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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  • Steve

    Thank you for your wise thoughts!

  • Brian

    It strikes me as ironic that the disagreements about the definition of postmodernism is really quite postmodern. Wouldn’t postmodernism itself eschew any kind of labeling?

  • Middleton was one of my professors. I found his and Walsh’s book to be a very balanced. They accept postmodernism’s rejection of modernity, but they don’t simply embrace postmodernism either. They wisely recognize that it is not an either/or option, and that there is a third road of embracing the historical Christian perspective that can than examine and critique those movements within our own society.

    It strikes me as odd that anyone reading that book would think that they are rejecting the Christian metanarrative since I would define the book as an apologetic for the Christian metanarrative. It would be like thinking that “The God Delusion” by Dawkins was a defense of Intelligent Design.

    Still, I think why so many have a hard time with postmodernism is that it is a negatively defined term. Most people are trying to figure out what postmodernism is, while failing to realize that it is defined by what it isn’t. Ultimately postmodernism lacks the epistemological strength to survive because it doesn’t really take a stance. At some point, postmodernism is going to be replaced by some positive epistemological perspective that is going to be made in the aftermath of this controversy. Right now, people are simply rejecting what has been, and looking for whatever that new perspective might be.

    Me: I’m going to stand and Jesus Christ and Him crucified and resurrected, and come what may.

    • Matthew Whitten

      Well said.

  • EricG

    First, let me say I really enjoy reading your blog. I think that if I had encountered someone like you earlier in life (e.g., when I was a student many years ago) I would have had a much more positive perspective on my evangelical background.
    Second, I think this particular post is an important one. Postmodernism, in its many forms, poses many important questions in so many areas today (theologically, philosophically, culturally), and I suspect that the future success of Christianity will depend in large part on its ability to not only understand those questions, but also to relate (in a positive way) to them. So far most evangelicals are running from, and critical of, something most of them don’t even understand, so they can’t even begin to approach the latter step.

  • Brandon Morgan

    Well, I think we both agree on this issue in realizing that the term “postmodernism” is an example of Derrida’s idea that the more you repeat words into new situations of difference, the more their meaning grows, changes and disseminates. Of course, it is rather easy for us to look backwards and see the many different versions of modernistic thought, whether it be transcendental, empirical, romanticist, pragmatic, hermeneutical or scientific. None of these approaches are reducible to the others. Postmodern thought is, as you say, no different. Levinas, Derrida and most of Continental thought is miles away from American neopragmatism. The hermeneutical trajectory has its own contribution as does the deconstructionists and the phenomenologists. So it seems to me that we do better talking in more specific terms, like self-definition, alterity, essentialism, realism, perspectivalism, linguistic embeddedness, etc. These are hard enough by themselves without assuming them in some broad stroke shibboleths.

    I actually think one of the biggest issues with misconstruing elements of postmodern theory is that many evangelical commentators suggest that things like moral relativism, diversity and plurality spawned with postmodern thought. All of these issues actually have modern roots and existed long before the 20th century. I recently read a section of a book for class that suggested that postmodern worldviews can be defined by diversity and tolerance. But these are, of course, democratic ideals which existed long before America was founded upon them. This author even painted Nietzsche as a moral relativist of sorts. This just proves that he has never read Nietzsche or he would know that he definitely did not think Platonic Christianity was as good of a description of reality as the will to power. This author spoke broadly without even thinking to look towards any primary account.

    Lastly, a big problem with evangelical assessment is what I would call the “nothing but” syndrome. Whenever I read anyone saying that anything, especially postmodern thought, is “nothing but this or that”, then I suspect they are being too reductionistic, which a lot of postmodern thought wants to avoid. I would guess that such a reductionist move is easier to sell and more rhetorically gratifying for writers and readers. But it simply is not sufficient.

    • jc_freak

      Thank you! I get so frustrated with the “nothing but” comment. Reductionism doesn’t help anyone. Nothing annoys me more than when someone tries to explain to me what I “really believe”. When does that ever help?

      A friend of mine and I recently had a debate about a political matter, and he said that my belief would inevitably lead to something. Something off-handedly ignored this comment to which he responded, “You don’t understand the slippery-slope argument, do you?” I then said, “No, I understand it. I just don’t respect it, at least not without a significant amount of data to support it. Any idea can lead to atrocities if it is brought to its extreme, thus when can logically reject every belief ever if they uncritically accept slippery slope arguments.”

      I feel the same way about reductionist arguments as well. Any belief can lead to a heresy, since most heresy is an exaggeration of a single principle anyway. Therefore, it is never practical to reject an idea by a reductionist argument alone.

      • W B McCarty

        So, reductionist arguments are a sort of slippery slope?

        Sorry: I couldn’t resist. 🙂


        • jc_freak

          I do believe I did say “At least not without a significant amount of data to support it.” Still since you were only kidding, I probably didn’t need to say anything. sorry.

  • MikeK

    Thanks for making this post, and your ongoing plea that evangelicals live into the good news when they hear or learn something that doesn’t jibe with their convictions.

    Re: Are evangelicals who enter into this discussion even talking about the same thing? No. I agree with you: too many have waded into this topic of postmodernism and postmodernity, smashed the two together, and called it the same thing. I’ve lost track of the number of times pastors, colleagues, and authors (more in a moment on this one) have spoken/written about postmodern-ism/-ity and appear to be aping what they read or heard from someone else who was equally underinformed or misunderstood either. For the record: I’d describe the “-ism” as an ideology, and the “-ity” as a collection of cultural artifacts, including ideologies. The latter is far more accessible, and is not as nearly or closely informed by the “-ism” as some might believe. The former seems to have many sources, and you’ve named some of the usual suspects already.

    I’ve not read Groothius or Raschke: so, I’m not sure what is happening there. I’ve read Smith, however, and while I don’t agree with him on his take on Radical Orthodoxy, I would agree with his reading of Lyotard: having slugged it out a few years back on the English version of “The Postmodern Condition.” The prevailing issue surrounding the quote of Lyotard of “incredulity toward metanarratives” regards the nature or character of knowledge: for Lyotard, all knowledge (or science) comes from narrative. What makes modernity come in for critique is the appeal for legitimation based upon reason that is what Smith called universal and autonomous: and in the same breath moderns deny that it (reason) comes from narrative. Ahem, Lyotard might say: No way. Even that is a narrative way to understand reality: don’t deny it and don’t try to tell us that your knowledge is privileged because of reason.

    So, that is also why the Bible is not a metanarrative. Following Westphal and Smith, the Scripture is a mega-narrative: it’s a big story, that’s all. We know it by faith and not because we can prove it by appealing to some other source (like reason), and thereby authorize it or authenticate it. I’m vitally concerned that there are authors/pastors, etc., who misrepresent the Bible as a metanarrative, and further demonstrate their misunderstanding of postmodernism.

    Re: summit for building consensus. At one level, I read that and thought, “Wow, someone will come who doesn’t have the relational or philosophical chops and will use everything said as the “evangelical shibboleth” as you described it.” At another level, I thought, this might have some promise. The suggestion that people return to the sources and learn sounds like the most wise and salutary advice we could all use. Thanks again.

  • The July 2005 issue of Faith and Philosophy carried a series of articles on the subject of the compatibility of postmodernism with Christianity.

  • This article is right on point. John Franke, who co-authored “Beyond Foundationalism” has in a sense taken on the mantle of Grenze and really helped straighten out my understanding of postmodernism after reading some bad literature. It is evangelicals like him, who also calls himself “post-conservative” (as you do now), who are leading the discussion in a helpful direction. He begins by affirming that postmodernism is terribly difficult to define—this is what some evangelical scholars would do well to understand.

    • Um…I was calling myself postconservative before John began using the label. He got it from me. While John and I don’t see eye-to-eye on everything (especially whether or not the Holy Spirit speaks through culture and whether culture should be treated as a source and norm of theology) he is a good guy and excellent scholar and needed voice among evangelicals. May his tribe increase!