‘Tis the State of My Discontent [3]: Thoughts on Running the Race, Space, and Place

[This is the third and last post in this series. This post probably stands on its own but for background search through some of my past posts in the ‘Our Story’ category or check out part one here and part two here.]

Housecleaning

I realize from the start here that not everyone will understand my approach to this series of posts. This is painfully obvious in some of the comments I’ve received. These comments comprise three basic types (NOTE: I moderate ALL my comments so if your comment appears on my blog then your comments are not the ones in question here). They are…

The Negative Type – the basic message here is “Just suck it up and quit your whining, you’re complaining too much.” (I’m not making it up here, this is a direct quote from a comment I received.) One commenter even stated that because I haven’t been able to provide for my family and provide insurance for my wife that God is judging me and that I am ‘worse than an infidel.’ (No, I am not kidding.)

The Fatalistic Type – the basic message here is that God’s will is going to be done no matter what, and there is nothing you can do to stop it (even if it means being homeless as one commenter stated), so (and here we are back to this) quit your whining (to which they then they add) and just praise God.

The Individualistic Type – the basic message here is that all I need is just me and Jesus. After all I (individually) am the ‘bride’ of Christ and all I (individually) need to do is focus more on my (individual) relationship with Jesus and then my problems won’t seem so big. No community needed – just me and Jesus. (I can’t even begin to describe the theological difficulties here.)

What is clear from some of these comments is that for some what I have written amounts basically to a lack of faith on my part. Most have expressed their well meaning concern whereas at least two have been downright judgmental and even called my status as a Christian into question. What is also clear is that these responses lack anything of the categories remotely resembling the language of lament or the need for community, and at least from my perspective seem very uncomfortable with real and raw human experience and as a result are extremely theologically ‘thin’. I think a strong case can be made that the result of such theological ‘thinness’ is to fail to really listen to the other and to react in judgmental, fatalistic, and individualistic ways.

Its honestly hard to not let these types of comments get to me (especially the one about me not providing health insurance for Christie and this making me an infidel or worse). But I want to avoid the temptation to spend too long parsing these responses. That would sidetrack me I think from where the real theological work for me is right now. My aim in the remainder of this post is to give some thoughts related to running the race well, the importance of space, and the intersection of exile and place in the hopes of moving towards something hopefully resembling a philosophically and theologically thick description of these things in relation to my own experience, especially as of late.

Thoughts on Running the Race

The one thought at this time that comes to my mind when I think of running the race is “I’m tired!” To be honest I am not sure how I can go on. My lungs burn and my legs are heavy. I want to remain fixed on the prize that my liberating King has for me for running the race well, but I need a sabbatical. I remarked somewhere recently (it may have been to a friend or in a recent blog, not sure which) that if someone were to offer to provide financially for my family and I to take a three month sabbatical in the mountains I would accept it in a heartbeat.

One factor in my tiredness has to do with my current job working for a mental health organization, which involves significant tensions currently. My experience in pastoral roles and as a theologian makes it hard for me to work within the mental health system (at least as I’ve experienced it here, I know many fine mental health practitioners, but though varying from state to state it does seem to me that the mental health system is very broken). But beyond these sort of tensions, and more to the heart of the issue, I am also simply and plainly relationally and spiritually spent (is it ok if I admit this?). Just recently I had the experience of meeting with one of the persons I help … and there was nothing. Emotionally and spiritually I was scraping bottom and there was nothing.

Most would call this burnout. But what I am feeling is not burnout and I have a feeling that the ‘burnout’ epidemic we sometimes hear about with pastors is not really burnout. It is more a spiritual/relational emptiness and perhaps numbness that comes from giving everything and never really getting a real day off, a Sabbath, or a sabbatical. (I think I am only now beginning to realize the true effect of being a trauma chaplain resident at a level one trauma hospital, the busiest in the nation, had on me.) Burnout you can perhaps help with some time off, better boundaries, and better time management (the kinds of things the behavioral health world would advise). But this spiritual emptiness and numbness goes deeper than simple ‘behavior management’ … this sort of thing requires wholistic spiritual refreshment.

Even in my weakness and exhaustion, I really do hope that I am running the race well. I’ve never really been concerned about resume building. I have simply tried to follow God in the missio Dei wherever that leads. If I may use the ‘F’ word, thus far it seems I’ve seen a lot of failure – failure as a ‘traditional’ church minister, failure as a church planter, and failure as a chaplain even (in some respects), and now failure as a worker in the mental health field. But mistakes (oh boy, yeah a lot of mistakes) and all, it has shaped me into the particular person that I am today – one who still has as his aim to run the race set before him well.

However, not just any old definition of ‘well’ will do. I believe we have to define it in theological terms. The goal (telos) of what might be described as a ‘well lived life’ is distinctly trinitarian, narrative, and missional. My aim is to live my life in a way that is unintelligible if 1) the triune God we Christians worship does’t exist (a la Hauerwas), 2) or is separated from the biblical narrative and story of Christ, and 3) or is severed from the missional activity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit through the church for the sake of the world. This is how I see the race set before us, but I’m tired. I need rest. It occurs to me that since our first miscarriage the one thing C.C. and I haven’t been able to do is rest. We are both tired.

Thoughts on The importance of Space

I think there is something we know inherently about the importance of space. Space seems to transcend the physical, even while including the physical. Space also has to do with the atmosphere created, the way it feels, the intangibles. Teachers try to make their classrooms a creative ‘space’ for learning, retailers and marketers try to make their stores a ‘space’ where you will buy stuff, guys everywhere try to make a ‘space’ where they will impress the girl, and newly married couples try to create a ‘space’ in which to raise a family. In terms of my own depletion and exhaustion, I have concluded that space is a big issue – or, perhaps better put, the lack of it. There are three expressions of space I’ll discuss here.

Let’s consider physical space first off. When we were at Logsdon in Abilene we felt extremely blessed in terms of physical space to exist as a family. We had gone from extremely small accommodations to a three bedroom rental from the school. Never mind the fact that it was drafty, freezing in the winter, burning up hot in the summer, and had some of the ugliest wallpaper ever in the kitchen … I loved it. I was able to get an old desk and make myself an office with my books. A place to study, ponder, pray, and refresh. This was taken away when we moved to Houston as both our apartments were very small (and I lost my desk). And now we are in even smaller accommodations as we live with my in-laws. While grateful for the hospitality, it has been difficult to create a space here that is refreshing.

Much of this is due how physical space and relational space intersect. When we moved from Houston Christie and I both wanted to reclaim our marriage as we had both been chaplain residents and that had taken its natural toll (being a CPE resident is a bit like working two full time very demanding jobs, times that by two for us). We have been able to do this some but in many ways the physical space hampers the relational space needed for us to do this. This in itself is draining for me and for us both as well. It seems that any place we go there is always someone else there.

Finally there is what I call liturgical space. This has to do with our rhythms of life, how we mark time, and how that forms us as humans. One of the ways that I have sought to take care of myself and ensure that I was refreshed was to be sure that I was living out of the story of Christ on a daily basis. To do this I follow the Revised Common Lectionary readings and the liturgical church calendar. This gives me a way of exchanging the ‘rat race’ of life and going to a job for the life giving routine/rhythm of a vocationally filled life – it gives me a different way to mark time.

I have tried to keep my liturgical disciplines going during this time of transition, but I’m still depleted. I think that a large part of this has to do with the fact that my regular practice of silence and solitude has been compromised.  Since we have been here in Carlsbad, and having tried an array of places (the library, the local coffee shop, IHOP, my own desk at the house), I have not been able to find or create the needed space (physical, relational, or liturgical) for silence and to be alone that I need for truly wholistic spiritual (which includes the physical, relational, and liturgical) replenishment. The result – I’m wiped! Silence and solitude as disciplines help create the conditions and space which I need to be refreshed. I’m just not getting much silence or solitude!

Thoughts on Exile, Vocation, and Place

I have described my experience of late as an exile of sorts. It seems that most people I have spoke with take exile to imply some sort of sinful disobedience – exile is punishment. I’ve been asked (sometimes in a perplexed, inquiring tone and once or twice in an accusatory one), “Do you think you did something wrong?” or “Why do you think God would punish you?” or “Where do you think you were disobedient?” But the idea of exile itself need not involve some sort of disobedience. God can certainly chastise as God sees fit, but there can still be many experiences of exile that are not the result of sinful disobedience. Sometimes exile can be self imposed, or the natural outworking of bad choices (that are not necessarily sinful), or one of the maladies that accompanies what John of the Cross termed the ‘dark night of the soul (something I am intimately acquainted with).

Eugene Peterson in Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places describes living in exile as “jerky and spasmodic, anxious and hurried, with little sense of place or grounding” and declares “these are the same exilic conditions lived through by the people of God in the 6th century B.C.” (64) Exile has a long history in the story of the people of God. In this story, the feeling of exile is theologically related to the loss of place – exile is about displacement.

Dis … place … ment.

That word seems overflowing with theological significance for me. I think it gives something behind why Zephaniah 3:16-17 became ‘our verse’ for Christie and I after the loss of our first baby to miscarriage – and why it has continued to resonate with our experience all these years. I’ve felt displaced for quite some time (it hasn’t just been a recent Carlsbad, NM thing). This can probably be most clearly seen in that in the 14 yrs C.C. and I have been married, we have lived in eight different towns and we have moved 13 times.

I shake my head as I look back over what I have just written. How could it be that someone like myself, who is a student of postmodern theology, big as it is on contextual narratives, has been captive to the distinctly modern story of displacement (with the loss of place in American culture we could say that we have what could be called an epidemic of homelessness). I must confess, it has been sometime since I felt like I was at ‘home’. Indeed, one way to describe my exilic experience is a sense of homelessness. The question then is, where is ‘home’ – where am I, are we, to be ‘placed’?

Drawing upon some of his earlier work, in his ‘Sixth Study’ in Oneself as Another, Paul Ricoeur speaks of what he terms ‘emplotment’, which can be described as “the capacity to bring together the features of a text into a coherent temporal flow.” The ‘texts’ in question here are us (both individually and communally) and Ricoeur speaks of emplotment in relation to what he describes as ‘the self and narrative identity’ – basically who we are becomes formed by the ‘plot’ of our lives, we emplot ourselves in a narrative and storied fashion as we go. But for a narrative or story to be what Peterson describes as ‘grounded’ it also needs ‘placement’ – it needs to be placed somewhere locally (all lived spirituality is local). So in addition to Ricoeur’s notion of emplotment I propose we might also consider the idea of ‘emplacement’ as well. This in turn calls forth the desperate need for a theology of place.

At this point another Peterson quote from Christ Plays comes to mind, a quote that has been haunting me for at least a year now. Peterson says this,

Everything that the Creator God does in forming us humans is done in place. It follows from this that since we are his creatures and can hardly escape the conditions of our making, for us everything that has to do with God is also in place. All living is local: this land, this neighborhood, these trees and streets and houses, this work, these people. (76)

Look at that last line again, “this land … this neighborhood … these trees and streets and houses … this work … these people.” In my exilic homelessness this line captures beautifully what I crave, a locality in which to work out my vocation (regardless of what job I may have or how I pay the bills) as pastor/theologian lived within the nexus of race, space, and place.

But where?

Well, the place where I grew up no longer feels like home, it is no longer my place. And a slew of other places where we have lived just seemed ‘temporary’ (the great enemy of emplacement): Ft. Worth; Glen Rose; Portales, NM (our first exile); Carlsbad, NM (our present exile); Stafford; Houston (even though we love Ecclesia Houston still felt temporary); and even Plainview (where we lived for five years). The place where we have lived that did not feel temporary (even when we were packing to leave for Stafford/Houston) was Abilene, TX.

This land, neighborhood, trees and streets and houses = Abilene.

These people (our community) = Crosspoint Fellowship and Hardin-Simmons University/Logsdon Seminary.

I am finishing the last part of this post as we are visiting Abilene for the weekend – the first time in 2 1/2 years we have been able to see in person many folks that we consider family. I simply can’t shake the gut level feeling we belong here, that feeling of suddenly taking a deep breath after holding your breath for way too long. Hermeneutically speaking faith, life, and mission make sense here. Abilene feels like home. Place, people, and the mission of God … woven together. Sure, we can be missional anywhere we find ourselves – its just for us this place called Abilene feels like the most natural place, or locality, for us to join Father, Son, and Spirit in the missio Dei and work out our vocations together in community with these people.

‘Tis the place and the people, I believe, where and with whom my discontent can be set at ease.

All this of course brings up even more questions … which will have to wait till another post. Until then thanks for reading.

May the shalom of our liberating King Jesus be with you.

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Pomo 101 [2]: Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism – Smith chap 1

I had meant to have this post up a while ago. However, since the first post of this series we have experienced a bit of stress in our lives. My wife (who blogs here) had a surgical procedure related to some longstanding health issues and we were waiting for results from some biopsies concerning the possibility of cancer. In the meantime I found it hard to concentrate enough to type out a blog. But as one of her nurses told us, “Life is what happens while you are making other plans.” We ended up getting good news that Christie does not have any sign of cancer but she will have to undergo another surgical procedure in a few weeks. Prayers are appreciated. I have also been in the process of reading through Dan Stiver’s Theology After Ricoeur: New Directions in Hermeneutical Theology, which I had a hard time putting down. Besides being a very good introduction to the thought of Paul Ricoeur it is also one of the best recent attempts at a constructive postmodern, hermeneutical philosophy/theology. I highly recommend it (in the interest of full disclosure I should probably mention that I was Dr. Stiver’s Grad Assistant during my time at Logsdon Seminary so I admit to being biased). In any case, I did finish it so I guess that means I should finally get to this post.

This is part two of an anticipated 12 part series meant to be somewhat of a primer on postmodernism in which we can hopefully glean some insights into what the postmodern turn means for epistemology, church practice, and theology. In the first post I gave an introduction to the series and a tentative outline for the series. A discussion partner throughout this series will be James K. A. Smith and his book Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism (WAoP) in which each chapter will get one post. I highly recommend this book as a very accessible introduction to many of the issues that will come up through the course of this series. In this post we will cover chapter one (pg 15-30) of Smith’s WAoP, ‘Is the Devil from Paris? Postmodernism and the Church’ which will serve as a further introduction to some of the themes that will surface throughout this series.

Raising the Curtain: The Matrix

Smith begins with a scene from The Matrix. “Welcome to the real world.” These are the words spoken to Neo by Morpheus after he is released from his imprisonment in the Matrix, a “neural-active simulation complex” designed by machines to control humans. According to Smith this scene replays one of the most ancient philosophical images: that of emerging from Plato’s cave. In Plato’s Republic Socrates tells how the masses are enslaved to a world of images and shadows as if they were chained inside a cave with their heads locked in position. All they have ever seen are shadows on a wall, cast by a small fire that sends light across small puppets. Because these prisoners have never known anything different they believe that the shadows are real, until one of them is released. This liberated prisoner makes his way outside of the cave, in the process realizing that the shadows were only images cast by the puppets. As he comes into the light he is blinded because he is accustomed to only darkness. The light of the real world is painful to those that have never seen it. The liberated prisoner first finds his way around by looking at shadows on the ground and reflections in water. These images are not cast by copies and cutouts but by the things themselves. The liberated prisoner slowly realizes what he thought was real in the cave was really a shadow of reality: a copy of a copy. Now, as his eyes adjusted, he could not only behold the shadow or cutout image of a tree, but the tree itself. What was clear to him now was that the world of his birth was not real. Clearer still, says Smith, is that he must go back into the cave, proclaim what is real, and liberate his companions.

Smith calls the character Neo in the The Matrix a ‘postmodern Platonic prisoner.’ Neo has been a prisoner his whole life, connected to hoses and lying in a pod of quasi uterine liquid. What he sees connected to the Matrix is not a darkened world of shadows but a Technicolor world of high-rises, coffee shops, and nightclubs. Neo’s own mind is the ‘wall’ on which the Matrix feeds a world of images. All the humans trapped in these pods are actually being harvested for energy by the machines. In the Matrix they believe themselves to be someone and somewhere else. Neo thinks he is Thomas Anderson, an average employee of a technology firm. Morpheus comes as Neo’s liberator, someone who knows the truth and ‘descends’ back into the Matrix to release others. When Neo’s questioning mind is no longer passive to the neural-active simulation of the Matrix the system flushes his body out of his pod. Morpheus and his crew rescue Neo. “Welcome to the real world,” Morpheus says. “Why do my eyes hurt?” asks Neo. “Because you’ve never used them before,” Morpheus answers. Neo vomits out of disorientation and sense of a kind of vertigo. As Smith says, “Its not easy getting used to the real world.” (17)

According to Smith, our contemporary culture, as well as the church, has experienced a similar dis- and reorientation – a similar emerging from place to another, from one construction of reality to another, from modernity to postmodernity. The cultural shifts and changes can be traced to the advent of postmodernity and the ‘trickle-down’ effect of postmodernism on our culture. This shift calls into question previously held sureties and rattles faith that has been to easily equated with Cartesian certainties. The result is a kind of epistemic vertigo. Confusing questions are raised and there is a sense of being lost. As Morpheus says to Neo, “I imaging you must feel a bit like Alice, tumbling down the rabbit hole.” As Smith says, “If the shadows we thought were real have been unveiled as mere shadows, doesn’t it feel as if the whole world were dissolving?” And even if this is the real world, “we’re not sure how to make our way in it.” (18)

Question: This is a good to point to introduce a question which Plato’s cave analogy and The Matrix bring up. That is: what is the nature of embodiment and knowing (epistemology) and how are these related. The philosophical background of Plato’s cave analogy is a dualism of mind and body. In fact, in much Platonic thought the body is a sort of prison house. Plato’s eternal (yet disembodied) ‘Forms’ are in a sense what really counts as real. In The Matrix though Neo’s unplugging is an act of embodiment. It is ironic then that in this paradigm of embodiment that so many were inspired to take up the impetus of The Matrix by playing the video game hours on end! In any case, as a generalization we could say (with philosopher Charles Taylor) that modernity has had a movement towards excarnation and dis-embodiment. In this we could ask, is the search for ‘objective’ truth a search for a de-situated, dis-embodied truth? But is not all our knowing in a very important sense incarnate…embodied and situated? We are faced with the competing narratives of excarnation and incarnation in our epistemology as well as our relating to others. Which narrative will we choose?

What is Postmodernism?

Smith offers Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism as an orientation to the world of postmodernism, the world in which we now find ourselves. He notes that for some it is the bane of Christian faith, the new enemy replacing secular humanism and the target for demonization. For others though, such as the emerging church movement, who seek to castigate the modernity of pragmatic evangelicalism and want to retool the church’s witness in a postmodern world, pomo is a fresh wind. Smith claims that in both cases though, postmodernism remains nebulous and “a slippery beast eluding our understanding.” (19) Postmodernism seems to take on a chameleon like quality: if seen as enemy, pomo is defined as monstrous; if positive, pomo is seen as savior! But this (re)making of pomo into what one wants it to be doesn’t help us to understand just what is postmodernism?

Smith notes that a historical thesis has been offered to the nature of pomo. This would be postmodern in the sense of ‘after’ modern. Attempts have even been made to link the advent of pomo to specific historical events – the student riots in 1968, the fall of the gold standard, the fall of the Berlin Wall, or 3:32 pm on July 15, 1972 when the Pruitt-Ingoe housing development (a prize winning machine for modern living) in St. Louis was dynamited as uninhabitable. Its hard though to link pomo to one single event (and more likely that these events evidence an overall gradual cultural shift that is affected by both modern and pomo influences). Smith proposes instead that postmodernism, whether monster or savior, is something that has come out of Paris and French philosophical influences. Smith contends that most will nod their heads at this point but have not gone so far as to really engage the philosophical underpinnings. For instance Smith states that Brian McLaren regularly tips his hat to the philosophical but then brushes it aside as ‘too far removed from everyday life’ or not really needed to understand ‘cultural postmodernity’ versus ‘philosophical postmodernism.’

We will explore the common heuristic distinction between ‘postmodernity’ and ‘postmodernism’ in the next post. What is important to note here is the ‘Schaefferian method’ that Smith proposes for his analysis of pomo. In The God Who is There and Escape From Reason Francis Schaeffer offers a sort of trickle-down theory of philosophical influence. In particular Schaeffer analyzed the shifts of modernity beginning with philosophy. Thus, for him cultural phenomena tend to reflect philosophical movements, not vice versa. Smith suggests that his analysis of philosophical postmodernism might serve as a needed prerequisite to McLaren’s analysis of postmodernity and proposes a Schaefferian strategy in which 1) he feels we need to return to the philosophy itself in order to understand pomo (“We take culture seriously by taking ideas seriously,” Smith states) and 2) he sees himself as Schaefferian in that he wishes to offer WAoP to practicioners of ministry and postmodern searchers instead of just philosophers alone. The three philosophers that he wishes to engage in WAoP are Derrida, Lyotard, and Foucault.

In particular he considers three slogans most often associated with these thinkers. 1) Derrida: ‘There is nothing outside the text,’ 2) Lyotard: ‘Postmodernity is incredulity towards metanarratives,’ and 3) Foucault: ‘Power is knowledge.’ These slogans are usually invoked as mutually exclusive to confessional Christian faith. How could someone reject metanarratives and still believe the Bible? How could someone who believes in God not believe in the reality of things outside of texts? How could someone who believes God is love hold to a Nietzschean ‘will to power?’ In response Smith suggests that: 1) these are really bumper sticker readings; claims made without a context that perpetuate a number of myths about pomo and 2) that these three claims have deep affinity with central Christian claims. As such Smith intends to not only introduce us to postmodern thought but to also critique common Christian misunderstandings of pomo as well as to show that postmodernity is a condition that Christians in many ways should welcome. “Something good can come out of Paris.” (22) Smith says next that he is replaying a Hebrew strategy, later adopted by Augustine, Calvin, and Kuyper: making off with Egyptian loot. Just as the Hebrews left Egypt with Egyptian gold to be put to use in the worship of Yahweh (though misdirected at times) so Christians can find resources in non-Christian thought that can be put to work for the furtherance of the kingdom. In this way Smith states that WAoP is “an attempt to make off with postmodern loot for the sake of the kingdom.” (23)

Question: Again, a pause for a quick question. Smith is rubbing up against a long standing debate in Christianity, that is, the place of philosophy in relationship to faith and theology. There has been for quite some time a dualism both in and out of the church. The attitude of many has been that since philosophers were supposed to somehow bracket their presuppositions that there could be no such thing as Christian philosophy. Alvin Plantinga has done much to change this view by arguing that the Christian philosopher has as much right to their ‘pre-philosophical opinions’ as anyone else. But, going back to Tertullian who asked “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?,” the church has had a long history of shunning ‘outside’ philosophy. Perhaps the irony here is that the Western Tertullian introduced the first trinitarian formula in Latin, tres personae, una substantia (three persons, one substance), but that it took interaction with the East and Greek philosophy (specifically ousia and hypostasis) to work out the orthodox trinitarianism of the Creeds. What also seems apparent is that the calls to keep theology/faith and philosophy separate come too late. We inherit a situation where they have already intertwined (though in the modern context the influence has been primarily in one direction in favor of philosophy).

Moving on, Smith suggests that while we should expect some areas of fundamental disagreement and need to critique some of their conclusions; Derrida, Lyotard, and Foucault can help us to recover some truths about the nature of the church that have been overshadowed by Christian appropriations of modernity. Smith states, “One of the reasons postmodernism has been the bogeyman for the Christian church is that we have become so thoroughly modern. But while postmodernism may be the enemy of our modernity, it can be the ally of our ancient heritage.” (23) Smith suggests that Derrida’s claim that there is ‘nothing outside the text’ can push us to recover the centrality of Scripture for understanding the world as a whole and the role of community in interpretation. He suggests that Lyotard’s claim of ‘incredulity toward metanarratives’ can help us to recover the narrative character of faith and the confessional nature of our narrative in a context where we find ourselves in a world of competing narratives. He suggests that Foucault’s claim that ‘power is knowledge’ can help us to realize the cultural power of formation and discipleship and the necessity of the church to “enact counterformation by counterdisciplines.” (23) In other words, Foucault can tell us something about being disciples.

In each chapter Smith begins with a discussion of a movie to illustrate some of the questions at stake. He then moves into a discussion of the author being considered that leads into implications for the church in both its theology and practice. Each chapter ends with a tour of a postmodern church in which he seeks to interact with those such as the emerging church movement that have attempted to respond to the postmodern condition. While sympathetic, Smith feels that emerging church proposals remain at times captive to modernist strategies. Smith argues instead that “the postmodern church could do nothing better than be ancient, that the most powerful way to reach a postmodern world is by recovering tradition, and that the most effective means of discipleship is found in liturgy.” (25) A truly thoughtful engagement with postmodernism will prompt us to look backwards, with one eye continually on ancient and medieval sources providing interaction with premodern ways of knowing, being, and doing. These ancient sources provide a useful countervoice to modernity (for instance the medieval scholar David Burrell has noted the affinity between pomo and medieval theology saying that ‘postmodern’ could be rendered ‘anti-antimedieval’). Smith emphasizes that this isn’t the attempt to recover some sort of a mythical pristine tradition or paleo-orthodoxy. Instead a persistent postmodernism should embrace a ‘radical orthodoxy’ in a postmodern mode that doesn’t shrink from an unapologetic dogmatics, and in which a thickly confessional church “draws on the particular (yet catholic) and ancient practices of the church’s worship and discipleship.” (25) In this way, his last chapter considers how the best way to be postmodern is to be ancient.

Apologetics and Witness in a Postmodern World

It is easy to assume that everything has changed with the advent of pomo. But this is not true. Pomo and modernity seem to exist together in ways that are continuous as well as discontinuous. Pomo is varied and pluriform yet it does not break cleanly with modernism at some points. The result of this is that in the postmodern context we often see the intensification of modernism, such as with notions of freedom, the use of technology, and epistemological relativism. Also, Derrida and Foucault confessed that they were both, in an important sense, Enlightenment thinkers. However, there is also an important sense in which they are critics of modernism. Despite the intensifications and continuity with modernism, pomo still breaks with modernity in important ways. One of Smith’s aims is to tease out these discontinuities. A second aim is to explore the continuities between pomo and orthodox Christian faith. But Smith realizes that recognizing such continuities will be resisted by many due to the presence of modern presuppositions which masquerade as ‘biblical’ Christianity.

For example, Smith notes that our faith, as well as our apologetics is compromised by modernism when we fail to appreciate the effects of sin on reason. When this is ignored we adopt an Enlightenment optimism about the role of ‘neutral’ reason in the reception of truth (and end up seeking to build a Christian America under the banner of natural law). Classical apologetics operates with a modern view of reason whereas presuppositional apologetics is postmodern in that it recognizes the role that presuppositions play in what counts as and is recognized as truth. Pomo can be a catalyst for the church to reclaim its faith, not as a system dictated by neutral reason, but as a story that needs ‘eyes and ears to hear.’ The responsibility of the church then is not rationalistic demonstration (as in much of contemporary apologetics) but kerygmatic proclamation (of the Word made flesh empowered by the Spirit, not the thin theism that a neutral reason yields). Smith states it starkly, “unless our apologetic proclamation begins from revelation, we have conceded the game to modernity.” (28) And ultimately, this new apologetic (which is ancient) is one that is proclaimed by a community’s way of life together. “The church doesn’t have an apologetic, it is an apologetic.” (29)

Question: Again, a pause for another important question Smith touches on. That is, what is the role of natural law and theology in the churches witness? It is understandable that one would want a common starting point or to emphasize ‘common grace’ in the public realm. But we also have to ask if such an approach not only leads to a watered down, lowest common denominator faith (what else can we expect when we are trying to make everyone happy) but whether it might also threaten particularity by obscuring important differences that need to be recognized. Is Smith correct that the ‘neutral reason’ that natural theology/law (ironically) presupposes produces a ‘thin theism?’ This is not to say there is no such thing as natural theology, general revelation, or common grace. But what is the role of these things when it seems that we interpret them by special revelation? What would happen if we didn’t appeal to a modern notion of ‘neutral reason,’ but recognized the perhaps necessary role of our presuppositions?

From Modern Christianity to a Postmodern Church

Smith goes on to say that if he is opposed to the epistemology of modern Christianity then he must also take issue with the ecclesiology (or lack thereof) that is part of the modernist version of Christian faith. Within modern Christianity the base ingredient is the individual. The church then is a collection or aggregate of individuals. When matters of faith are a private affair between the individual and God modern evangelicalism has a hard time articulating what role the church is to play – other than a place to meet other individuals who also have a private relationship with God. In this model what matters most is Christianity as a system of correct truth, not the church as a living community embodying its head. In the modern version, “Christianity becomes intellectualized rather than incarnate, commodified rather the site of genuine community.” (29) Smith, in reaction to this, confesses with the Apostles Creed that he believes in the ‘holy catholic church’ (little c) and that he believes the very notion of the ‘holy catholic church’ undoes the individualism endemic to much of modern evangelicalism. As Smith states, “we would do well to recover a much maligned formula: ‘There is no salvation outside the church.’” (30) This means not that some ecclesial body is the sole dispenser of grace but that there is no Christianity apart from the body of Christ (ie, the church). “The body is the New Testament’s organic model of community that counters the modernist emphasis on the individual.” (30) The church does not exist for ‘me’ and salvation is not simply a matter of intellectual mastery or emotional satisfaction. What we need is not so much answers but a reformation of the will and heart. For Smith the church is where God renews and transforms us; a place where the practices, sacraments, liturgy, life, and praxis of being the body form us in the image of Christ. Nothing is more countercultural than a community serving the Suffering Servant in a world of consumption and violence. Smith concludes, “the church will have this witness only when it jettisons its own modernity; in that respect postmodernism can be another catalyst for the church to be the church.” (30)

Final question: What is the nature of the church? This is a pressing concern and in my opinion Smith is on to something. But we need to ask: should we even bother trying to recover the formula ‘There is no salvation outside the church”? What are the role of practices, sacraments, and liturgy in forming us into Christlikeness? How does the church become incarnate and communal rather than intellectualized and commodified?

Pomo 101 [1]: Introduction

I have a confession to make…but you may already know this. But I still feel like I need to get this off my chest.

Here goes: I’m…a…postmodern.

OK, I feel better now and that wasn’t so bad but I understand the reader may have some questions. For instance, why would anyone, much less myself (someone who claims to be a historically orthodox Christian of the Baptist family), claim the label ‘postmodern’. A common conception is that postmodernism does not mix well at all with Baptist identity and can having nothing to do with a biblical, historically orthodox faith. Those who are of this opinion can tend to get wildly apologetic concerning postmodernism and I have more than one of these types of conversations. But then there are also those who see that perhaps…maybe…postmodernism is not the anti-gospel and are willing to listen for a bit. However, as commonly occurs, having been reared in modern, Western Christianity (in my context some part of evangelicalism) the hearing is limited and there remains a sort of mild to moderate allergic reaction to postmodernism (call it epistemic sneezing and coughing). And then there are those who might think with Moe, from the Simpsons, as he explains to Homer that being postmodern simply means “weird for the sake of weird.”

Given the general conceptions (or misconceptions) of postmodernism in the church, especially that of evangelicalism, I can see why some would be concerned about not only me calling myself ‘postmodern’ but also my use of postmodern insights and ideas in theology.  I know for a fact that (sadly) some have seen the study and use of postmodernism as a reason to break fellowship with me. (Just recently I became aware that a facebook friend of mine from my days at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary saw it as reason enough to ‘defriend’ me. And it’s possible that many church ministerial search committees may see this and mark me off their list as well.) Still others out there may be wondering what’s up with me, why am I playing with fire, so to speak? Still others (though far more rare perhaps) might inquire in sincerity about what positives a postmodern perspective might offer. I don’t know where whoever is reading this at this point in time falls in this spectrum, but whatever your present opinions about postmodernism, if you are one of the sincere ones, you have my thanks. But even if you are inclined to write postmodernism off from the start I would ask that you be willing to entertain the possibility that all may not be as it seems (or as you may have been told). My aim here is to embark on series of posts concerning the subject of postmodernism and what possibilities it may offer the church in its incarnational presence in the world.

This post is intended as a simple introduction to the series. Thus we won’t get into anything too deep right now. Before I give a general, tentative outline of how I have the series outlined at this point let’s visit some points about the discussion over postmodernism that Myron Penner notes in his introductory chapter to Christianity and the Postmodern Turn. Penner suggests that in the discussion over the pros and cons and the good and bad of postmodernism there are some things that become evident. The first of these is that there are generally two polar opposite positions when it comes to postmodernism. There are those for it and see value in the postmodern turn for articulating a more robust gospel. And there are those (as I already mentioned) against it who see the postmodern turn as a clear and present danger to the integrity of the Christian faith. Penner notes that the first group (those for pomo) tend to believe that the detractors just don’t get it and are too blinded by their modern prejudices to engage postmodernism meaningfully. The critics of pomo, however, tend to suggest that the champions of postmodernism are sliding down the slippery slope of heresy and relativism with even the mere mention of so called postmodern ‘insights’.

The second thing that becomes clear is that Penner says both sides are like ships passing in the night – they do not seem to refer to the same thing as postmodernism. What this means of course is that what is rejected as postmodern and anathema to the gospel may not be at all what those described as postmodern actually subscribe too.  A third and final thing that becomes clear is that despite the fact that Christian responses to postmodernism occurs in the form of a dichotomy (one is either for or against it) the actual reality is actually more complex than the dichotomy of opinions does justice too. The fact of the matter is that the postmodern turn itself is varied and complex such that it defies any sort of reductionist description. In fact, just as N.T. Wright notes (for example in The New Testament and the People of God, pg 244) that in terms of the historical context of the New Testament and first century Judaism, that there really wasn’t a monolithic first century Judaism, but ‘Judaisms’ (pl)…it may more correct to speak not of postmodernism as a singular monolith, but of ‘postmodernisms’ (pl) in many different expressions and dimensions (and indeed, as we may discover, some of these varieties may actually be more hyper-modern than properly post-modern).

A major discussion partner on the way will be James K. A. Smith and his book, Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism? I highly recommend this book as a very accessible introduction to postmodernism that isn’t too long (only 152 pages). Smith describes the book as “French lessons” for the church in which he discusses three of the major postmodern philosophers – Jacques Derrida, Jean-Francois Lyotard, and Michel Foucault. One of the positives (I think) is that Smith approaches postmodernism critically, but yet as an opportunity to rethink the shape of the church as well as recover many of the ancient sources lost in modernity. However, I want to extend the conversation beyond Smith’s discussion of Derrida, Lyotard, and Foucault. Therefore, I am also including discussions of Martin Heideger, Emmanuel Levinas, Hans Georg Gadamer, and Paul Ricoeur to broaden out the conversation.

Here is a tentative outline of how the posts are scheduled at this point:

Pomo 101 [1]: Introduction (this post)

Pomo 101 [2]: Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism? (Smith chapter 1)

Pomo 101 [3]: As the (Postmodern) World Turns (a discussion of the general philosophical ‘turns’ of postmodernism along with the premodern and modern philosophical backdrop – if I’m brave enough I’ll attempt a ‘definition’ of postmodernism)

Pomo 101 [4]: Postmodernism, Science, and Biblical Truth

Pomo 101 [5]: Heideger and Ontotheology

Pomo 101 [6]: Derrida and Deconstruction (Smith chapter 2)

Pomo 101 [7]: Lyotard and Metanarratives (Smith chapter 3)

Pomo 101 [8]: Foucault and Power (Smith chapter 4)

Pomo 101 [9]: Levinas and the Other

Pomo 101 [10]: Gadamer, Ricoeur, and Hermeneutics

Pomo 101 [11]: Postmodernism and the Church – part 1 (Smith chapter 5)

Pomo 101 [12]: Postmodernism and the Church – part 2

You might think that postmodernism is just weird, but maybe it also holds some potential…some possibilities…some promise. My invitation is to all who are willing to make the journey together and see what happens and where this will take us.