Thursday, February 21, 2008

Postmodernism: Critique and Apology

I think Postmodernism has received a bad rap from much of Evangelical theology in recent times. Some of that criticism is deserving, but much of it is misplaced. In the following I want to try and critique the negative while commending the positive. Let me know what you think.

The Apology (Defense) of Postmodern Methodology:
While there are certainly negative, and even harmful, vices of the postmodern movement, we in the Evangelical church have much to learn from their methodology. Put simply, it makes sense to appeal to a culture for norms of style, approach and technique. In fact, this understanding is itself biblical. When Luke recounts the journeys of the early church in Acts he specifically points to a change in evangelistic approach based on the receiving culture. For instance, in Acts 17 Luke details the efforts of Paul in Thessalonica, Berea and Athens. In the first two cities, Paul went straight to the synagogues (as was his normal custom) to convince the Jews and God-fearing Greeks that Jesus was the Messiah who fulfilled the Old Testament prophecies. However, he tried this approach in Athens initially and discovered that they didn't have as thorough a knowledge of the O.T. as the other cities did and so he shared the good news by comparing God to their myriad of deities, and explicating His unique supremacy. All that to say, some methods work and others don't - Christ doesn't care (for the most part) how we approach people with His Word as long as that's what we're doing. Rock music is okay, jeans are okay, sandals are okay. It's the heart of man that matters right?

The Critique of Postmodern Philosophy:
While the methodology of Postmodernism may be useful, it's philosophy is inherently dangerous. I think a lot of the key promoters of the movement - think Brian McLaren, Tony Jones etc. - suffer from an apathy for (or perhaps ignorance of) the philosophical implications more than an actual desire to dismantle the Truth claims of Christianity (for in fact, as the atheistic postmoderns make clear, once we accept all the tenets of postmodernism there isn't even a metanarrative - or God's eye view - of the world anyways). With a postmodern hermeneutics the Bible loses all authority, and with authority, all meaning. With a Bible devoid of meaning we come to a life belief system devoid of truth. There truly is no reason in calling yourself a "Christian" unless by doing so you want to assert that, at the very least, you believe this belief system to be superior to others. I believe in God because I think He is superior to the other gods in this world. But this is impossible without an objective truth grounded in the mind-independent reality (which postmoderns tend to deny our access to). Postmodernism isn't all bad, even philosophically, unless it is taken to the extreme: toleration for a plurality of viewpoints is certainly a virtue, toleration for a plurality of "truths" most certainly is not.


jeremy zach said...

Interesting post. I am still thinking......and pondering...

I liked how you broke down postmodern in the subsets of methodology and philosophy.

I am curious how you would generally define Postmodernism?

Van Gelder in his book, Confident Witness constructs a wonderful definition of postmodernism:
Postmodernism is defined by the following terms: a nostalgia, conservative longing for the past, coupled with an erasure of the boundaries between past and the present; an intense preoccupation with the real and its representations; a pornography of the visual; the commodification of sexuality and desire; a consumer culture which objectifies a set of masculine cultural ideals; intense emotional experiences shaped by anxiety, alienation, ressentiment, and a detachment from others.”

Jake C. said...

Hmmm...well one thing I don't like about Postmodernism is exemplified in that quotation (but just on a personal level, not a theological one) - I don't really know what they're trying to say sometimes. I mean I know the point is to blur the distinction between discrete categories and stuff but I get lost frequently like I did with Van Gelder's def. But, as far as how I would define it, I think a simple but accurate description comes from Kevin Vanhoozer's "Is There Meaning in This Text?" when he says that Postmodern hermenuetics can best be described as "incredulity toward meaning". It seems to sum up a lot of the approaches that those theologians take. Do you like Van Gelder's def? What do you think he is saying there, if you could decipher it for me?

jeremy zach said...

I could not agree with you more.

All through out seminary, I could not find a working definition that makes sense. Everyone throws around this postmodern word and nobody knows how to fully express it.

I would give Van's def a B-. My seminary professor seemed to like Van's definition so that is why I used it on all of my papers. To be honest, as I am looking at this definition I still do not know what it means. I was just excited that I found a definition.

I like Vanhoozer's definition a lot better.

Jake C. said...

Yeah dude, it is so hard to get a definition, I'm pretty sure that's the point of postmodern theology though right? Don't put it in a box, don't demarcate it from other stuff, don't hold it to conventional "modern" rules about definition.

I have a professor now teaching on Postmodernism who said that he often gets inquiries from students questioning why we don't read any arguments for the theology. Well, he said, the reason we don't read those is because there are none. To argue for the position would be to 1)promote logocentrism (as Derrida calls it) and 2)promote a stable notion of objective truth via logic.

I guess that's why its so hard but I agree with you that Vanhoozer's definition is better than Van G, but hey that is pretty sweet that you found one nonetheless.

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