Evangelicalism and postmodernism

Evangelicalism and postmodernism August 27, 2010

For some time now I’ve been concerned about the term “postmodernism”–especially as it is thrown around and discussed by self-identified evangelical scholars.  Very little agreement seems to exist about what it means.  (That’s true outside of evangelical discussion as well, but here I’m mainly concerned about the discussion among evangelicals.)  Thus, if we are not even talking about the same thing, the debate simply creates more heat than light. 

My first encounters with evangelical opinions about postmodernism were when I was editor of Christian Scholar’s Review.  I received and handled many manuscripts by evangelical scholars attempting to explicate and evaluate something they called postmodernism.  I noticed then, as I see now, that even the best evangelical scholars involved in the conversation disagree with each other about the very nature of postmodernism.

Fairly recently three relatively light, easy-to-read books about postmodernism have been published by respected evangelical scholars: Douglas Groothuis’s Truth Decay, James K. A. Smith’s Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism? and Carl Raschke’s The Next Reformation: Why Evangelicals Must Embrace Postmodernity.  All are good books, but their “takes” on the value of postmodernism for Christianity are poles apart.  And, to a very large extent, they deal with different postmodern thinkers.

Groothuis, a philosopher of religion at Denver Seminary, rejects postmodernism and regards it as inimical to evangelical faith.  For him, it leads stright into relativism.  But the postmodern thinkers he seems most conversant with are Rorty and Foucault.  Smith, who teaches at Calvin College, seems to want to use a very moderate kind of postmodernism (decidedly not Rorty or Foucault) to open a new cultural and philosophical door to Christian dogmatic orthodoxy.  Smith represents a version of what is often called Radical Orthodoxy and he sees that as postmodern or compatible with the best of postmodern thought.  Raschke, who has taught for many years at The University of Denver and has recently rediscovered his evangelical faith, calls for evangelicals to run into the arms of postmodernism as a refuge from the spiritually stultifying effects of modern thought.  But the postmodern thinkers he uses to build his case are not Rorty or Foucault (who hardly appear in his account of postmodernity) but Levinas and (the later) Derrida.  Raschke seems to view postmodernity of this kind as a resource for evangelical recovery of its original pietist and revivalist impulses.

So my question is: Are evangelicals who enter into this discussion even talking about the same thing?  I’m inclined to think not.  What does Rorty have to do with Levinas?  The only thing they seem to have in common is desire to rise above and move beyond the rationalism of Enlightenment-influenced modernity (e.g., epistemological foundationalism).

I would like to suggest that evangelical scholars interested in building some kind of consensus about postmodernism hold a summit and come to some kind of agreement about what that means.  In the meantime, evangelical readers of Groothuis only are going to think Smith and Raschke and others who have positive things to say about postmodernism are traitors to the evangelical cause when, in fact, they may not be talking about the same thing Groothuis is talking about at all.

Again, I found myself indirectly embroiled in a controversy among evangelicals that was unfortunate and largely unnecessary due to widespread misunderstanding.  My late friend and co-author Stanley J. Grenz wrote and spoke positively about postmodernism.  Some of his critics obviously did not read him carefully because they rushed to criticize him for promoting relativism.  They assumed, with no real warrant, that he was promoting the pragmatism of Rorty or social constructionism of Foucault.  If they had bothered to read the ending of his book A Primer on Postmodernism they would have discovered that he was very critical of those approaches.  But once his critics made the label “apologist for postmodernism” stick to him, many evangelicals jumped on the anti-Grenz bandwagon without discovering for themselves what he did and did not mean by the positive aspects of postmodernism.

A similar controversy swirled around the book Truth Is Stranger than It Used to Be by Walsh and Middleton.  I read the book when it first came out and recognized it as a critical reception of some aspects of postmodernity.  One of my conservative evangelical colleagues at that time complained to me that Walsh and Middleton denied the Christian metanarrative.  I felt sorry for him, because he obviously either didn’t read the entire book or just didn’t understand it.  He was making a fool of himself.  What the authors were arguing was that the Christian, biblical metanarrative is the only non-totalizing metanarrative and therefore not subject to Lyotard’s axiom of incredulity toward all metanarratives.

One evangelical university administrator declared dogmatically in my presence that non-foundationalist epistemology is “anti-Christian.”  But as I listened to this biblical scholar I realized he did not understand the philosophical or theological issues.  He was simply repeating a mantra that has caught on among evangelicals.

Like so many terms, “postmodern” is an essentially contested concept.  When someone asks me whether I am postmodern I can’t answer unless they have time to talk about what it means.  Unfortunately, most evangelicals I have talked to have made up their minds about postmodernism (viz., that it is cognitive nihilism) and are not open to learning from postmodern thinkers themselves what it is.  Of course, many leading postmodern thinkers haven’t made that easy for anyone! 

Recently, I have discovered the writings of a postmodern philospher of religion named John Caputo.  I heard of him and read articles about his thought years ago when I edited CSR.  However, only recently, under the tutelage of a brilliant seminary student, have I actually begun to study Caputo.  His account of postmodern thought, building largely on the later Derrida, may not be exactly evangelical, but I think it can be very helpful to evangelicals insofar as we are interested in avoiding and even opposing idolatry.

(Sidebar: From experience I know what is going to happen with those previous and the following paragraphs.  Some conservative evangelical neo-fundamentalist is going to take what I say out of context and blow it all out of proportion, dropping the qualifiers, and “out me” as a full blown apologist for postmodern relativism and cognitive nihilism.  This sort of thing happens frequently.  Why?  Because in certain neo-fundamentalist circles people get rewarded for exposing heresy where it doesn’t exist.  My advice to especially young evangelicals is this: Run!  Get away from those people as fast as you can and stay way!)

For those interested in reading something more positive about postmodernity and its possible benefits for contemporary Christian faith I recommend Caputo’s What would Jesus Deconstruct?  A little deeper into the philosophy of Derridaean postmodernism is Caputo’s edited work Deconstruction in a Nutshell which contains an interview with Derrida about religion.

I am coming to the conclusion that being anti-postmodern is simply another evangelical shibboleth.  Too many evangelicals (and my main concern here is with evangelical administrators) won’t take the time to investigate postmodernism from its own proponents but learn about it only from certain conservative evangelical authors who seem to talk about it only drawing on the likes of Rorty and Foucault who hardly exhaust the meaning of postmodernism.

I suggest that evangelicals stop using the term “postmodern” without qualification.  There doesn’t really seem to be one postmodernism.  Let’s go back to the beginning and learn about postmodernism from primary sources and stop relying on half baked critiques by fellow evangelicals.  Or, at least, let’s read the spectrum of evangelical treatments of postmodernism and not be swayed by one or two voices.

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