April 7, 2007
Postmodern Truth SoupBy James Arlandson
One postmodern theorist states: "Postmodernism swims, even wallows, in the fragmentary and the chaotic currents of change as if that is all there is" (David Harvey, "The Condition of Postmodernity" in the Post-Modern Reader, ed. Charles Jencks, Academic, 1992, p. 303).
To me, postmodernists make their own soup out of all the fragments and chaos and change. Everything gets thrown into it, and one truth cannot be distinguished from others, as the soup breaks down and dissolves. And the postmodernists love it.
This article, Part Three in the series on Postmodernism and the Bible, aims to define postmodernism, a word that is slippery, due to a lot of wallowing. This article asks questions about the relevance of postmodernism to the Bible, concluding with questions for the Church of all kinds and locations, and they are relevant to other religions as well.
I quote extensively from the postmodernists themselves so they can define their own movement in their own words. To apply their views, I refer to the work of one of the leading scholars on Gnosticism - a subject that is all the rage now - Karen King and her book What is Gnosticism? (Harvard, 2003). Though by her own admission she is heavily indebted to postmodern thinkers (pp. 233-47), we should not conclude that she would endorse every ingredient in the following list. To a lesser extent, I also reference other interpreters of the Bible and early Christianity.
As noted in Parts One and Two in the series (see the links at the end), postmodernism is nothing more than the transmogrification of hyper-skepticism begun in the Enlightenment and given a big push by thinkers like Nietzsche, Freud, Heidegger, and many others living in the late nineteenth century and into the twentieth, past WWII and into the 1960s (firm dates are hard to pin down). Part One explains why I attach the prefix "hyper."
Recall that the word "transmogrification" does not have a known origin, and it means a great change or alteration, "often with grotesque or humorous effect" (Webster's Dictionary). In the case of postmodernism, I would take out "great" and insert "small" in that definition, in most instances. Postmodernism is not that innovative or "original," as seen in Part Two. It swims and wallows in nonorigins, and it has become "grotesque" and "humorous" at the same time. Anyone who has read a postmodern novel or short story or seen a postmodern painting or sculpture cannot be hyper-skeptical about its grotesquerie and humor. Postmodernists appreciate humor and language games, so they should like the terms here.
To get right to the point, postmodernism is hyper-skeptical of the following, which make up, as it were, the ingredients of the postmodern truth soup.
Hyper-skeptical of origins
This and the next three characteristics of postmodernism have been summarized best by Kevin Hart of Notre Dame University in his superb introduction, Postmodernism: a Beginner's Guide (Oneworld, 2004). He has a chapter titled "The Loss of Origins." That is a perfect result of postmodernism.
Ole fashioned scholarship and interpretations of the Bible place high value on the original, historical and textual context. Once this search has been done, scholars decide on the best meaning according to the context. I am not so naïve to believe that the process is easy or every jigsaw puzzle can completed.
However, postmodernism says that language is always in play, and the origins and meaning of words may not be simplistically limited by their context. Words retain their "traces" or tracks (as in footprints), regardless of their placement in a sentence, a paragraph, or an entire book. This perpetual playing implies that we cannot nail meaning down.
To apply momentarily the loss of origins to Biblical studies, does it mean that the New Testament, which emerges from the apostolic community and was written by those who knew Jesus or who had access to those who did, lose its authority? Karen King doubts the criterion of origins in determining "normative" or orthodox Christianity. She writes:
That quotation reflects the main thesis of her insightful book. She advocates getting away from those three criteria. Does this mean that we should accept second, third, and fourth century Gnostic scriptures into the canon of Scripture? (Canon originally meant "measuring stick," and it now refers to any body of writing that enjoys a privileged status; in this context, it is the New Testament, which is the standard by which we measure all rivals.)
The next three characteristics reveal the fallout of the loss of origins.
Hyper-skeptical of essences
As Freud says, humans do not have a soul, so they lack a permanent essence. Hart writes:
In the context of literary interpretation, which lands us in the realm of interpreting the Grand Text, the Bible, anti-essentialism means the following, in contrast to how postmodernists interpret texts. Hart clarifies:
Thus, non-postmodern (to pile on the prefixes) interpretations are naïve, if they seek unity in interpretation. So how does an anti-essentialist postmodernist read a work of literature? Hart answers:
Some of Hart's assessment of interpretation does not at all conflict with time-tested Biblical interpretations. Many such commentaries discuss rivals. Or is there a proper interpretation(s) of the Bible?
As noted in the previous section, Karen King doubts that we should look for the essence of early Christianity, though she does not analyze in detail the New Testament as a possible source for the essence and purity of early Christianity (see pp. 224-28). She denies its essence and purity as a useless pursuit. Gnostic texts seem to stand on an equal footing and are equally essential, original, and pure.
Hyper-skeptical of realism
One way to define realism in a postmodern context is to point out its opposite, anti-realism. Hart explains:
But anti-realism shows up in science as well. Shockingly, scientific anti-realism and King's book on Gnosticism share an ideology. King writes:
I must confess that the moment I read that passage I was stunned. She has swallowed or at least nibbled on a hyper-radical view of time.
She goes on in the next paragraph to discuss Paul Ricoeur's "unrepresentability of time" in narratives (or stories). Then, referring to Michel Foucault, a prominent postmodernist, King concludes, "This new form of time is discontinuous and unpatterned; it is not serious, real, or true" (p. 235). So what does this mean to the study of texts, specifically the New Testament and Gnostic scriptures? I concede that narratives (or stories) play with time, collapsing and stretching it, for example. But King's brief view of time is radical, by any objective assessment (yes, I believe in objectivity. There really is a computer monitor in front of me). Quantum level may behave in unpredictable, strange ways, but up here in our level, time is one thing after another, tick, tick, tick . . . . I hope neither she nor anyone else believes that Abraham Lincoln was assassinated three years from now in the future and in the past. That would be absurd.
Maybe King needs to embrace radical skepticism about time because one of the grand omissions from all of Gnostic texts in the Nag Hammadi collection is a clear demarcation of time (and place) in narratives. Not even the Act of Peter in the collection adequately deals with narrative time, contrasted with the narratives of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and, yes, even John. Whoever of the ancient world put together those codices that make up the collection had a tin ear for storytelling.
Hyper-skeptical of foundations
Generally, hyper-skepticism about foundations is known as anti-foundationalism, which means that "our knowledge of the world rests on no secure ground" (Hart, p. 29). Hart goes right to Nietzsche in defining anti-foundationalism. Hart writes:
After describing Nietzsche shifting the definition of the "good," Hart returns to the process of interpretation within anti-foundationalism. He says:
One New Testament scholar defines anti-foundationalism as a refusal to establish a starting point. A. K. M. Adam writes in What Is Postmodern Biblical Criticism? (Fortress, 1995), as follows:
Not having a starting point is one of the major themes of the heavy promoters of ancient Gnosticism, such as Karen King, Elaine Pagels, and Marvin Meyer. They seem anxious to dethrone the canonical writings and replace them with the Gnostic ones, or at least to set up a new throne next to the old one. On what grounds? All truths are equal in regards to canonicity. In early Christianity, the powerful won the day and imposed orthodoxy. Now these Gnostic scholars are on a mission to rectify the situation.
Hyper-skeptical of metanarratives
"Metanarrative" is a big word for "grand narrative." Jean-François Lyotard, a prominent postmodern practitioner and theorist, says:
Adam gives examples:
But what about the Bible? Does it offer a metanarrative of which we should be suspicious? Adam explains and then defends the Bible, somewhat. He says:
There is much here on which non-postmodern or traditional interpreters can agree. The tensions revealed in Scripture are palpable. However, "tyrannical" and "monotonous" stack the deck against the unity of Scripture -- "unity" is frequently derided by postmodernists. Karen King says that a prominent New Testament scholar proposed abandoning "the dominant master narrative" in the distinction between orthodoxy and heresy (What Is Gnosticism? p. 111). As noted, King is heavily influenced by postmodern thinkers, so she doubts orthodoxy on the grounds that it cannot be pure and original and essential. And neither can heresy or Gnosticism, so the orthodoxy / heresy categories should be dropped. But this only creates an extra-sloshy postmodern truth soup.
Hyper-skeptical of totalities
The term "totality" means theories and storylines that complete any big jigsaw puzzle as if all the pieces can fit together. But we today have purchased a defective puzzle. It was never intended to be put together as a well-ordered whole. Adam writes:
Ihab Hassan is a major theorist on postmodernism. In his article "Pluralism in Postmodern Perspective," in The Post-Modern Reader, he quotes Jean-François Lyotard, as follows:
One of the many outcomes of New Testament scholarship these days, such as that of Karen King and Bart D. Ehrman (Lost Christianities, Oxford, 2003), is to reject so-called orthodoxy. The directions of early Christianities (plural) were never a foregone conclusion, but a struggle that one side won, the so-called orthodox. The net result of these scholars' storyline is that they create a postmodern truth soup in which all truths are equally valid or invalid, tasteful or distasteful. Thus, it is not the case, according to them, that orthodoxy should win - never mind that it told a better story without a lot of complications that permeate Gnostic scriptures, for example. Whoever originally wrote those Gnostic texts in the Nag Hammadi collection were deficient (a favorite Gnostic term) storytellers. On the other hand, the canonical Gospels reflect simplicity itself and therefore tell a better story for average persons in the Mediterranean world, who could not read or could barely read. This is only one among many reasons that orthodoxy rightly carried the day, in my opinion.
Hyper-skeptical of canons
Recall that "canon" originally meant a measuring stick, and it refers now to any body of writing that enjoys a privileged status, such as the Bible, Homer, Shakespeare, and so on. Hassan explains that canon should go well beyond a list of required books in a Western civilization course.
What will postmodernism put in the place of all canons? New canons? Fair enough. But what then? I notice that postmodernism would like to revise curriculum. How? In which directions?
The overly strong promoters of the Gnostic scriptures say that these writings contain truths, and all truths are thrown into the soup. Even though the New Testament emerges from the apostolic community that was closer to the life of Christ, and even though Gnostic scriptures come about later and do not enjoy this privileged access, origins have no bearing on breaking the deadlock between the canonical New Testament and Gnostic scriptures and deciding on orthodoxy. Why have a canon? It should be dethroned. Or at least another sparkly, jewel-studded throne should sit beside it.
I would like to conclude with questions directed at the Church, wherever it is found around the world.
While the Church grapples with those questions, I believe that along the way reputable and high-quality scholars like Karen King and Bart Ehrman, and many others, have swallowed too much of the postmodernism truth soup. These scholars' application of postmodernism and their hyper-skepticism turns history and objectivity and canon into a soup in which all ingredients and flavors are dissolved into an indistinguishable liquid. And unfortunately their troubling conclusions about the Bible and rival texts have needlessly and heedlessly confused the Church and society.
However, I suggest that we not be too hasty in abandoning our common sense - so derided by postmodernists -- about foundations, knowledge, truth, facts, origins, essences, purity, interpretations, and even reality itself.
James M. Arlandson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org