Review: How Postmodernism Serves (My) Faith

 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.

Positives

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…

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Posted on December 3, 2008, in Postmodernism and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. Epistemology is not an impasse, it is a key feature of any sound worldview. So, too, is one’s view of truth. (By the way, I did read key thinkers for myself.)

    Simply because of disagrees with core ideas in a school of thought does not mean one was not sympathetic (if that means fair). I address why so many have abandoned an objective and knowable view of truth. I understand the postmodern situations (as the book notes). However, I do not accept the postmodern dissolution of truth into perspectives, lanaguage games, and contexts.

    Concerning Pascal, there is much more to offer there than what can be found in postmodernism. If I read a book critical of him, I would assess it according to its arguments. That is the way any book should be assessed. I would not demand anyone be “sympathetic” in some emotive sense of not being willing to understand the thought and rationally critique it.

    Thus, far your review shows little “sympathy” (fair evaluation) for my view and no reason to favor the other book. Maybe your next installment will give some evidene and argumentation to that end.

  2. Thank you Dr. Groothuis for leaving a comment. It’s an honor to know you read my blog, despite disagreements.

    Allow me to explain the comments made in reference to your work. Explanation is indeed needed, because Truth Decay was not the focus of my review, but instead was mentioned as a study in contrasts. You find much wrong with postmodernism, and Downing finds much right.

    First, what I meant by the “impasse” of epistemology is that many Christian works on postmodernism focus on that and little else. What of the presupposed ontology of PM? Ethics? Eschatology, etc? I understand that these are all related in vital ways to epistemology, but they all deserve treatment in their own right. This is not so much an indictment against you personally, but a comment about most of the “older” works on PM.

    I’m a little confused with your comment that states, “far your review shows little “sympathy” (fair evaluation) for my view…” As I commented earlier, the review isn’t on Truth Decay. Second, I stated that your appendix on television alone is worth the price of the book! I did not evaluate individual arguments on your book, once again, because it was mentioned in passing contrast, not as of central importance.

    Now, allow me to quickly explain what I mean by sympathetic analysis. Stated in theological language, sympathetic analysis is the type of analysis that occurs when we ask of a text, author, or system of thought, “where is common grace found here?” Or, “What aspects of truth are found here?” This would ask of the reader to do the work of asking why the work of, say Derrida, came to the conclusions he did, apart from dismissing them as loons.

    In your work, according the above definition, little sympathy is found. It didn’t dismiss anyone as a quack, but you seem to find little of any truth in PM (and perhaps fewer expressions of common grace?). In contrast, Peter Leithart find many themes in PM thought to resonate with Solomon. Of course, in saying this it doesn’t imply that these authors (nor I) am relativist in the “all views are equally valid/invalid” sense. That is patently false and spiritually deadly.

    But, I think we would agree that every era, and every movement expresses both features of common grace (being that they are created imago Dei, and live in God’s world), and antithesis (since the natural man cannot understand the things of God, and because they suppress the truth in unrighteousness)

    As a strategy for engagement, I find that first examining the expressions of common grace in a system of thought is more helpful in getting someone’s attention (long term). From there, once they know that my engagement with their system isn’t merely to point out it’s flaws, I can show them the weaknesses, falsehoods, and idolatries that undermine the “positives” that drew they to the system in the first place.

    Again, thank you for your comment.

  1. Pingback: Review: How Postmodernism Serves (My) Faith, Part 2 « KINGDOMVIEW

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