March 17, 2007
Postmodernism and the Bible: Introduction
In the late 1980s or early 1990s, a pastor reported this conversation (as I recall it) between him and a woman from his large congregation. She apparently wanted him to approve of something.
Woman: I'm in a wonderful relationship with a man. I'm happy. And I believe God wants me happy.Pastor: Tell me. Is the man your husband?Woman: No, someone else.Pastor: But you're married, right?Woman: Right.Pastor: Then you're committing adultery, according to Scripture.Woman: No, that's your opinion!Pastor: No, it's not a matter of opinion. That's what the Word of God clearly says.Woman: No, that's your opinion! Then she stomped off, harrumphing.
"Opinion" seems to mean "interpretation." So this question needs to be asked: Would anyone living in the 1920s, for example, say to a pastor that "thou shalt not commit adultery" (the Seventh Commandment) is a matter of interpretation? Rather, the adulterer or adulteress probably would have said, "Yes, you're right. The Bible is clear. I'll break it off with her (or him)." Or "Yes, the Bible says not to, but I'm doing it anyway. I'm leaving the church!" Neither response denies the plain meaning of the text. What has happened from then to now?
Postmodernism is leveling multiple challenges at longstanding interpretations of the Bible and at the sacred text itself. There is nothing wrong with reinterpreting a text. But here are some questions that postmodern practitioners and theorists ask about the Bible. Are there such things as facts, specifically historical ones? Can we distinguish between the historical and the fictional? Are there any objective interpretations? How do we decide? Does that even matter? What would happen to the plain meaning of a passage if a psychoanalytical reading were applied? Would God the Father come out like a tyrannical father of a Freudian nightmare? Is God abusive?
What about deconstructing a passage? What happens if we decide to run against the flow and plot of narrative Scripture and to reverse the power structures? That is, what if Jesus, in a position of privilege and power, were to undergo this reversal in the passage about the Samaritan woman at the well in John 4? According to one postmodernist, maybe his outlook on the world needs to be reexamined, compared to that of the Samaritan woman who was living with a man, unmarried.
Looking at the big picture, how do we define postmodernism, slippery as it is? What do we know about this dominant trend among intellectuals? How does postmodernism influence the Church, particularly in the West? Most of the Church knows little or nothing about postmodernism except by hearing the word now and then. But can we depend on our blissful slumber?
Thus, I would never claim that the real-life woman formally studied postmodernism to justify her choices. So maybe it is simply in the air. Maybe literary agnosticism that says plain meaning is always unclear and in a state of flux and can never be captured has imbued society in ways that we have not noticed. No, I'm not so naïve as to believe that there is always and only one interpretation of a Biblical passage. Sometimes there are rivals. But postmodernism seems to push this to absurd proportions, as if all or most meanings and interpretations are up for grabs, like a loose ball in basketball.
This series of articles on Postmodernism and the Bible aims to answer these questions and to explore key concepts and challenges of postmodernism. I quote extensively from postmodernists themselves, so they may "interpret" their own movement in their own words.
The series unabashedly has a definite point of view. As we move along, I ask questions of postmodernism and challenge it on my own. But the viewpoint and questions and challenges have emerged after inquiries into postmodernism were duly made, especially in my graduate school days.
See a short list of articles in a UCLA graduate journal. It cites an article I published, which grew out of my seminar paper on Derrida, Freud, and Lacan. I have taken other seminars on postmodern subjects. In fact, I chose a particular graduate program just to get to know the latest trends in interpreting texts. However, my dissertation-turned-book is rooted in old fashioned historical research and respect for the plain meaning of words in context and for the flow of the story in the Gospel of Luke and the Book of Acts. My book shows that in the end I steered clear of most elements of postmodernism. Though some aspects of this huge intellectual movement are interesting and can be put to good use, on the whole it is too trendy, flaky, and shaky.
But that is the subject of the entire series.
A working definition
To get a general idea of the contours of this massive intellectual movement or trend, a postmodern theorist provides a working definition. Stuart Sim in his Preface to the second edition of the Routledge Companion to Postmodernism (ed. Stuart Sim, 2005) defines it in these terms, as follows:
In a general sense, postmodernism is to be regarded as a rejection of many, if not most, of the cultural certainties on which life in the West has been structured over the past couple of centuries. It has called into question our commitment to cultural "progress" (that national economies must continue to grow, that the quality of life must keep improving indefinitely, etc.), as well as the political systems that have underpinned this belief. (p. vii)
Thus, postmodernism rejects cultural certainty and progress. Indirectly and in the big scheme of things, postmodernism relates to the Enlightenment (c. 1600-1800+) in an adverse way. Sim writes on the same page:
Postmodernists often refer to the "Enlightenment project," meaning the liberal humanist ideology that has come to dominate Western culture since the eighteenth century [I would say from the seventeenth century; dates are not firm in major movements]: an ideology that has striven to bring about the emancipation of mankind from economic want and political oppression. In the view of postmodernists, this project, laudable though it may have been at one time, has in its turn come to oppress humankind, and to force it into certain set ways of thought and action not always in its best interests.
In a future article, I challenge his interpretation of the Enlightenment (see the section "Prefixation" below). For now, what is the response of postmodernism to this "oppression" that the Enlightenment produces-never mind that it has provided the seeds of great freedom and prosperity? Sim continues:
It is therefore to be resisted, and postmodernists are invariably critical of universalizing theories ("grand narratives" or "metanarratives" as they have been dubbed by the philosopher Jean-François Lyotard), as well as being anti-authoritarian in their outlook. To move from the modern to the postmodern is to embrace skepticism about what our culture stands for and strives for. (p. vii)
In future articles, Sim's definition will be filled in, particularly as postmodernism critiques the Bible. But it is clear that postmodernists are not friends of Western political systems and economies-the very ones that provide them with enough prosperity and freedom and leisure time to criticize the systems. The irony is rich.
Do postmodernists know which systems should replace the current ones? Maybe far left systems, but I have not figured out whether they do, specifically.
While writing this series I have grown to appreciate this odd and big word. It is a theme of the series because it describes the postmodern project perfectly. Webster's Dictionary says that the origin of the word is unknown (postmodernism plays with origins or nonorigins). It means a great change or alteration, "often with grotesque or humorous effect." In most cases I would take out the word "great" and put in "small" because postmodernism is heavily indebted to earlier trends. Being a borrower, postmodernism is not all that innovative. Anyone who has seen a modern and postmodern sculpture or painting or has read a modern and postmodern novel can grasp that postmodernism has been influenced by modernism and modernist trends (hence the prefix "post"), as Part Two in the series will explain. But postmodernism is "grotesque" and "humorous" in many ways-its fine art and literature demonstrate this. Postmodernists should appreciate all of these terms, since they love irony and language games.
To latch on to the word "skepticism" in that last excerpt by Sim, postmodernism, in my opinion, is nothing more than a transmogrification of the hyper-skepticism begun in the Enlightenment and given a large push by post-Enlightenment thinkers like Nietzsche, Freud, Heidegger and a long list of others. This hyper-skepticism and its transmogrification stretch from the late nineteenth into the twentieth centuries and gain momentum after WWII. Transmogrifying postmodernism comes into its own after WWII and in the 1960s, but firm dates are hard to pin down in huge trends and movements, and postmodernism overlaps with modernism.
In the article "Postmodernism and Philosophy" in the Routledge Companion, Sim agrees with my own assessment about the skeptical roots of postmodernism. He writes:
One of the best ways of describing postmodernism as a philosophical movement would be as a form of skepticism-skepticism about authority, received wisdom and political norms, etc.-and that puts it into a long-running tradition in Western thought that stretches back to classical Greek philosophy. Skepticism is an essentially negative form of philosophy, which sets out to undermine other philosophical theories claiming to be in possession of ultimate truth, or of criteria for determining what counts as ultimate truth. (p. 3)
I attach the prefix "hyper" to skepticism because most ordinary Westerners have even a little skepticism. But professional philosophers of a certain kind take things to excess, doubting even simple facts that we all take for granted in our daily lives, such as scientific truths or the world outside of us existing independently of our minds and in its own right. These kinds of thinkers do not doubt only "ultimate truth," as Sim says. Any ordinary thinker does that. Rather, the professionals take things well beyond that-hence the prefix "hyper." Parts Three and Four in the series will explain.
Therefore, transmogrification (a synonym is transformation) and hyper are themes that run throughout this series.
Who are the postmodernists?
Two postmodernists apply the hyper prefix in another context besides philosophy. In their Preface and Acknowledgments, Steven Best and Douglas Kellner promise their readers that they will sort out the mainstream theorists and practitioners of postmodernism, and they do a good job of it, too. But they accurately describe the postmodernists as "more radical than radical" (Postmodern Theory: Critical Interrogations, Macmillan, 1991). They write:
In this book we shall sort out and appraise the contributions and limitations of these perspectives which present themselves as the newest avant-garde in theory and politics, more radical than radical, and newer than new: the hyperradical and the hypernew. (p. ix)
This is mostly an accurate description of mainstream postmodernists. They are indeed hyper-radical, but not so much hyper-new. Anyway, their assessment agrees with mine, namely, that postmodernists merely took over the hyper-skepticism begun in the Enlightenment.
Then Best and Kellner dedicate their book to the new generation of intellectuals and activists, calling them "radical":
We would like to dedicate this book to the next generation of radical intellectuals and activists who we hope will use the insights of postmodern theory and other critical discourses to develop new theories and politics to meet the challenges of the current decade and next century. (pp. x-xi)
It is not fair to claim that all postmodernists are radical intellectuals and activists, particularly Bible scholars who apply postmodern interpretations. But my own analysis of their movement and project concludes that most are, on the whole. So I appreciate Best's and Kellner's honesty, written in their own words. We have been fairly forewarned.
So what does all of this mean?
This modernist poem by William Butler Yeats (1865-1939) is hauntingly beautiful and prophetic, even though I may not understand it entirely. It describes the shaking that modernist trends exert on the old ways. In The Collected Poems of W. B. Yeats (Rev. 2nd ed. Ed. Richard J. Finneran, Simon and Schuster, 1996, p. 187), Yeats writes:
The Second Coming
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.The Second Coming! Hardly are those words outWhen a vast image out of Spiritus MundiTroubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desertA shape with lion body and the head of a man,A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,Is moving its slow thighs, while all about itReel shadows of the indignant desert birds.The darkness drops again; but I knowThat twenty centuries of stony sleepWere vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?
In this poem, Yeats, who lived in the Age of Modernism, transmogrifies-changes and alters-the image of the Second Coming as understood by traditional, Bible-educated believers. (Perhaps this specific transmogrification can be called "great," not "small.") It is not Jesus Christ who is the subject of Yeats' "Second Coming." But something else "slouches towards Bethlehem."
The movement of a gyre goes in a circle or a spiral. Yeats explains: "One gyre [comes] to its place of greatest expansion and . . . the other to that of its greatest contraction" (p. 493). He continues: "At the present moment the life gyre is sweeping outward . . . all our scientific, democratic, fact-accumulating, heterogeneous civilization belongs to the outward gyre" . . . . The Old Civilization is expanding outwardly, so "things fall apart; the centre cannot hold / Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world."
What is the Spiritus Mundi? Yeats defines it as "a general storehouse of images which have ceased to be the property of any personality or spirit" (p. 493). Thus, what kind of "rough beast . . . slouches towards Bethlehem"? To take a postmodern liberty with meaning that is always ambiguous even if circumscribed by its context, what kind of rough beast will postmodernism give birth to and place in "a rocking cradle"? Postmodernism, emerging out of modernism, makes the Old Age fall apart.
The old methods of interpreting the Bible-typically emphasizing the historical and philological-are being marginalized, even though they used to hold pride of place. Maybe postmodernists would describe old fashioned interpreters (who are still plying their trade, incidentally) as the "worst [who] / Are full of passionate intensity" (Yeats' poem). However, not to stretch the metaphor too far, it seems that the old methodologists are "the best [who] lack all conviction," whereas the postmodernists are "the worst [who] / Are full of passionate intensity." Let's not misapply the word "worst"; I'm not sure what it means in context.
However, this much is true. Postmodernists seem awfully passionate and intense. As a collective, they seem desperate to give birth to something new, while they stab the old ways in the heart. In Best's and Kellner's apt words, they are "more radical than radical" and are "hyper-radical."
Before ending this Introduction, I must offer a balance: not everything in a huge movement should be condemned out of hand. So if you're new to the subject, you should give postmodernism a fair hearing before you render permanent judgment. But I do not hide the fact that this series has a strong point of view, which you are free to analyze by itself.
What is postmodernism trying to communicate to us, if communication is possible, which many postmodernists seem to doubt? What new beast will be born in the old / new Behtlehem?
James M. Arlandson may be reached at email@example.com