I’ve been away for a while — work and other commitments have limited by blogging overall, and sadly my availability for Evangel has been one of the victims of that. I stopped by yesterday (Friday, 17 July 2010) to see what’s going on here, and I found Christopher Benson’s piece “Postmodernism 101”, which included what Christopher called “my bibliography for all pomo-curious Christians.” It was an interesting mix of titles (I admit: I have not read all of them).
It came up that Phil Johnson, my friend and benefactor, has written an intro to postmodernism as well — a 20-paged paper titled, You Can’t Handle the Truth: Addressing the Tolerance of Postmodernism, which is classic Phil. He cuts to the chase in the second paragraph of this transcription by saying this:
I’ll tell you plainly: I’m convinced that postmodernism is inherently incompatible with biblical Christianity. In fact, the most essential elements of the postmodernist perspective are hostile to the fundamental truth-claims of Scripture, and for that reason, I would argue that a postmodernist mind-set involves some positively sinful ways of thinking.Now, after that, you have to imagine that Phil either needs to substantiate his conclusion in the following 19 pages, or he will merely rant. It’s an easy read covering a field which does not have many books which are easy to read, and I commend it to you, the reader, to discover for yourself what Phil does there.
Christopher says blankly about this paper:
Phil Johnson’s position on postmodernism is a conversation-stopper, and not unlike Christians who contend that the great atheists (Nietzsche, Marx, Freud) are a waste of time. To read them, we are told, is to be corrupted. I think there are promises and perils with atheism and postmodernism. Our charge is to exercise loving discernment.Really? This is a fantastic piece of news — because it frames Phil as a book-hating fundie (alleviating him of the effort of reading all those books he reads, and alleviating the reader of the responsibility to listen to Phil).
This week, Phil underwent back surgery and is in a lot of pain. So in lieu of his response, I’ll fill in for a few pages to attempt to offer Christopher a course correction.
First is this, as I said in the comments of Christopher’s post: unless Christopher thinks that new Christians with weak faith should read the books he listed unassisted, even if they have little or no access to decent (let alone robust) Christian discipleship, he’s not as far away from Phil’s position as he would like to frame himself. Listen: there’s a massive gap between “loving discernment” and “blanket endorsement”, and Chris has definitely crossed into the latter category — by essentially demeaning someone who is willing to rigorously point out the non-negotiable distinctions between postmodernism and Christian faith. In Chris’s view, one is a “conversation-stopper” if one thinks that postmodern philosophy and reasoning is hostile to the truth claims of scripture.
I think Christopher is being another kind of conversation stopper, and I can substantiate that with two points.
Number 1: notice that Christopher dismisses Phil’s paper rather than respond to it. 20 pages of text get dismissed with less than 50 words, and he moves on. No sense engaging: Phil is the one who has stopped the conversation — by telling us extensively what he thinks. He must hate books.
Number 2: consider this diagram:
This is my own invention for the sake of this conversation — I hope using pictures doesn’t subvert the use of words to make a point. The Green area is “GENERAL REVELATION” — that is, it’s the world of rote objects which frankly we share with non-believers. We have that in common with them, and this is a key issue which, sadly, Christopher would not credit to Phil.
The question for us as believers — and by “believers” I mean “people who believe something about ‘GENERAL REVELATION’ which includes calling Jesus ‘Christ’ and not ‘dead guy we can’t find and who maybe didn’t really exist’” — is “what explanation of ‘GENERAL REVELATION’ do we accept?”
See: historically — since at least Paul and Jesus, but maybe as far back as Moses or maybe even Abel and Adam — those with faith in the God of Abraham, the God who spoke creation into being, believe that God’s word trumps our explanations of how the world works. That’s the Yellow are in the diagram: God’s explanation of all things is “SPECIAL REVELATION”, which we receive from Him, and the things we see are therefore informed by him.
But there are competing explanations — for example, the Serpent said, “Hath God really said?” (He didn’t speak KJV, btw: he lisped like the snake that he is). Cain was jealous and slew Abel — because of course that solves his problem that he presented an unacceptable sacrifice to God. Joseph’s brothers sold him into slavery and lied to their father about it. The Book of Judges stands as a monument to what people do when they do what is right in their own eyes. King Saul is a proud heir to that tradition.
I mention it to point out what I have cleverly charted as the Gray area in the diagram — an area of assertions for the sake of this discussion have called “atheist assertions” to keep the question of po-modernity at bey for a moment to make this point. In the “Gray” area, certainly: they have encountered the world we live in, and undoubtedly something they say about it will be true. If there’s nothing they say about the world which is true, they’re just babbling idiots and we really can dismiss them. If they can’t get the color of the sky right, or the idea that the world is full of suffering right, or the fact that there are other people in the world right, etc., there’s no basis for discussion.
The problem is not the Gray area that turns up in the domain of “GENERAL REVELATION”: it’s the Gray area that turns up apart from “GENERAL REVELATION” and is contrary to the Yellow area — that is, it says something that the Yellow area does not. The problem that Christopher has is dealing honestly rather than “charitably” with this problem.
In “charity” — that is, charity to post-modernism — Christopher says that the postmoderns are “all too true all too much of the time.” What he ignores is that this is to their condemnation, not to their credit. Perhaps a review of Romans 1 & 2 is in order, but this post is already too long. What incriminates the non-believer is that he really does have all he needs to see the attributes and decrees of God insofar as they convict mortal man of sin.
What Phil is concerned about — and what we should all be concerned about — is the Gray area which sticks out like a sore thumb which are the actual distinctives of the movement. They are not in congruence or agreement with the distinctives of Christian thought and faith — and we should be clear-throated about pointing this out.
Do we agree with all people some of the time? Of course we do — we’re human, and the world is a real place which God made for all people, where it rains not he just and the unjust. We have some things existential in common. What we cannot do, however, is seek to make the antithetical aspects of human interpretations of any set of doctrines — be they postmodern, postcritical, baptist, pentecostal, presbyterian or Catholic — somehow compatible with the faith.
Christopher’s endorsement of these books whitewashes this problem with an abject lack of interest for those who are not yet prepared to use discern for themselves the difference between common human experience and God’s revelation as a regulating truth. His dismissal of Phil’s attempt to point out this key issue is not charitable in the least, and I think he should at least revise his remarks to better frame his objections — if not apologize outright for being flat-out wrong.