If you are skeptical about postmodern thought, I encourage you to check out “The Church and Postmodern Series” by Baker Academic, which “features high-profile theorists in continental philosophy and contemporary theology writing for a broad, nonspecialist audience interested in the impact of postmodern theory on the faith and practice of the church.” Five out of the scheduled seven books have been published. I have read the following:

  • James K. A. Smith, Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism?: Taking Derrida, Lyotard, and Foucault to Church
  • John D. Caputo, What Would Jesus Deconstruct?: The Good News of Postmodernism for the Church
  • Carl Raschke, GloboChrist: The Great Commission Takes a Postmodern Turn
  • Merold Westphal, Whose Community? Which Interpretation?: Philosophical Hermeneutics for the Church.

Of these four titles, Caputo’s was my least favorite and the most problematic. If I had to pick only one in the series, I suggest the Smith title but the Raschke and Westphal titles are close runners-up. I anticipate reading Graham Ward’s The Politics of Discipleship: Becoming Postmaterial Citizens and Bruce Ellis Benson’s forthcoming title on improvisation as a paradigm for thinking about worship and the arts. (Bruce is a former professor of mine at Wheaton College.)

I would like to share two of my published reviews with Mere O readers:

  • Books & Culture (April 2009): “The Message is the Messenger” [a review of Carl Raschke’s GloboChrist].
  • Christian Scholar’s Review (Winter 2009): a review of Merold Westphal’s Whose Community? Which Interpretation?

Here is my bibliography for all pomo-curious Christians.

GENERAL PRIMARY SOURCES (I regard Nietzsche and Kierkegaard as proto-postmodernists)

PRIMARY SOURCES ON CHRISTIANITY AND POSTMODERNISM

GENERAL SECONDARY SOURCES ON POSTMODERN

SECONDARY SOURCES ON CHRISTIANITY AND POSTMODERNISM

STUDIES OF POSTMODERN PHILOSOPHERS

* Information on above image: Roy Lichtenstein, Grrrrrrrrrrr!! (1965)

Posted by Christopher Benson

  • TLC

    Christopher,
    Would you please define the unassailable tenets of postmodernism, as you understand them? What are the absolutes (of belief, attitude, or action)to which a person must hold in order to be a postmodern [thinker, believer, practitioner, philosopher etc.]?

    The conversation you are inviting could quickly degenerate into a “we don’t believe what you say we believe/Yes you do” kind of interchange. I hope y’all avoid that.

    I read your review of GloboChrist, where you quote Raschke:
    “Becoming postmodern means that we all, whether we like it or not, are now going global, which is what that obscure first-century sect leader from Palestine truly had in mind.”

    Becoming postmodern is not a requirement for the gospel to go global, and being global in thought and action doesn’t require embracing the “no-absolutes” absolute of postmodernism.

    Later you write:
    “Obeying the Great Commission in the global cosmopolis does not involve a mission trip to “lost peoples at the margins of civilization”; the margins have become mainstream, while the mainstream has become marginalized. Nor does it involve sophisticated marketing campaigns. We make disciples of all nations as the pre-Constantinian church did in the face of “daunting and promiscuous pluralism”: through incarnational ministry, being “little Christs” to the neighbor; through contextualization of the message, speaking the idiom of the neighbor; and through relevance, hearing the needs of the neighbor…Relevance is radical relationality.”

    You’re right on target…insofar as you are committed to relationally relating to your global neighbor the absolute truth of salvation only through submission to Christ via repentance from the biblical definition of sin.

    I read just a bit of Smith’s “Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism” today. he writes:
    “[Lyotard’s] assertion that postmodernity is “incredulity toward metanarratives” is ULTIMATELY A CLAIM TO BE AFFIRMED BY THE CHURCH (emphasis mine), pushing us to recover (a) the narrative character of Christian faith, rather than understanding it as a collection of ideas, and (b) the confessional nature of our narrative and the way we find ourselves in a world of competing narratives.”

    Is he saying that the church ought to abandon the meta-narrative apologetic? It seems likely, as he seems to argue that we ought to acknowledge the confessional nature of our worldview, which perhaps translates like this: “The Christian narrative just needs to take its place as nothing more than a (lesser, anyone?) peer among the endless host of competing narratives. Let’s just admit that we believe in Christ because it suits us – we confess to it, therefore it is true for us.” If we can do that, so the thinking goes, we can all just co-exist until the unknowable deities deign to cataclysmically end the world and reveal which of the narratives was actually absolute.

    Smith emphasizes his desire to be “Schaefferian”, so it’s surprising that he may be so opposed to meta-narratives. It seems to me that Schaeffer remains the greatest champion of meta-narrative based pre-suppositional apologetics.

    In your (Smith’s) criticism of the “Biola School” I think you rightly point out that they hold to classical evidentialist apologetics, which I think is their weakest link. Evidential based constructs will always be prey to “a better argument.” Philosophical-elitist scoffing aside, pre-suppositional apologetics admits up front “IF the pre-supposition is true, THEN the argument is air-tight.” The meta-narrative idea is based on the pre-supposition that the God of the Bible is real, He is knowable,He has a plan, He is lovingly good, and He is THE BOSS. I find it interesting that the ability of of a pre-suppositionally based meta-narrative to adequately explain all the data is the best EVIDENCE that biblical Christianity is the absolute truth.

    Later, Smith (you) chides Bola for reducing philosophy to apolgetics. Brothers, examine yourselves! Such a priority is right, for without Christ there is no hope (Eph. 2:12).
    Recall the words of the Preacher:
    “all the works that are done under the sun…all is vanity and vexation of spirit [incl. endless philosophy]…Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter: Fear God, and keep his commandments [apologetics]: for this is the whole duty of man (Eccl. 1:14; 12:14)

    Fellow readers, does word choice still matter? If it does, consider the following, all taken from the Benson/Smith salvo and directed at the Biola side:
    “knee-jerk reactions”
    “a biblicist notion of propositional revelation”
    “religious devotion to analytic philosophy”
    “a fundamentalist notion of revelation” (or did they intend what they wrote:”relevation” as in “defining what is relative to culture?”)

    An unflinching commitment to the absolute truth of Christ, as revealed in a closed canon, is what makes the world hate Christians. Some Christians hate being hated, so they alternately try to grease their absolutes or co-opt their antagonists. Either way, they’ll come out tasting pretty tepid (Rev.3:15-16).

  • Great thoughts, Christopher.

    I’m still a foundationalist, though. I suppose you can blame Doug Groothius (I went to Denver Seminary). :)

    I read Deep Church by Jim Belcher, and he too saw the implications of Enlightenment philosophy as a strain on the evangelical church. I disagreed, though. And then I just finished Chesterton’s biography of Aquinas, and admit that I have a fairly high view of Natural Theology and the human ability to know stuff (ie Ens), even though I’m a Calvinist. :) I believe sin in the will depraves the mind. Though all humans know God exists (Rom. 1), their will corrupts their mind.

    That said, I guess it’s not Foundationalism I care so much about, but really knowable truth (if indeed they aren’t the same thing). When I read Acts, Peter and Paul just appeal so much to evidence (“we are witnesses of the fact” Acts 2:32) in their sermons it just seems that Truth as correspondence to reality is still the standard. That’s not to say that narrative forms of illuminating truth aren’t a better strategy for the pulpit or an apologetic conversation. Indeed, it seems they are better strategies for the postmodern person today.

    I just want to have my propositional truth cake and eat my narrative postmodern cake too. Is that contradictory?

    Oh, and Christopher, I’m the guy who lives in south Denver along with you. When are we getting coffee?

  • This is an odd claim to make: “indeed, it tends to reduce philosophy to apologetics.”

    “Tends to” is ambiguous. That aside, it strikes me as false (at least without further clarification). The vast majority of philosophy students from Talbot (and the undergrad program) that have gone on to do work have done serious intellectual work in high-ranking departments (not least of which are Notre Dame and Yale). Additionally, JP has published with Routledge and others on the question of universals. (Note: that’s metaphysics, which makes his subsequent claim that the “Biola school” is too epistemologically oriented, um, questionable).

    But then, let’s be clear: postmodernists are tired of the oversimplifications, generalizations, and mischaracterization by their critics, and rightly so. So I don’t see how trading in them against intellectual opponents does anything helpful.

    • TLC: I would address you by your name but you’ve only left us with an acronym – does it mean “tender loving care”?” You’ve made a silly request when you ask me (or anyone) to “define the unassailable tenets of postmodernism” because every tenet is vulnerable to criticism, and when you ask me (or anyone) to delineate “the absolutes… which a person must hold in order to be a postmodern” because no thinker associated with postmodernism delivers “absolutes.” What I can do is provide you (and others) a helpful footnote from Smith’s book, Whose Afraid of Postmodernism? This footnote differentiates postmodernism and postmodernity:

      We should at least note a common heuristic distinction between postmodernism as an intellectual movement and postmodernity as a constellation of cultural phenomena. Derrida’s deconstruction and Foucault’s genealogy of power are examples of postmodernism; adolescent absorption in virtual reality and the triumph of the mall as temple are examples of postmodernity. Although there is a trickle-down effect between philosophical currents of postmodernism and cultural phenomena related to postmodernity, much that is associated with cultural postmodernity is, in fact, the fruit of modernity. In other words, cultural phenomena tend to not (yet?) reflect the radical implications of postmodernism. This might be because postmodernism itself has shrunk back from its own implications in both intellectual and cultural spheres. The individualism and consumerism that characterize contemporary culture are fruit nourished by deeply modern roots. So also relativism owes much more to modernism than to postmodernism.

      If you would like a concise treatment of postmodernism, I recommend Bruce Benson’s competent entry in Evangelical Dictionary of Theology (2nd edition), which can be read using Amazon’s “inside this book” feature (pp. 939-943).

      Thanks for reading and engaging my review of GloboChrist. Your questions about Smith’s book are best answered by reading it entirely. I’ll say this much: Smith’s incredulity toward metanarratives hinges on Lyotard’s special definition of “metanarratives,” which is widely bastardized by Christians. See Ch. 3 “Where Have All the Metanarratives Gone? Lyotard, Postmodernism and the Christian Story” in Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism? and Ch. 5 “A Little Story about Metanarratives: Lyotard, Religion, and Postmodernism Revisited” (Smith), Ch. 6 “Onto-theology, Metanarrative, Perspectivism, and the Gospel” (Westphal), and Ch. 9 “Disputing about Words? Of Fallible Foundations and Modest Metanarratives” (Vanhoozer) in Christianity and the Postmodern Turn.

      If you’re sympathetic to the presuppositional method and Reformed epistemology in apologetics, then I suspect that you’ll like Smith’s brand of Reformed/Continental philosophy. Smith (rightly) objects to a reduction of philosophy to apologtics because, as a professional philosopher, he recognizes there are many branches of philosophy besides philosophy of religion. Christians should make a presence in all branches: epistemology, metaphysics, philosophy of science, philosophy of art, moral philosophy, etc.

      I’ll concede that Smith’s language (and my use of it) is provocative. But, as I told another Mere O reader, provocation is not identical to insult. It is a strategy that Socrates used to promote self-examination with his interlocutors. If Smith is wrong about the three basic features of the Biola School, as it pertains to postmodernism, the burden of proof lies with Biola to defend itself. In the volume where he wrote the essay, the two faculty from Biola (R. Douglas Geivett and R. Scott Smith) merely reinforce his observations.

      Pet peeve: I’m annoyed by the promiscuous use of “absolute truth” and “absolutes” among Christians because absolute is shorthand for the scientific rationality of the Enlightenment. There’s no room in the (Christian/biblical) inn for that kind of rationality.

      Dave: I haven’t forgotten you, and I still plan on conversing over coffee with you in Denver. Yes, I will blame Doug Groothius for your allergy to postmodernism ;-) Unlike you, I don’t have a “a fairly high view of natural theology and the human ability to know stuff,” which probably makes me a better Calvinist because I robustly affirm the noetic effects of sin. Put differently, our reason is shot through with sin. That doesn’t mean we’re incapable of knowing. Skepticism isn’t an option for Christians. But it does mean, as the apostle Paul says, that we have “the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus . . . in clay jars” (2 Cor. 4:6-7) and that in this life we see “in a mirror, dimly” and know “only in part” (1 Cor. 13:12-13). One of the greatest contributions of postmodernism to the church is a restoration of the Bible’s epistemological humility.

      I do need to explore the role of natural law in the Reformed tradition. Stephen Grabill’s Rediscovering the Natural Law in Reformed Theological Ethics and David VanDrunen’s Natural Law and the Two Kingdoms: A Study in the Developed of Reformed Social Thought sound promising.

      By the way, I’m unaware of any major postmodern thinker (Heidegger, Foucault, Derrida, Lyotard, Rorty, Levinas) who is committed to radical skepticism, questioning the possibility of knowing anything. What postmodern thinkers share in common is a thick description about the situatedness of knowing. In other words, it’s interpretation all the way down. There’s no naked or unmediated access to the way things really are, whether that’s nature, God, or Scripture. C. S. Lewis said as much. See David C. Downing’s Books & Culture (November/December 1998) article, “C. S. Lewis Among the Postmodernists.” In short, you can be a perspectivalist without losing your foundations.

      Matt: You may care to know that I cross posted at Evangel, where the forces of anti-postmodernism are alive. I even solicited comments from John Mark Reynolds. Perhaps Smith will jump into the boxing ring for a Pay-Per-View fight. Regarding Smith’s claim about reducing philosophy to apologetics, see my above response to TLC. I’m not questioning the ability of Talbot/Biola to produce excellent philosophers. What Smith does is pull back the curtain and reveal the philosophical ethos at Biola: “a revised foundationalist epistemology, a classical evidentialist apologetics, and a biblicist notion of propositional revelation.”

      I’m unaware of any Biola faculty that have produced scholarship on what Westphal calls “the Gang of Six” (Nietzsche, Heidegger, Derrida, Foucault, Lyotard, and Rorty). By contrast, my former professor of philosophy, Bruce Benson, has written a first-rate book, Pious Nietzsche: Decadence and Dionysian Faith, that is making big waves in Nietzsche studies. Just image the outrage of this Christian scholarship (a la George Marsden): a Christian who dares to engage Nietzsche and earns praise for his careful reading, cogent argument, and creative insight.

      Moreover, does Biola offer courses in Continental philosophy? To the credit of Wheaton, the philosophy department offers “equal time” to Continental Philosophy (Phenomenology, Philosophical Hermeneutics, Gadamer & Heidegger, Feminist Theory, Hegel & Levinas, Nietzsche, Edith Stein, Christianity & Postmodernism) and Analytic Philosophy (Philosophy of Religion, Philosophy of Science, Nature of Persons, Philosophy of Mind, Philosophical Theology, Epistemology, Metaphysics, Pragmatism).

  • TLC

    Christopher,

    Thanks for being forthright about the impossibility of absolutes in postmodernism. Do you agree that the only thing absolute about postmodernism is “no absolutes?”

    You decry “the promiscuous (are you sure that’s another provocation & not an insult?) use of ‘absolute truth’ among Christians because absolute is shorthand for the scientific rationality of the enlightenment”, a kind of rationality that you apparently detest. That’s interesting because I’d posit that you owe the foundation of your western education to the rationality of the Enlightenment.

    Regardless, when I use the term “absolute” I’m not thinking of Enlightenment rationality, which is built out of a smorgasbord of evidential humanism, but rather I am referring to the difference between light and darkness/sin and holiness – God does not mix the two, and true Christians must strive to do likewise (1 John 1:5-6).

    Your quote of Smith’s footnote is interesting. It seems that he is striving to seperate “postmodernism” from “postmodernity” so that he can seperate postmodernism from the righteous anger of Christians who are agahst at its wicked influence on human thought and culture. Yet, he admits that there is a trickle-down effect between the two (the “ism” effects the actions), and then suggests that the radical impact of postmodernism just hasn’t hit our culture yet. From what I’ve gleaned so far, he’ll go on to suggest that the impact of “true” postmodernism will be a positive, if only the “modernity” side of the post moderns will acquiesce.

    In fact, that seems to be where you’re headed when you write,
    “one of the greatest contributions of postmodernism to the church is a restoration of the Bible’s epistemological humility.”

    But the Bible knows nothing of epistemological humility when it comes to absolute truth. God is its author and He will humble the entire universe under His feet (1 Cor 15:23-28).He knows all things, including the proper limits of earthly human understanding. You misuse the words of Paul in your “in a mirror dimly” quote – he was refering to the fact that no man can escape the shackles of “reason shot through with sin” this side of glorification. That doesn’t mean that the understanding he did have was not absolute truth. Remember, you were quoting the same divinely inspired man who said “I KNOW whom I have believed, and I am CONVINCED that HE IS ABLE to guard until that Day what has been entrusted to me” (Tim. 1:8-14, btw, does anyone else examine the verse references of others in this forum? I do try…)

    If I look into a dark room and see the outline of a man, and He speaks saying “Yes, I am a man”, I WILL NOT flip on the light and find him to be something else, unless the man is a fraud and deceiver. the Author of Absolute Truth is not a fraud and deceiver.

    In words that are not my own:
    “Epistemologically Christianity is broad. It embraces all four epistemic sources: revelation, reason, empiricism, and tradition. It does not embrace them equally, however. The latter three are subordinate to the claims of revelation. This functional subordination does not limit reason, or experience, or tradition, it orients it and gives it true direction. It ultimately encourages a bountiful use of all three subordinate sources in a way that no other worldview can.”

    You write:
    “Smith (rightly) objects to a reduction of philosophy to apologetics because, as a professional philosopher, he recognizes there are many branches of philosophy besides philosophy of religion. Christians should make a presence in all branches: epistemology, metaphysics, philosophy of science, philosophy of art, moral philosophy, etc.”

    The thirst to be considered “professional” aside, let me ask this: WHY should Christians make a presence in in all branches of philosophy? I agree that they should, but the only sufficient reason for “grappling with Nietzsche” (a la Professor Benson) is so that a Christian can “always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks with gentleness and respect,…that those who speak maliciously against…Christ may be ashamed of their slander. (1 Peter 3:15-16). Clearly, zealous Peter understood how to properly combine the words of Sun Tzu with the words of Christ: “know your enemy, love your enemy”.

    In closing, I’ll say this:
    For rejecting absolute truth, Postmodernism will forever remain anathema to all who refuse to relinquish their life-grip on the unwavering authority of the Bible and loving dominion of the One who wrote it. We must know postmodernism, we must understand its appeal and its ploys, and we must be prepared to endure the consequences (professional or otherwise) of (among other things) remaining global/relational/incarnational without abandoning the truth. “For it is better, if God should will it so, that [we] suffer for doing what is right rather than for doing what is wrong” (1 Peter 3:17).

    [btw, I prefer the handle TLC because I have no interest in pursuing academic notoriety in the blogosphere. Matt & others know who I am, I’d be happy to connect with you via e-mail or in person sometime)

  • Those interested in my interaction with Mr. Benson can go to the Evangel blog.

    I don’t recognize my project or my school in Smith’s descriptions . . . and I am proud of our choices regarding undergraduate philosophy education. Benson (on Evangel) concedes that even he thinks post-modernism is a senior year study . . .and since we read at least two post-modern “greats” . . . our differences are not so great!

    In any case, I know factually that the philosophy department at Biola does not (at all) view itself as a part of the apologetics project or fail to see a distinction. Smith’s view of Biola fails to account for the School of Arts and Sciences philosophy department . . . and thinkers like Tom Crisp entirely. There are many philosophers on campus, but generalizations come from a loaded view (use of terms like biblicist!) view of three professors. It ignores folk like Professor Yeh of Torrey who do not fit the paradigm.

    The phrase “Biola school” is useless, uncharitable, argumentative, and over broad. It is not Socratically provocative . . . unless being wrong (the relationship between apologetics and philosophy) is Socratic.

    • To the Mere O audience who hasn’t read the comment thread at Evangel, I’ve learned this much from today’s blog post. First, don’t come out swinging. Second, don’t generalize based on limited information. In short, I failed to live up to my own standard of critical appreciation.

      Professor Reynolds successfully disabused me of the “Biola School” heuristic. While it coheres with my limited reading of Biola faculty and my limited exposure to Biola alumni, it’s both unfair and inaccurate to use for the entire school. Therefore, he’s right to call it “useless, uncharitable, argumentative, and overboard.” I’d like to end on that note, but I’m compelled to ask if it’s also “useless, uncharitable, argumentative, and overboard” to call the work of fellow Christian philosophers of “little or no impact” for the kingdom because they show a critical appreciation for postmodernism (as he maintained at Evangel)? I anticipate that he’ll answer in the affirmative.

      Professor Reynolds and I concluded our spirited exchange recognizing that we agree more than we disagree regarding the priority of great books and biblical studies in the undergraduate education. Our disagreement hinges on the relative import of postmodernism for Christianity (he thinks it is less consequential than I do). We both feel that the dialectical encounter produced greater clarification, honesty, and humility. All’s well that ends well.

  • TLC: Because you’ve taken the time and energy to engage my writing (and Smith’s), I should dignify your comments with another response, but I’m already feeling tired with this familiar impasse.

    (1) You’re obviously committed to “absolutes” and “absolute truth.” So, please find those terms for us.

    (2) I contend that the Bible teaches both epistemological humility and fiduciary confidence. By epistemological humility, I mean that all knowing is partial and perspectival. There’s no God’s-eye-view except for God, which we have mediated access to through the special revelation of Scripture. By fiduciary confidence, I mean the assurance of faith’s knowledge imparted by the Holy Spirit. Because the assurance is a gift, our posture should be humble gratitude.

    (3) When Paul is saying “I know whom I have believed, and I am convinced that he is able to guard until that Day what has been entrusted to me,” the knowing here shouldn’t be confused with the apodictic certainty of the Enlightenment scientist or philosopher but the fiduciary confidence of the first-century apostles.

    • TLC

      Christopher,
      I realize you’re moving on from this post – thanks for the engagement and for being clear about where you stand on the issue. (I hope you’ll read this post through to the end-I did keep it short)

      I thought I did define absolutes when I wrote:
      “when I use the term “absolute” I’m not thinking of Enlightenment rationality, which is built out of a smorgasbord of evidential humanism, but rather I am referring to the difference between light and darkness/sin and holiness (one is absolutely wrong & the other is absolutely wrong)– God does not mix the two, and true Christians must strive to do likewise (1 John 1:5-6).

      I realize that SOUNDS simplistic, but it’s not. The gospel is simple and the difference between sin and righteousness is simple because sanctification is HARD for humans. He who wrote the Book on Absolute Definitions knew that.

      Brothers, will you consider carefully each of His words in 2 Peter 1:3?:
      “His divine power has given us everything we need for life and godliness through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness.”

      Note it unequivocally says He has given us EVERYTHING we need through our KNOWLEDGE of Him who called us. This is not some kind of foggy knowledge that requires endless grasping, questioning, or waffling. The Bible IS our final, absolute authority, the standard by which God intends us to measure all things. While it’s true that we will probably never know everything there is to know about God, He has told us that what we do know is enough to be able to do everything He intends us to do (Micah 6:8).

      Christopher, I’m disappointed that you insist on lumping the above definition of absolutes with Enlightenment Rationality – Why do you do it?

      Regardless, I am thankful for the reminder you gave us not to think that we have a perfect God’s eye view of absolutes. Your words about humility and fiduciary responsibility were well spoken.

      With TLC,
      TLC

      • TLC: My dialectical encounter with you has been enlightening because it appears that we mean virtually the same thing even though we’re using different words to express it. Your definition of absolute truths bears resemblance to what I call fiduciary confidence. Followers of Christ can know “the difference between light and darkness/sin and holiness” because the Holy Spirit imparts the assurance of faith’s knowledge. Shalom.

  • Those interested in our big hug . . . really should go read the thread at Evangel. I greatly admire folk who dialectically change. May I always, always, always have that capacity to grow.

    John Mark

    • Mere Orthodoxy Readers: I’ve chosen to edit my original blog post because the dialectical encounter with John Mark Reynolds has disabused me of the “Biola School” heuristic. Big hug, indeed. I’ll keep the comment thread at Evangel as a record of two people dialoguing until greater clarity, honesty, and humility are achieved. I hope this edited post will provide a helpful bibliography for those who want to further explore postmodernism and Christianity. Shalom.

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  • This is a very interesting subject. I think patristic theology and Deconstruction have a very interesting possibility for teaming up in the critique of Western thought, namely positivism, the philosophy of history, materialism, etc.

  • 2GlE0N mumbo jumbo