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Modernity, Postmodernity, and “the gospel”

March 15th, 2006 by Jason · 15 Comments

Like Isaac, this week is busy for me because of an exam coming up on Thursday, but I wanted to write a quick note on an article in this month’s Christianity Today written by one of my favorite profs from Westmont, Jonathan Wilson. In Give it Away, Give it Away Now Wilson critiques David Fitch’s new book The Great Giveaway. Here’s a quote from Wilson that captures his main critique of the book:

However, one responsibility of theology is not only to avoid heresy in one’s own theology, but also to know where that theology may be misread by others and to guard against such misreading. I am concerned that Fitch does not guard his way of working sufficiently. Today’s postmodern evangelical could become tomorrow’s postmodern liberal. Let us take care to prevent that insofar as it lies within our power to do so.

I have a “yes” and a “hmm” to Wilson’s critique. On the one hand I appreciate Wilson’s insistence that while postmodernity can highlight and critique some of the ways in which the gospel has been distorted by modernity he also emphasizes that the church should not make postmodernity the new hermeneutic for understanding truth or theology. One of the things that keeps coming back to me from a class I took from Dr. Wilson is how he answered when I asked him “If you don’t believe in the objective, rational truth of modernity, do you accept the contextual, web-of-knowledge truth of postmodernity?” His answer, in short: “the gospel is the standard for truth.” There is no meta-philosophy that Christians should use to determine truth or epistemology. Here is where my “hmm” comes in. I have a hard time seeing how this can work in real life, because our understanding of what “the gospel” is, or even how to read the Scripture that proclaims that gospel, is shaped by our church, society, and presuppositions. I’m just not sure we can so easily get a handle on “the gospel” and make that our standard for epistemology and truth.

Tags: reading corner · theology

15 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Eric Lee // Mar 15, 2006 at 7:17 pm

    Isn’t what Wilson is saying akin to “the Bible says what it says,” which kind of leaves people hanging? Can “the gospel,” to wax Hauerwasian, really be interpretted outside of the context of the Church, that is, Christ’s body?

  • 2 Jason // Mar 15, 2006 at 8:13 pm

    Eric, that’s a good point. However, I’m pretty sure Wilson would concur that the gospel is only understood in the context of the church (in fact, one of the books he assigned us in Christian Doctrine was Reading in Communion which makes just that point). However, it still seems that to acknowledge that the truth of the gospel is only found in the church is to assent to what postmodernism says: knowledge is contextual and community based. But I realize I might be reading postmodernism too simply.

  • 3 Lee // Mar 16, 2006 at 8:01 am

    Hmmm, this is a tricky question, but I think I would want to say that the gospel has to be prior to the church in some sense. I’m not sure exactly what it means to say that the gospel can only be understood within the context of the church though – does that mean one has to be in the church to understand the gospel, or that one only fully understands the gospel if one sees that it implies the church?

  • 4 Jason // Mar 16, 2006 at 11:07 am

    I think the idea is that the gospel is not some sort of objective “truth package” that any rational person can understand. Rather, it’s the good news as known by the community that lives and loves it, the church. So does that mean you have to be in or at least around the church to understand it? That you can’t pick up a Gideon on your own in a hotel room and “get it”? Yes, to some extent—though it is the church that has preserved and translated it over the ages. I think you can pick up some of what it means, but it will be largely strange, foreign, and misread if it’s not eventually read in a church that seeks to embody it.

  • 5 Eric Lee // Mar 16, 2006 at 11:38 am

    Yeah, I would agree, Jason, and the point I was getting at in mentioning the Church specifically as Christ’s body is that the gospel and the body of Christ should therefore not be opposed. Because we as the Church, the people of God, are Christ’s body, we can’t separate the gospel truth from our community. Otherwise it turns into pure Platonism—a Platonic ideal removed from our bodies.

    The gospel is not just a pure rationality that you can assent to and say ‘I understand it’, because even the demons “believe” in Christ and know about him, but they don’t have faith in him nor do they call him Saviour. Even Donald Miller, when he came to PLNU, was talking about a friend of his who believes everything in the Bible and says he ‘understands’ it, but he just doesn’t want to commit. There is an aspect of faith, not removed from reason, that must be committed to on the part of the believer that proclaims Christ as Lord.

    Us Protestants don’t usually understand this very well because we like to isolate the text and isolate our rationality and think that everybody can simply ‘know’ it, but it takes more than mere ‘knowledge’ to have faith in Christ as Lord. Christ is foolishness to the wisdom of the greeks, after all.

    Peace,

    Eric

  • 6 Lee // Mar 16, 2006 at 12:21 pm

    Yeah – there’s definitely a difference between understanding someting, assenting to it, and committing one’s life to it. But I take it that people outside the church must be capable of coming to some level of understanding of (and even assent and committment to) the gospel – otherwise they’d never enter the church, right? And does this butt heads with a kind of postmodern/contextualist/community-dependent account of truth?

  • 7 Eric Lee // Mar 16, 2006 at 1:40 pm

    I think we’re now talking about the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives that crosses that divide. Of course people outside of the Church can have some knowledge—even a lot—of the Gospel, how else would they know to enter the church? How else would there be converts? But like I said above with Don Miller’s example, mere knowledge isn’t enough until we allow the Holy Spirit to work in our lives in such a way that we are compelled to proclaim Jesus as Lord. That’s why I’m not focusing on just the knowledge, because there is more to it than that, but it is necessary. It doesn’t need to butt up against any ‘accounts’ of truth, whatever it is you’re getting at.

    Peace,

    Eric

  • 8 Lee // Mar 16, 2006 at 2:44 pm

    Well, what I meant was that, at least according to some (broadly “postmodern”) accounts of truth, the truth-value of a statement, and indeed the meaning of a statement, is dependent on the social and/or cultural context in which it’s uttered. For instance, Alasdair MacIntyre’s account of moral language in After Virtue is that moral claims only make sense in the context of a particular tradition. I took Jason to be gesturing in this direction when he said that, according to postmodernism “knowledge is contextual and community based.”

    So, to the extent that we may find such accounts persuasive, it seems to me that it raises the question of how the gospel is to be communicated beyond the bounds of the believing community. Naturally (or supernaturally!), the Holy Spirit plays the crucial role here, but most Christians haven’t held that the work of the Spirit bypasses our faculties of will and reason, but rather works through them. In which event I think it’s worth asking how the gospel proclamation transcends the particularity of the community which proclaims it. This isn’t a rhetorical question on my part; I honestly don’t know what the answer is.

  • 9 Eric Lee // Mar 16, 2006 at 6:17 pm

    Yeah, I think the Holy Spirit works through those faculties of ours as well.

    I’m still trying to work out the answer in my local community/congregation as well. I’m not entirely sure, either. I think part of the answer can’t easily be written down on the blogs (hence my platonic comment above about not removing this witness from our bodies). That kind of comment of mine will probably leave some people wanting more, and it’s supposed to, by the way.

    Peace,

    Eric

  • 10 Jason // Mar 17, 2006 at 9:50 am

    I think we’re hitting here the mystery of “conversion.” It was so clean in modernism: you objectively analyzed all the truth packages and then used your reason to decide which one was Truth. But in postmodernity, how do you articulate conversion? You’re floating along in one community, accepting it’s web-of-truth and the relationships and practices that undergird your understanding of the world and then…you jump ship. But what makes you jump ship, and how are able to know you even want to jump to another ship when you’re still viewing the other boats out there from the observation deck? The only way I’ve been able to put some sense to it is to observe how conversion happens in real life. And that seems to vary greatly from person to person. Some people show up at church and find it emotionally fulfilling. Others read a book and find it intelectually compelling. Still others have a divine epiphany or dream.

    All that to say conversion definitely happens in real life, but figuring out how it works at a theoretical level is tough.

  • 11 Eric Lee // Mar 17, 2006 at 11:16 am

    Others are blinded by God until the scales fall from their eyes as people aid them through their journey.

    Some see miracles, and as Kierkegaard talks about in Practice in Christianity, it makes them decide whether or not they will have faith.

    Some are inspired by the witness of individual congregations as they engage in the works of mercy.

    I would agree there isn’t a single, universal way this works out.

    God is indeed mysterious.

    Peace,

    Eric

  • 12 isaac // Mar 18, 2006 at 9:34 pm

    I have to admit, I don’t know what this thing called “postmodernism” is anymore. Deleuze? Derrida? Fish? Foucault? Whatever. I think, for the time being, I’ll say that this thing called “postmodern culture” and Christian encounters with it will have to pass through Capitalism. This is to say that Christians can’t talk about postmodernism without talking about our consumerist culture, the way the Western economy orders our lives. To quote Jameson’s title: “Postmodernism, or, the cultural logic of late capitalism.” Church is commodified. Discipleship is commodified. But what kind of pious christian wants to talk about Marx and fetishism and the military-industrialist complex? It’s so much more comfortable to talk about the aesthetics of worship spaces: candles, big screens, high tech sound equipment, the latest and the greatest techniques to make us feel the warm fuzzies. “I just feel Jesus so much better here.” Yeah, all that money better produce something, it better arouse some sort of spirit. But, who knows, it might just be Max Weber’s spirit: that invisible hand that slices up the weak in order to serve the ones on top some finely crafted commodities.

    So, I’ll go with Wilson on this one, I think. Postmodernism isn’t anything to rejoice about. It’s just the rightful heir of that fine-tuned economic machine fueled by this enlightened world “come of age.” It’s the cultural logic of late capitalism. A new beast. Not a bedfellow. But Wilson can’t say that sort of thing in Christianity Today.

    There is a way to make the case that this so-called “postmodern” cultural moment opens up new vistas made invisible in previous ages, but the best one’s I’ve read look the capitalist beast right in the eyes and figure out forms of revolutionary resistence: see Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri’s Empire, and Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari’s A Thousand Platteaus.

  • 13 Eric Lee // Apr 22, 2006 at 2:29 am

    Isaac,

    I’m currently reading through Hart’s The Beauty of the Infinite, and when I came to the section on his treatment of Deleuze, I remembered your recommendation of his (and Guattari’s) critiques of capitalism. But reading through your comment again, I have to point out the irony of you dismissing “postmodernism” as “[a] new beast” on the one hand, and then promoting said decidedly postmodern duo on the other (to critique their own passage through capitalism, no less?). Can the “beast” really critique another “beast” for, say, theology’s sake?

    My question to you is if that language (of “beast”) is really helpful…? I think I might know where you’re going with it (and I’d probably agree), but I just thought the tension was kinda funny.

    Also, how much of the ‘Capitalism and Schizophrenia’ books have you read, if any?

    Peace,

    Eric

  • 14 isaac // Apr 25, 2006 at 9:38 am

    Eric, good point. First of all, I want to say again that I don’t know what “postmodernism” is. I’ve read some Derrida, some Deleuze, some Foucault, some Lyotard… And I’m still not quite sure what people mean by “postmodern” thought. So, before someone tells me if this thing called “postmodernism” is good or bad for the church, I want to know what they’re talking about. So, if Deleuze and Guattari are a “decidedly postmodern duo” I want to know what exactly makes them such. But as far as a cultural moment goes—postmodernity as a time after modernity—I think some of these marxists have important things to say. Folks like Fred Jameson, Antonio Negri, and Gilles Deleuze offer helpful readings of the cultural-political-economic milieu in which we find ourselves. And if their narratives of the contemporary world holds any water, then powers are at work in the world today that sound like that “Beast” in Revelation—the one that rules over the kings of the earth, and whose dominion flows with the waters of that economic power of the ancient Meditteranean Sea.

    Of the two volumes of Deleuze and Guattari’s Capitalism and Schizophrenia, I’ve read the second: A Thousand Plateaus. That book is a crazy world.

    What does David B. Hart have to say about Deleuze and Guattari?

  • 15 Eric Lee // Apr 26, 2006 at 10:48 am

    Neat. Ya, I’d agree. Typically people don’t really know what the word ‘postmodern’ means, and even then, it’s like 51% vacuous anyways, so who knows 😛

    Hart just critiques Deleuze’s thought as being among the ‘postmoderns’ in the line of Nietzsche who strive for a kind of ‘pure immanentism’ (there’s a sizeable intro section to Hart’s book where he just defines terms like ‘postmodern’ and beauty, etc.). Deleuze, for Hart, represents that discourse of the unrepresentable in line with what Hart critiques as the ‘cosmological sublime.’ Hart doesn’t mention it, but I think Deleuze actually has a book called Pure Immanence. He mentions something about how Deleuze wants to bring everything up to as well as down to the ‘surface’ level so there is no depth as well as no transcendence (hence immanence). Infinity cannot be conceived because all is within a ‘totality.’

    For Deleuze, all rhetoric and thought is allowed except for one, that of peace. Thought then is necessarily violent. Here is a good snippet that summarizes Hart’s critique:

    Deleuze never, anywhere in the course of his philosophical development, escapes the tedious dualism of the active and the reactive, the affirmation and the negative, the creative and the resentful; thus there is no place in his thought for an energy that is neither one nor the other of these things, an energy at once responsive and free, inviting and creating, analogical and expressive. Deleuzian affirmation is always an affirmation of the whole as force, never as gift or charity: not solely because a gift presumes a giver, but because being is intrinsically a violence whose intervals are not spaces where charity may be effectively enacted, but merely the shared ruptures between differences. ‘If it is true that all things reflect a state of forces then power designates the element, or rather the differential relationship, of forces which directly confront one another”*; nature is an interrelated multiplicity of forces, which are either dominant or dominating (p. 66).

    • Deleuze, Nietzsche and Philosophy, xi.

    Hart’s main worry is that the thought of Nietzsche, as well as those who take on his metaphysic (among others), in their ontology do not know how to rightly think of or speak of beauty—his entire book being an argument of aesthetics.

    Anywho, I’d still like to get to some Deleuze at some point. I might be presenting a paper in a few months somewhere that might require it—we’ll see 😉

    Peace,

    Eric