The perpetuation academic error fascinates me. One of my favorite discussions of academic error is Jeffrey Burton Russell’s Inventing the Flat Earth: Columbus and Modern Historians. Long-time readers, however, will know that my particular axe to grind is with misreadings of Walter J. Ong’s work. Sarah H. Leslie’s article “Emerging Towards Convergence,” published in the July/August 2009 issue of Discernment Ministries is an excellent example of the dangers of relying upon reports of scholarship rather than upon the original source. Relying upon Samuel Blumenfeld’s misreading of Ong. Not only do we get the typical “Ong wants to get back to an primitive, oral world,” we “learn,” according to Blumenfeld, that Ong is a relativist, a proponent of deconstruction, uses consciousness to refer to Jung’s concept of the collective unconscious, is an advocate of pagan spirituality, and, in the coup de grâce, is the father of a branch of heretical thought. This last charge is fascinating as Ong, as a Jesuit, had to get Church approval for everything he published. Having processed Ong’s scholarship, I have seen the official documents declaring that Ong’s work does not violate Church teaching. And, of course, because the article attacks deconstruction, it gets that wrong too. I’ve placed the misrepresentations of Ong’s work in bold:


Pastor DeWaay does an excellent job of scouring the Emergent chronicles for evidences of “deconstruction.” “Deconstruction” is a philosophy that de-emphasizes the Word of God, and claims that no one can really know the Truth. It fits hand-in-glove with mysticism.

An excellent analysis of “deconstruction” was written by Samuel Blumenfeld in 1995, as part of his scholarly refutation of the “whole language” style of teaching reading that resulted in illiteracy. Blumenfeld explained how “deconstruction” obliterates the fact that words have meaning, de-emphasizes written language by claiming that there is no “truth” in it, and declares “the impossibility of determining absolute meaning” 15 in a text. He wrote:

But not only do the whole-language deconstructionists reject the concept of the absolute word—the logos—but they reject the very system of logical thinking that made Western civilization possible. They not only reject the Bible, they reject Aristotle’s A is A. Their new formula is A can be anything you want it to be, which can only be the basis of a pre-literate or non-literate culture in which subjectivism, emotion and superstition prevail as the means of knowing.

That, of course, is simply a form of insanity—the inability not only to deal with objective reality but to recognize and admit that it exists. A mind so inclined is a mind that will lead its owner to destruction.

The Emergent Church is at the vanguard of this type of deconstructionism. It discounts the Word of God, mocks exegetical preaching and teaching, and emphasizes dialogue (“conversation”), mysticism, symbology, community (“relationships”), and various “spiritual disciplines.” A recent, related fad in the evangelical mission world is “orality,” which is telling stories about the Bible instead of teaching Scripture itself. This cheats the listener out of the precious ability to hear or read God’s Word.

The foundation of this new heresy is said to originate from Walter J. Ong, who wrote a book entitled Orality & Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word (Methuen & Co., Ltd., 1982)…. The premise behind this book is that humans need to return to their earlier (evolutionary) primitive heritage of myth, fable, story, image, symbols, icons, etc. The written word is degraded. The spoken word and image are said to be more closely connected to the human “consciousness.” This author means “consciousness” in the sense of Carl Jung’s pagan pseudo-science of “collective unconscious.” Story, myth and image are therefore seen as closer to pagan spirituality. The author notes the “magic power” inherent in the written word and states that “Literacy can be restricted to special groups such as the clergy.”

Actually, I probably shouldn’t have bothered with the bolding. Everything other than the fact Ong wrote Orality and Literacy is wrong. Even the direct quote from the book, “Literacy can be restricted to special groups such as the clergy,” fails to represent the context of the quote. In this particular case, Ong was discussing the historical emergence of literacy in the West during the medieval period, when, in fact, literacy was largely restricted to special groups such as the clergy.

Obviously, Blumenfeld gets Ong wrong. Unfortunately, because Leslie relies upon Blumenfeld’s misreading of Ong rather than Ong himself—a quick read of Ong’s short section on deconstruction would have been enough to discover Blumenfeld has no idea what he’s talking about—leads Leslie to compile error upon error