by Todd A. Comer
“Why Am I an Ex-Postmodernist? Perhaps because—even though ‘we’ postmodernists are well aware of this problem—somehow hospitality had become romanticized for me. Or, perhaps, postmodernism was never for me anything but the product of white, male privilege?”
I began my graduate studies at Michigan State University in 1998, and it wasn’t long before I had lost myself gloriously in what was then known, shorthand, as “theory”. For me, theory meant continental philosophy, the postmodern writings of a handful of influential French and German philosophers.
The effect of this reading was immediate as I tried to make sense of reality and culture using a range of abstract and obscure concepts. And while they were abstract at first like, say, the doctrine of the Trinity is for Christians, eventually, these concepts transformed my thinking on a profound level.
I was in love with these ideas, as in love with such ideas as a naïve young man from West Virginia could be. Still, nothing was easy and theory required a rethinking of much of what I took for granted. I was after all the product of a fundamentalist, charismatic church.
As I read, I soon discovered Christians who were intellectuals and philosophers. I realized that, yes, apparently one could be an intellectual and a Christian, and that postmodernism and Christianity were not simply at odds. I became hopeful. I joined “emergent” churches during this time (churches overtly concerned with engaging postmodernism). I read and posted on the Emergent Village’s online forums. And I remained hopeful.
I needed to erase a particular part of my youthful Christianity to be secure in my new postmodern faith and I did so. Christianity was not about community, I told myself. Community is exclusionary and controlling: the open door of the fundamentalist church that I blindly loved as a child was less a roomy opening than a locked window with the curtains tightly drawn. So I constructed, as others have before me, another Christianity, a hospitable Christianity.
My mother for the very early years of my youth was not a Christian. She’d experienced an abusive childhood and, when she finally ‘escaped’ into adulthood, found herself facing poverty and domestic abuse yet again. Becoming a Christian changed and enriched her—our—lives tremendously.
Mom had just returned from one of many trips to the hospital with me when it happened. Her kitchen cupboards were barren. Her car engine had just blown up, and, as a result, she had lost the handful of cleaning jobs she worked to make ends meet. It was at this worst of times that two Christians, Blake and Dave, came to her door with boxes of food and clothing. And, almost immediately, she was a Christian as well.
While I don’t want to belittle the importance of my mother’s conversion which was crucial in giving my family a stable foundation, I am going to do just that to some extent. The gift of milk, eggs, and socks was hospitable, according to the common viewpoint. But imagine this: What if those two young men had gently set down those boxes on our porch, knocked on the door, and fled?
Such a gift, a gift with no strings attached, and no identity hook (“hey, if you like what we give you, you can get more of the same thing by joining us at church, 10:00 am, Sunday”) is an investment which does not return to the giver. I saw the crucifixion, the foundational event of Christianity, as the example of just such an absolute hospitality, a “giving without return.”
Community (church), as my reading of postmodern writers revealed, only gives in order to receive something in return. The cross, I argued, as opposed to a world of human relations overflowing with selfish exchanges, had to be different. The cross had to demonstrate a giving that was not selfish and worldly and oppressive. The broken body and the wounds of Jesus post-cross became metaphors for me of this openness in which the self found its being in others. What Christianity called us to do was live on the limit of death because it is only in that passionate space that we can be with the other without oppression.
That Christianity is bound up in issues of economics becomes obvious after even a cursory look at the scripture. Consider Matthew 10: 20-26 in which the landowner pays his workers in a decidedly strange, inhuman fashion. Consider the economic logic of the cross in which humanity appears to be redeemed by a God who pays back a debt to himself in the guise of a mortal man. There is some decidedly strange and gracious economics at work in the Bible, and that, I believed for a long while, was the glory of Christianity.
All of the above nicely summarizes my postmodern Christianity. But things have changed, hence this confession.
It is true that I grew up working class and poor. It is true that an accident at the age of two covered 25 percent of my body with second degree burn scars (I pass it must be said as able bodied). And it is true that I am the product of a “broken home.” All of the above might allow me, a white middle-class man, some understanding of what it means to be marginalized.
It might, in this context, allow me to understand what the brokenness inherent in hospitality entails.
But I don’t think the above put me in the position to know or feel this experience. Or, rather, if it did, the experience was long ago and my psyche repressed the trauma to the degree that I hardly remember the traumas of my youth. In fact, I remember little of my childhood.
Things have changed, however. I am now 42 and I can now finally understand what such brokenness entails.
After a recent bout of cancer (now gone); after years of extreme parenting challenges and the attendant struggles with a belligerent school district; and after dealing with the familial repercussions of all of the above, I do now understand what brokenness and, hence, hospitality feels like.
I don’t know who I am. I don’t know whether I am a “good” person. I feel inadequate, insecure, lost. I don’t know if I can trust those around me. I feel an amazing need to control and localize. In short, I feel a great need to rebuild the borders of myself and my own family—all of which is antithetical to my previously described postmodern Christian ethics.
Hospitality as an impersonal intellectual matter resonates with me; hospitality—this personal feeling of the self being broken open—is, however, an impossible felt experience. I now know that I cannot live in such a space. And I doubt that any mortal could. Hospitality, this state of brokenness, may be a fine place for a refreshing drive-by visit (yes, go ahead, take pictures if you want). But it is no place to set up camp.
Why Am I an Ex-Postmodernist? Perhaps because—even though ‘we’ postmodernists are well aware of this problem—somehow hospitality had become romanticized for me. Or, perhaps, postmodernism was never for me anything but the product of white, male privilege?
Privilege, for the privileged, is difficult to grasp because the very nature of becoming the norm of a society entails blindness. Peggy McIntosh’s classic example of the flesh-colored Band-Aid might be the best beginning point: a white person may readily locate flesh-colored bandages at Rite-Aid. What the white person and the manufacturer of said bandages do not think about is that such “flesh” colored bandages assume that everyone’s skin is white. Similarly, many years ago while in East Lansing, Michigan, I stopped at an IHOP restaurant and was mildly shocked by the fact that the restaurant was packed and everyone, everyone, was black. For perhaps the first time in a dramatic fashion, I had to think of my whiteness, a subject, an awareness, that was more or less foreign to me despite the obvious and intimate relation I bear to my skin.
As these two examples suggest, a person who falls within societal norms seldom has to think of those traits that make it “normal”—in my case, my maleness, my whiteness, my Christian background. However, if you do not happen to be white or male in U.S. society, you are forced to think of identity much more often. And, if you are thinking of your identity that often, imagine what you do not get to think about? How does not having the world reflect back who you are affect your ability to navigate school, work, and relationships of all sorts? At the very least, it would be disabling and marginalizing.
What kind of person then can emphasize a state of brokenness so casually? Only a person who knows nothing about risk, nothing about being marginalized in society. In short, only the privileged.
I’m fascinated in this time of personal change by ways of knowing. It as if all of my concepts, all of my intellectuality, had to crash and burn, for me to see, or feel anew.
But this truthful awareness brought on by such a traumatic experience, a reader voiced in postmodern theory might protest, is exactly the point!
Donna Haraway in her essay “Situated Knowledges” argues that truth needs to arise from an awareness of mortality and of human limitation. Truth, inevitably influenced by one’s identity (white, male, etc., in my case), is then for her always biased and never objective. And this is a good thing, if fully understood and grasped. Why? Because an awareness of the inevitability of bias and of mortality as the basis of all claims to truth leads to positions on the world and in the world that are less violent. Imagine, if you will, religious and political leaders all over the world simultaneously holding to truth claims while foregrounding their own finite bodies and minds. Imagine, in short, a dramatically different world with more humility and much less violence.
Her argument moves me deeply even today.
But does Haraway spare a paragraph, a sentence, or a word to discuss the difficulty of existing within the fragile space of mortality? No. Not. One. Word.
I do not even now disagree with my particular construction of postmodernism on an intellectual level. What is new for me—what makes me an “Ex-Postmodernist”—is a tangible awareness of how difficult if not impossible existing in such a state is at the individual level.
As an intellectual position, I can use such an ethics of hospitality to ground my position on the nation state, on community, on abortion, on gay rights, on sexism and patriarchy, on capitalism and global warming. But I now realize in a tangible, impossible-to-repress-manner, the real limits of this position.
I’m not attacking postmodern thought in general. I am, if you will, telling you a story about my own particular construction of a postmodern Christianity and how very long it has taken me to see it as it “really” is.
It is, if I may generalize, a human need to feel secure. We need love. We need to know that we can depend on others and the world around us to mirror back to us, to some extent, who we are.
I still recognize that too much of this state is narcissistic and dangerous. But my goal here is to reflect and think through how my own intellectual position, when it meets up with the limits of my body and psychology, simply cannot live up to my ideal intellectual position as embodied in a man who died on a cross.
To quote an old Michael Knott song, “I am no Christ.”
If I remain a postmodernist, I am an older, wiser postmodernist, having put to death a too pat version that does not speak to my own felt experience.
I am attacking myself, and my own particular construction of a postmodern Christianity in the hopes that others, caught up as I was in “emergent” Christianity, will learn something from my recent epiphany. But one need not be a reader of theory to confront this same problem—the problem of knowledge, of Truth, which has yet to be tested by experience and reality is a problem for all of us. And, if you think you are immune to this problem, walking the primrose path to eternity, you are very close indeed to confronting the truth that I am trying with some pain to communicate here.
Admittedly, however, one of my realizations is that what I am trying to communicate at this very moment may not be communicated through prose, but only through a traumatic rearrangement of reality and the ideas that one has about reality. I would wish such a state on no one.
The proper state of hospitality involves fear and trembling, weeping, and an endless tangle of stomach knots. Anyone who writes on brokenness as calmly as I do here—admittedly, my anguish is mostly now in the past—has already left that state and his or her veracity should be doubted. Anyone who champions brokenness, without qualification, should be doubted (Reader, if there are no tears dropping softly onto your keyboard at this moment, you are not broken).
What I do here, therefore, is no more than the planting of a seed, the gentle nudging open of a closed door.
Image: Ostill / Shutterstock.com
Todd A. Comer has edited books on the comics writer Alan Moore, on “terror and the cinematic sublime,” and, most recently, on the regional politics of Occupy Wall Street. He is currently writing on the ecological politics of the director Peter Weir. He blogs, very occasionally, at toddcomer.com.