The Day Derrida Died

In an e-conversation with a pastor friend in Denver I said this today…

I accept Postmodernity’s criticism of modernity; the criticism of modernity’s arrogance and misplaced confidence in the inevitable advance of humanity. What postmodernity does is open the door for the doctrine of the Fall. Observing that we live in a world gone wrong is a good place to begin the Gospel story. But I’ll be a suck egg mule before I’ll believe that Jacques Derrida was anything other than a clever fool. Deconstruction is nothing but dressed up Nihilism. I was in Paris the day Derrida died. I wanted to get a t-shirt made up: Derrida Is Dead. That some of the Emerging church people (not the leaders…as far as I know) have a juvenile fascination with Derrida gives me a low opinion of them. Francis Schaeffer would slap them down.

And that reminds me of a great story.

The Paris Train Story

In October of 2004 Peri and I were in Paris for a week. Because of where I was ministering we were staying in the northern part of Paris near the Charles De Gaulle airport. One evening I wanted to attend an event at the Notre Dame Cathedral. Because Peri was a bit worn our from the day’s activities, I went by myself — a forty-five minute train ride to the center of Paris. The event I was interested in was an hour long sight and sound presentation on the history of the Cathedral. I took the RER to the Saint-Michel metro stop which is just a couple of blocks from Notre Dame. I still had more than an hour before the nine o’clock presentation, so I went to the famous English bookstore nearby, Shakespeare and Company, which had been the haunt of American and English expatriates like Ernest Hemmingway, T.S. Elliot, Ezra Pound, James Joyce, and other writers. The proprietor allows young aspiring writers to have a bed in the shop (if he thinks they show sufficient promise); it is a very interesting place. As I was browsing among the Russian literature section I decided to buy a paperback copy of Dostoevsky’s The Idiot. What was unusual about this purchase was that I had a nice hardback copy of The Idiot back at the hotel, but since I had brought nothing with me to read, I thought I would buy it and have something to read on the forty-five minute train ride back to the hotel. At twelve euros, it was a bit of an extravagance.

Leaving Shakespeare and Company “the Idiot” and I walked across the street to Notre Dame. The presentation was well done and I found it very interesting; it covered not only the 900 year history of the Cathedral but the coming of Christianity to France through the apostolic ministry of Saint Denis in the 3rd Century; Saint Denis was beheaded in 275 A.D. at a pagan temple which later became the site of Notre Dame. At the conclusion of the presentation, as I sat by myself in the massive cathedral. (I was sitting next to the column on the far right of the picture.) I prayed a simple prayer asking God to use me for His purposes while I was in Paris. It was a little past ten o’clock when I left Notre Dame.

As I walked from the Cathedral to the Saint-Michel metro stop with The Idiot in hand, I continued to dedicate myself to God and ask that He would use me in some way. When I got on the train, it was mostly empty and I sat down in a section by myself, opened my book and began to read. We had only gone one stop, maybe two minutes, when a young Asian man got on and sat down opposite me. I paid no attention to him until he said to me in good English, “That’s a great book.”

I said, “Have you read it?”

He said, “I’m reading it right now.”

I replied, “What a coincidence.”

His name was Yu and he had just graduated from college with degrees in political science and history. I told him that was a good combination of degrees. Political science is man’s attempt to govern himself and history is the record of his failures.

As we talked about The Idiot, Yu went on to tell me that his favorite contemporary author was Gabriel Garcia Marquez and I told him that I had read One Hundred Years of Solitude and The General’s Labyrinth. These were the two Gabriel Garcia Marquez books Yu had read, and we both shared the opinion that One Hundred Years of Solitude is utterly fantastic and The General’s Labyrinth is a bit boring. Yu then mentioned that he also liked to read philosophy and that occasioned me to mention that Jacques Derrida, the founder deconstruction philosophy, had died in Paris that very day. When I quipped, “And may his philosophy die with him”, Yu said, “It will.”

Yu was obviously a very bright young man and I was curious about his basic worldview so I said, “You’re an intelligent young man, just graduating from school with degrees in history and political science; from what you know of history and politics, let me ask you a question: What hope to have for the world? Do you believe that humanity is capable of establishing some kind of political system that will eliminate injustice and produce peace on earth?”

Yu said, “I have no such hope.” Then Yu said to me, “I’ve heard that Fyodor Dostoevsky was a Christian; do you know if that’s true?” (At this point in the conversation I’m fairly sure Yu had no idea I was a Christian.)

I said, “Yes, it’s true, and I know how he became a Christian, would you like to hear the story?”

Yu said he would and I told him how Dostoevsky as a young man was a part of a failed revolution and had been arrested in St. Petersburg, put in prison, and sentenced to death. On the day of his execution, Dostoevsky and four other co-conspirators were brought forth from the prison to face the firing squad; their crimes were read out, they were blind-folded, the formality of execution was begun, and at the last moment their sentence was commuted to five years hard labor in Siberia. As one might imagine, this event had a tremendous effect on Dostoevsky (in several of his novels, Dostoevsky writes of what goes through the mind of a man on his way to his execution). As Dostoevsky arrived at the prison camp in Siberia where he would serve his sentence, a peasant woman was handing out copies of the Gospels. For five years this was nearly the only reading material available to this literary man, and it was through the reading of the Gospels that Dostoevsky became a Christian.

Yu then asked me what I did. When I told him I was a pastor, he was initially surprised, then he became serious and said, “Since you are a pastor, I want to tell you something. I was brought up in a home that believed in God, but when I entered my teens I rejected the idea of God and became an atheist. Yesterday I went to Notre Dame, just to see the Gothic architecture. But while I was in the Cathedral I found myself wanting to pray. I tried to pray to God and tell Him that I wanted to know Him, but I don’t think He heard my prayer because I walked away from him years ago.”

I said, “Yu, let me tell you something. God did hear your prayer. Less than an hour ago I was in Notre Dame and I prayed saying, ‘God, use me while I’m in Paris.’ Then I got aboard this train, you sat down across from me, commented on my book, which we are both reading and which I just bought, even though I already have a copy of it in my hotel room, so that we would meet and have this conversation and I could tell you that God most definitely heard your prayer yesterday in Notre Dame just as he heard my prayer tonight and arranged for our paths to cross so I could tell you these things.”

Yu was stunned.

I said, “Yu, do you really want to know God? Do you want to know the Answer that Dostoevsky found? The Answer for a world gone wrong?”

He said, “I do.”

I asked, “Do you have a Bible?”

He said, “I do.”

I said, “Yu, go home, read the Gospel of John, like Dostoevsky did, and you will discover how you can know God through Jesus Christ.” Then I asked Yu, “Will you do this?”

He said, “I will.”

I then wanted to say so much more to him, but as I looked out the window for the first time during our conversation I saw we were at the Charles De Gaulle stop. I thought we had talked for a few minutes, but it had been forty-five.

I simply said, “Yu, this is my stop, I have to go, see you later. God bless you.”

When I got off the train I felt like an angel.

I have an assurance deep in my heart that my friend Yu has read the Gospel of John and made the Great Discovery that I and Fyodor Dostoevsky and so many millions of others have made: Jesus is the Answer.

And I wonder if Yu ever thinks, “Was that man an angel?”

I’m not a winged seraph, but I know for certain that I was a messenger sent by God to meet a young man on a train in Paris.

On the day Derrida died.



Bonus Material…

Father of Non-sense
Janie B. Cheaney

A French thinker who died last month temporarily had in his sphere almost as much influence as Peter Singer in his. The man was Jacques Derrida, the “father of deconstructionism.”

Who? Father of what? I wouldn’t have known myself, except for the work of astute observers like Gene Edward Veith and others. A celebrity in the academic world, Derrida never tried to reach the masses; his books and articles were so obtuse it was a badge of brilliance to understand them. But, according to his own theories, there was no real point in understanding him, for deconstructionism claims that no text can communicate true meaning. When one takes apart the language of an author, one finds inherent contradictions and false suppositions that he or she was too mired in the cultural milieu to recognize. Whether the author recognizes it or not, there can be no inherent meaning in a text.

Fully launched in the 1960s, a time of riotous tearing-down, Derrida’s theory fit right in, joining a current of isms that were remaking the university landscape (relative, postmodern, existential, and so on). His focus was on literature and communication, and his bombshell idea exploded most effectively in literature departments, taking forms Derrida might not have intended. For once deconstructed, a work could be reconstructed to suit the reader’s own mirey milieu. Thus English and victim-group “studies” classes became textual sandboxes, where Moby Dick was an examination of racism, The Merchant of Venice a searing indictment of Christian hypocrisy, Pride and Prejudice a cry for help from a subjugated woman.

Fun and games in the classroom is one thing; responding to actual events should be another. Or perhaps not. When asked about the historical significance of Sept. 11, Derrida’s lengthy reply, with endless qualifiers and scare quotes, sounded like self-parody: “…All the philosophical questions remain open, unless they are opening up again in a perhaps new and original way: what is an impression? What is a belief? But especially: what is an event worthy of this name? And a ‘major’ event, that is, one that is actually more of an ‘event,’ more actually an ‘event,’ than ever?…”

Texts like this lend themselves more to satire than deconstruction; “Father of Deconstructionism Dies, If ‘Death’ Means Anything,” ran the headline on the humor website Scrappleface. In some ways, Derrida outlived his times; deconstructionism was never taken seriously as a philosophy, and as a literary fad, it has run its course.

But as an intellectual virus it lingers on, doing its part to undermine the very idea of objective truth, meaning, even logic. The man or woman on the street who never heard of Derridan terms like arche-trace or differance have probably heard of legal quibbling over the meaning of the word is, or the CBS suggestion that certain documents it foolishly used were “fake, but accurate.” Language has always been misused to obscure meaning rather than express it, but never in ways that challenge the very idea of meaning.

Derrida’s approach to language is often described as “playful” — as if he himself knew he wasn’t making sense, but that was OK because there was no sense to be made. Floundering in a linguistic mud puddle while trying to explain the significance of 9/11 was no more ridiculous than John Edwards’s claim that wheelchair-bound Americans would get up and walk during a Kerry administration, or Richard Holbrooke characterizing the War on Terror as a metaphor. But Derrida wasn’t running for anything; Sens. Kerry and Edwards (Mr. Holbrooke, too) were campaigning to be the chief arbiters of “major events,” making their irresponsible statements an especially dangerous form of play.

It’s also a degradation of the image of God, who expresses Himself in the Word and promises that “on the day of judgment, people will give account for every careless word they speak” (Matthew 12:36). Does language matter to Him, or not? When He says, “Let there be light,” it happens. When He says, “Get up and walk,” we do. When He calls things that are not as though they were, we can be certain that the “as though” will melt away like snow in a blazing sunrise.

What He says not only means something but is something, as certain to come to pass as these words that I’m typing on my keyboard this moment.

Copyright 2007 WORLD Magazine
November 27, 2004, Vol. 19, No. 46