Books I've Worked On Recently – Part One

Books I've Worked On Recently – Part One November 16, 2009

I’ve had a small hand in a trio of books lately.  The first is The Justice Project.  Edited by Brian McLaren, Elisa Padilla, and Ashely Bunting Seeber, TJP is a follow up to An Emergent Manifesto of Hope, a book that Doug and I edited a few years ago.

TJP cruises along, with about twice as many authors as the Manifesto and essays of about half the length.  Notable contributors include Peggy and Bart Campolo, Richard Twiss, Shauna Neiquist, and Shawn Landres.  My own contribution is entitled, “(De)constructing Justice: What Does the Postmodern Turn Contribute to the Christian Passion for Justice?

I’ve posted it below, in it’s entirety, after the jump.  If you don’t really understand what postmodernism really is, and you’ve only heard conservative caricatures of it, you might find it helpful.  And if you like my chapter, you’ll love the book.

In the spring of 2007, Emergent Village hosted an intriguing event. It was our annual “Theological Conversation,” but that year we took a different tack and hosted a “Theological Philosophical Conversation.” For three days we conversed with John Caputo and Richard Kearney, the premier representatives of the second and third generation of postmodern philosophers.

As you might guess in a gathering with two prominent postmodern philosophers, our conversation included lots of talk about “truth,” “justice,” “love,” and “the gift.” But here’s something that you might not expect: These two postmodernists did not deny the reality of any of these things. (They didn’t breathe fire or levitate, either.) Instead, they argued vehemently that Truth, Justice, Love, and The Gift, do, indeed, exist. They are real things. They are, you might say, absolutes. In the lingo of Caputo and Kearney, they are “undeconstructible[i].”

But before you get your hopes up, they went on to say that our human articulations of these absolutes, on the other hand, are fully and entirely deconstructible.

Take laws, for instance. We Americans live in the most litigious society in the history of humankind. The IRS tax law alone covers 17,000 pages, and the “pocket edition” of the federal criminal code is 1,400 pages long. Everyone in the U.S. is covered by a multitude of federal statutes, state laws, and local ordinances. They range from kidnapping across a state line to how long you’re allowed grow the grass in your yard.

But not one of those laws is perfectly just. Each one is, instead, an attempt at justice—a reaching, grabbing, hoping for justice. Keeping people from driving over the speed limit or being sure that they don’t walk down Main Street naked are the ways that we, as a society, attempt to enforce a sense of justice. Taken all together, the hundreds of thousands of pages of law in every jurisdiction is our culture’s meta-attempt at an all-comprehensive justice.

But every year, we add some new ones and we drop some old ones. That undeconstructible Justice that hovers just out of reach still compels us to keep trying, keep reaching, keep hoping. And so we keep amending, voting, and debating about the laws that are most resonant with Justice.

The passion for justice among Christ-followers, of course, is more than some ethereal “sense.” Instead, it’s based on a text and a history that give us some very compelling examples of what justice is. In fact, it seems that justice was very much on God’s mind when dealing with the Israelites. For instance, in Moses’ final exhortations to God’s people before they crossed the Jordan into their Promised Land, he made it abundantly clear that how those people treated “the stranger,” was very important to God. In fact, it seems right near the top of God’s agenda.

That was the big picture. But even in the minutiae, in the jots and tittles of the Levitical law, justice was the compelling motivation. When the Israelites were commanded by the Law to let each of their fields lie fallow every seventh year, there was one caveat: although the field could not be cultivated, wayfarers and wild animals were allowed to eat whatever they could glean from what the field naturally produced. Thus even in the Sabbath laws, which were so important to Israel, justice for those on the margins of society was accounted for.

Years later, when Jesus stepped onto the scene, he pointed to these very Sabbath laws, their application and enforcement, as a place where his theological opponents had missed the point. “The Sabbath was made for humans,” he said, “Not humans for the Sabbath.” In other words, the law had a purpose, and that purpose was to invoke a sense of rhythm on human life. But when that law was interpreted legalistically, it was not serving that purpose any longer.

Then Paul cranked it up a notch when he convinced the rest of the apostles that, thanks to Jesus, God’s family was now open to non-Jews as well. This truly scandalous notion took a wile to sink in, but Peter and company finally got the message that Gentiles were no longer “the Other.”

Of course, we live in very different times today. While some Christians have always been skeptical of capitalism, it seems that many of us today are more acutely aware of capitalism’s weaknesses. Indeed, former U.S. Secretary of Labor Robert Reich argues that we live in an era of “supercapitalism,” in which market forces and the sheer amount of money and futures being exchanged everyday have overwhelmed the democracy on which the United States (and many other countries) are based.

Years ago, Max Weber saw the brilliance of the synergy between Calvinism and capitalism. The former curbed the immoral greed of the latter, and the latter spurred entrepreneurialism in the former. But as the religious tendencies of Westerners have shifted, the “Protestant work ethic” can no longer be relied upon to keep capitalism in check. In Supercapitalism: The Transformation of Business, Democracy, and Everyday Life, Reich argues compellingly that Americans need to push back against the corporate takeover of America…before it’s too late. The problem, he writes, is that we want to pay Wal-mart prices.

But we can’t have it all.

So we’ve got to make some choices about how we, as citizens of a 21st century, globalized world, work toward justice in an era very unlike Jesus’ day. And, believe it or not, those aforementioned postmodernists can help.

Here’s how:

Firstly, the postmodern turn has reminded us of our own limitations. Postmodern theorists like Hans-Georg Gadamer and Paul Riceour have written much on the idea of hermeneutics—that is, different theories of interpretation. And what they’ve taught us is that we must move forward in this globalized world with a hermeneutic of humility. The first step in moving toward a hermeneutic of humility is to recognize the all-encompassing nature of hermeneutics. Although some conservatives will argue this claim, there is no one, clear, plain-and-simple answer to, “What is truth?” or “How shall we interpret that verse?” or “What is the most just thing to do in this situation?”

When we lived in more homogenous groups, the reality of interpretation could be ignored. Imagine if you lived in an area where most everyone had your same skin color, spoke your same language, and believed in your same religion. Chances are that you and your neighbors would pretty much agree on what laws would be most just.

But the advent of massive global travel and telecommunications has brought us, like no other time in history, into proximity of those who are different from us. In Great Britain, for instance, there has been a great influx of Africans and Arabs, many of them Muslim. That led Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, to suggest in 2007 that Britons might need to find a way for British law to co-exist with Shari’ah law. A firestorm of criticism of the Archbishop ensued, but even Williams’s utterance of such a suggestion indicates that we’ve entered a new time.

Thus, when faced with multiple interpretations of Truth, Justice, and Love, even within the borders of a single nation-state, Christians must think carefully about our hermeneutical posture. Is ours the one, true interpretation? How do we deal with the diversities within our own Christian tradition?

Contrary to popular opinion, the postmodernists do not tell us to avoid these questions. Instead, they argue that absolutist answers lead to fascism. But humble, circumspect answers lead to peace. This is also, arguably, the most Christ-like posture as well.

Secondly, postmodern theorists have taught us about our inevitable embeddedness in community. Stanley Fish, for instance, has written much about the “authority of interpretive communities.” How we interpret a Bible verse, or answer the question, “What is the most just think to do in this situation?” is ineluctably or inescapably influenced by the communities that shape and have shaped us. Where and by whom I was reared, the institutions in which I was educated, my friends, co-workers, and family members all affect my answers.

While this is another area of frequent criticism against postmodernists like Fish because it seems to promote relativism at the cost of moral absolutes, it should not intimidate those of us who follow the way of Christ; for ours is a way completely circumscribed by the story of a community. The Bible tells of justice not in some objective, non-embodied way, but instead in the story of a people who have followed after God for five millennia.

We who are committed to Christ decide everyday to submit ourselves to a community of faith that extends through these millennia and across the planet. This community—both its history and its present—then implicate us in every decision we make, and in how we answer questions of justice.

And thirdly, the postmodernists have opened us to the power of stories. In surely the most oft-quoted characteristic of the postmodern condition, Jean-François Lyotard wrote that we live amidst an “incredulity toward meta-narratives.” In other words, we’re less likely to believe someone (like Hitler) who tells us that he has The Answer to who we are as a human race.

Instead, we’re more likely today to listen to micro-narratives[ii]. In fact, it seems that the only way to cut through the massive amount of information available to us today (an amount that doubles every 18 months!) is to listen to each other’s stories. It’s stories that give meaning to the reams of data in our lives, and it’s ultimately stories that provoke us into action.

And what is the Bible and the Christian tradition other than an ever-increasing compendium of stories? Of heroes and villains, sinners and saints, noblemen and peasants. And our stories are written into this collection as we work out our own faiths with fear and trembling.

Some bemoan the merits of postmodern theory; they think it might produce a generation of nihilistic slackers. But just the opposite is true. The younger generation of Christians around the world today are more passionate about justice than anyone would have guessed they’d be. They’ve caused the powers-that-be in evangelicalism to broaden their political agenda, and they’ve provoked the leadership in the mainline to think less about political posturing and more about missional action.

With a hermeneutic of humility, Christians are less apt to spend their time writing books on apologetics and more likely to link arms with those with whom they disagree (even those from other religions) and fight for justice.

With an awareness of our embeddedness in community, Christians are less likely to think of the faith as a distant and ancient set of directives and are more likely to roll up their sleeves and get involved in transforming their own neighborhoods.

And with an appreciation for the power of stories, Christians are less likely to demonize our neighbors (down the street and across the world), and more likely to listen to one another. And listening, really listening, to one another may actually be the first and most important step in expediting real, biblical justice in our lifetimes.

One final word: None of these characteristics of the postmodern turn mitigates our distinctives as Christians. This is not a course of watering down the faith. It is, instead, a meditation on how we hold and live out our beliefs. It may seem counter-intuitive, but the postmodern turn actually cultivates the Christian passion for justice, and thanks be to God for that!

[i] To “deconstruct” is to show how a concept, belief, or practice is a human construction, often by telling the history of its development, or by showing its constituent parts, or by showing inherent tensions among those parts (ed.).

[ii] Micro-narratives are local stories that people hold as true or relevant for themselves without claiming them as true or relevant for everyone, everywhere, at all times. The term contrasts with meta-narratives, stories that claim to be universal in a totalitarian way that seeks to colonize and “cleanse” cultures of their micro-narratives and replace them with the dominant meta-narrative. Some Christians claim the gospel is a micro-narrative, others claim it is a meta-narrative, and still others believe it is a different kind of story entirely – a redeeming narrative, a reconciling narrative, or a healing narrative (ed.).

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  • nathan

    great post.

  • nathan

    i’ll be sharing this some people…

  • nathan

    ugh..”with” some people

  • Jeff

    Hi Tony – I loved your book the New Christians and the 3 podcasts w/Madame Tickle at Cornerstone. Re the article above, I plan to study and reflect but wonder how given conversation with secular philosophers, transcendence can fit into the picture. Seems to me that justice must be transcendent, disruptive and partly “not of this world”, otherwise a mother killed in Holocaust never sees it even if her daughter inherits the holy land. So “community” doesn’t quite say it all. Second comment — did you know that book of yours about the “12” has only *one* copy available at Amazon and that for $999? Seemed a grisly joke in a way.

    Thanks for your good work,
    Jeff (Palo Alto CA)

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  • Tony –

    This is brilliant and concise. It’s probably the quickest, most approachable, and thorough introduction to postmodern Christianity I’ve see yet. Nicely done.

    I can’t wait to get my hands on the whole book and see what the other authors have contributed.

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  • With havin so much content do you ever run into any problems of plagorism or copyright violation? My website has a lot of completely unique content I’ve either authored myself or outsourced but it appears a lot of it is popping it up all over the web without my agreement. Do you know any ways to help stop content from being ripped off? I’d genuinely appreciate it.