Monday, October 31, 2011

Who's Afraid of Postmodernism? Book Review

Are you afraid of postmodernism? Well do not fear, James Smith is here. In his book Who's Afraid of Postmodernism? Taking Derrida, Lyotard, and Foucault to Church James K. A. Smith presents a clear, concise introduction to postmodern philosophies and their ramifications for the Christian church. This is the best book on postmodernism/church that I have encountered.

This short work consists of five chapters, the last being the most substantive. Hence, I will devote the most space to it. Smith introduces each chapter with a film that illustrates major points regarding the chapter's content. I found his exposition of films both entertaining and beneficial for grasping various concepts (not to mention it made me want to watch Whale Rider again - great film). In the three middle chapters Smith dialogues with one of the three philosophers, providing good primary source quotations.

After a broad introductory chapter Smith delves into Derrida's claim, "There is nothing outside the text." Here Smith's goal is to unpack the "bumper-sticker" interpretation of Derrida's quote and better understand what exactly the Frenchman meant. Smith explains that Derrida essentially meant that "everything is interpretation" (42). Smith argues that this liberates Christians from having to prove Christian claims to be universally known by all people, at all times, in all places (48). Instead, the church may embrace a confessional theology in which the interpreting community determines meaning (53, see review of last chapter below).

In chapter three Smith corrects a bumper-sticker understanding of Lyotard's claim that postmodernism is the rejection of metanarratives. This claim seems to oppose the very nature of the church whose theology claims a creator God guiding the cosmos to a telos. However, this is not, in fact, what Lyotard meant. Rather, Smith explains Lyotard's definitiion of metanarrative as "universal discourses of legitmation that mask their own particularly; that is, metanarratives deny their narrative ground even as they proceeed on it as a basis," (69). Examples: modern scientific knowledge, Darwinism, capitalism. Thus, the narrative of Scripture, which does not attempt to legitimate itself "by an appeal to universal, autonomous reason but rather by an appeal to faith (or, to translate, myth or narrative)" is not considered a metanarrative by Lyotard's - or postmodernism's - standards (68). Smith correctly notes a beautiful ramification for the church: narrative does not attempt to prove its claims, but rather proclaims them within a story.

Smith's last philosophical sparring partner is Michael Foucault (chapter four). Again Smith attempts to situate a bumper-sticker understanding of Foucault. Here he tackles Foucault's claim that "power is knowledge." Essentially, Foucault's philosophy provides a comprehensive description of modern disciplinary systems (tracking from 18th century to modern day). In the end Smith understands Foucault to assert that "social institutions and relationships are necessarily constructed on the basis of power relations," (100). Smith paints Foucault as a "closeted Enlightenment thinker" (97) because he is so often understood as a "protest thinker" who champions the rights of the individual. As for the church, Smith would like to see the church reject the modernist notion of the autonomous individual and embrace the disciplinary form of the gospel (viz. Christ's Lordship). For me, this was the most difficult chapter because Foucault's philosophy is quite dense. But the concept of discipline is something that anyone who claims to be a disciple ought to explore.

In the last chapter titled "Applied Radical Orthodoxy" Smith offers a number of substantive thoughts in response (too much to cover here). Smith rightly argues postmodernism allows for "a robust confessional theology and ecclesiology that unapologetically reclaims premodern practices in and for a postmodern culture," (116). What I appreciate the most in this chapter is Smith's recovery of premodern epistemology. I think that this is truly the area where postmodernism offers the church a way out of modernity's epistemic prison and back into the movement of confessing Christ.

Specifically, Smith shrewdly points out that many postmoderns, including Derrida and Caputo, ironically endorse a Cartesian (modern) epistemology when they claim that we cannot know, we can only believe. The irony is that such a view equates knowledge with indubitable certainty (omniscience); faith is therefore located in opposition to knowledge (a Cartesian and Enlightenment definition). We cannot say we know things about God with certainty, we can only believe. What results is a "religion without religion" (119).

But what Derrida and Lyotard (see also Thomas Khun, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions) have shown is that all knowledge is uncertain and depends upon a degree of faith. Smith refers to pre-Cartesian epistemology that correctly distinguished between comprehending God and knowing God. The postmodern church may relinquish claims of absolute knowledge without giving up knowing altogether.

Ultimately Smith contends for a "logic of incarnation" (122) that allows the Christian church to resist the "modern notion of an ahistorical, a-geographical, transcendental religion." Instead, the Christian church may affirm and embody a particular, finite narrative; one that confesses that "God became flesh at a particular time ("under Pontius Pilate") and in a particular place ("born of the Virgin Mary")," (122).

This, I believe, frees the Christian church from the epistemic idols of modernity and allows us to once again embrace a confessional theology. And, ultimately, Smith's "Radical Orthodoxy" offers a solid middle ground between modern and postmodern extremes.

My only reservation about Smith's "Radical Orthodoxy" is the primacy he gives to specific revelation. I agree with him that God's revelation in Christ and Scripture should act as the governing revelation for the Christian community (126), but Smith offers no concrete suggestions as to what this might look like. My issue is that it is precisely the interpreting community (historical and contemporary) who makes sense of Gods' revelation in Christ and Scripture. What, then, is the role of the community? I imagine that Smith expands on this in his Introducing Radical Orthodoxy: Mapping a Post-secular Theology (2004).

As I've said throughout, this book is a fantastic introductory read. It is easy to read, entertaining, and provides a substantial amount of primary source quotations that allowed me to "get to know" Derrida, Lyotard, and Foucault a bit. Whether or not you're just starting out in studies of postmodernism or you've been exploring for years, this book is a worthwhile read.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Why Shifts in Language are Important

The Racist Internet

So I've been working on a presentation about the church and postmodernism and I seem to have discovered a fairly large bias in our postmodern savior, the internet. It turns out that the default race for search engine image searches is - you guessed it - white.

I came across this as I was searching for images for my presentation. As I searched Google for images I began to notice that all of the people in my searches were white. Now, I realize that postmodernism is a very white (and predominately male) phenomenon. But I was not always searching for specifically postmodern people/things/ideas. Hence, it came as a surprise to me to realize that all of my search results were predominately white. Check out some of these searches and image results.

First, I searched for "Postmodern" and got a random array of images:
Later, I searched for "Health Magazine" and got a nice survey of smiling, white faces:
After that I searched for "iPhone Users" and got this:
I also searched for "Mens Health"...

As I began to notice the trend I decided to go a bit more generic to see if Google's bent was verifiable or not. So I searched for something vague and universal: "woman jogging."
Uh oh. Bent confirmed. So I tried "Man jogging" ...
Apparently only white men and women (and Barack Obama, the only black man many white people know) enjoy jogging.

What about kids? I tried "boy eating" and "girl eating." All white:

OK. So there is clearly a white bias for Google. What about Yahoo!? I tried the same searches at Yahoo! and discovered the same results.

"Woman Jogging" -
"Man Jogging" -
"mens health" -
"Womens Health" -
"Boy Eating" -
"Girl Eating" -

All of this is both fascinating and sad. I find myself wondering two things: Why haven't I noticed this before? And, How would I feel if I wasn't white? I imagine that it would be quite strange if every time I searched for images on the internet I was greeted with images of black women and men (or Arab or Chinese, for that matter). This bias is a cogent reminder that in a world that claims to have left racism in 1964, we still have a long way to go.

I invite you to do your own internet searching and see what turns up.* If, like me, you discover a racial bias, ask yourself how it might feel to be on the other side of your race.

*Beware that image searching is a dangerous endeavor and you may encounter images that you do not wish to see. Check the "Safe Search" settings in your search engine to limit any unwanted images.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Digital Space

Citizens of the West, you may inhabit more digital space than geographic space.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Burs in Hell

I saw hell. And it wasn't at all like Dante's Inferno or that Hell House movie. It was in a barn in Ontario and I felt like crying.

I stood and watched my friend as she struggled to pull the brush through the horse's hair. Each prickly bur seemed to be glued in the horse's thick, black mane. Ferley, the mare, expressed her discomfort by stomping her massive hooves and heaving her head up and down. "This," I thought, "is what hell is like."

For about ten minutes I observed Ferley's anguish while being cared for. The mess of burs entangled in her mane and tail had to be removed, but the process was slow and painful. I could hear the sound of hair ripping and snapping at the jerk of the brush. The very thing that tortured this poor creature was also her salvation. Something within me stirred as I witnessed my friend caring for her horse. There was something in her voice as she soothed the giant animal and reassured her: "I know... I know this hurts. But we're going to get you cleaned up." There was compassion in her voice and she lovingly removed the mess from the horse's hair. It was love, not revulsion. It was redemption, not vengeance. "This," I thought, "is what hell is like."

A few days later I found myself reflecting on that moment in the barn and I was reminded of Julian of Norwich's "Parable of the Servant" (found in her Book of Showings, chapter 51). In the parable Julian envisions a servant standing before his lord; his lord looks upon his servant "lovingly and sweetly and mildly." The servant is then sent to do his lord's will:

The servant "dashes off and runs at great speed, longing to do his lord's will. And soon he falls into a dell and is greatly injured; and then he groans and moans and tosses about and writhes, but he cannot rise or help himself in any way. And of all this, the greatest hurt I saw him in was lack of consolation, for he could not turn his face to look on his loving lord, who was very close to him, in whom is all consolation..."

But during the servant's fall the "loving lord looks on him most tenderly, and now with a double aspect, one outward, very meekly and mildly, with great compassion and pity, and this belonged to the first part; the other was inward, more to see how greatly he rejoiced over the honorable rest and nobility which by his plentiful grace he wishes for his servant and will bring him to."

Julian wrestled with this vision for nearly twenty years, trying to make sense of the mysterious showing of the lord and his servant. She understood the lord to be God and the servant to be Adam, who is also all of humanity. She therefore understood the vision to reveal how it is that God views fallen humanity: with compassion, not vengeance. She writes:

"And this was the beginning of the teaching which I saw at the same time, whereby I might come to know in what manner he looks on us in our sin. And then I saw that only pain blames and punishes, and our courteous Lord comforts and succors, and always he is kindly disposed to the soul, loving and longing to bring us to his bliss."

This is indeed the kind of vision that stirred within me as I watched my friend care for her horse. The mess of burs that plagued the old mare did not disgust her caretaker. Rather, my friend looked upon her horse with love and restored her. When I read the Bible I am compelled to view God's judgment in the same manner.

The idea that God must or chooses to send his beloved sons and daughters to a place of eternal punishment is not only tragic but also and very possibly unbiblical.

If we are to look at the very center of God's wrath and judgment in the biblical narrative we must look to the cross. It is here that we find Jesus being crucified and saying, "Father forgive them, for they know not what they do," (Luke 23:24). Is this the righteous judgment of God? Jesus did, in fact, say, "The Father judges no one, but has entrusted all judgment to the Son," (John 5:22). Then what are we to make of God's righteous judgment?

Jan Bonda writes, "God's righteousness is not about what we would call 'righteous judgment,' it is about restoration and shalom." God's judgment throughout the Bible and especially on the cross is redemptive judgment. It is never senseless punishment for the sake of God's holiness (whatever that really means). It is always purposeful. And that purpose is always reconciliation with God.

Contrary to what much of traditional Christian theology has endorsed, there is, in fact, substantial grounds for arguing that God's judgment is itself salvific (Isa. 48:9-11; Jer. 9:25; 30:11-17; 31:10-37; Ezek. 16; Hos. 6:1; 11:-13; Rom. 14:10-12). As K.F. Keil writes, "Judgments of the Old Testament must not be viewed as eternal punishments; they leave the possibility for future salvation."

There is one particularly paradigmatic passage in the New Testament that deserves quoting here. In his first letter to the church in Corinth, Paul writes:

By the grace God has given me, I laid a foundation as a wise builder, and someone else is building on it. But each one should build with care. For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ. If anyone builds on this foundation using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw, their work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each person’s work. If what has been built survives, the builder will receive a reward. If it is burned up, the builder will suffer loss but yet will be saved—even though only as one escaping through the fire. (1 Cor. 3: 10-15)

Paul makes clear that not building upon the foundation of Jesus is a grave mistake: those who do not do so will suffer loss (let us be cautious as to what "building upon Jesus" might truly mean). But Paul also makes room for salvation after this suffering. It is not eternal damnation for the sake of 'justice'; it is God's punitive cleansing for our benefit. Let the reader be sharp about what this means: it does not mean that hell is without pain, suffering and, in Paul's words, "loss" (which, in the Greek, denotes injury and damage). Hell is indeed a terrible thought. It brings to mind the tragedy and sadness of the servant in Julian's vision. Such suffering is real. Building one's life on gods other than Jesus Christ brings real suffering and loss.

However, this suffering - this "hell" - does not have the final word in much of the Bible. Judgment in the Old Testament, including God's "eternal fire" (Jer. 17:4), is not the final word but rather a means to reconciliation with God (Jer. 31:38-40). Many of the Old Testament passages that speak of God's wrath/judgment contain nothing of the "unending punishment" that is endorsed by many theologies today. One reason for this is the common anachronistic view of the meaning of "eternal." The Hebrew word, olam, which is often translated "forever" and "everlasting" did not carry the same meaning in the Hebrew worldview. The word possessed connotations of intensity, not time. It was used qualitatively, not quantitatively.

All of this does not, however, mean that the concept of hell in the Bible may be totally disregarded or sugar-coated as a "means to reconciliation." Hell is real. It is as real and as horrendous as the exploitation of children (Mark 9:42-48). It is as real and tragic as the suffering of those in need (Matt. 25:31-46). It is as real as the burs that plagued a helpless horse in Ontario.

But these realities that had a beginning will thus have their End. Among the many portraits of God in the Bible there is the portrait of the One who cannot give up (Hos. 11); the One who will bring injury in order to heal (Hos. 6:1). I wonder if it it might be anything like a horse being rigorously brushed in order to be set free from infectious burs.

Thursday, October 6, 2011


"Come, I will show you the judgment of the great harlot who is seated upon many waters, with whom the kings of the earth have committed fornication, and with the wine of whose fornication the dwellers of the earth have drunk." (Rev. 17:1-2)

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

An A-Historical Model of Atonement

One of the many problems with the classic "Penal Substitution Theory" of atonement* is that it tends toward an a-historical understanding of Jesus and the cross. On this issue I have found
Gregory Love's writing quite informative and I'd like to share it here:

By moving from an historical to an a-historical view of how Jesus saves us, penal substitutionary theory folds violence into saving motifs in the God-image, against the intentions of Jesus. It understands the divine-human relationship through an abstract legal formula, allowing it to locate the salvific work of God solely in the cross. By focusing on supposed "universal" principles - sin as disobedience; the need for retributive punishment punishment before divine forgiveness is possible; the saving role of an innocent substitute - rather than the concrete elements of the gospels' narrative involving Jesus' birth, message and ministry, execution by an empire, and appearances after the resurrection, the political elements in Jesus' statements and actions, death and resurrection can be ignored, as can the theorist's own political interests. Jesus' consistent nonviolence becomes irrelevant to the atonement model, and fails to inform its God-image.

* the theory that human beings are sinful and deserve to die/suffer forever (or any form of this) so God had to have someone die and decided to have God's own Son die in the place of human beings, thereby taking on the penalty of death.