Tag Archives: postmodernism

The radicalness of ordinary

The best way to write a bestseller is to have a compelling, action-packed narrative. In the Christian market it seems the best route to take is to buck accepted wisdom, to tell everyone that what they thought was a good idea really isn’t and that what we should do is overhaul our lives.

This isn’t exactly a new phenomenon, nor is it particularly wrong in itself to call to attention traditional practices of Christians that legitimately do need to be changed. Martin Luther was arguable one of the first christian bestsellers, and for a good reason. His books were lengthy and detailed. Luther wanted to convince his readers of the truthfulness of his position.

Today, however, I wonder if much of what passes for christian literature, is not meant (or otherwise merely has the effect of) producing an emotional reaction.

Take the grandfather of what I’ll call “get busy for Jesus” books. Charles Sheldon wrote In His Steps around the turn of the 19th century in order to encourage his readers to ask the question, “What Would Jesus Do?” The intent of the question is sound, to encourage people to be courageous Christians, but the method is wholly existential. In order to answer the question one is asked to, at some level, pretend they are Jesus. The result is that the answer to what Jesus would do turns out to be whatever the one asking the question subjectively decides.

The alternate to this approach, in case you’re wondering, is to ask “what did Jesus do and say?” This is the difference between a deconstructive and an analytical approach to the acquisition of knowledge.

But that’s the problem. Luther wrote to impart knowledge. Sheldon wrote to impart an experience. And it is Sheldon’s intent that I find in many Christian bestsellers today.

Three modern variations come to mind. Henry Blackaby’s bible study, Experiencing God, Francis Chan’s Crazy Love, and David Platt’s Radical series. Each one has, at its core, a call to an experience. And each one, if closely analyzed, is inherently against the analytical approach to gaining knowledge.

Another common factor in these books is a call to “be radical”. To make sweeping wholesale changes, preferably without much analysis or forethought. Not only is this reckless, but it runs afoul of what Jesus taught about carefully calculating the cost of any decision we make.

Sometimes radical changes are necessary. But more often than not they are merely destructive and should be avoided in favor of slow and gradual change.

One of Luther’s radical conclusions was that the normal, average person was important. That even the most ordinary work could be glorifying to God. That one didn’t need to be a rock-star in order to have an impact on the world.

What is really radical are ordinary people doing ordinary things day after day. What is radical is a family that lasts. What is radical is a responsible financial plan that helps mitigate unforeseen circumstances while allowing for a slow and steady accumulation of wealth to be handed down to subsequent generations.

Here are a couple of other great reviews of David Platt’s Radical:

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A different kind of Christianity

Brian McLaren, a rockstar pastor in California, describes “A New Kind of Christianity”. However when he’s done deconstructing every central tenet of Christinaity as defined by Scripture, its quite clear that what he’s really offering is something completely different he’s calling Christianity.

Book Review: What Would Jesus Deconstruct? by John D. Caputo

After listening to John D Caputo’s interview by Luke Mulenhauser on commonsenseatheism.com (mp3) I decided to get John’s book, What Would Jesus Deconstruct, and see what sort of case he could build for postmodern Christianity that would compel emergent pastors like Brian McLaren to endorse it.

I first encountered JackCaputo’s writings in the introduction to God, the gift, and Postmodernism, which he edited with Michael Scanlon (Indiana University Press, 1999). Since I’m not a professional philosopher, a number of the book’s chapters (sur)passed the reading comprehension capacities of my bald layman’s head, but not the introduction. There Caputo and Scanlon spoke in down-to-earth terms of our need to become “enlightened about the Enlightenment” (meaning, for my fellow less-philosophical laypeople, the eighteenth-century movement that eventually reduced reality to phenomena that could be measured and dissected by “objective” human reason).

-Brain McLaren, pg 9

McLaren goes on to provide a very brief outline of the book which I find rather helpful,

First you’ll notice that Jack flies you into a “zone of intertextuality,” meaning that he is going to suspend you between several texts, notably Sheldon’s In His Steps (the unlikely inspiration of the WWJD craze), the writings of Jacques Derrida, and the New Testament. This may strike you as an unlikely combination, but it will make perfect sense by the time you’re halfway to the last page.

John does rely heavily on Sheldon’s book to, ironically, provide some structure for his book which deals mostly with deconstructionalism. In fact, if you haven’t read Sheldon’s book you might find it worthwhile to put John’s book down and read Sheldon’s work before returning.

John’s book can be broadly divided into two sections. The first being a crash course in deconstructionalism. And the second being what John sees as the practical implications of deconstructionalism when applied to Christianity.

In the first section John does an excellent job providing the reader a cogent and easily digestible overview of what deconstructionalism is. John uses many analogies and weaves in quotes from the founders of deconstructionalsim (Jaques Derrida, Martain Heidegger, Edmund Husserl, etc.) in seamlessly. It is evident here that John is a skilled teacher who is able to convey an otherwise complex topic.

In this section John makes the claim that certain concepts like love, justice, and “the kingdom of God” are not deconstructible. John never explains exactly why or how he comes to this conclusion, but based on his aversion to objective truth I suppose even expecting a well-reasoned argument is asking too much.

John also makes the claim that since the church is not the same as the Kingdom of God (again, the reader is apparently asked to take this assertion on blind faith alone), the church is the first and foremost thing that is ripe for deconstruction.

By way of example John uses several stories from the New Testament where Jesus apparently turned the tables and did the unexpected. John subsumes these as evidence that Jesus would always do the unexpected in the name of “love” (which, defined existentially, appears to be merely a subjective concept).

From here John launches into the second major section of his book which deals with the practical implications of what he just described.

In the second section we are given, without much analysis (which, given John’s adherence to continental philosophy is not very surprising), a steady stream of assertions that Jesus would be a full-blown liberal supporting all the fashionable liberal causes of our day from gay marriage to abortion on demand. John does balk a bit at the concept of abortion but ultimately comes down on the side of the woman has a right to do whatever she wants with her body, which is consistent with John’s deconstructionalism which makes objective judgement not only impossible but wholly undesirable.

In the end, I can see why emergent pastors like Brian McLaren would find John’s work appealing. Deconstructionalism allows the reader to place any meaning they want onto a text and thus co-opt for whatever means they desire. It also makes judgement verboten which means they are absolved from the responsibility of ever taking a real stand on anything. Further, it provides a handy platform for them to support all the fashionable causes without fear of being challenged since any and all challenges to their assertions would, themselves, be deconstructed and rendered harmless.

I highly recommend John’s book for anyone who is looking to understand the emergent church movement. John provides well articulated and frank answers to anyone who wants to understand the thought-process of the postmodern Christian/church.

Even though his work is quite old, older than Caputo’s, an excellent rebuttal to this book would be Francis Schaeffer’s lecture Modern Man & Epistemology.

Resources:

Rob Bell’s uncertainty

“We are speculating after you die” that seems to leave no room for assurance of salvation. It robs the gospel of its very essence.

Hope.

But then later he said “what interests me is what matters, what interests me is what’s true”. Wait, what? Are we serious about our search for knowledge or aren’t we? James would like to know

If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you. But when you ask, you must believe and not doubt, because the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind. That person should not expect to receive anything from the Lord. Such a person is double-minded and unstable in all they do. -James 1:5-8

In the end I believe this ordeals has only served to highlight what a poor teacher Rob Bell is and has always been. And all the people who praise him for not “spoon feeding” them propositional truths gleaned from careful study are simply idiots.

What I’d like to see Rob Bell address in all of this is his underlying epistemology. Does he hold to an epistemology which has the capacity to provide him and others with certain knowledge of objective truths about reality or does he hold to something that rejects objective truths altogether like his friend Brian McLaren.

Judging what is and is not art

Modern art, or more specifically, postmodern art characterized by abstract expressionist artists like Jackson Pollock, Pablo Picasso, and Franz Kline, has been decried by art critics (of a less refined taste as we are commonly told by the self-proclaimed elite art critics) as being trash and not “true art”. However such a distinction begs the question, what is true art and how do we go about judge it in an objective fashion? The first question will determine the latter since, if we cannot find an objective definition on which to stand for what constitutes art, the second question regarding how we should go about judging it will only be an exercise in expressing our subjective opinions.

An objective definition of art
Wikipedia defines art this way:

Art is the product or process of deliberately arranging symbolic elements in a way that influences and affects the senses, emotions, and/or intellect.

I would argue that art is creative communication. Art includes the items commonly accepted to be art, such as books, movies, paintings, buildings, photography, and music. The realm of art also includes items not yet included in the commonly accepted definition of art. Contrary to Roger Ebert, even videogames can be works of art. I would even go so far as to say that mechanical devices, mathematical formulas, programming structures, and heavy industrial machinery can all be works of art as well.

That is, they can be so long as fill two criteria.

  1. They have a definitive message to send
  2. That message is portrayed in such a way that is is possible to be understood by the recipient

Postmodernism, with its emphasis on the deconstruction of language, has had a profound impact on modern art. We can see the beginnings of this trend in Pablo Picasso’s work wherein common subjects were distorted so that the recipient had to work at discerning what the artist was attempting to convey. And we can see the culmination of this trend in Jackson Pollock’s work (among others) wherein the viewer is expected to bring their own subjective meaning to whatever work was being viewed.

This approach is wholly consistent with a postmodern framework. However since it lacks an intended message from the author to the audience, it cannot rightly be considered art. Even if the objective of the author is to combat the notion of objective truth itself, the lack of clarity in communicating that message to the audience prevents it from being considered art. In order to remain true to the tenants of postmodernism it would need to be open to being deconstructed itself and reconstructed in whatever the subject wished, destroying it’s ability to communicate anything at all.

So there is art that cannot rightly be categorized as art and it has nothing to do with our subjective feelings on the matter. We can honestly say that men like Pollock did not produce art by their new style of  “action paintings”. How could they? They admittedly had nothing they wished to communicate and thus the viewer is left with nothing to learn from their paintings. At best these postmodern pieces are like glorified Rorschach tests designed to act as a cognitive mirror for the viewer’s mind.

look passively and try to receive what the painting has to offer and not bring a subject matter or preconceived idea of what they are to be looking for –Jackson Pollock

Reynolds News had it right when they wrote that “this is not art–it’s a joke in bad taste”.