Monday, August 01, 2011

Christianity and Postmodernity

Friends of mine at my church periodically give me books or recommend DVDs on "postmodernism." Yes, I can hear you saying … but a bit late in the day, no? After all, haven’t we been talking about postmodernism for … well … a generation? Is there a new interpretation (perhaps the post-modern equivalent of Jackson Lear’s No Place of Grace or Marshall Berman’s All that is Solid, to galvanize discussion?) Unfortunately … no and so that is not the subject on which I will be commenting. Instead, I thought I’d take some time to break from my normal commentary on Canadian subjects to comment on Christian ”takes” on the postmodern.

I am currently reading Graham Johnston’s Preaching to a Postmodern World, a book recommended to me by a good friend and wonderful man. I’ve not yet really had chance to discuss this book with my friend but I am not all that impressed. There a several things to note by way of introduction to this text, Christian approaches to postmodernism, and my engagement with them.

First, honesty in advertising: I’m Christian. I attend Middle Sackville Baptist Church, a self-identifying evangelical church. I’m involved, I’m an usher, teller, facilitator of corporate prayer, on the “prayer team” and I do the odd shift (with another friend) in the Sunday morning nursery. What I say, then, I say as a person who might be described as an adult convert to born-again Christianity.

Second, the Christian approach to postmodernism confuses me. In fact, I cannot quite figure out why Christians are all that concerned about it. Postmodernism is, of course, an artistic and architectural movement that may have some validity in culture as a whole in Canada, the US, and some other western and former communist countries. But, it is a contested concept. Christian texts on postmodernism seem to treat it as a fait accompli: “postmodernism says …” or “postmodernism suggests …” instead of as the deeply debated and thoroughly contested concept that it is. No one writing these texts, for instance, seem to have read (or, if they have read, paid any attention to) such important texts as Mike Davis, City of Quartz or Frederic Jameson, Postmodernism or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. The result is that the Christian takes on postmodernism that I have read tend to be very one-sided.

And, here is where I get even more confused. This text is not a bad example of Christian writing. It is, in places, persuasive, articulate, caring, concerned, and direct. It is painfully honest and there is no doubt that the author has read far more Christian writing on postmodernism than I have (or, perhaps, will). The author is no dewey-eyed apologist for modernity. In fact, he rejects Christian efforts to find a rapprochement with the legacies of modernity. Nor, overtly, does this text draw sectarian distinctions, something to which too many Christians (perhaps including me) fall prey. In short, there is much to recommend this book.

It also has its problems and one problem is the relationship between postmodernity and modernity. Everything postmodern is, in the author’s eyes, bad. It is relativism run awol. It is individualism become hedonism. It is a-moral. Its denizens are media junkies. Just about everything you can think of that is bad is laid at the feed of postmodernity and this, in my view, is problem number one and confusion number two. I think postmodernity (whatever it might be) is problematic, but gee … is everything about it wrong? Did not Foucault’s analysis of power have something important to offer? Did not Derrida’s exposure of the metaphysics lying at the heart of rationality have something worthwhile to say?

The problem is more then a lack of balance. The problem is one of a perspective that the author cannot seem to escape. The author reads postmodernism using the language of modernity. The result is that his assessment of postmodernity is “a mile wide and an inch deep.” The author is focused on the individual and the effects of postmodernism on individualism … as if postmodern writers were talking about a modern subject. We can argue whether or not the postmodern subject is of any validity another day. The truth of the matter is that Foucault, for instance, is trying to think the subject in a way that elides modern conception of individualism. By returning to the individual (over and over again), Johnston can only read postmodernism through the lens that its key thinkers had already thrown away.

I’ll make my point even more bluntly: Johnston assumes that postmodernists are talking about the same thinking, acting, free-will individual who attracted the attention of modern thinkers. But since they are not, he cannot really grapple with what they are saying because he cannot really understand it. And, because he is trying to understand the postmodern through the conceptual framework of modernity, he  himself is trapped in a descriptive modern language that was disregarded a generation ago by the likes of Foucault and Derrida.

He falls prey to the same problem with regard to texts. Derrida never said, for instance, texts were meaningless or could mean whatever one wanted. What he said was that rationalist discourse was sustained not by reason or empirical reality but rhetoric that disguised the metaphysics needed to sustain argument. Texts were not without meaning. The instability of language created multiple meanings. These two things are different, but again Johnston cannot “get” this, because within his framework there either is meaning or there is not. Texts either communicate an authorial intention or they do not and if they do not they become meaningless .

I can agree with much of what Johnston says, but I can also wonder about it. Why, for instance, be concerned about  postmodernist irony and kitsch when millions are starving? Seriously: why not attack racism rather then express our concerns about what is, after all, a largely white, western, upper middle class cultural phenomena? I’d suggest -- as problem number four -- that the author has confused his own cultural world (or, at least one with which he interacts) with the world. The text is a decade old and so much of it is out of date (in terms of popular culture), but the same principle could apply today. He might select his examples differently, castigating Lady Gaga’s “Born this Way” instead of whatever was on the charts in 2001. My point would remain the same: surely unemployment, violence against women, racism, third world poverty are issues of more pressing concern if we want to demonstrate our love of our neighbours.

Finally, I also wonder about Johnston’s politics. He tries hard to not be political: to keep spiritual matters front and centre but he can’t quite avoid his own politics. He cannot quite avoid using homosexuality as an example of things that are wrong in the world, for instance. One story was instructive. He related a Bush Sr era speech writer’s concerns about a single pregnant teen getting her high school degree. The audience applauded (as they should). But … something was not quite right in this. Reading Johnston’s discussion of this story, it illustrates what is wrong with society: the teen should not be pregnant in the first place and we have no business saying it is OK through our applause. Both the speech writer and author are taken aback that people actually appreciate the fact that this young woman persevered in a tough circumstance and did something of note. It is not right, in their view, that pregnant girls get high school degrees. It just isn’t.

Why not? What were the alternatives? The author suggests that this is a historical transition: there was a time when teens were not pregnant and we have to get back to that time. When was that time? This is not a historical transition. This is a myth masquerading as history. This time never existed. It might have existed for individual families but it neglects that simple fact that there have been single pregnant teenage girls as long as there have been teenage girls. To pretend otherwise is to perpetrate an and this is the biggest problem with Johnston’s interpretation of postmodernism. It relies on a mythologized conception of the past that allows it only to draw false distinctions with the contemporary world and hence suggests false choices and false problems. The issue, then, is never “should we have single pregnant teenage moms.” That is not a real question: it is ideology. For a Christian to ask it, merely consigns his spirituality to the real of ideology. The real question -- and the question Christians need to ask -- is what do we do with reality? Do we applaud or not?

The same mythologized history is evident in other aspects of Johnston’s consideration of the postmodern as well. The pre-postmodern (modern) age, say before the late 1960s, is a world without racism, without violence against women, without poverty, and in which all families were kind and loving. The author does not geographically locate his study. Instead he presents postmodernism as a global phenomena. Modernism appears the same way but I would have liked to have known exactly where this modern society -- whose only real failing was enlightenment skepticism -- actually was. I suppose we are all prone to nostalgia. I bore my kids with stories of my childhood which are likely inaccurate. But, this is not nostalgia. It is history as similacra.

I’m not certain one can write large from one text. So far, however, what I’ve seen and listened to does not bode well. If Christians want to engage postmodernism using this text, they are on the wrong track. It ignores key studies into the character of postmodernism and ignores, in fact, postmodern thinkers themselves. It lacks balance and works with a mythologized history that smuggles a neo-con politics in through the back door. This mythologized history presents false options and fake choices as illusory historical turning points while ignoring real history and, in the process, turns what should be an important message into ideology. Alas …

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Plagiarism, or I did not know I was cheating ....

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