its purest sense, most often has much more to do with discovering truth than rejecting it.

Deconstruction for its own sake basically only leads to nihilism.

Genuine deconstruction, though, is really always about reconstruction.

It’s about discovering something more true.

On the road again

Which brings us back to our friends from Emmaus.

These two members of the Jesus movement were sold on a particular identity narrative. In their case, it was a narrative about what it meant to be Jewish and a citizen of Israel.

Without getting too deep in the theological weeds here, the expectation of Jesus’ disciples was that he would, in the gospel writer’s words, “redeem Israel.”

Which, in a sense, was true…just not in the way they thought.

When Jesus retells them their own story on the road, he reinterprets it…in other words, he shows them how they had been missing the point.

And the way you do that is to deconstruct an existing narrative so that you can reconstruct a new, more true worldview.

The point wasn’t to convince them to throw away everything they’d always believed. The goal isn’t nihilism.

The objective is to come to a stronger, deeper perspective.

One with more understanding, not less.

Let it flow

In his stages of spiritual development, American theologian James Fowler insists that growth beyond an inherited, comfortable, control-based belief system is both natural and desirable.

The problem is, our inherited, comfortable, control-based systems are threatened when people outgrow them.

Rather than embracing people’s advancement through the various stages of spiritual formation, our institutions too often insist on thwarting growth in order maintain influence (and, frankly, in many cases, income).

So when people start to recognize the dysfunction in the system, when they begin to see the cracks in the theological foundation, it creates a tension point.

Which means that growth will necessitate rebellion against the community and the authorities that hold it together.

I don’t have to tell a lot of you what kind of trauma that can bring about.

But, again, the point is not just to discard the old belief system. It’s to get beyond the confines of that system in order to discover something better.

Inevitably, when a river meets a barrier, the river wins. The natural flow will go over, around, under, or through. The flow might be contained for awhile, but it cannot be stopped.

A blueprint for deconstruction

The road to Emmaus, rather than a simplistic platitude of an intransigent belief system, is a blueprint for the very necessary work of deconstruction we must all do as we seek to grow more and more into a deeper understanding and experience of reality.

You don’t even have to take the account literally to see the value of the story.

At some point, our spiritual formation depends on dismantling old ideas in order to make space for better ones.

In fact, I’m learning that deconstruction is never linear. As we continue to uncover new layers to reality, and as we continue to examine our existing beliefs in the light of new information, we are always in the process of deconstructing and reconstructing.

It doesn’t make the old stories untrue.

It just helps us find what is more true.

The flow always wins.

Featured image: Photo by Charl Durand on

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