May 12, 2007
Postmodernism and the Bible: Conclusion
This article is Part Eight, the conclusion to the series on postmodernism and the Bible.
I chose the Bible as the focus of the series, since it is a cornerstone of western civilization. The last segment, below the recap, explains that people do not generally give up on their religion for secularism. Therefore, the Bible must be explained. It must be protected from assaults from the Left, both the religious and the secular, and from charges of corruption leveled by a particular religion.
Part One laid out the major themes and definitions of the series. Everyone has a small degree of skepticism in him or her. However, postmodernists take things to extremes. So I attached the prefix "hyper" to "skepticism." The postmodernists are also transmogrifiers. This odd and big word means "a great change or alteration, often with humorous or grotesque effect." They have transmogrified the fine art and literature of modernism. Who are the postmodernists? Two scholars define them as "more radical than radical" and "hyper-radical." That may not apply to every one of them, but it describes many. Specialists in Bible interpretation have transmogrified key passages and characters, using hyper-skepticism against clarity, except when they accept outlandish theories and starting points.
Part Two explained the origins of postmodernism. Many trace it back only through philosophy. Others may focus on the fine arts and literature. Our article blended philosophy and historical events with a quick nod to the fine arts and literature. Modernism and postmodernism respond positively to hyper-skeptics like René Descartes, David Hume, Immanuel Kant, and Friedrich Nietzsche. In a bulleted list, Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud, Charles Darwin, and the so-called "higher critics" of the Bible were mentioned as contributors to new and unsettling ways of viewing or not viewing the world. Science teaches us that the quantum level behaves in mysterious and unpredictable ways. Some scientists deny truth in science, being anti-realists.
Historical events like the Industrial Revolution, WWI, WWII, and the holocaust upset the status quo, to say the least. Communism and fascism threatened freedom. Mass communication and technology brought us reports of atrocities into our home. The last three hundred years have the two qualities of uncertainty and instability. Other terms could be anxiety, shaking, shock, and disequilibrium. The twentieth century must go down in world history as the deadliest, perhaps even on a per capita basis. To be honest, I really don't like that century, except for computers, cars, and cures. I was looking forward to the new one beginning. Then 9/11/2001. Thud. Is there another (religious) ideology that threatens to engulf the world in oppression, eliminating freedom of conscience, politics, and religion? Will the free world today stand up to it, as our forefathers and foremothers did to twentieth-century ideologies that threatened them? The jury today is still out, deliberating - fighting with each other is more accurate, just to score political points and win elections.
That is only a partial list. So the question is not, how could postmodernism emerge? Instead, it becomes, how could it not emerge? For the Bible, the most relevant factor is the higher critics. They tore the Bible apart. More traditional scholars replied with arguments that maintained the integrity and authority of the Bible.
Part Three deepened the working definition of postmodernism that was advanced in Part One. Part Three used the image of a truth soup in which all truth claims get thrown into a stew that breaks down differences. What are the key ingredients of the soup? Postmodernism is hyper-skeptical of origins, essences, realism, foundations, metanarratives, totalities, and canons. (Click on the link for a brief description of each term.) Part Three also applied the findings by using Karen King's What is Gnosticism? (Harvard, 2003). King is heavily indebted to postmodernism, and this leads her to deny, for instance, origins as a criterion for deciding on whether the New Testament or the Gnostic texts reflects the true teachings of Jesus and the apostolic community. How can any text be the repository of the truth? All truth claims get boiled down into indistinguishable bits.
Part Three ended with key questions for the Church of all denominations. I got a few emails that asked about the postmodern or emergent church. I replied that Christianity has the genius of adapting to its cultures around the world. But how far should it absorb its culture so as not to be irrelevant? How far is too far, so the Church does not become unrecognizable?
Part Four was a primer on deconstruction. It means the overturning of privileged truths and meaning. For the Bible, this means that privileged interpretations like the historical, contextual, and philological are challenged. New Testament scholar A. K. M. Adam explains that there is no absolute reference point for our interpretations:
First, [deconstruction] underlines . . . antifoundationalism; there can be no absolute reference point by which we orient our interpretations: not the text, the author, the meaning, the real, historical event, nor any other self-identical authoritative presence. (What is Postmodern Biblical Criticism? Fortress, 1995, p. 31)
No absolute reference point like the text, the author, the meaning, the real (!), historical event? . . . Without any anchor, the best meaning of a text is lost. Thus, Whirlwind rules, as Aristophanes the fifth-century Greek comic poet says in his play Clouds.
Part Five examined how deconstruction has been applied to Jesus, who has figured prominently in the mainstream media in the past ten years, particularly on the cover of Time and Newsweek (go here for the cover images). Scholars have advanced outlandish conclusion about him. He is 82% muffled and 100% demythologized, a Pagan Christ, Gnostic revealer, "castrated" leader, and "de-enlightened" male. This list of postmodern, deconstructed Jesuses could have been expanded to a social deviant, magician, dynastic founder, Cynic philosopher, or Buddhist master. Not every scholar critiqued in Part Five would say that they are formal deconstructionists, except two. But it is clear that all of them have drunk deeply from a common source supplied upstream (see Part Two). They transmogrify him.
Part Six offered an alternative to the deconstructed version of Jesus. The article was an old-fashioned Bible study for the Church, during this long, dry season of confusion. Part Six offered some totals of the number of times that the four Gospels use a title of Jesus, such as Rabbi, Son of Man, Son of God, and Lord. The New Testament is clear. This article was intended to "de-deconstruct" and "de-transmogrify" Jesus, to pile up the prefixes in a language game.
Part Seven also provided alternatives to postmodern hyper-skepticism. The article briefly explored three theories of truth: correspondence, coherence, and pragmatic. I believe we should hold on to the correspondence theory as the bedrock. Our beliefs should correspond to facts out there in the real world. This theory supports the other two. Further, Part Seven upheld traditional methods of interpretations of the Bible: the historical context, the textual context, and the meaning of words, which is limited by the first two steps. Though not every verse can be interpreted with absolute clarity, a great many can, and meaning does not scatter in a hundred directions. "Don't commit adultery" cannot be accurately interpreted as "please do commit adultery." Yet if web readers are too busy to become scholars, then I recommended in Part Seven a great resource: the New International Version Study Bible.
Why the series?
We're in a struggle.
I sometimes ask my students: what will life be like when your grandchildren or great-grandchildren reach my age? Do you want to make your life count? Do you want to build a peaceful and prosperous society for them?
A student says that our world is an illusion; only the quantum level is real. Another student says that all acts are culturally relative, even murder. If a society believes the act is normal, then that's what it is - normal. Still another student says there are no facts in astronomy. The students got their claims from professors. For now, these beliefs represent the minority view. But more people will accept them, as the years go on. We are in a cultural struggle for truth, pragmatic and factual and otherwise. I hope the series clarifies that we are in this struggle, to begin with.
Westerners also challenge the foundations of the West. Radicals, for some mysterious, self-destructive reason, desire to overthrow free economies in favor of more governmental hyper-control (see Part One). It is true that unbridled capitalism can oppress people. But that's why we need a bridled capitalism, to some degree. It must play by a few basic rules. When it does, it offers the best hope of opportunity and freedom for the individual and community to prosper. Prosperity gives families breathing room to enjoy life. See a brief article written by me on the fatal flaw in communism. Even on paper and in theory it is destructive, and so is its slightly weaker relative, socialism.
Scholars also challenge the Bible, but it is a cornerstone of the West, when the text is interpreted correctly. It promises freedom of religion in this life. Secularists must understand that up to two billion Christians will not give up on their Scriptures. It is a naïve wish that they should or shall do this. Given this bedrock fact, teachers of the Bible must interpret it properly for the Church of any denomination. In that light, for example, I have a series on Pacifism and the Sword in the New Testament (scroll down to the bottom of the page for links to the entire series). Quick synopsis: the Church is never called to raise an army or militia to attack nonconformists and members of other religions. The New Testament hands the sword of justice and peacekeeping over to the kingdom of Caesar (the State), which is ordained by God to protect the general population from domestic crime or foreign attack (Romans 13:1-7).
We are also in a struggle with religious extremism that would deny peoples everywhere basic freedoms like critical speech, choice of religion without second-class status, and democracy. These extremists challenge the Bible, whereas their holy book is one-hundred percent pure.
Given the bedrock fact that two billion believers will rarely, if ever, give up their sacred text, I have to decide on which one works. For me the New Testament works in society today because the kingdom of God knocks on and enters, if invited, a person's heart; it does not lay down the law, imposing external righteousness on people. It does not impose a government system on society. On the other side, Shariah or Islamic law does not work in society today, and that law code is based on the Quran and the Sunnah. Islam, classically interpreted, imposes righteousness on people by a pile of religious-civil rules. Classical Islam does not offer freedom for all citizens, equally. Islamic law forces, to a large degree, a government system on society - or at least a religious-civil code that controls legislation.
What works is called pragmatism, but this philosophy is not all bad, is it? That's a practical truth that I can get a grip on. It helps me decide on a religion for myself and for the society I live in, by persuasion alone.
This series on postmodernism focused on the Bible, so the series could maintain unity. However much secularists may deny the relevance of the Bible, it is a cornerstone, increasingly so, for other nations of the world that is embracing Christianity. If we lose our religion, we will not always replace it with the vacuum of secularism. Instead, we may embrace another religion. And only one competitor religion has entered the marketplace with force, so to speak, in recent years.
I urge caution in our wholesale acceptance of postmodernism, which denies basic truths. It is destructive more than constructive and instructive. It may have some interesting features, but on the whole it is too trendy, flaky, and shaky. Maybe my series, using the vehicle of postmodernism, clarified the struggle.
Given the bedrock truth that people have a strong, unstoppable will to believe and to follow a religion, may the truths of the Bible, properly understood, resurge in our society and around the globe.
That is a sincere hope of mine.
My recommendation for a book on postmodernism and Christianity is Truth Decay: Defending Christianity Against the Challenges of Postmodernism
A visual artist represents modern theology in a haunting painting. Please click on the link. His picture speaks tens of thousands of my words. Brilliant.
James Arlandson can be reached at email@example.com