Official Blog of the Bishop of Durham

Evangelicals against and for (against) ‘Postmodernism’

Posted by NT Wrong on November 28, 2008

There seem to be at least two ways in which evangelical Christians have misappropriated the term “postmodernism”. One of these ways is described by Robert C. Greer in Mapping Postmodernism, and can also be seen in the blurb to G.K. Beale’s book and in William Dever’s rant against minimalists. This approach is a retrenchment back into what was falsely assumed to be a doctrinally secure positivism. Here’s Greer (p. 14):

“A number of books have been published in the 1990s and early 2000s excoriating postmodernism and admonishing the Christian community to stand firm against the postmodern tide saturating the West. In the pulpits, on the radio and on television, this same message has been presented. With Bible in hand the Christian believer argues for absolute truth, often with the words ‘Thus sayeth the Lord” serving as a centrepiece to his or her arguments. Hence, where polemical works had previously targeted secular Christianity as one of Christianity’s chief foes, the new foe is postmodernism. Only by understanding and embracing that which constitutes absolute truth, leaders within the Christian community explained, could the battle be waged successfully.”

Here’s an example, in the introduction to The Supremacy of Christ in a Postmodern World (2007) by John Piper, Voddie Baucham, D. A. Carson, Tim Keller, Mark Driscoll, and David Wells:

“Many would have us believe that life is hopelessly fragmented and truth an elusive dream. The authors of this book beg to differ and enthusiastically point us to the cohesive centrality and absolute supremacy of Jesus Christ.”

The other approach is that followed by those sympathetic with ’emergent/emerging’ movements, and involves taking those bits of ‘postmodern’ thinkers which attack secular modernism, and thereby providing a defence of the same absolute truth of Christianity, without being quite so explicit as to the grounds (if any can be spelled out) for such absolute truth. It’s the ‘Christianity is absolutely true, because all truth is relative, and so my claim for absolute truth is equally valid’ argument. It’s never said like that, of course, because that would expose the odd inconsistency of the position — using a relativistic epistemology to support absolute truth, and then naming that absolute truth as specifically traditional orthodox Christianity. And the problem is deeper than that. There’s a careful selectivity from thinkers who are grouped as ‘postmodernists’, taking only those parts of what they say that can be useful, while refusing the full (anti-authoritarian, indeterminate, anti-metanarrative) implications of what they are saying.

Neither approach has much interest in what the so-called ‘postmodern’ thinkers say. One simply opposes it, the other mines it for material. Both are defensive positions, and where there’s defense, there’s usually tendentious use rather than reading. But in that dichotomy, which is really a sliding scale, I guess I’m revealing I think modernism has a few good and worthwhile features, yet.

3 Responses to “Evangelicals against and for (against) ‘Postmodernism’”

  1. Since you (in the quote with his co-authors) mention D. A. Carson, you might as well mention “his” gagging 640-page Magnum opus called The Gagging of God presumptuously subtitled Christianity Confronts Pluralism and its twin work (more than 400 pages) Telling the Truth: Evangelizing Postmoderns.

    Not fitting well into Carson’s dichotomy is James K. A. Smith. What do you think of Smith, who is very much alive after writing a nice obituary of the would-be-dead Derrida? (And Smith blogs: http://forsclavigera.blogspot.com/ )

  2. Josh M said

    Interesting post. I find your explanation of ‘the other approach’ (the second one) unclear. To whom are you referring? Please give a few examples of those who hold this ‘approach’ and an example of how their arguments use relativistic epistemology to support absolute truth.

    Also, what are your criteria for determining the how the term ‘postmodernism’ should be appropriated? Might you suggest a positive approach to Evangelicals?

  3. anonymous untenured faculty said

    I think you’re right on. The “if postmodernism is right then it’s all relative and my view is just as justified as any other” can be seen even in scholarship. Christian Smith, whose sociological studies of Evangelicalism are great IMO, wrote a weird book called *Moral, Believing Animals,* wherein he made just that sort of claim: from a postmodern perspective theism is just as good as any other “foundation.”

    It is because of this stupid conclusion that I think all talk about “anti-foundationalism” should be supplemented with attention to how different “foundations” advance different interests.

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