Articles and book excerpts used in and referred to on Issues, Etc.
Postmodernism & Sacred Scripture
Opportunities for Clarity on the Question of Christ & Culture
by Dean O. Wenthe
Calling for distinct and clear faith for Christians living in a postmodern culture, it is argued that the church is not only in need of solid catechesis of Scripture, but of firm understanding and interpretation of the dangerous cultural forces incompatible with Christ and his Church.
WHAT DOES IT MEAN IN OUR DAY TO BE A CHRISTIAN (OR A LUTHERAN) in light of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America convention at Philadelphia in the summer of 1997 and at Denver in 1999 - or, even, a human being in light of MTV? To not know who you are can be dangerous and even fatal. If I could use an analogy: We had a cocker spaniel whom we loved. Her name was Heidi. If there are animals in heaven, Heidi will he there only by virtue of grace. She never learned who she was. She could not recognize that she was our pet - we, her masters. This mistaken identity became evident when the Ft. Wayne police department used the dormitory adjacent to our home to train three German shepherds. When Heidi saw these three dogs on her territory, she did not realize that in the order of the canine world, German shepherds are higher than cocker spaniels. She attacked! Only through the quick intervention of an officer was she spared from sheol or, by graces from an early arrival in hashamim. For human beings to know who they are requires understanding. And to understand one must discriminate between various claims. In short, one must interpret.
There is a pressing quest in our time to locate a point from which to begin the interpretive process, i.e.. where is there solid ground that will permit one to begin rightly? Many within the Christian community would quickly answer that we must begin with Sacred Scripture. And we might say simply "Blessed is the one who simply follows its light:' At the same time such a response would be simplistic.
The moment that our inquiring pilgrim enters the world of Biblical studies in an effort to permit that light to shine more brightly, the more he or she will become aware of the plethora of interpretations and counterclaims that whirl about the Biblical text. Most are aware that modern interpreters have taken some breathtaking and bizarre turns in their construals of meaning as attendance at the Society of Biblical Literature will verify. Could it be that the majority of interpreters of the Bible today are no longer certain about who they ate vis-à-vis the Biblical text?
This essay seeks to advance several points for consideration. First, it will overview the topsy-turvy world of interpretation and hermeneutics in our postmodern setting. Here it will be seen that the only certainty - the one cardinal doctrine, if you will - is that there is no solid ground.
Second, it will suggest that this state of affairs is directly derived from moves in the larger world of philosophical hermeneutics and literary analysis, a condition that is by no means novel in the church's use of Sacred Scripture. Put differently, as present as the shadows and practices of historical-critical methodology remain, the shift signaled by postmodern hermeneutical models has constituted a watershed. It is important for confessional communities such as The Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod to map that shift. Indeed, in the best of postmodern authors there is a compelling historical critical logic that has shed light on some of the assumptions which were previously concealed by methodological opaqueness. The clarity of what becomes a hermeneutic of suspicion and deconstruction profiles with fresh sharpness the real character of what is happening when the postmodern reader encounters any text, whether it be Sacred Scripture or non-canonical literature.
Third, after a review of the academy this paper will venture that there is a parallel hermeneutic in the marketplace which is compatible with postmodern convictions and far more dangerous in its power to catechize the typical person in our society away from a Biblical understanding of who they are. The power of this market place hermeneutic has stormed even the sanctuaries of the church (or, so it will be suggested).
Finally, the claims of Sacred Scripture will be urged as the claims of Christ which are radically and foundationally critical of postmodern hermeneutics, In other words, ours is a time when Christ stands over against culture in a manner that is explicit and evident for those formed by the history of Israel and the life of Jesus. This means that God's people should be catechized with a capacity to think critically and analyze the pervasive assumptions of our day, assumptions deeply corrosive of our confession (i.e., like the saints in every epoch, they must be prepared to stand with Christ over against the prevailing culture). The contrast between Christian thought and late twentieth-century culture will, under God's grace, offer a spectacular opportunity to confess Christ for the Christian will increasingly stand out as a spectacle to behold - so distinct will his or her self-understanding and convictions be.
The Postmodern Academy
If one walks the halls of the academy, it is striking that T.S. Eliot, one who knew those environs well, could frame descriptions so prophetic of our present context. In his play The Family Reunion, Harry is asked by Agatha to clarify his comments so that they can be understood. To this Harry answers:
The sudden solitude in a crowded desert
In a thick smoke, many creatures moving
Without direction, for no direction
Leads anywhere but round and round in that vapour -
Without purpose and without principle of conduct
In flickering intervals of light and darkness;
The partial anaesthesia of suffering without feeling
And partial observation of one own automotion
While the slow stain sinks deeper through the skin
Tainting the flesh and discolouring the bone -
This is what matters, but it is unspeakable.
Untranslatable: I talk in general terms
Because the particular has no language.1
One could hardly make the matter plainer could he?! The particular has no language." This answer is an apt portrayal of the postmodern hermeneutical landscape. All one needs do is look at the three books of Anthony Thiselton, The Two Horizons: New Testament Hermeneutics and Philosophical Description (1980), New Horizons in Hermeneutics: The Theory and Practice of Transforming Biblical Reading (1992), and most recently Interpreting God and the Postmodern Self (1995) to gain an informed perspective on the vast landscape of issues and proposed directions. Many of the prominent names come (as indicated) from the larger circles of philosophy and literature: Roland Barthes, Jacques Derrida, Stanly Fish, Hans-Georg Gadamer, Jurgen Habermas, Paul Ricouer, Richayd Rorty-to mention only select authors. Similarly, certain schools of thought take on labels: contextual pragmatism, deconstructionism, feminism, liberation theology, power-interests, semiotics, speech acts, structuralism, etc. So congested has the field become that Eerdmans recently published a group of essays with the title Disciplining Hermeneutics: Interpretation in Christian Perspective. To summarize this literature and the contemporary landscape, David Lyon, professor at Queen's University states: "Only tribal truths and tribal decisions about right and wrong can be made." 2
This view "that all truth is tribal:" of course, radically marginalizes any claim. The roads by which the theorists arrive at such a position are many. Roland Barthes (1915-1980), for example, argues that the result of semiotic theory is to unmask the status of codes which are assumed to mirror the world" as no more than particular habits of minds or cultural constructs." 3 This means that people assume that language reflects the external world. In fact, it is argued, this is deceptive for there is no possibility of objectivity. Its claims are culture bound and, ultimately, absolutely arbitrary. The logic of this position leads to a view that everything remains "intralinguistic' i.e., a text does not describe states of affairs about the external world because the meanings are endlessly fluid and plural.
To pick another theorist, Jaques Derrida's deconstruction is explicit. He has canonized the principles of arbitrariness and difference as devices that accurately deconstruct every claim. Every statement invites a plurality of interpretations. Possible meanings multiply. In his view the evident arbitrariness of interpretations and their dramatic differences mean that no hold on an external and objective state of affairs can be maintained. In Harry's words: "The particular has no language." Barthes and Derrida epistomize postmodern assumptions. As Kevin J. Vanhoozer writes:
There is nothing outside the play of writing, nothing that guarantees that our words refer to the world. The loss of a transcendent signifier-the Logos-thus follows hard upon the death of the author. The result is a textual gnosticism that refines to locate determinate meaning in the literal sense. Every truth claim is dissolved in a sea of indeterminancy.4
This portrayal of language is sometimes attached to social-critical reductionism, i.e., every literary document is ultimately an expression of social position and legitimization. Robert B. and Mary P. Coote have applied such a lens to the Bible in their book Power, Politics, and the Making of the Bible, (Fortress 1990). What happens in their book is the virtual replacement of the Scriptures' claims with the purported positioning of the political forces that required such a text. Consider these exegetical adventures: (a) The Yahwist was "designed to appeal for the loyalty of tribal sheikhs in the Negeb and Sinai. It is David's buttress against Egypt in the south and therefore suggests that Israel's early chiefs, the Patriarchs were southern sheikhs like themselves."5 (b) Or, when the texts describe the "fear of God" they remind us "that like all the privileged, Jeroboam feared himself in other men and hence projected this fear, in the guise of cultic and judicial respect", or the "fear of God" as public policy.6 Hence, the fear of God becomes a nervous politician's effort to handle his insecurities. (c) And, disingenuously, the beautiful Messianic psalm-Psalm 2-is described as a "raucous salute to the Davidic imperialism."7
One, of course, can see in such moves the sorts of historicism that have often been less frankly acknowledged in scholarly circles. An interesting point is raised by Jon Levenson, a Jewish Professor at Harvard, about the consequences of such reductions for divinity schools:
Why, a dean might ask, should we devote a second appointment to the history of the Bible as scripture when we lack even one appointment in the history of the scriptures and classics of most of the worlds other religious traditions? To answer with the claim that the Bible is a foundational document for our culture is problematic.... To simply replace an authoritative book with an authoritative culture founded upon that book is still to make a claim that goes beyond the limits of historical description. Attention to a culture requires no less justification than attention to a book.8
In other words, when one pushes the sort of historicism that informed much historical critical investigation, the ultimate end may be to close the doors of the divinity school or to change it to a center for multicultural studies. To privilege the Bible or the culture which it shaped is simply not warranted for there are other canons and cultures which - from historicism's perspective - merit equal attention.
One could spend weeks in mapping the various spins that postmodern theorists put on the interpretive process. But our interests are more specific, namely how do such speculations filter into the fabric of everyday life? Does the inquiring pilgrim on the street meet these views and take them seriously? The answer I would submit is: yes and no, with the balance increasingly shifting from the latter to the former. More and more these views ate expressed in forums that the average person must pass through.
Postmodern Hermeneutics in the Marketplace
Two examples are given here. First, the logic of postmodernism has begun to be more publicly owned by central and defining institutions of our society. Hence in the University of Chicago's Record for October 23, 1997, there is a paper by John J. Mearsheimer, R. Wendell Harrison Distinguished Service Professor. The piece is entitled "The Aims of Education at Chicago:' He writes with respect to the university's aims:
I believe that this university has three main goals in educating its undergraduates. First, it aims to teach you to think critically. Second, the University seeks to broaden your intellectual horizons. And third, it tries to promote self-awareness in each of you. 9
Now these might seem somewhat generic and general until one reads about what are termed the "Non-aims of Education at Chicago." In Professor Mearsheimer's words:
There is a powerful bias at the University of Chicago against providing you with the truth.. to put the matter in slightly different terms, we expect you to figure out the truth, if there is one.10
Not only is there a powerful imperative at Chicago to stay away from teaching the truth, the University also makes little effort to provide you with moral guidance. Indeed, it is a remarkable amoral institution.11
The admission that neither truth nor morality are aims of the University is remarkable. Indeed, the same article spends some time, explaining how anachronistic Rockefeller Chapel has become, it evidently being the setting for the lectures. This lecture is a precis of where many prestigious universities now plant their feet. The hiring of a proponent of infanticide, Professor Peter Singer, by Princeton University as a professor of "ethics" demonstrates how far the academy is prepared to go in its abandonment of that which is good and true.
Alongside of this intellectual nihilism is a more pervasive and persuasive parallel which we will call "the marketplace hermeneutic of postmodernism." In an article entitled Why the Devil Takes VISA (written for the Pew Charitable Trusts and later appearing in Christianity Today) Rodney Clapp describes the grammar of contemporary consumerism. Its ubiquitous character is felt by all of us:
But consumerism is much more pervasive, and much less obvious than smog or billboards. Look harder, and you can see it at work all around - shaping attitudes, bending behaviors, grinding an endless series of lenses through which to see and experience the world in a particular way. You see it at the medical clinic, where doctors must pump a certain number of patients through their doors to meet required profit quotas of their H.M.O. You see it on the calendar defined not so much by holy days as by a string of commercially hyped holidays.12
The key in the catechesis of consumerism is choice. The study for the Pew Charitable Trust points out that the rise of choice within and between churches has a parallel in early twentieth century revivalism:
By underscoring the importance of making a decision for Christ, Charles Finney and other revivalists helped along the sanctification of choice, a key component of today's consumerism. Revivalism encouraged raptuous feelings and a malleable self that is open time and again to changes of conversion and reconversion. This was simply translated into a "propensity" toward "conversion" to new products, a variety of brands and fresh experiences. In fact peddlers were fixtures on the fringes of revivalist meetings, where they hawked counsel and medicines promising transformation of the buyer's lives. Modern advertising grew directly out of the patent medicine trade.13
Along with the sanctification of choice, this hermeneutic of the human being sees dissatisfaction and the manufacture of endless felt-needs as central to who we are.
Affluence and consumer-orientation have moved us well beyond the undeniable efficiencies and benefits of refrigeration and indoor plumbing. Instead, in a fun-house world of ever-proliferating wants and exquisitely unsatisfied desire, consumption entails most profound the cultivation of pleasure. the pursuit of novelty, and the chasing after illusory experiences associated with material goods.14
Thus, insatiability becomes a fundamental function of the human being.
The consumer is nurtured in insatiability. He or she is never to be satisfied - at least, not for long. The consumer is tutored that people basically consist of unmet needs that can be appeased only by commodified goods and experiences.15
If you examine this marketplace hermeneutic you'll note how it is crafted for a radical individualism. Family, friendship and commitments to mote than the moment of acquisition are minimal or nonexistent. But before critically addressing this hermeneutic, I'd like to suggest that more than the academy's version of postmodernism, this way of understanding who we are has had and continues to have devastating results on our use of the Sacred Scriptures. A very rigorous and penetrating analysis of just this point is provided by Philip D. Kenneson and James L. Street in their recent study Selling Out the Church: The Dangers of Church Marketing. (1997) One of the first points they make is how consumerist thinking robs the Christian vision of central commitments:
Consumers are more aware than ever of the enormous power they wield. This realization has created an entirely new way of thinking rooted in the convention that other people ought to be prepared to satisfy our desires. Thus friendship and marriages increasingly reflect the consumer orientation with their easy dissolution often viewed on a par with changing brands.16
The casual manner in which many members change congregations or church confessions need not be mentioned. It is pervasive in our ethos as well. When one views the entire world through the marketing lens, the notion of gift disappears. So, instead of God's grace, the consumer chooses his religion around the notion of a self-interested exchange! Thus, Pelagian categories submerge the free grace of God. Our relationship with God is not simply self-interested exchange. God's most precious gift is his presence. God is not a means to some other end that we desire. Rather God's presence is its own end and its own reward. Thus, marketing categories corrupt the church's embodied witness to the mercy and grace of the Triune God. They reduce this relationship to transactional moments that are discrete and separate from God's character and our nature. If the very character of marketing relationships is impersonal and dehumanizing, does it make sense for the church to adopt a marketing orientation in the name of Christian outreach? Surely the answer is an emphatic "No!" Put another way, when the norma normans - the chief authority - is no longer Sacred Scripture, but the current felt needs of people who believe their choices are sanctified. then we are back in the Garden of Eden with Adam choosing the tree of death.
Once the church's fundamental identity has been constructed as a business whose purpose it is to serve its constituency by attempting to meet its insatiable and undisciplined desires and needs, then the church is no longer in a position to describe the Trinue God of Sacred Scripture.17
As Inagrace Diettrich has written:
The theological understandings of the church and its calling must serve as the criteria by which the discoveries of the social sciences are critically analyzed and utilized. Thus effectiveness must be in the service of faithfulness, and indeed, when considered in isolation may lead to unfaithfulness.18
My thesis then is that the distance from the academy's postmodern hermeneutic to the marketplace's reduction of a human being to a string of discrete consuming moments is very short. As one scholar has put it:
To give the whole story away to match what this year's market says the unchurched want is to have the people who know least about the faith determine most about its expression.19
The Challenge to Postmodern Deconstruction
Sacred Scripture challenges postmodernism in a fundamental and foundational manner. Over against the fragmentation of knowing whether it be epistemological, where every truth is tribal and there is no language for the particular, or economic, where we are reduced to discrete moments of acquisition, the prophets and apostles present an inclusive claim and view of reality that will not permit the bifurcation or division of the cosmos into a meta-realm of ideas and a foreign realm of the flesh.
Sacred Scripture calls our broken culture and schizophrenic habits to a unity and wholeness that is true and redemptive. This unity is anchored in the Incarnation of the Logos, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity. An outline of that wholeness would include:
A. The Unity of the Flesh
1. The Fatherhood of Adam and Abraham (Genesis 1-2; 12-22)
2. The Genealogies (Genesis 5-10; Matthew 1)
3. The Nations (Genesis 11)
4. The Unity of Humanity (Psalm 104)
B. The Unity of the Cosmos (Psalm 19)
1. Genesis 1-2
2. Isaiah 65
3. Revelation 1-21
C. The Unity of Time (Psalm 136)
2. Present - "Behold! I am with you always to the end of the age." (Matthew 28:20)
3. Christ's Return (Mark 13)
D. The Unity of Human Significance
1. Psalm I
2. There is joy in heaven over one sinner who repents. (Luke 15:7-10)
E. The Unity of Christology-Baptismal water, Word of life, Eucharistic presence
1. Colossians 1
2. Romans 5
3. Revelation 1-22
My conclusion and thesis in light of this brief overview is tri-partite. First, that the deconstructionism of postmodern hermeneutics has followed the grammar of historical-critical methodology to its final and sterile end. Like the decision to peel layer by layer through an onion, now there is no core left. There is no connection with the world. This forthright portrayal provides a confessional community with a new opportunity to articulate. The Scriptural portrait of meaningful language which is grounded in creation and incarnation.
Second, it has been suggested that a more subtle and powerful deconstruction is occurring in the marketplace where by the language of choice, felt-needs, and transactional models are reducing human beings to unconnected moments of acquisition. While the relationship of this mode of understanding to the theorists of the academy is varied, they complement one another in removing a coherent and meaningful narrative rendering of human character and purpose.
Finally, it has been suggested that there may be, under God's grace, a unique window for the church to articulate its vision with fresh clarity and precision (i.e., Christ and those who are his will stand radically and fundamentally over against culture).
The way we think about ourselves, about our children, about our parents, about our spouses, about our work, about our play - all will be markedly and definitively different. By God's grace, we will confess Christ not in the enthusiasms of out private, choice-driven religiosity, but in the catholic creeds and confessions which expound the Christ whom the prophets and apostles describe. When that Christology is confessed, then our every moment is defined as being significant for it is lived coram Deo - before the holy and blessed Trinity - who defines beginning and end and who offers freely and fully in the crucified Messiah, the life that is whole and real and forever. May God grant such clarity of confession and such wholeness in Christ to each of us in this fragmented epoch - and may that wholeness reflect the light of Christ's presence in the Lutheran Confession of the twenty-first century.
Notes 1 Eliot 235.
2 Lyon 103.
3 Thiselton 82.
4 Levenson 109.
5 Levenson 111-12.
6 Levenson 112.
7 Levenson 112.
8 Vanhoozer 136.
9 Mearsheimer 5.
10 Mearsheimer 5.
11 Mearsheimer 5.
12 Clapp 20.
13 Clapp 22.
14 Clapp 23.
15 Clapp 28.
16 Kenneson and Street 39.
17 Kenneson and Street 72.
18 Kenneson and Street 130.
19 Kenneson and Street 48.
Clapp, Rodney. (1996) "Why the Devil Takes VISA " in Christianity Today. October 7, 1996. 20-28.
Eliot, T. S. (1971) T. S. Eliot: The Complete Poems and Plays. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World. 235.
Kenneson, Philip D. and James L. Street. (1997) Selling Out the Church: The Danger of Church Marketing. Nashville: Abingdon. 39, 48, 72, 130.
Levenson, Jon D. (1993) The Hebrew Bible, the Old Testament, and Historical Criticism. Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Pr. 109-112.
Lyon, David. (1997) "Sliding in All Directions? Social Hermeneutics from Suspicion to Retrieval." in Disciplining Hermeneutics: Interpretation in Christian Perspective. Foreword by Roger Lundin. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans 103.
Mearsheimer,John J. (1997) "The Aims of Education Address" in The University of Chicago Record. October 23, 1997.5.
Thiselton, Anthony C. (1992) New Horizons in Hermeneutics: The Theory and Practice of Transforming Biblical Reading. Grand Rapids: Zondervan 82.
Vànhoozer, Ken J. (1997) "The Spirit of Understanding: Special Revelation and General Hermeneutics." in Disciplining Hermeneutics: Interpretation in Christian Perspective. Foreword by Roger Lundin. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans 136.
Management Techniques Incorporated
has provided this article archive expressly for Issues, Etc. The articles in
this archive have been formatted converted for internet use, by Management
Contact MTI webmaster