April 7, 2007
Postmodern Truth Soup
One postmodern theorist states: "Postmodernism swims, even wallows, in the fragmentary and the chaotic currents of change as if that is all there is" (David Harvey, "The Condition of Postmodernity" in the Post-Modern Reader, ed. Charles Jencks, Academic, 1992, p. 303).
To me, postmodernists make their own soup out of all the fragments and chaos and change. Everything gets thrown into it, and one truth cannot be distinguished from others, as the soup breaks down and dissolves. And the postmodernists love it.
This article, Part Three in the series on Postmodernism and the Bible, aims to define postmodernism, a word that is slippery, due to a lot of wallowing. This article asks questions about the relevance of postmodernism to the Bible, concluding with questions for the Church of all kinds and locations, and they are relevant to other religions as well.
I quote extensively from the postmodernists themselves so they can define their own movement in their own words. To apply their views, I refer to the work of one of the leading scholars on Gnosticism - a subject that is all the rage now - Karen King and her book What is Gnosticism? (Harvard, 2003). Though by her own admission she is heavily indebted to postmodern thinkers (pp. 233-47), we should not conclude that she would endorse every ingredient in the following list. To a lesser extent, I also reference other interpreters of the Bible and early Christianity.
As noted in Parts One and Two in the series (see the links at the end), postmodernism is nothing more than the transmogrification of hyper-skepticism begun in the Enlightenment and given a big push by thinkers like Nietzsche, Freud, Heidegger, and many others living in the late nineteenth century and into the twentieth, past WWII and into the 1960s (firm dates are hard to pin down). Part One explains why I attach the prefix "hyper."
Recall that the word "transmogrification" does not have a known origin, and it means a great change or alteration, "often with grotesque or humorous effect" (Webster's Dictionary). In the case of postmodernism, I would take out "great" and insert "small" in that definition, in most instances. Postmodernism is not that innovative or "original," as seen in Part Two. It swims and wallows in nonorigins, and it has become "grotesque" and "humorous" at the same time. Anyone who has read a postmodern novel or short story or seen a postmodern painting or sculpture cannot be hyper-skeptical about its grotesquerie and humor. Postmodernists appreciate humor and language games, so they should like the terms here.
To get right to the point, postmodernism is hyper-skeptical of the following, which make up, as it were, the ingredients of the postmodern truth soup.
Hyper-skeptical of origins
This and the next three characteristics of postmodernism have been summarized best by Kevin Hart of Notre Dame University in his superb introduction, Postmodernism: a Beginner's Guide (Oneworld, 2004). He has a chapter titled "The Loss of Origins." That is a perfect result of postmodernism.
Ole fashioned scholarship and interpretations of the Bible place high value on the original, historical and textual context. Once this search has been done, scholars decide on the best meaning according to the context. I am not so naïve to believe that the process is easy or every jigsaw puzzle can completed.
However, postmodernism says that language is always in play, and the origins and meaning of words may not be simplistically limited by their context. Words retain their "traces" or tracks (as in footprints), regardless of their placement in a sentence, a paragraph, or an entire book. This perpetual playing implies that we cannot nail meaning down.
To apply momentarily the loss of origins to Biblical studies, does it mean that the New Testament, which emerges from the apostolic community and was written by those who knew Jesus or who had access to those who did, lose its authority? Karen King doubts the criterion of origins in determining "normative" or orthodox Christianity. She writes:
The ancient discourse of orthodoxy and heresy has affected not only the goals and substance of the study of Gnosticism but its methods as well. I suggest that in the development of modern historical scholarship the concerns of the ancient discourse with origins, essence, and purity were transformed into disciplinary methodologies. (What is Gnosticism? p. 279, emphasis added)
That quotation reflects the main thesis of her insightful book. She advocates getting away from those three criteria. Does this mean that we should accept second, third, and fourth century Gnostic scriptures into the canon of Scripture? (Canon originally meant "measuring stick," and it now refers to any body of writing that enjoys a privileged status; in this context, it is the New Testament, which is the standard by which we measure all rivals.)
The next three characteristics reveal the fallout of the loss of origins.
Hyper-skeptical of essences
As Freud says, humans do not have a soul, so they lack a permanent essence. Hart writes:
One of the most widespread forms [of anti-essentialism] amounts to the contention that there is no natural or universal essence to being human. (p. 26)
In the context of literary interpretation, which lands us in the realm of interpreting the Grand Text, the Bible, anti-essentialism means the following, in contrast to how postmodernists interpret texts. Hart clarifies:
The [postmodern theorists] will also point out that essentialists or humanists usually attempt to unify the work by way of interpretation. (p. 27)
Thus, non-postmodern (to pile on the prefixes) interpretations are naïve, if they seek unity in interpretation. So how does an anti-essentialist postmodernist read a work of literature? Hart answers:
Read the same work through anti-essentialist lenses, [postmodernists] suggest, and you will not be hampered by focusing on truths that can be universalized or by trying to see the whole text in a single sustained vision. It is more likely that you will seek to put what you learn about characters and their situations to use in politics and ethics . . . As an anti-essentialist, you will not be tempted to bypass, overlook or reduce these episodes or descriptions that run counter to an overall interpretation. In fact, those things might suggest rival interpretations of the work that do not cohere and do not go away. (p. 27)
Some of Hart's assessment of interpretation does not at all conflict with time-tested Biblical interpretations. Many such commentaries discuss rivals. Or is there a proper interpretation(s) of the Bible?
As noted in the previous section, Karen King doubts that we should look for the essence of early Christianity, though she does not analyze in detail the New Testament as a possible source for the essence and purity of early Christianity (see pp. 224-28). She denies its essence and purity as a useless pursuit. Gnostic texts seem to stand on an equal footing and are equally essential, original, and pure.
Hyper-skeptical of realism
One way to define realism in a postmodern context is to point out its opposite, anti-realism. Hart explains:
Many postmodernists hold forms of both metaphysical and truth anti-realism: there is no reality independent of the mind, and no truth that enjoys that status either. Usually, they will deny that there is a correspondence between language and reality. People who take this stand urge us to accept that language does not simply transmit information but partly constructs what it communicates. We cannot have objective knowledge of reality because we cannot step outside language. (p. 28)
But anti-realism shows up in science as well. Shockingly, scientific anti-realism and King's book on Gnosticism share an ideology. King writes:
Only a few plots [of studying Gnosticism apart from the orthodoxy and heresy models] remain open to us, constrained as we are by our own cultural codes, and not least by our notion of time. The new physics, from relativity to subatomic particle studies, is in the process of reconceptualizing the Western notion of time. In quantum physics, the relationship between events is a consequence of measurement; the causal relation between two events is not perceptible, except as a gap (p. 234)
I must confess that the moment I read that passage I was stunned. She has swallowed or at least nibbled on a hyper-radical view of time.
She goes on in the next paragraph to discuss Paul Ricoeur's "unrepresentability of time" in narratives (or stories). Then, referring to Michel Foucault, a prominent postmodernist, King concludes, "This new form of time is discontinuous and unpatterned; it is not serious, real, or true" (p. 235). So what does this mean to the study of texts, specifically the New Testament and Gnostic scriptures? I concede that narratives (or stories) play with time, collapsing and stretching it, for example. But King's brief view of time is radical, by any objective assessment (yes, I believe in objectivity. There really is a computer monitor in front of me). Quantum level may behave in unpredictable, strange ways, but up here in our level, time is one thing after another, tick, tick, tick . . . . I hope neither she nor anyone else believes that Abraham Lincoln was assassinated three years from now in the future and in the past. That would be absurd.
Maybe King needs to embrace radical skepticism about time because one of the grand omissions from all of Gnostic texts in the Nag Hammadi collection is a clear demarcation of time (and place) in narratives. Not even the Act of Peter in the collection adequately deals with narrative time, contrasted with the narratives of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and, yes, even John. Whoever of the ancient world put together those codices that make up the collection had a tin ear for storytelling.
Hyper-skeptical of foundations
Generally, hyper-skepticism about foundations is known as anti-foundationalism, which means that "our knowledge of the world rests on no secure ground" (Hart, p. 29). Hart goes right to Nietzsche in defining anti-foundationalism. Hart writes:
Nietzsche himself has responded differently to the nihilism that he had diagnosed. We have lost the ‘real world' and the ‘apparent world,' he thought, and it follows from this eerie situation that there are no facts, only interpretations. With that breathtaking claim we broach the doctrine that Nietzsche called ‘perspectivism.' It is a shorthand for a group of different doctrines -- that truth is perspectival, that logic is, that knowledge is, and so on . . . There is no absolute, Nietzsche declared: being is always becoming and ‘being human' is fluid rather than fixed. (p. 35).
After describing Nietzsche shifting the definition of the "good," Hart returns to the process of interpretation within anti-foundationalism. He says:
There is no unconditional ground for reality -- no absolute perspective, no God's eye view of the world -- only a plurality of forces that form themselves into groups, break apart and reform in other combinations. Each constellation of forces interprets the others in a robust sense of ‘interpret,' one that comes from a possible etymological source of the word-pretium or value. To interpret is to negotiate value (Hart, p. 35)
One New Testament scholar defines anti-foundationalism as a refusal to establish a starting point. A. K. M. Adam writes in What Is Postmodern Biblical Criticism? (Fortress, 1995), as follows:
Postmodernism is antifoundational in that it resolutely refuses to posit any one premise as the privileged and unassailable starting point for establishing claims of truth. (p. 5, emphasis original)
Not having a starting point is one of the major themes of the heavy promoters of ancient Gnosticism, such as Karen King, Elaine Pagels, and Marvin Meyer. They seem anxious to dethrone the canonical writings and replace them with the Gnostic ones, or at least to set up a new throne next to the old one. On what grounds? All truths are equal in regards to canonicity. In early Christianity, the powerful won the day and imposed orthodoxy. Now these Gnostic scholars are on a mission to rectify the situation.
Hyper-skeptical of metanarratives
"Metanarrative" is a big word for "grand narrative." Jean-François Lyotard, a prominent postmodern practitioner and theorist, says:
"Simplifying to the extreme, I define postmodernism as incredulity toward metanarratives" (Postmodern Condition, p. xxiv, quoted in Adam, p. 16, emphasis original).
Adam gives examples:
Metanarratives (or "grand narratives") are the stories we tell about the nature and destiny of humanity: Hegel viewed all history as the gradual self-revelation of Spirit (Geist) through time, while some people talk about the progressive recognition of innate human rights and of emancipatory evolution toward liberal democracy, while others talk about the inevitable rise and fall of capitalism. (p. 16)
But what about the Bible? Does it offer a metanarrative of which we should be suspicious? Adam explains and then defends the Bible, somewhat. He says:
A critic who stresses metanarrative incredulity as the definitive mark of postmodernism may want to chastise the (Christian) Bible's pretension to tell the story of everything from Creation to Apocalypse: there are sources galore for metanarratives here, as the history of interpretation has well illustrated. Yet one may well observe that there is no single clear metanarrative of the Bible (in its Christian forms, even less so in the Hebrew Bible). The various components of the Bible interweave and argue among themselves. A careful reader is as likely to come from the Bible amazed at its internal contestation as she is to see its tyrannical, monotonous unanimity. (pp. 17-18)
There is much here on which non-postmodern or traditional interpreters can agree. The tensions revealed in Scripture are palpable. However, "tyrannical" and "monotonous" stack the deck against the unity of Scripture -- "unity" is frequently derided by postmodernists. Karen King says that a prominent New Testament scholar proposed abandoning "the dominant master narrative" in the distinction between orthodoxy and heresy (What Is Gnosticism? p. 111). As noted, King is heavily influenced by postmodern thinkers, so she doubts orthodoxy on the grounds that it cannot be pure and original and essential. And neither can heresy or Gnosticism, so the orthodoxy / heresy categories should be dropped. But this only creates an extra-sloshy postmodern truth soup.
Hyper-skeptical of totalities
The term "totality" means theories and storylines that complete any big jigsaw puzzle as if all the pieces can fit together. But we today have purchased a defective puzzle. It was never intended to be put together as a well-ordered whole. Adam writes:
[Postmodernism] is antitotalizing because postmodern discourse [communication in a variety of ways] suspects that any theory that claims to account for everything is suppressing counterexamples, or is applying warped criteria so that it can include recalcitrant cases. (p. 5)
Ihab Hassan is a major theorist on postmodernism. In his article "Pluralism in Postmodern Perspective," in The Post-Modern Reader, he quotes Jean-François Lyotard, as follows:
Thus Jean-François Lyotard exhorts, "Let us wage war on totality; let us be witness to the unpresentable; let us activate the differences and save the name of honor." (p. 196)
One of the many outcomes of New Testament scholarship these days, such as that of Karen King and Bart D. Ehrman (Lost Christianities, Oxford, 2003), is to reject so-called orthodoxy. The directions of early Christianities (plural) were never a foregone conclusion, but a struggle that one side won, the so-called orthodox. The net result of these scholars' storyline is that they create a postmodern truth soup in which all truths are equally valid or invalid, tasteful or distasteful. Thus, it is not the case, according to them, that orthodoxy should win - never mind that it told a better story without a lot of complications that permeate Gnostic scriptures, for example. Whoever originally wrote those Gnostic texts in the Nag Hammadi collection were deficient (a favorite Gnostic term) storytellers. On the other hand, the canonical Gospels reflect simplicity itself and therefore tell a better story for average persons in the Mediterranean world, who could not read or could barely read. This is only one among many reasons that orthodoxy rightly carried the day, in my opinion.
Hyper-skeptical of canons
Recall that "canon" originally meant a measuring stick, and it refers now to any body of writing that enjoys a privileged status, such as the Bible, Homer, Shakespeare, and so on. Hassan explains that canon should go well beyond a list of required books in a Western civilization course.
In the largest sense, this applies to all canons, all conventions of authority. We are witnessing, Lyotard argues again, a massive "delegitimation" of the mastercodes of society, a desuetude of the metanarratives . . . Thus, from the "death of god" to the "death of the author" and "death of the father," from the derision of authority to revision of the curriculum, we decanonize culture, demystify knowledge, deconstruct the language of power . . . (p. 196).
What will postmodernism put in the place of all canons? New canons? Fair enough. But what then? I notice that postmodernism would like to revise curriculum. How? In which directions?
The overly strong promoters of the Gnostic scriptures say that these writings contain truths, and all truths are thrown into the soup. Even though the New Testament emerges from the apostolic community that was closer to the life of Christ, and even though Gnostic scriptures come about later and do not enjoy this privileged access, origins have no bearing on breaking the deadlock between the canonical New Testament and Gnostic scriptures and deciding on orthodoxy. Why have a canon? It should be dethroned. Or at least another sparkly, jewel-studded throne should sit beside it.
I would like to conclude with questions directed at the Church, wherever it is found around the world.
- What does postmodernism mean to the Church? An emailer asked me about the emergent and postmodern church. I replied that Christianity enjoys the genius of adapting to its cultures.
- But how far is too far? My prediction is that we will have choices, and that is good.
- Can the Church rightly universalize truth? Granted, "God-language" may not ultimately describe the pure essence of God adequately, but does that mean all is lost?
- Has postmodernism become a metanarrative? It seems so, at least to me. Should the Church give up all metanarratives (Ephesians 1:9-10)?
- Can we arrive at foundational truths?
- Should the Church give up on interpretations of the Bible anchored in facts and origins and historical reality?
- If interpretations are not based on facts, particularly our interpretations of the historical document, the Bible, then do truths become lost in the whirlwind of perspectives? Does Whirlwind rules, as the fifth-century Greek comic poet Aristophanes says in his play Clouds?
- Is the following true? As we shall see in a future article, postmodernists claim that they do not hold all interpretations as equally valid; some are better than others.
- However, do all of their interpretations still amount only to "language games" (Wittgenstein, Lyotard) in the face of the Ultimate, the Deity? Nietzsche said that God is dead.
- What does postmodernism put in place of rationality and reality and canon and foundations? That postmodern, totalizing, hyper-radical metanarrative is still being written.
While the Church grapples with those questions, I believe that along the way reputable and high-quality scholars like Karen King and Bart Ehrman, and many others, have swallowed too much of the postmodernism truth soup. These scholars' application of postmodernism and their hyper-skepticism turns history and objectivity and canon into a soup in which all ingredients and flavors are dissolved into an indistinguishable liquid. And unfortunately their troubling conclusions about the Bible and rival texts have needlessly and heedlessly confused the Church and society.
However, I suggest that we not be too hasty in abandoning our common sense - so derided by postmodernists -- about foundations, knowledge, truth, facts, origins, essences, purity, interpretations, and even reality itself.
James M. Arlandson can be reached at email@example.com