Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Identifying Our Context (Narrative Gospel 2)

As a follow-up to the 1000 word gospel piece, I wrote the following piece in an attempt to identify the current context in which we are attempting to communicate the Gospel. I will probably develop this into a much larger paper for the class where I will wrestle with the questions it raises.

As we attempt to engage with how we can effectively translate the message of the Gospel to out culture in our time, it quickly becomes apparent that a few “new” challenges have arisen (though it can be argued that these challenges aren’t particularly “new”, but maybe just forgotten). The task is complicated somewhat by the fact that our prior engagement with modernity led us to certain conclusions and methodologies (such as reductionism and “propositional truth”) that no longer communicate what they once did (they may in fact communicate quite the opposite). Meanwhile, many in the church are unaware or have become confused about what is Scriptural or “historically Christian” and what stems from engagement or even syncretism with modernity.

Even as we must embrace the fact that neither a modern methodology or a modern epistemology are required by the Gospel, we must also recognize that our emerging postmodern context brings both new opportunities and new challenges for the Gospel. Though postmodern philosophy cannot and should not be swallowed wholesale in an undiscerning manner, it can be useful in our task of disentangling our faith and the Gospel from post-enlightenment thought. While postmodern thought is in many ways still in its embryonic stages, one clearly identifiable trend is “incredulity toward metanarratives” . The basic interpretive lens utilized by most people in contemporary western culture is characterized by a deep suspicion. In my opinion, this suspicion cuts two ways: First of all, it is deeply suspect of anything that claims to be totalizing. Grand, sweeping narratives that claim to be the one, true narrative and/or sets of propositions that demand assent are simply seen as power games or a means of coercion. Secondly, through world events as diverse as Auschwitz, the Challenger explosion, and 9-11, the myth of progress has been exposed. Progress is the “new clothes” that the emperor believed he was wearing, when he was actually as naked as the day he was born. One doesn’t need to be a particularly religious person in order to see the idol that modernity made of individual, human reason. What once seemed “enlightened” is now seen as an arrogant sham. There is indeed a deep suspicion of any ideology, concept, or system that claims to be THE answer, THE way, or (certainly) the TRUTH. Quite frankly, in many cases this stems from being disappointed again and again by such claims. Nothing arouses suspicion, mistrust, and doubt so much as certainty. In the postmodern ethos, any claim of certainty from finite and perspectival beings (as we all are) smacks of the worst kind of arrogance and naiveté.

Innovative thinkers Walsh and Middleton point out that this suspicion toward metanarratives is problematic for our proclamation of what is essentially a narrative Gospel. The late Stanley Grenz articulates the same difficulty in his informative “Primer on Postmodernism”. Their point is well taken. If our Gospel is essentially a narrative, and if we would presume to say that it is in any sense “true” in a way that competing narratives are not, then we seem to have a problem. James Smith raises an interesting point, which he means more as a clarification than a disagreement with the previously mentioned authors.. He argues that a narrative is not a metanarrative simply because it is a big, sweeping, all-encompassing story, but rather due to the way it functions. According to Smith, it is only a metanarrative when it is used in a coercive way or as a means of domination. I suspect that Smith is technically correct, but I also suspect that the inherent suspicion that exists on the popular level is not so discerning (at least not on the surface). Therefore, the question that I believe we need to wrestle with is: “How do we proclaim an essentially narrative Gospel in and to a culture that is deeply suspicious of metanarratives, propositional truth, and claims of certainty?”

Resources Consulted
  • Grenz, Stanley J. A Primer on Postmodernism. Wm. B. EerdmansPublishing, 1996.
  • Lyotard, Jean François, and Frederic Jameson. The postmodern condition: a report on knowledge. U of Minnesota Press, 1984.
  • Middleton, J. Richard, and Brian J. Walsh. Truth is Stranger Than it Used to be: Biblical Faith in a Postmodern Age. InterVarsity Press, 1995.
  • Smith, James K. A. Who's Afraid of Postmodernism?: Taking Derrida, Lyotard, and Foucault to Church. Baker Academic, 2006.


Mike L. said...


Nice follow up post! I like how you are thinking and I'm Looking forward to some face to face dialog.

I just finished John Caputo's "On Religion". It helped me understand where many Emergents are getting their different views on postmodernism. I loved the book. Very challenging!

"Even as we must embrace the fact that neither a modern methodology or a modern epistemology are required by the Gospel, we must also recognize that our emerging postmodern context brings both new opportunities and new challenges for the Gospel."

Based on that comment, I have 2 questions:

1) Does the gospel require a pre-modern methodology or epistimology?

2)Is "certainty" the problem with modernity or is it the attempts from both liberals and conservatives to manufacture certainty in areas they had no business claiming certainty?

I wonder if distrust of certainty could venture into a paranoid fear of knowledge. If so, we may end up right back in the fundamentalist camp that was freaked out by Darwin (or Copernicus, Galileo, Einstein, etc). It is reasonable to ask scientists (or people of faith) to avoid arrogance, but it isn't reasonable to ask them to be uncertain. As long as they remain inside the realm of science, it is their task it to keep becoming more and more certain. However, scientists should not make claims of certainty in the realms of ethics or religion.

Adam said...

Thanks for your kind words. I'm glad you liked the Caputo book (Did I recommend that to you?). I really like the way he writes. If you liked that one, he has another excellent little book called "Theology and Philosophy"...and then a new one called "What Would Jesus Deconstruct".

as for your questions:
1) I would argue that it does not require a pre-modern methodology or epistemology, but is, in fact, transcendent. It was really an oversight that I didn't include "pre-modern" there. In my larger treatment of the subject, I will.
2) Technically no discipline, even science deals in certainty. Rather, they deal in probabilities. They almost have to do this in order to be able to keep learning. Once you deal in certainty, then questions can no longer be raised, walls are built, and the subject if off-limits...simply demanding assent. Dealing in probability rather than certainty keeps us honest. (I would classify Christianity in a slightly different way though. I think Christianity deals in "proper confidence" (Newbigin) rather than certainty. I also think Caputo's "covenant with the impossible" comes into play here as well. Wish I had more time to unpack that, but I need to go home).

Thanks for your thoughts and questions. Keep them coming. I look forward to our face to face conversations as well. Hopefully all of this is a preview of what our cohort can be like.

Mike L. said...


I ordered "Theology and Philosophy" as soon as I finished "On Religion". It's in my queue for the next couple of weeks. You didn't specifically recommend those, but Caputo has been on my list since reading Peter Rollins.

I'll think about the probability/certainty idea a bit longer. I don't know if it is healthy to pretend we are not certain about anything. Maybe we should just say we haven't exhausted our discovery of all the details?

Adam said...

If you and I weren't friends, and you were a jerk (neither of which is true), you'd probably fire back the obvious question: "Are you absolutely certain that we can't be certain?" ;) The answer is "no, I'm not...I can't be." Modernity (to beat a dead horse) doesn't allow for such unsettledness, but I'm fine with it. I'm not saying we can't have confidence in certain positions or concepts. I'm simply saying that we must hold them with a proper humility. (Rollins recently articulated something similar in a podcast I listened to, in which he argued that we don't deconstruct in order to "rebuild", but rather that deconstruction never ends.)

I'm curious though. What for you has to be a certainty? What for you is non-negotiable? What is settled once and for all? (BTW... I would discuss matters of relationality/fidelity somewhat differently)

Mike L. said...


I really agree with you here and I like Rollins suggestions about balancing arrogance and certainty. I don't think I have any "non-negotiable" issues. The definition of "certainty" may be in play here.

I feel there is a difference between certainty and "settled once and for all". For instance, science is never "settled once and for all" about gravity (or anything) but it IS certain about the basic concepts of gravity. The same is said for every scientific theory from the orbit of the planets to photosynthesis, to evolution. We have more to learn about all these things, but we can't let any apprehension about our potential arrogance allow us to create an artificial level of confusion about the facts.

It is a common tactic among certain elements that attempt to create propaganda and insert an artificial element of uncertainty within controversial discussions to confuse the issue. For example, energy companies spend millions to create confusing disinformation that would have us think that science is "undecided" on the issue of global warming. As a result, many people think it's a 50/50 probability and science is confused. A plea for humble uncertainty can start to sound like a verdict of "undecided". That is dangerous. Science is not settled on ALL the details of global warming (it never will be) but that is NOT anything like suggesting we are "uncertain" or can't find solid evidence. There is reasonable certainty that it does exist and we should be concerned with solving the problem.

Do you see where I'm heading? We should not let our desire for humility be used to create an irrational lack of clarity. That goes for the science of geology and the sciences of textual criticism and archeology.

I feel like the problem with modernity was that scientists tried to answer questions about art (religion) and religious people tried to answer questions about science.


Adam said...

I understand what you are getting at here, and I sympathize. The level of overt propaganda and misinformation that surrounds certain issues is frightening (and reprehensible.) Most issues that have been somehow branded "political" are great examples of what you are talking about. However, my observation is that a) a good bit of this misinformation is quite intentional for underhanded reasons and b) most people who buy the line that's being peddled by these groups are simply building a case for what they have already decided to believe (we all do this to an extent).
Further, I would suggest that a) it is exactly a sense of "certainty" that these people use to advance their agendas, and b) people won't be convinced by facts alone. They can't be debated into better positions. One of McLaren's famous quotes is "Clarity is overrated." (he's referencing Jesus' communication style). I tend to agree. Certainty has been used to bully and coerce. I tend to believe that the way forward (rhetorically, ontologically, etc) is through story, relationship, dialogue, and experience (I'll unpack that some other time).
P.S. I really am enjoying the dialogue. Hope you are too.

Mike L. said...

"I tend to believe that the way forward (rhetorically, ontologically, etc) is through story, relationship, dialogue, and experience (I'll unpack that some other time)."

That's good stuff Adam! I'm certain about that ;)

The Metzes said...

Hey Adam,

I am spending some time in Lesslie Newbiggin's The Gospel in a Pluralist Society. I read it about 10 years ago, about five years before I was ready. If you haven't read Newbiggin, he offers much for the discussion of paradigms since he himself (British) lived in India for 40 years. He has much to say in regards to epistemological frameworks. He refers to "epistemological precedence" (crap, it wasn't precedence, but I can't remember his exact term). Basically, he acknowledges that modernity (no more than postmodernity or premodernity) has some kind of epistemological forbearance on the Gospel. Adam, your reference to its "transcendence" is similar. For me, one of the key advances postmodern philosophy has brought to our understanding of the Gospel is an allowance for diversity and variance within the metanarrative. The idea of a metanarrative (something you are discussing here) will be easier for postmoderns to entertain if it has allowance for diversity. No longer is it assumed that conformity is equal to evangelism - but proclamation. Preach the Gospel and stand back and see what happens.

Anyway, though Newbiggin could be a good reference for you if you haven't read him.

Matthew said...

I enjoyed my graduate work at Lipscomb too, they do a good job of challenging us to think on how to communicate the gospel to this generation.