Category Archives: Postmodernism
I just finished reading John Caputo’s What Would Jesus Deconstruct?. Below is the posted book review that I put up on my Facebook account. My opening comments are referring to this review:
Caputo’s other books have been light in a dark place, and this series of books looks promising. But this particular volume strikes me as poorly written and poorly reasoned, surprising for Caputo. He rails against an undefined “religious Right” in a way that Brian McLaren, in the preface, describes as “hospitable” but which I can only describe as straw-man hostility. He takes Derrida to have something to say about religion, which is fair enough and true, I think. But he never here makes the case for why we should listen to Derrida, or why Deconstruction is a desirable Biblical hermeneutic. In the end, he has very little to offer other than his opinion. I say this as one who usually finds his opinions interesting and his philosophy worth reading. This time, however, I think Caputo writes sloppily. He either does a disservice to the views he espouses, or else exposes them as largely empty of _theological_ content. When he talks about the key themes in Derrida’s work, he’s lucid; when he talks about what they mean for us, his wordplay seems to mask a lack of argument. This is unfortunate
The review above is superb and right on target. I read this work because I do believe that deconstruction can be appropriated in useful ways by Christians. When Caputo is explaining what deconstruction is and it’s concerns, the work is insightful and helpful. The 2nd half of the work is nearly useless (at least to me). Rather than writing a long of a review, allow me to bullet point my areas of concern:
- Caputo seems to have a difficult time speaking specifically of Christianity without the discussion soon degenerating into a discussion of ‘religion’ in general.
- His disgust with the ‘Christian’ or ‘religious’ right is evident on every page, while he has nearly nothing to correct on the Left.
- He pits Paul against Jesus, and nearly always isolates Jesus from the overall biblical narrative, especially the Old Testament (i.e. the Hebrew Bible).
- Many of his arguments aren’t arguments at all but not-so-subtly hidden biases against traditional Christian views (on human nature, homosexuality, abortion, penal substitution, etc).
- He, at least in this book, shows no familiarity with discussions on his chosen topics that come to conclusions other than his own.
- Most of his arguments against the “Christian right” are aimed at a straw-man fundamentalism. I kept asking myself, ‘who believes that!?’ The classical Christian position on abortion and homosexuality, for instance, should be represented by it’s best thinkers, not by extremes…if Caputo doesn’t appreciate it when this is done against Derrida (and I agree), then he shouldn’t do it against Christianity.
- The audience of the book isn’t completely clear. Baker academic is primarily an evangelical Protestant publishing house. Caputo slips back and forth between attacks on Evangelical views, and then attacking Roman Catholic views (many attacks of which Protestants would agree). The lack of focus is very frustrating.
- Tying in with point 4, Caputo’s writing also suffers from the ‘saying it’s so doesn’t make it so’ fallacy. Saying that Jesus would probably endorse homosexual love if he lived today (while ignoring Jesus high view of Scripture with all that it approved and condemned) doesn’t make it so.
So many logical and theological problems plague this book that i’ll have to stop here, lest I go on for several pages. There are paragraphs here and there are that so good that they push you on to finish the entire work, but overall i’m a little surprised that Baker decided to go ahead and publish a book like this. Eerdman’s I’d expect, as well as Brazos (Baker’s more ‘radical’ imprint, but not Baker Academic. James. K. A. Smith’s first volume in this series was fantastic. Smith endorses much of postmodernism, but is nevertheless critical. Caputo, on the other hand, would change the very face of historic Christianity if he had his way.
Summary: This book is for the discerning. Read it with care. But, if you believe the Bible is the actual verbal revelation of God Himself, brace yourself for a pretty high dose of frustration as you trek through it.
In the first part of my review of Crystal Downing’s How Postmodernism Serves (My) Faith, I noted what I think are the strengths of the book, and why I think it’s one of the most helpful introductions on the subject for Christians to read. Now, I point out what I think are the weaknesses of her work.
Let it be known now, before I say any word of critique, that I thoroughly enjoyed this book and learned a good deal from it. It’s among my favorite Christian books on postmodernism by far. But, the book does have some weaknesses, and they’re not minor.
Insufficient view of Scripture. In a nutshell, I strongly get the impression that Downing denies the inerrancy of Scripture. That is to say, she does not necessarily believe that the Bible contains no errors (whether historical, scientific, etc.). She seems to equate the doctrine of inerrancy with the modernist worldview that undergirded much of Christian fundamentalism. There’s one major problem: the teaching of the errorless-ness of Scripture (though the term ”inerrancy” wasn’t used until relatively recently) dates far, far before modernism. Augustine, living in the 3rd and 4th centuries spoke of God’s word as true in all that it teaches.
The sad part of Downing’s portrayal of inerrancy is that she nowhere interacts with the vast literature on the subject by competent, historically informed evangelicals. here I’m thinking of works like Scripture and Truth, God’s Inerrant Word, and Inerrancy (edited by Norman Geisler), and more recently (just released) Greg Beale’s The Erosion of Inerrancy in Evangelicalism. Perhaps the best single work refuting the view that inerrancy is a later theological development from modernism-influenced Princetonians is John Woodbridge’s Biblical Authority. Ironically, considering postmodern’s emphasis on justice toward the “other,” Downing (at least in this work) pays no attention to “other” approaches to this important issue.
Inclusivism. Inclusivism is the view that states that while salvation cannot be found apart from the work of Christ, someone can be saved apart from a conscious knowledge of Jesus Christ. Recounting the ending of C. S. Lewis’s work, The Last Battle, Downing implies that a fundamentalist Christianity insists on exclusivism (the view that says salvation comes only through a conscious knowledge of, and faith in the person of Jesus Christ), while an open, postmodern-chastened Christianity will realize that salvation doesn’t come through a formula (i.e. the baptist, pentecostal, presbyterian [etc] understanding of the gospel) but instead will be inclusivist. But, no one I know that maintains an exclusivist faith reduces the gospel to their particular confession of faith. And few (read: none) of the people with the educational background and interests to be reading Downing’s book with make the error of believing that salvation depends on a “formula.” Maybe some do reduce salvation to a particular creed, but Downing should interact with the best presentation of a view. I for one think that the Westminster Confession of Faith is perhaps the best and most precise creed ever developed in the history of Christianity, but I would never presume to say that those who do not adhere to it aren’t saved (of course, some chapters in the confession of more essential to salvation than others. For instance, if someone rejects it’s teaching on the person and work of Christ they cannot rightly be called a Christian.).
Another sad thing in this regard is that Downing doesn’t really engage the texts that are most often cited against her position (Acts 4:12, and others that place a heavy emphasis on the name of Jesus). D. A. Carson has addressed this issue pretty exhaustively in his book, The Gagging of God. Inclusivism simply cannot be made to fit the whole texts and plot-line of the Bible without forcing upon it a number of postmodern sensitivities.
Truth. Now, this issue is a bit sticky. Groothuis and others have made the truth issue central to all discussion on postmodernism. This, of course, isn’t a bad thing. Many “postmodern Christians” find it much easier to speak of Christ as the Truth (cf. John 14:6). So far, so good. But it normally stops there. Unfortunately, many times a sad reductionism of the truth issue is employed when we choose only to affirm the absolute truth of the incarnate Word, but shy away from confessing the same of the written word of Scripture. The propositions of the Bible are divinely given propositions, it’s questions are authoritative and demand to be answered, and it’s declarations demand to be believed. We need to reject a false dichotomy between the incarnate and the written word. Jesus Himself said to the Father in John 17, “Your word is truth.” Paul develops arguments regarding the work of Christ based on the form of a particular word (“seed”) in Galatians (showing that the very words of scripture, and not merely it’s broad message, were crucial for hearing God), and Christ said that those who did not heed His words will be like a house built on the sand.
She may very well believe in the absolute truth of the words of scripture, but she isn’t very clear on the matter. And her troubles with inerrancy makes the matter worse.
Idiosyncratism. In her discussion on the various forms of relativism, her final form in described as building relativism. This is the kind of relativism that states that we access to many truth is relative to a number of circumstances (gender, location, intellect, biases, etc, etc), but is still compatible with a belief in absolute truth. But, once you finish the book you realize that she never mentions “building relativists” (what I would call perspectivalists) that hold to views different from her own. So, it would seem, that building relativists are open to theistic evolution, opposed to the “modernist doctrine” of inerrancy, and are inclusivists.
But is maintaining these views necessary to be a serious Christian thinker that can fairly, and without hostility, access competing worldviews? What about those that believe in a 7 day creation? Surely she doesn’t believe they are all dumb fundamentalists. I most certainly give her the benefit of the doubt in that regard. Does everyone who believes that the text of the Bible contains no errors have to be influence by modernist foundationalism? If so, what about Augustine?
Conclusion. Perhaps her positions are formed as a (over)reaction against forms of Christianity that presented the above mentioned doctrines in an unattractive manner. I cannot say. But, she should have spent more time engaging her fellow brothers and sisters in Christ who sincerely, and strongly disagree with her on such vital matters.
Like I said, these are not minor errors. And they serve to mar an otherwise fantastic book. Is the book worth the time? Certainly. But even a helpful book like this one demands that it’s reader search the Scriptures “to see if these things are true.”
Just a week ago, I finished reading Crystal Downing’s work, How Postmodernism Serves (My) Faith. The work represents a shift in Christian writing on the topic of postmodernism. Though Downing’s work isn’t the first in this trend, the trend is that of works that see postmodernism as a boon for Christian witness. Many books published 10-12 years ago have an us vs. them feel about them. Mostly noticeable of the “older” books on pomo is Douglas Groothuis’ book, Truth Decay: Defending Christianity against the Challenge of Postmodernism (ironically, also published by InterVarsity Press). Groothius has many helpful things to say, but overall he find little helpful about postmodernism and links it to some of the strangest aspects of contemporary culture. What Downing brings in her book is a take on the issues from someone who’s actually read the key thinkers of this movement (and this isn’t meant as an indictment against Groothuis). Also, she moves (somewhat) beyond the typical impasse of so much Christian analysis, epistemology.
Clarity, flow, and readability. One of the greatest strengths of this book is Downing’s ability to take complex topics, like the deconstruction of Jacques Derrida, and explain it in a) concise terms, and b) in thought-forms that Christians are familiar with. For instance, in discussing Derrida’ notion of binary opposition, she uses the modernist binary of reason/faith, science/religion, and fact/feeling. Christians are used to hearing these oppositions in our culture, and for that clarification Downing should be applauded.
Familiar examples, and reoccurring stories and references make the flow throughout the book very smooth, and helpful. It’s a fun and easy read (of course, by that I mean about as easy as your can imagine given the subject matter!).
Sympathetic Approach. I will continue to use Groothuis’ books as an example. Personally, I found his book, Truth Decay, to be very helpful on a number of issues related to postmodernism. His appendix on television was alone worth the price of the book in my eyes. But, one thing that hurts the work overall is that he doesn’t seem to have any sympathy for postmodernists and their “plight.” Nearly everything in our culture that he finds disturbing is labeled as a result of postmodernism. But, as a scholar on Blaise Pascal, he should know that it is sympathetic analysis that’s most helpful. Imagine how he would appreciate a book on Pascal written from someone who’s worldview is radically opposed to that of Pascal himself (and I’m sure Dr. Groothuis has had to read more than a few of those)?
In How Postmodernism Serves (My) Faith, Downing lays her chips on the table in the very name of the book! She finds pomo helpful to her faith, and believes that many of it’s teaching, understood at their best, can aid in developing a stronger Christian faith. Largely, I agree, though I have some strong disagreements with what she believes is a robust Christian faith (see part 2). Only be tracking along with a thinker’s concerns and arguments can we be opened to the way they perceived the world, even if initially it seems strange and foreign. If we do not do this, 9 times our of 10 we are prone to dismiss someone’s thought and find them to be crazies.
Next we’ll look at the negatives of this otherwise helpful book…
Though in our day we must wrestle with the postmodern expression of relativism, relativism itself is nothing new. Protagoras of ancient Greece, philosophical nemesis of Plato, held that “man is the measure of all things.” So, if relativism is an old enemy of God’s revelation, why tackle it here…again? Crystal Downing, in her recent work, How Postmodernism Serves (my) Faith, notes that speaking about relativism is a tricky matter. Not all forms of relativism are opposed to the Christian message. She notes at least three forms of relativism, with the second having three expressions.
The first form of relativism that Downing mentions is what she calls Bird relativism. This view approaches the matter from a bird’s eye view, assuming that it can understand the nature of truth from a non-situated position. This is the type of relativism that most people fear and denounce. It’s the view that says all views are equally true, or equally false.
The second form of relativism is Brain relativism. This form acknowledges that because of the plurality of human experiences, cultures, religions, etc., people think differently (“Brain”). There is therefore no way to enter in sympathetically to another’s perspective. In effect, we are trapped in our sphere of interpretation. Downing notes three sub-divisions of Brain relativism, namely the bouncing, bombardment, and lastly, the boundary form. Bouncing relativism calls us never to settle on a particular interpretative community, instead calling us to bounce around and “find ourselves” through multiple identity-forming communities. Since no one true interpretive paradigm has it all right, any attempt they make to totalize life under their scheme is inherently oppressive. In order to free oneself from the tyrannical control of just one worldview, the bouncing relativist must free themselves and “dip and dab” in various schools of discourse.
The bombardment relativist, like Stanley Fish, holds that discourse is always played according to the language games of our community. Since we live in a particular ideological commune our ultimate commitment is to that party, and we should radically defend our view of the world. While from a Christian perspective, at first glance this view may seem appealing, we must recognize that Fish’s sword cuts both ways; for a Muslim to question their towers of influence is inherently wrong. There is seemingly is no way to mediate between perspectives, we simply think about the world differently (this is way it is a subdivision of brain relativism). “If we endorse the bombardment position of Fish, we cannot say the that the actions of al-Qaida are universally immoral; we can only say that they are immoral according to our tower’s language of morality.” They took the notion of bombardment quite seriously.
Richard Rorty, the (im)famous American neo-pragmatist philosopher, is Downing’s representative of Boundary relativism. Immediately one will notice the parallels with the boundary and bombardment schools of relativism. Boundary relativism argues that one ought to cultivate the virtue of solidarity with one’s community. Why do Americans prefer freedom and democracy? Because those are American values. To break solidarity with the society’s paradigmatic view of the world is to be immoral. We ought to remain within our society’s boundaries because they work for us. Rorty is not concerned with the “how do you know?” question that has plagued western philosophy for centuries. He freely admits to parasitically feeding off of the Judeo-Christian worldview when he condemns cruelty and injustice. Were we to ask him why should he hold these standards as opposed to others, he would simply reply, “These are the values that have shaped America. And I’m an American.” Before moving on, I note that such a view of truth, morality, and solidarity, the notion of a social, intellectual, or ethical reformer is rendered unintelligible; by definition to reform is to break solidarity according to Rorty, and hence is immoral (i.e it doesn’t ‘work’). Martin Luther King Jr., William Wilberforce (who fought to end the slave trade in England), and Einstein (who rejected the Newtonian scientific paradigm of his day) would have to be remembered with disrepute rather than honor.
Lastly, Downing writes of Building relativism. Here she makes use of the word building as both a verb and a noun. As a noun the term building speaks of the structures, or towers, as she likes to call them, that act as ideological paradigms (such as fundamentalist Christianity, Reformed Christianity, Roman Catholic Christianity, progressivist Christianity, etc.). These towers serve as our worldview forming communities. As a verb, it speaks of the action of moving upward toward a truth that transcends our perspective. Thus, Building relativism is not mutually exclusive with a belief in absolute truth.
I find her distinctions compelling. Her nuanced presentation of relativism fleshes out the notion that not all postmodern relativists are of the same stripe. Rorty is of the boundary stripe, while Fish is of the bombardment type. Though I would be less inclined to call this last type a form of relativism, and more to call it a form of perspectivalism. But, I would argue that behind much of the reactionary rhetoric of so many evangelical responses to postmodernism is a genuine recognition that without a transcendent God- One who is not subject to the limitations of human finitude- and His perspicuous verbal revelation- to serve as our ultimate presupposition-there is no way to escape enslavement to a creaturely authority structure. But, these power structures, these “truth regimes,” need not always be our only suzerain.
As has been expounded time and again by Cornelius Van Til, and other thinkers, our slavery is often to our own sinful passions. Relativity reigns when standards of truth, beauty, and goodness fluctuate from individual to individual. Unfortunately, many advocate an aggressive acquiescence to just such an enslavement.
I’m now reading through Heath White‘s Postmodernism 101: A First Course for Curious Christians. Many books over the last decade put out in response to postmodernism, have, in my humble opinion, have been fairly reactionary. They usually have pointed all things perceived as wrong in the movement (if we call call postmodernism a movement), while acknowledging the “benefits” in an almost pat-on-the-head manner. in this work, White sets out to trace 7 themes in postmodern thought, while contrasting them with premodern and modern thought.
One of the benefits of White’s book is his charitable explanation of views he doesn’t hold. In laying out the postmodern position on a number of topics, White is careful to try to show his reader at least why people who hold these positions find them appealing. There is none of the flippant dismissals I’ve seen in other works.
Another helpful aspects of this book is it’s language. As can be gathered by the title, Postmodernism 101 is an entry -level book, and probably the most helpful one on the market today for laying out, in fairly popular language, what postmodern theorists are saying. So, with maybe 1 or 2 exceptions, in the entire book you rarely read White say, “According to Derrida,” or “According to Foucault, Lyotard, Rorty,” etc. He’ll just explain the themes that are most common amongst postmodern writers. This makes for clearer, and faster, reading.
I have about 2 chapters to go, and no major complaints. At one point, White seems to advocate an allegorical interpretation of some parts of Scriptural. I can understand how he may want to move away from so much of the literalism that pervades works like the Left Behind series. I would advocate a typological method to many of the parts White may apply allegory to, but that’s another issue for another day.
If you’re a Christian who’s ever wondered what exactly is thing phenomenon that is called postmodernism, pick up Postmodernism 101.