Sunday, November 27, 2005

Postmodernism: Stale, Mate?

I encountered the following quote from the Generous Orthodoxy Thinktank which seemed to affirm my take on postmodern influences for Biblical studies a few days ago (namely that it's fundamentally a critique, and not a viable project in itself). The mouth from which these words hail is that of Clifford Geertz, whose work apparently exercised influence over postliberal thinkers such as Hans Frei - no surprise, given his emphasis on community in understanding the world.

I think that postmodernism is past its sale date. It is not irrelevant, it had tremendous critical importance. However, as a pattern for future development I think it is a dead end. I think we should listen and learn from them and then move along. They have with their critique helped to clarify some of our fundamental concepts, such as culture or interpretation, but they will not last as a program in themselves. And that, the clarification and critique, changed the direction of anthropology. Therefore, my way of interpretive anthropology will go on much chastened by this. We will no longer have a simple-minded notion of what interpretation is; we are now aware of the problem of meaning-realism, and so forth. All this is terribly important. Personally, they influence me, and to some degree, I am still a part of it. As for cultural anthropology, it will in my view go on in reasonable continuity with its past.

What do you think?


Sameer said...
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TheBlueRaja said...

Sorry Sam -- look under #2 there, where i said: "the negative effect is that since postmodernism tends to be more of a critique than a positive contribution, the void left by such criticisms tends to be filled by an untenable skepticism which seems incompatible with the missional prerogatives of the Church." I think Geertz quote also dovetails with my concern to have "reasonable continuity with the past", accounting for and being chastened by the postmodern critique, but not advocating a radical shift. I think critical realism sounds like an attempt at that when it comes to history, speech-act theory when it comes to texual meaning and weak foundationalism when it comes to epistemology. Superficially it seems like a semantic notion might represent a much more radical shift based on postmodern-like critiques of other epistemological options. What do you think?

metalepsis said...

looks like you caught Geertz testing out his new web cam. Technocrate that he is!

Sojourner said...


I am not understanding the disagreement here. (I've been lurking throught the discussion at the Pyro's place.) Is the disagreement over treating one another with charity? I am perplexed by all of this. I do not see that you and the Pyromaniac are so far removed theologically, so what is the rub here?

TheBlueRaja said...

Hey Sojourner! I guess my main diagreement with Phil is the approach he's taking in addressing the problem. No one's saying that there aren't some worrisome things about postmodern thinkers - most of them are avowedly atheistic (the same, of course, could be said about "modern" thinkers); but the fact that there have been Christian incarnations of postmodern thought is really no different than the existence of Christian incarnations of Enlightenment thought (such as modern practices of exegesis and the philosophical freight used by E.D. Hirsch, et. al.). The problem with Phil is that he can't seem to discern between the two. In a nutshell,

1) he doesn't seem to know what Christians have and haven't appropriated in regard to postmodernism

2) he doesn't seem to understand the reasoning behind their theological methodology, or the critiques against traditional alternatives

3) he isn't willing to read leading figures int he movement to find out these sorts of things before making his critiques and he seems convinced that he understands the issues already, regardless of what others may say

4) he isn't willing to accept avowedly postmodern believers' affirmations of historic orthodoxy in creeds and confessions

5) he doesn't appear to be willing or able to criticize his own starting points, assumptions and philosophical influences. If he does engage in such things, he certainly doesn't want to talk about it. That makes me a bit nervous when he claims to speak for God and bear God's authority in proclaiming His Word in all the same ways that third-wave charismatics or popes make me nervous with such claims. By not being self-critical in this way he thinks that all his own thoughts about God's words are God's thoughts.

6) he dosn't seem to be willing or able to see the differences between those secular philosophers who influence postmodern scholars, those postmodern scholars who influence Christian scholars, and those Christian scholars who influence Christian leaders and those Christian leaders who influence your average joe in the church. It's never clear which group he's talking to, and he shifts between them in a way that mischaracterizes them or attributes one's views to another.
These are sloppy, inaccuratae critiques.

7) he doesn't seem to care whether someone who actually holds the views he opposes listens to him or not. He isn't particularly interested in being heard if the cost involves genuine two-way communication. The lack of interaction means that he is no more willing to modify his characterizations of postmodern Christians based on such feedback than he is to modify his own views.
Even when someone who largely AGREES WITH HIM (such as myself) try to engage him on any substantive issue, he responds with dismissive rhetoric and snide comments while conveniently ignoring the criticism. Any admission of weakness seems to be "giving ground to pomos"; in my mind these responses tear down his credibility.

8) Phil is content to criticize the tone and attitude behind others' comments, but is dismissive of those who criticize his own use of language. He selectively applies standards of civillity and has special rules for how he should be treated that are distinct from standards applied to others on his blog. This, combined with numbers 3, 5 and 7 give me the impression that "looking to himself" is something that Phil will do only in a very narrow, specific set of circumstances in relationship to a very select, small group of believers.

Keep in mind here that I actually like Phil a whole lot more than he likes me, and I've tried to communicate these things to Phil before, only to be chided, dismissed and labeled a postmodernist (!) myself. I just think Phil gives new meaning to "bull in a china shop". Assuming the best about him, I sort of see him as the giant Of Mice and Men who squeezed to death those things that he loved.

Sojourner said...


As we delightfully discovered in our previous conversation where you were obstinately opposed to the Biblical teaching of headcoverings (joke), we are both English Lit. guys. (That was you, right?) I am familiar with postmodern thought only as one who was 'raised' in it, so to speak. I became a Christian in the midst of study at the university, actually.

What is it about pomo-Christians that you believe is legitimate? In what areas would you like to see the Pyromaniac and others give them a fair shake?

From personal experience, the best and worst thing that ever happened to me was the deconstruction of my naive epistemological base. (Is there a less fancy way to say that?) It forced me to consider what I thought of truth, and ultimately, what I thought of God. As I said, I was an unbeliever at the time, and postmodern doubt literally drove me to truth, if you can believe that.

christy said...

Wow, B.R. I've not visited your site for a while. Looks like I have a lot of catching up to do! Some interesting stuff here. Esp. since I've been taught and have even decided that a lot of postmodernism is bad news for Truth. Looks like I'll have to look a little closer. Maybe over Christmas "break." Should be interesting. :) Take take, bro.

christy said...

Take care, that is. :)

TheBlueRaja said...


I've decided to buy my wife a designer meat hat, just to be safe. Now she can apply Acts 10 AND 1 Co. 11 at the same time.

I'm actually a bachelor of history, not a literature fellow, but I can say that the few literature classes I took drove me nuts, mostly because of the weird agendas of my teachers.

You asked: "What is it about pomo-Christians that you believe is legitimate?" I think, for one, the fact that they're Christians demands our patient interaction with them for one another's mutual edification. I'd like to see Pyromaniac give them a fair shake by respecting their profession of faith enough to deal with them as believers instead of boogeymen to be slain or debunked. Practically that means taking the time to understand what they're actually saying, making the proper distinctions, recognizing what they do believe (creeds, etc.), responding specifically to their methodological critiques, and so on.

TheBlueRaja said...


It's probably not worth the time! But I'll tell you this: for whatever legitimate critiques I see about the nature of texts and interpretation, I see an equal amount of overstatement and hype about postmodernism, espeically when it comes to literary theory. I think a lot of postmodernism IS bad news for Truth - but postconservative criticisms of Cartesian foundationalism, Gnostic valuations of doctrinal formulations, and devaluation of narrative have been very helpful for me, as has been the call for missional thinking and orthopraxy. Definitely worth interacting with, anyway.

ScottyB said...

You asked: "What is it about pomo-Christians that you believe is legitimate?" I think, for one, the fact that they're Christians demands our patient interaction with them for one another's mutual edification. I'd like to see Pyromaniac give them a fair shake by respecting their profession of faith enough to deal with them as believers instead of boogeymen to be slain or debunked.

YES well said

Rose~ said...

the fact that they're Christians demands our patient interaction with them for one another's mutual edification.

I appreciate this statement so much. If we surround ourselves with only those Christians who see things our way, we have a danger of becoming unbalanced.

TheBlueRaja said...

You're right, Rose; that's sort of what the One church, in all its diversity, is for!