Category Archives: Christianity and Pop Culture

The Theology of Superman: Hope for the Empire

By now, many will have already seen this article or others like it describing the Warner Bros. campaign to get pastors to talk about Man of Steel this past Sunday, which was Fathers’ Day, using a guide developed by Pepperdine theologian Craig Detweiler. The main thrust of the sermon is centered around this question: “How might the story of Superman awaken our passion for the greatest hero who ever lived and died and rose again?”

The CNN story goes on to set up the “debate” surrounding this marketing tactic on the part of Warner Bros. as between Christians who think this is a good way to show the world that we can get behind something in pop culture and those who think films are “pumped out from Hollywood’s sewers.”

What is fascinating to me about this set up is that it simply takes the messianic parallels as given and obvious. The film is just obviously about Jesus and parallel to his story–so now the only question is whether or not Christians are willing to trust Hollywood to speak the story of Jesus to them through a “worldly” medium like film. As Detweiler himself is quoted in the article, “All too often, religious communities have been defined by what they’re against. With a movie like `Man of Steel,’ this is a chance to celebrate a movie that affirms faith, sacrifice and service.”

My concern is that “faith, sacrifice, and service,” while all wonderful attributes to have, do not sum up the story of Jesus. In fact, by making that the distillation of Jesus’ life and ministry, the sermon notes seem to direct us away from what should be the most troubling divergences between the story of Superman and the story of Jesus by focusing on the archetypal parallels.

No one should be surprised that Man of Steel, or the mythology of Superman more generally, has strong parallels to the Jesus narrative. You would be hard-pressed to find a story archetype in Western literature that cannot be traced back to the biblical narrative. With regard to superhero archetypes especially, the parallels to the story of Christ and the messianic archetype (which does not originate with Jesus) are more than obvious. So what, then, could these sermon notes be other than a reminder, saying, “Hey! Stories like Man of Steel are retellings of your religion’s story of salvation. But with way more explosions. Let’s look at this clip!” Superman is a story of hope. Kal-El is a character (like Spock, like Gandalf, like a lot of characters in the world of science fiction and fantasy) who deviates from his origin, his true nature, choosing to become more human and embracing those characteristics (usually emotion, empathy, etc.) which are made to be the epitome of humanness, and suffering some consequences for it.

The problem is that to say the story of Jesus can be encapsulated in a single statement about the hope of salvation makes that story completely one-dimensional and misses the what of salvation entirely. And by the way, this one-dimensional view of salvation is probably how many Christians view their own faith: Jesus has punched my ticket into Heaven–now that’s something I can put my hope in! That’s why we love stories like this–or any other myriad versions of the story of hope in salvation from… something.

It’s that something that makes up the really vital difference between Superman and Jesus. Man of Steel is an origin story, establishing the basic relationships between Superman and everyone else so that a few more films can be made before another reboot. One of those relationships is between Superman and the US government–that is, Superman and the empire. Some (especially Evangelicals) will find that comparison offensive, but it’s certainly true. You don’t earn the title of “World Superpower” without being an empire. So Superman goes “on call” for the empire at the end of the film. He’s not its soldier, like the Marvel parallel Captain America. He still maintains some independence, but he also has no interest in subverting the empire in any way. Now, I don’t mean a coup d’etat like his friend General Zod stages on Krypton. But the US perpetrates plenty of injustice worldwide on a daily basis. What would be really Christlike is if in the second film, we see Superman staging nonviolent protests against drones strikes against innocent people, or helping to shut down Gitmo, choosing not to use his immense power when he very easily could–we could go on and on like this. Instead, Superman becomes a symbol of hope for the empire itself. The film may portray Superman’s struggle with his identity, and I think it does a good job of that, but at the end of the day, Superman is not just a human–he’s an American.

Admittedly, the nonviolent Superman probably wouldn’t make for a very interesting film. Superman’s power is not in his ability to speak radically in a way that moves an agenda of radical subversion against an oppressive empire. He punches stuff. And flies. And cuts stuff with his heat vision. All of that is fantastic–I really enjoyed the film. But none of it represents the mission of Jesus. There’s no account of Jesus fighting Tiberius through the streets of Rome (the Colosseum didn’t exist yet) which, I must admit, would’ve been badass.

The hope that Jesus brings is salvation from the oppressive force brought upon the poor, the weak, the widowed, the orphaned, the sick by the powers of the world–the Roman empire and all those in service to it. And he does this through a radically nonviolent means of subversion to the point of his death. This is the fuller, deeper meaning of the hope of salvation. The moment we begin to compare Superman and Jesus in this respect, the parallel falls apart.

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What Did Jesus Come to Abolish?

It may be that this post is a little late given that sharing on Facebook of and responses in the blogosphere to this viral video have died down. A lot has been said, and now, all that’s left seem to be memes like this little gem:

I fall somewhere in the middle of the responses to this. I can appreciate what Jeff Bethke is trying to do. I don’t like phony, legalistic Christians either. So in that sense I can resonate with my friends who shared this on Facebook and elsewhere–they want to focus on what is important to our faith (whatever that is–I’ll get there in a minute.) At the same time, I agree with Tony Jones and Jonathan Fitzgerald that there is something amiss here. Does legalism equal religion? Certainly not.

I agree with Fitzgerald on this point:

“See the problem is, Bethke doesn’t mean religion either, but he’s rehearsing a popular evangelical trope, that the freedom that Christians find through Jesus is freedom from structure, organization, and authority.”

He makes the salient point that if Bethke had called the video something else, had used “Sunday Christians” or even “False Religion” instead of just “Religion,” he would have avoided many of the problems that have been raised about his diatribe that is meant to help believers get beyond behavior modification and following a laundry list of rules in order to reach the “center” of their faith–following Jesus [in whatever way that looks like as long as it doesn't involve rules.]

There are two important observations we can make about rules. First, Fitzgerald and Jones are right that structure [rule-making] is inevitable, simply a fact of human nature. Even in the rule-hater’s quest to abolish the rules, he or she is most likely still abiding by codes of conduct and social mores because let’s face it–no one is going to listen to you unless you play by the rules or are willing to resort to significant violence. And even when you choose the latter, it could be that nothing changes. Wittgenstein makes this same point when he talks about “language games.” Changes are possible in language, but only if the game is played [people understand and accept the change--which takes a very long time and cannot really be predicted or directed.]

Second, why should rules be inherently bad? Thinking of games again, I would hate to play Monopoly or Settlers of Catan with no rules. It’s just not possible. Imagine a chess board laid out before you. You and another person decide to play, but you have no idea how–so you make it up. Right from the beginning, a decision governing the type of play has to be made: Are you playing against each other, or are you on a team playing against the board somehow [as in Solitaire.]  It probably makes the most sense to play against each other. From that point you have to set objectives, a mode of play–and rules that govern those things. You cannot proceed toward an end, a goal, without establishing the way in which that is to be achieved. It is simply unavoidable if the game is to have any coherence at all. The very notion of play to begin with suggests some kind of structure.

In this more abstract, philosophical sense, it makes no sense to talk about abolishing the “rules of Religion” in order to just follow Jesus and love people when we would have no idea how to do those things without first receiving instruction. Like play, when we start with an idea of “practicing a faith” we are already bound by a certain structure. We may not think of that in terms of “rules,” and that’s okay, maybe even beneficial, but the idea is the same. That kind of instruction may be more like flexible guidelines than rigid rules, and there were commands from Jesus (pick up your cross and follow me) that probably fall in this category. However, Jesus really was not the anti-religion, institution destroyer that Bethke and his fans want him to be.

Most people think of the Pharisees when they think of the sort of person bound by the chains of Religion that Bethke is talking to: someone going through the motions of dead ritual without any power behind what they’re doing. Jesus did have a problem with that–but he didn’t call it religion.

He called it “not bearing fruit.”

In Matthew 21:18-22, we have one of the more misunderstood and strange actions of Jesus recorded in the Gospels.

In the morning, when he returned to the city, he was hungry. And seeing a fig tree by the side of the road, he went to it and found nothing at all on it but leaves. Then he said to it, “May no fruit ever come from you again!” And the fig tree withered at once. When the disciples saw it, they were amazed, saying, “How did the fig tree wither at once?” Jesus answered them, “Truly I tell you, if you have faith and do not doubt, not only will you do what has been done to the fig tree, but even if you say to this mountain, ‘Be lifted up and thrown into the sea,’ it will be done. Whatever you ask for in prayer with faith, you will receive.”

People normally talk about the power of prayer or faith in relation to this passage [or how Jesus maybe wasn't a fan of ecology] but it makes more sense to read this short episode in the context of what has just happened. Jesus made his entrance into Jerusalem the day before and spent the whole day ridding the temple of practices that were not bearing any fruit. He returned the following day and presented the chief priests and Pharisees with a couple parables that conclude with this:

Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom.

Later, in Matthew 23, Jesus gets explicit about his issue with what the Pharisees are doing. In short, he’s pissed that they are screwing up religion. Not that they’re practicing it. Religion isn’t what is getting in the way–the Pharisees are getting in the way of themselves. Jesus even begins this passage by instructing the crowd to do what the Pharisees teach them–just not what they actually do (23:3.) Jesus asks the Pharisees if the gold or the sanctuary that gives the gold significance, the gift or the alter that makes the gift sacred, is more important. Jesus is all about church buildings (he just didn’t say what those had to look like.)

He’s all about ritual too. In verse 23, he points out that the Pharisees have tithed spices, but neglected “the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith,” but there is no indication that the spices or the act of tithing them are themselves bad. Rather, Jesus is pointing out that these “smaller” matters should be vitally connected to the weightier ones. Tithing should bring about justice, mercy, and faith. Religious practice must produce fruit.

If there is anything Jesus came to put an end to, it was practicing the law without that practice resulting in a spiritually full life, one that would abundantly bless others. I think if Bethke were to read this, he’d probably agree and say that was what he meant. Unfortunately, 16 million viewers have heard differently.

by Joel Harrison

Suspicion and Faith and Hating Mother Teresa

Christian reaction to the news of Christopher Hitchens’ death last night of complications due to cancer have certainly been mixed. Tweets jovially poking fun at the New Atheist read “ ‘Hitchens doesn’t exist anymore’—God.” Many more conservative Christians vindictively celebrate the death of someone whom they probably felt had backed them into a corner along with the other three (self-titled) Horsemen of New Atheism (Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Daniel Dennett.) Now one is gone. Just as they celebrated the death of Osama bin Laden, so they celebrate Hitchens’ untimely demise. Chalk one more up for us. It’s been a good year.

Then there are the more progressive Christians, mostly academics that I know, who are posting about how much Christopher Hitchens’ improved their faith. After all, we were all decrying belief in the same god—the god of fundamentalism, violence, and empire that is clearly not the God of the Israelites, of the Bible, of the universe. I have to agree with them. While I didn’t grow up in an ultra-conservative, fundamentalist home, I understand why my friends who did are grateful to Hitchens and the other New Atheists for exposing the flaws in a Christianity that has its grip on so many American Christians. The hermeneutics of suspicion can be quite powerful. And Hitchens, et al. are not the first to bring such glad tidings to Christians looking for a better way than the idols of their past. Freud, Nietzsche, Marx, Heidegger—many 19th and 20th century philosophers preceded the Horsemen pointing out many of the same flaws in believing in a god who would condone the violence perpetrated by fundamentalist religion. Of course, none of these philosophers nor the New Atheists believe that they’re freeing the religious from their own dogma so that they may experience a better, more robust faith. That’s beside the point here, however.

I hesitate in participating in either strand of response. The first for obvious reasons. It isn’t so much hesitation as refusal: Christians should never celebrate the death of another human being. And while I identify with friends who’d rather celebrate Hitchens’ life, in some ways seeming like a back-handed way of saying to atheists, “You have no idea what actual Christianity entails, let alone actual religion,” I have trouble celebrating the life of a man who made a career out of spitting venom at others. If he had been a Christian doing this to atheists or Muslims or anyone else, we would have been appalled. I recognize that Christianity abides in the sort of humiliation Hitchens and others seek to pile on to us—that above all, our call is to humility to the point of death (Matt. 16:24-25). But Hitchens’ vitriol went beyond just trying to prove how dumb religious people are.

The man hated Mother Teresa. He thought she was a complete fraud. On top of that, he ironically supported the Iraq Warbecause it was leading to the death of Islamic fundamentalists. What’s that saying about strange bedfellows? Fundamentalist Christianity could link arms with Hitchens and sing some songs together over that point. What we need to be careful of is not caving too quickly to the pressure of expectations. Atheists expect Christians to be celebrating, so those of us who do not identify with that group of Christians desire to distance ourselves quickly by talking about what a tragedy it is to lose someone so brilliant. It is certainly tragic to see someone die before his time, especially someone who did contribute fruitfully in some ways to the demolition of religious fundamentalism. I’m on his side in that. But I can’t ignore the rest. He was extremely misguided, not only in his account of history but in his responses to some important contemporary issues as well. I won’t celebrate that part of his life.

by Joel Harrison

Occupy Wall Street: Resist the Populist Temptation

Slavoj Zizek’s speech at Occupy Wall Street. Transcript here.

Ideologies at their purest: 1) Capitalism is bad, Socialism is good. Or, 2) Socialism is bad, Capitalism is good. Ideology is political drive minus fact and substance, the excrement of whatever you believe regardless of reality. I fully support the Occupy Wall Street protest. My concern is that it will only be left-wing version of inane populism that has infected the American right over the past three years. We don’t need more of this kind of populism. But that brings me to the question of how to define populism. What is it? How does it function?

A full two years before the Tea Party came onto the scene, Zizek predicted a post-Bush utlra-right populist movement, defined their characteristics, and gave a rough timeline of their rise and decline. I thought that was a little bit impressive. So while pondering the relationship between Occupy Wall Street and populism, I stumbled across Zizek’s article Against the Populist Temptation.

“The field of politics is thus caught in an irreducible tension between “empty” and “floating” signifiers: some particular signifiers start to function as “empty,” directly embodying the universal dimension, incorporating into the chain of equivalences which they totalize a large number of “floating” signifiers.” – Slavoj Zizek

The definition used here for populism is purely ideological- it depends on ambiguous signifiers. Politics within a democracy depends on ambiguous signifiers- it’s why we don’t trust the same politicians we campaign for. “Change We Can Believe In” was ambiguous- you could plug whatever meaning you want into it, but all it definitely meant was that you had already made up your mind you would be voting for Obama. Birtherism is another ambiguous signifier- it meant less that people were foolish enough to believe Obama was born in Kenya and more that they voted Republican.

Zizek doesn’t go into this in the article, but this type of belief in the signifier is the clinical definition of neurosis. It is the fixation on the symbol with indifference to the Real. Another way to say it is that the symbol holds the place of belief for you. Hashtag your social media with #some-cause, and you won’t have to define your own opinions. The opposite condition of neurosis is psychosis- the belief that your symbol is one and the same with the Real. The catch? You never know whether a belief is more neurotic or psychotic until evidence is irrefutable. Until the birth certificate was released, we had no way of knowing whether Birthers were truly insane or simply affirming their political loyalties. The result? Of the more than fifty percent of Republicans that said they doubted the President’s citizenship, a only a little more than a third were still Birthers after the birth certificate was released. Those people are the psychotics- the ones you should stay away from. The rest were just delving into neurosis- as we all do. What we will see in coming weeks is whether the Occupy movement has legitimacy and staying power, or else is just a psycho/neurotic blip on the radar.

“The first thing to note is that today’s populism is different from the traditional version – what distinguishes it is the opponent against which it mobilizes the people: the rise of “post-politics,” the growing reduction of politics proper to the rational administration of the conflicting interests… there is a constitutive “mystification” that pertains to populism: its basic gesture is to refuse to confront the complexity of the situation, to reduce it to a clear struggle with a pseudo-concrete “enemy” figure (from “Brussels bureaucracy” to illegal immigrants). “Populism” is thus by definition a negative phenomenon, a phenomenon grounded in a refusal, even an implicit admission of impotence.” -Zizek

The far right took a number of long-standing and arguably legitimate concerns but finally mobilized them against a mythical Marxist Muslim from Kenya-the shelf-life of a ridiculous founding myth makes for a quick expiration date. If Occupy Wall Street devolves into a psychotic blaming of bankers and stockbrokers, it will fail. If it blames an unqualified term like “capitalism” and advocates some extreme alternative, it will fail. If if continues to focus on policies to address and raises awareness among a public misguided by 24 hour propaganda masquerading as news, it just might get somewhere. I don’t mean to defend capitalism- we would do well to integrate a good dose of socialism into our irrevocably capitalist economy. And I do not at all mean we need to “find a third way” or any ridiculous nonsense such as this- I absolutely believe we need an actual left in this country to check the abuses of laissez-faire capitalism. I’ll put it this way: the bank CEO’s are praying to Mammon that you will demonize bank CEO’s- scapegoating keeps the system stable.

And please, remember to panic. Because SHIT IS FUCKED UP AND BULLSHIT!

by Tad Delay

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A Comment on the Death of Osama bin Laden

I’ll get right to the point. It saddens me that Christians would celebrate the death of another human being.

Such a reaction directly contradicts everything that we, as Christians, should value. The Bible tells us that God does not rejoice in the death of human beings, including wicked ones (Ezekiel 33:11, Proverbs 24:17-18).

Maybe even more convicting, though, is this: I don’t remember at all, in Jesus’ life and ministry, a moment where he kills an enemy, suggests that we kill our enemies, or rejoices in the death of an enemy.

Actually, Jesus allowed himself to be killed by his enemies. It was God’s will.

Furthermore, the celebration of bin Laden’s death really seems to be just an easy way around the terrifying reality of forgiveness. When we celebrate bin Laden’s death, we are limiting God. We’re saying that the power of God’s forgiveness and grace would not be enough to save someone like Osama bin Laden; therefore, the only thing to do is celebrate the death of a horrible human being. We have trouble accepting that even someone as horrible as bin Laden could be transformed by God’s love and grace.

How can we possibly claim to believe in an infinite, all-powerful God, if we do not believe He could transform and save Osama bin Laden? Isn’t God’s grace extended to everyone? Is there anyone in history whom we could ever say is not eligible for God’s grace?

It would be unbelievably arrogant to think we could.

There is only one death to celebrate: The death that defeated death.

by Joel Harrison

Why Westboro Baptist Church Could Be a Blessing (but won’t be), Why Batman is a Villain, and How Picasso’s “Guernica” Let Us Kill a Million People

On Thursday, March 3rd, the nation opened its news feeds and collectively wished we didn’t have a first amendment, as the Supreme Court upheld the free speech rights of Fred Phelps and the Westboro Baptist Church. These are the bastards that go about protesting soldiers’ funerals, holding colorful “God Hates Fags” signs, and reminding us why America sucks: we’ve let the lib’ruls and the gays and perverts corrupt our children, and now God has it in for us.

I don’t particularly care about this Supreme Court ruling, but Westboro hits the news cycle about every other month, and this month happened to coincide with my reading of Slavoj Zizek’s How To Read Lacan. This combination got me thinking about the great potential we have (but which will never be realized) in the Westboro klan.

Repression and the Return of the Repressed are One – Jaques Lacan

When Colin Powel made the case for the Iraq invasion before the UN, the US delegation demanded that Picasso’s Guernica, which depicts the catastrophic German bombing of Spanish civilians, be removed. The US claimed it was not statesmanlike given the occasion, but of course this was a farce. The funny thing is that nobody would have noticed if a big deal had not been raised over it. When you repress, your repression returns the favor by cropping up in other ways (like how teetotalers discharge stress by becoming enourmous gluttons instead of alcoholics like normal people do).

Unwritten rules are the most insidious to break. Zizek imagines a story in which you are listening to a state speech during the Stalinist purges. A man stands during the speech and cries out, “Comrade Stalin, the government is corrupt!” As the guards close in on him, you stand and shout, “Comrade, be quiet you fool! Don’t you know that we don’t talk about the corruption?!” The guards will be sure to shoot you first. In the same way, when you pull out your driver’s license for the cop that pulls you over, you experience true horror when the cop, noticing you have let a hundred dollar bill slide our of your wallet with a wink, exclaims, “You are trying to bribe me?!” Plausible deniability exists until we name the unwritten rule, which is why we never name the unwritten rule. The exception to this rule is twofold: alcohol and Facebook- two things that remove our better social inhibitions and allow us to truly express the unconscious (much in the same way that to truly know somebody, you should see how they behave in a virtual Second Life, where the social inhibitions of unwritten rules are removed). Unwritten rules are so sacred that when we speak them aloud, or God forbid, break them, we commit the highest social sin. This is why Westboro spooks us.

Westboro believes God hates homosexuality, that gays have made a choice to live in immorality, and that America has turned its back on God (who is now pissed) with its liberal rights. They put the logical extent of religious ultra-right-wing belief into practice, evangelizing to lost culture as they enthusiastically carry their message forward. Is this not, more or less, what at least a third of America truly believes? The horror of Westboro is not that they believe God hates fags, but that they say God hates fags.

Belief doesn’t matter much. You can believe whatever you want. But, we unconsciously say, for the love of all that is sacred, don’t act as if you believe it.

This is the gift I claim that Westboro offers us. Their blessing is that we have a chance to recognize the horror of these beliefs, see them in ourselves, and repent, but we won’t. We wont recognize the plank in our own eyes as we judge them because of a second, far more insidious psychoanalytic concept from Freud.

Fetish Disavowal, or Why Batman is the Villain and Westboro is the (Potential) Hero

I would love to rewrite The Dark Knight to the tune of reality, where the Joker gets his way as Batman murders him while ferry passengers blow each other up. Bruce Wayne has the resources to recreate himself as a private, one-man, high tech army, and nobody notices. He has so much wealth that all he must do is sleep through a board meeting once a week, resting up to beat up bad guys on the weekend. This is why Batman is the true villain; instead of beating up bad guys, how much more good would be done in Gotham if his vast rescourses were used instead to fund job training, education, and so forth? But no, in order to mask his true potential (along with his horror and waste), he plays the part of a hero. This is pseudo-activity. The true enemy of progressive activity is not passivity, but this type of pseudo-activity which is expressed by Disavowing the horror of reality by redirecting attention into a Fetish symbol.

Again, Westboro should be a sign of the weakness of this ultra-rightist, religiously oppressive belief, but fetish disavowal will save the day.

I notice that some of the most outspoken critics of the Westboro Baptists are people who share the gist of their political belief (if not their expression). So what does one do when feeling anxiety due to people (whom you agree with) breaking the unwritten rules about what is acceptable to say? You sacrifice them!

So while the Westboro Baptists should be taken as a critique of religious oppression and fundamentalism, it is instead a symbol for millions of Americans to say, “Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain (my unconscious which agrees with them)! Instead, look at those angry zealots!”

And thus, Westboro will continue to be in the news, because we continually need to sacrifice in order to justify ourselves. Let Batman continue to play the hero, and please don’t point out the Guernica!

by Tad Delay

Read more from Tad at taddelay.com

Love Won

I received an email from my dad the other day as I was headed to my Monday night Contemporary Literature and Theology course that said this:

“I’m reading a book called ‘Love Wins’ by Rob Bell, who says he is a Fuller graduate – – do you know anything about this guy? – – the book is certainly non-traditional in its descriptions of heaven and hell.  Just thought you might have an insight.”

I love my dad, who is an engineer. Because of his engineer’s mind, he and I tend to think about things differently. Three years ago, as I was in the middle of my MA in English, he remarked in response to something I was saying, drawing a distinction between us: I’m an intellectual, and he is not. Since my dad is certainly one of the smartest people I know, I thought that to be interesting, something I had never considered before.

During my first quarter at Fuller, my dad asked me how I liked my classes and wanted to know what I was learning about. I started telling him about Nancey Murphy and non-reductive physicalism (the belief, essentially, that there is no such thing as a soul.) About three minutes in, he put his hand up to stop me and said, “Does this affect whether or not Jesus is our Savior?” I told him, no, it didn’t. “Okay,” he said, “as long as I don’t have to try to understand any of this stuff, then I’m okay.”

My dad wasn’t writing off what I was studying as not worthwhile—just as not of practical value to him. To be clear, this difference between us hasn’t been a point of tension in our relationship either. Lately he’s been marveling at the fact that currently two of his four sons are in graduate school studying things that are way over his head (a third is getting an MBA, which is right up his alley.) This difference between us has actually been fruitful in the sense that it has helped me to gauge whether or not a particular abstract idea (some hermeneutical tool, for example) would be helpful necessarily in practical application or at least to start to develop an idea of how it could become helpful someday.

I think that’s really important. One of the biggest problems I see as I sit in philosophy and systematic theology classes, have coffee with other like minded students, stay up late with my roommate smoking pipes around our fire pit, all the time discussing these lofty, invisible structures in our thought that lie behind and support practical concerns is that far too many people in the church still cling to modern ideology and ways of knowing, but they’re a long way off from seeing it. Many people will probably post comments on Church Unbound’s Facebook page under the link to this post, railing against me or Rob Bell without really reading this post or Bell’s book. Challenging the modern worldview is tantamount to challenging the reality of God Himself for many people. That’s one of the primary reasons Bell’s book has stirred things up so much: It’s a full frontal assault on that way of viewing the world. But the difficult issue for me becomes how to help people see that without dragging them through years of careful philosophical reflection and study. It’s not at all a matter of smart versus stupid—it’s a matter of intellectual versus practical.

I decided the very minute I heard about John Piper’s tweet (“Farewell, Rob Bell”) that even though I would be reading Love Wins, I wasn’t going to engage with it in a public forum like this or my blog for Fuller admissions. Other writers I know, either at Fuller or elsewhere, may have avoided it for similar reasons—we’re just not fans of drama here. Besides, Greg Boyd, Richard Mouw, and others have basically said all that needs to be said:

It’s a book that simply raises a question about something that is perhaps contradictory in Christian tradition and calls readers to seriously think about that question.

And somehow that is seen as heretical.

But then there’s my dad’s question.

Here I am, wrapped up in the culture of Christian pop-academia. I would venture to say that there are very very few people in my circles or on Fuller’s campus who do not know the name Rob Bell or who are not at least vaguely aware of what a controversial figure he is within Evangelical circles.

But then there’s my dad’s question.

My dad grew up in the church, coincidentally at Pasadena Covenant Church, where I now work. My mom is a Christian as well, growing up at Lake Avenue Congregational, down the street from PCC. They took my brothers and me to Sierra Madre Congregational. None of these churches lean very far in one direction or the other on the conservative/liberal scale. They’re pretty close to the middle. My parents now attend a church in Lafayette, CO called Flatirons Community Church—a place not unlike Rob Bell’s own congregation in size and style—which is also near the middle.

I responded to his email the next day, explaining who Bell is, what the controversy is over, and then pointed him to Boyd’s, Mouw’s, and [for a laugh] Donald Miller’s responses to Bell’s book. I told him that for me, the important thing Bell’s book does (and Bell really says as much in the preface) is not just to raise this one question about who is in hell and how we can know that but to raise a much larger question about where particular doctrine even comes from in the first place—something most Christians don’t really think about day to day.

My dad called me later that afternoon.

“I was going to email you, but then I thought I’d call,” he said. He thanked me for the links to the blog responses. He particularly liked Dr. Mouw’s.

And then he said something that I thought was profoundly important.

“It just seems to me,” he said, “that we can’t limit God by saying he will punish people in one particular way. We just don’t have enough information to know something like that. And I really like that phrase: Generous Orthodoxy.”

I realized then how vastly important Bell’s book and others like it could potentially be. My dad, a man with no particular academic or intellectual interest in his faith, who knew nothing of Bell or the controversy surrounding the book, just someone who simply cares about reflecting on his faith because he wants to grow spiritually—who saw the book at Costco and thought it sounded interesting—was able to grasp the thrust of Bell’s argument—the larger purpose at which he is driving. Somehow that gap between intellectual and practical was crossed. In my mind, that is an enormous victory for any kind of “postmodern” theological movement.

Rob Bell will obviously never see this blog, but someone needs to tell him that he has accomplished what he set out to do. Nice work, Mr. Bell.

by Joel Harrison

Storytime

Story is a big deal to postmodernists. Whether they’re interested in postmodernity culturally or academically, the privileging of story and narrative over data, the cold, hard facts, is important. In many ways, it’s a rejection of the modern—not a return to the pre-modern, but a reclaiming of it. The pre-modern repurposed.

This is something I find myself agreeing with by and large. It’s sometimes troubling to me how Christian and non-Christian alike, as I’ve pointed out previously, have come to see scientific inquiry as paramount when it comes human knowing. As the only way of knowing. It certainly helps, but it’s not the only way. Narrative was used in the pre-modern to explain much of what science explains now. However, science does not explain everything that pre-modern narratives gave the people who took them in.  Science can’t speculate about the why behind the how. That isn’t the task of science anyway. The postmodern repurposing of narrative finds its energy in this observation. Narrative opens up insights into the phenomena of human experience that science can’t. Science (or rather, scientific naturalists) may say that those insights are illusory, a hologram hiding the cold, mechanical reality of how things actually work. The problem is that many don’t recognize the how as the end all be all anymore. There’s a sense that there is some purpose. Why is it that we seem to have sprung out of conditions almost too perfect to believe the statistics of it happening? Why do physical laws seem to fit so perfectly together? Why are there physical laws? Why is there anything to begin with at all?

A friend pointed me recently to a blog called Pastoralia managed by Jason Coker, a Fuller grad, and specifically Coker’s response to an article published a year go in Harpers Magazine titled “Like I was Jesus: How to bring a nine-year old to Christ.” Rachel Aviv, author of the Harpers article, observes the Child Evangelism Fellowship, an organization whose focus is on bringing kids to Christ by approaching them, as strangers, on playgrounds and talking to them about who Jesus is. It’s a fascinating article. Aviv makes observations, very important ones in her mind, about how the Fellowship goes about their evangelism. Their primary mode is through emphasizing story and narrative as opposed to data. She sees this as returning to a more primitive way knowing—she actually uses the word primitive—but she doesn’t necessarily see this as negative. The Fellowship, in her view, is keeping alive a tradition that is still willing to believe in the impossible, in “magical explanations”—they’re capturing imaginations.

That makes sense. They’re talking to kids. Even though I’m not sure I agree with the ends the Fellowship is aiming at, their use of story was exciting to see. However, Coker’s response intrigued me. He writes regarding Aviv’s response to narrative:

But, Aviv’s remarks made me realize that it’s one thing to indulge in story (clearly we are a culture that is obsessed with narratives of alternative realities) – but it is another thing entirely to have faith in a story, especially a fantastical one.

(Seriously. We poke fun at people who organize their entire lives around fantastical stories, and for good reason. We recognize there is something juvenile about this. Think of “Trekkies.” More and more, the secular Western world looks at conservative Christianity as one giant version of Comicon. Yes, I know – these sorts of sub-cultural communities are hugely successful and lucrative. But is that really what we want to emulate? Is Christianity just another successful juvenile fantasy niche market?)

I had never thought of it this way. The reclaiming of story as a reaction against empiricism, fact, and data somehow, for me, overshadowed this glaring and obvious comparison that Coker draws here. If all we do is emphasize the story of Christ, how is our story better or more true than Star Trek, Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, or any number of massive comic book universes? Those stories offer us the insights I described earlier. The biblical narrative offers us insights as well, some exactly the same as a few of the narratives mentioned above. Yet it has to be different, most obviously because it has to be encountered as true. I see this happening most prevalently in youth ministry. There are so many great stories to draw from. But what message are youth pastors sending–that there is a direct correlation between biblical narrative and Harry Potter? A distinction needs to be made.

I don’t have a detailed answer about how to do that. But perhaps rather than drawing direct comparisons between fiction and the story of the Bible, we need to be sure we are using story and narrative as a tool with which to examine the biblical text. In other words, we can use the analysis of narrative (literary studies) to explore the truth of Bible. You can read about how to do that in this post: And So On….

The danger of any new movement (and the postmodern is certainly new to the Church) is that we can get excited about it quickly and react [too] strongly against whatever it is we came from. I think that’s what happens far too often among Christians (and is in fact one of the critiques I level against the Emergent Church movement here. We need to slow down, pray, discern, and contemplate postmodernity and what it means for us personally and the Church as a whole.

Which is not easy.

But then again, should being a Christ follower ever be?

You can read Rachel Aviv’s article here.

You can read Jason Coker’s response here.

by Joel Harrison

Authorship, Truth, and Wisdom: A Study of Proverbs and Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle

Jonah, the narrator of Kurt Vonnegut’s 1963 novel Cat’s Cradle informs the reader in the fourth chapter that the first line in the holy book of his religion, Bokononism, reads: “ ‘All of the true things I am about to tell you are shameless lies.’ ”[1] The Books of Bokonon, a clear parody of the wisdom books of The Bible and other religious texts, is presented to the reader throughout the plot of the novel, which is centered on the destruction of the world via a chemical weapon known as Ice-Nine, as a means of satirizing religion and attempting to point to its futility and the ways in which it fails to create relevant meaning in the face of Armageddon because of the apathy it creates in its members through fatalism. This, however, is not to suggest that the novel’s thesis is that faith itself or the text of a religious practice are inherently destined to fail in this respect; rather, the novel points to an existential conception of faith and the texts of religious practice, that those who practice decide how to fill those artifacts with meaning. Although The Books of Bokonon is meant as a parody of the wisdom books, an examination of the parallels and differences between it and the book of Proverbs will shed some light on the nature of Biblical wisdom, its “true” implications for how we as Christians live, and also some helpful ways Proverbs allows the reader to reconceive the critique of religion found in Cat’s Cradle. In this paper, I will examine what it means for wisdom to be “true” which will include a discussion of authorship and natural theology within the context of each text and comparing the two texts to see how the concept of “truth” in wisdom developed affects our reading of them. I propose that “truth” in these texts is a completely subjective term, though not relative, and exists outside of authorship, explicit or implied, and that this conception of truth in Proverbs will lead us to the conclusion that wisdom literature in general is reflective of natural theology.

The authorship of the book of Proverbs is certainly questionable for a number of reasons. It was long thought that Solomon, who in 1 Kings 3 requests the gift of wisdom from God and is granted it, was the author of Proverbs. This is a point of contention between scholars who primarily seem to hold that Solomon, while he may have written some of Proverbs, did not write all of it, and may have merely been a collector of wisdom even, not the creator of it. But how important is literal authorship to a text? Michel Foucalt argues in his essay entitled “What Is an Author?” that the presence of the author’s name on any text “is functional in that it serves as a means of classification [. . .] [T]he name of the author remains at the contours of texts—separating one from the other, defining their form, and characterizing their mode of existence.”[2] We may be able to read a particular author without looking at the cover to see the author’s name or the title of the text and still be able to discern merely from the style who the author is. The boundaries that give shape to a text and act as markers of difference to distinguish one particular text from another are varied. Style and even character names can act as markers. The title of a text is a more obvious mark of difference distinguishing different texts written by the same author as well as other texts. It is sometimes difficult, however, to conceive of the author as being a marker, that is as not being an active agent of meaning creation in a text. However, once a text is penned, the meaning of it is out of the control of the author completely. The label of Solomon, then, as author is nothing more than a function of the context of the book itself. It acts as the title does, helping to classify the text as a book of wisdom, but separating it from the other books of wisdom not penned by Solomon. It too is only a marker of difference. Having this understanding helps us in discussing the question of “truth” with regard to Proverbs because the book seems to share common origin with books of wisdom from other cultures, which will in turn further clarify the absence of the author in the creation of meaning for the text.

The book is not the only of its kind from the ancient world. The Egyptian scribe Amenemope supposedly wrote his Instruction of Amenemope sometime between the 14th and 11th centuries, BCE, well before Solomon supposedly wrote Proverbs. If we compare the two texts, we can see some distinct similarities and even moments where the two share almost the same language. Proverbs 22:22 reads, “Do not rob the poor because they are poor, or crush the afflicted at the gate”[3] while Chapter 2 of the Instructions begins, “Beware of stealing from a miserable man / and raging against the cripple.”[4] The similarity between these and multiple other verses and lines further suggests that the proverbs from both texts are perhaps “without” author and origin, that is their authorship is unknown; the proverbs themselves become mythemes in that sense because they are repeated across cultures. They are ubiquitous. If we were to argue for any origin for the Proverbs, it seems it would make the most sense to say that they find their origin in human experience itself. Though they may not be ubiquitous across all cultures, the fact that they cross the line between Hebraic and Egyptian cultures is enough to see that there are certainly some shared experiences across differing cultures.

In contrast, the proverbs of The Book of Bokonon do have clear authorship. The founder of the religion is still alive, though no one is able to find him until the last page of the novel. The writings found in this text differ from Proverbs in one way worth noting. They tell their own story of how they were written. In other words, they contain elements of meta-writing that describe the reason for why they were written. For example, “I wanted all things / To seem to make some sense, / So we all could be happy, yes, / Instead of tense. / And I made up lies / So that they all fit nice, / And I made this sad world / A par-a-dise.”[5] This suggests two important details about wisdom literature. First, it questions the nature of “truth” in wisdom. Bokonon admits that his wisdom is “fabricated”; he even gives a name to it, foma, which is defined as “harmless untruths” on the title page of the novel.[6] This then raises the question: In what way is Bokononian wisdom not the truth? Toward the end of the novel, the narrator recites this passage: “Beware of the man who works hard to learn something, learns it, and finds himself no wiser than before. He is full of murderous resentment of people who are ignorant without having come by their ignorance the hard way.”[7] The reader can certainly see the “truth” in such a statement. But within the context of a text that begins by telling its reader everything that follows is a lie, the presence of “true” wisdom seems paradoxical. If the wisdom is still applicable, is useful, then the meaning that we can pull from the author’s claim that everything in the book is false is two-fold. First, this further establishes the fact that authorship is only a function of the text—the author has no real power over the establishment of meaning in a text—his or her name only adds dimension and shape to the contours of the text, as Foucalt suggests. Bokonon’s statement regarding the falsity of the text becomes overridden by the fact that the statements found within the book are actually useful and contain “truth” to the extent that the reader can understand how they apply and are drawn from real life experience, much like Proverbs. The statement of falsity is rendered false, and the power of the text over the author is upheld. However, that is not to say necessarily that the “truth” of Bokononism is the same as the “truth” found in Proverbs. There are important differences.

If we compare the wisdom of Proverbs and Bokonon, these issues regarding truth will be further illuminated. The “wisdom” of Bokonon is highly subjective in that it takes “objective” facts regarding human and gives them “theological” content. The narrator tells the reader:

‘If you find your life tangled up with somebody else’s life for no very logical reasons,’ writes Bokonon, ‘that person may be a member of your karass.’ At another point in The Books of Bokonon he tells us, ‘Man created the checkerboard; God created the karass.’ By that he means that a karass ignores national, institutional, occupational, familial, and class boundaries. It is as free-form as an amoeba.[8]

Later, the narrator goes on to explain the importance of the karass and cites wisdom from Bokonon regarding how one is to handle his or her karass when he or she encounters it. All Bokonon has done is taken a very mundane detail about life—the fact that sometimes people end up in our lives for no particular reason—and turned it into the corner stone of his religion by placing it in the context of and along side other wisdom statements and by claiming that God created these groupings of people for a special reason. It becomes wise to the narrator by association, and the reader’s focus is then drawn to the people with whom the narrator becomes involved.

While Proverbs perhaps is not quite this extreme, the proverbs of Bokonon defamiliarize us with proverbs in general, pointing out to us their construction, and making us aware of what they are at the most base level. The book of Proverbs, in many ways, is also making observations about certain details, though they are not as mundane and inherently devoid of meaning as the ones Bokonon picks out. Proverbs 22:17-19 provides the theological content for the “Sayings of the Wise” spread over chapters 22-24:

The words of the wise: Incline your ear and hear my words, and apply your mind to my teaching; / for it will be pleasant if you keep them within you, if all of them are ready on your lips. / So that your trust may be in the Lord, I have made them known to you today—yes, to you.[9]

Here, the theological content is delivered before any observation is made, but the overall effect is essentially the same: Obey these things because they are of God.  We can look at the wisdom that follows this instruction to see how this works: Proverbs 23 begins with the following advice:

When you sit down to eat with a ruler, observe carefully what is before you, / and put a knife to your throat if you have a big appetite. / Do not desire the ruler’s delicacies, fore they are deceptive food. / Do not wear yourself out to get rich; be wise enough to desist. / When your eyes light upon it, it is gone; for suddenly it takes wings to itself, flying like an eagle toward heaven.[10]

In light of the Bokononian proverbs, we can see how the wisdom of Proverbs is similarly constructed. In the Bokononian proverb, we have first an observation about human relationships, particularly ones that are seemingly devoid of meaning, followed by a declaration that God has fashioned such relationships with a purpose, thus delivering not just some kind of existential meaning, but theological implications as well. However, there is a key difference with Proverbs. In these passages from Proverbs, the reader is first given the theological content—your trust is in the Lord if you follow these—and then we have the observation and advice, which, unlike the Bokononian proverb, would still be true outside of any explicit theological context. While the implications of the Bokononian proverb do have importance for the narrator and others in the novel, anyone who rejects Bokononism would immediately be rejecting the notion of karass and the idea that the random people we become tangled up with carry some kind of meaning for us. In that sense, Bokonon’s claim that his book is actually false is true because one must submit to the constructed theological reality created by Bokonon in order for many of his Proverbs to have any meaning.

The perhaps “higher truth” of Proverbs coupled with author functionality in a text further illuminates the ubiquitous nature of the book and leads us further to some interesting theological conclusions. Returning to Bokonon’s statement at the beginning of his religious text: If even a statement regarding falsity given by the author of a text is unable to render the text false, then the reader of Proverbs only need concern him or herself with what is actually being said in the text. Some may worry that if the book of Proverbs is not connected explicitly to Yahweh, to the exclusive history of Israel, then that my raise certain questions about the God-breathed nature of the book. How can this be the word of the God of Israel if the people under the gods of Egypt or elsewhere are writing such similar things? However, since we cannot discern the authorship of the text, since it does indeed seem mythological in nature, is mythemic, then the “truth” of the text or rather its Truth as God’s Word should not be an issue.

Furthermore, this perhaps points to wisdom literature as part of a natural theology. We have already seen that the wisdom in Proverbs transcends its theological content; that is, it does not need theological implications in order to be true. This suggests that the one true God is present in all things good and is able to inspire general revelation within varying groups in order to achieve his purposes. The common human experience I alluded to earlier could be further defined in terms of natural theology: God is present in wisdom that proves to be useful, edifying, and good. This must be the case for a number of reasons. First, there is no other way to theologically explain the origin of a book like Proverbs as God-breathed if by that we mean that the explicit and ultimate origin of a text is God not that God appropriated and transformed something else. It seems as though even if Solomon did “write” part of the book, the proverbs he wrote down were most likely picked up from somewhere else. It is quite possible he was more of a collector of proverbs rather than the creator of them. If this is the case, then the origin of the Proverbs is most likely not exclusively tied to the Hebraic tradition, but was transferred from another culture. The conclusion must be that God was at work in that other culture in order to eventually bring its wisdom to his chosen people. If everything is God’s creation, it should not be surprising that he can be at work in it in a variety of places.

by Joel Harrison

Works Cited

The Instructions of Amenemope. <http://www.touregypt.net/instructionofamenemope.htm&gt; 4 May 2010.

Foucalt, Michel. “What Is an Author?” Language, Counter Memory, Practice. Ed. Donald F. Bouchard. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1977.

New Revised Standard Bible. Division of Christian Education of the National Council of Churches of Christ in the USA. New York: Harper Collins, 1989.

Vonnegut, Kurt. Cat’s Cradle. New York: Dell Publishing, 1963.


[1] Kurt Vonnegut, Cat’s Cradle, (New York: Dell Publishing, 1963), p. 5.

[2] Michel Foucalt, “What Is an Author?” Language, Counter Memory, Practice, Ed. Donald F. Bouchard, (Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1977), p. 123.

[3] NRSV.

[4] The Instructions of Amenemope. <http://www.touregypt.net/instructionofamenemope.htm&gt; 4 May 2010.

[5] Vonnegut, Cat’s Cradle, 127.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid., 281.

[8] Vonnegut, Cat’s Cradle, p. 2-3.

[9] NRSV.

[10] NRSV.

The Post-____________ Church

To say that we live in a distinctively confusing period of human history may seem like a rather bland, superficial way to begin what I hope to be a continuing conversation about the direction of The Church and Christianity’s place in the contemporary West; however, I believe it to be fairly accurate particularly from the Christian perspective. At the risk of generalizing, we can say almost certainly that many generations throughout history have felt confused, have sought to find meaning, have tried to discover how everything fits together. One could then very easily point out that postmodernism, over the last forty or more years, has given rise to a certain type of relativity—a dismissal of all transcendent foundations upon which one can rest universal truth—as one way in which the current epoch differs from those previous. But it is not as simple as that. Somehow it seems that culturally, intellectually, and spiritually, the West has arrived at very different places.

The Church and the Academy

First, allow me to preface this discussion by disclosing that I am trained as an English scholar, and in particular have a special interest in post-structuralism and Continental philosophy. As such, my discussion will necessarily ignore certain key figures in the development of postmodernism, particularly with regard to its Marxist critics and contributors as well as the American analytic tradition. I hope to provide a more comprehensive picture at another time.

Let’s go back about fifty years. In 1959, we could probably say that church, in general, was seeing the beginnings of a revival within popular culture. Billy Graham had been organizing revival meetings for ten or eleven years that were covered by the Hearst papers  and Time in the early 1950s. At the core of church evangelism was the very modernist message that Christianity was the absolute truth all were searching for and that it was the responsibility of Christians to be Warriors of Christ. This is quite possibly a term that many are still hearing. The Church, as a whole has changed very little in the last fifty years; it still operates under the ideology of modernism—there is one knowable, transcendent truth, and its discovery is necessary for the betterment, even the salvation, of humanity.

During this same period, however, a new epoch was emerging in the academy. Atheistic existentialism had been gaining mass appeal since the 1930s and the prominence of Martin Heidegger. At the core of existentialism is still a transcendent truth—man himself. However, the rest of the universe is completely meaningless. It is man who must rise above this and create meaning and purpose for himself. Heidegger provides the famous analogy of being marooned on a desert island without having any idea of where we are exactly or why we are there. We must invent a purpose or else, as Albert Camus argues in The Myth of Sisyphus, we would have no reason to live, and would commit suicide. This worldview was still largely modern in that it rested on mankind finding the Truth within himself despite the meaninglessness of everything else. It wasn’t until the work of Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, Jean-Franscios Lyotard, and other Continental and post-structuralist philosophers and literary critics coupled with the publication of novels such as Gravity’s Rainbow, Slaughterhouse-Five, and so on, which both reflected and fragmented the ethos of the post-industrial age, that postmodernism truly began to take some shape.

No longer was the search for an absolute truth important or even possible. In fact, the idea that there is such a transcendental truth is primarily a power play made by those seeking control over others, particularly in the minds of Foucault and Lyotard. For Derrida, such a “Truth” is impossible because of the nature of language itself—the constant play of signifier and signified. Rather than the existence of a single transcendent, universal Truth, truths are developed as a product of community interaction, historical circumstance, and cultural influence. The world we perceive is composed of fragments, partial truths, and ambiguity. It is quite obvious then why this remained, and in some sense has continued to remain, such a threat for The Church. If we can’t know absolute truth, then how can we really know that Jesus is our Lord and Savior?

It took until the mid-1990s through the current decade for theologians and other religious academics to really start paying attention to this shift within the academy. The timing was perhaps fortunate and unfortunate simultaneously. Fortunate, because it was in the mid-nineties that intellectuals, particularly in America, began to realize in far greater numbers that the problem with post-structuralist “modes” like deconstruction is that they can become ideologies “without ideology” far too easily. That is, deconstruction was only ever meant to be a method of reading—a way to recognize the places in a text where the text subverts itself through its own language. Such a method is supposedly without agenda or ideology; however, it has been widely misread and misunderstood to merely be an ideology, which undoes the priorities of other ideologies but simultaneously claims to be without ideology. The pessimism that came along with the dismissal of absolute truth was losing its importance among some by this point within the academy. This made it far easier for theologians to swoop in and point out the ways in which postmodernism was not threatening to The Church. Books such as Stanley Grenz’s A Primer on Postmodernism (1996), Brian McLaren’s A Generous Orthodoxy (2004), James K.A. Smith’s Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism? (2006), theologians such as Ted Peters, Mark Taylor, and Harvey Cox, and within the secular academy, John D. Caputo’s work including The Prayers and Tears of Jacques Derrida (1997) are all major contributions and contributors to The Church’s understanding of how postmodernism fits in with and helps to inform the Christian narrative in a much different way.

I say it was unfortunate because it seems it was far too late to make much of an impact on the culture of The Church. Many Christians are very fearful of the postmodern worldview. However, they are not addressing the postmodern from a position beyond it; rather, they equate it entirely with the secular, not realizing that they are still only barely holding on to the sinking ship of modernism. And even though the Emergent church has made attempts at change, they certainly haven’t been radical enough to constitute an entire paradigm shift in Christian culture. Many of these churches are not changing the way church is done—just the way it looks. And now the academy is transitioning away from postmodernism.

Regarding transition in the academy, I can really only speak for English departments, since that is where I was trained primarily, but what I can say is that the focus of high literary theory and the use of theory itself is currently experiencing a major shift. Timothy Keller, in the preface to his most recent book The Reason for God, cites an article written by Stanley Fish, a prominent Milton scholar, in which Fish relates a brief anecdote regarding the death of Jacques Derrida. Fish writes that following the news of Derrida’s death, a reporter asked him what would replace the triumvirate of race, class, and gender in high theory within the academy. Fish answered with one word: Religion. Fish of course isn’t suggesting that we’ll some how crawl (or fall) back into the Dark Ages or that we’ll return to religion because we couldn’t deal with facing the meaninglessness postmodernism presented us. Rather, I see Fish’s comment as representative of a post-secularism in which religion will be raised up from the mud it’s been thrown in to by the academy and searched extensively for any intrinsic value that can be found in helping us make sense of objects of study—as Marxism has, as the psychoanalysis of Freud and Lacan has, as deconstruction has. It will no longer be seen as an ideology of the Dark Ages that somehow managed to hang around despite the countless attempts on its life. It will be seen as a legitimate tool for exploring and writing about a text.

So it seems as if the Church is now, mostly, two steps behind the academy. However, in relation to Science, the two are on the same plane.

The Church and Science

Science seems to occupy a very strange place within culture and the academy. It, along with the majority of the Church, seems to be the last bastion of modernist thinking. Perhaps accusing Science itself of this isn’t quite fair—those who adhere to Science as an ideology is more accurate.

A few months ago, I began posting comments on a website called soulpancake.com. The site was created by Rainn Wilson of The Office as a means for people of all walks to come and share their views on “deep” questions about the existence of God or the meaning of this or that. Some of the people who post are cordial, open to possibilities they hadn’t thought of, and willing to engage in intelligent conversation. Many, however, were not. And of those, the vast majority was sternly rooted to the idea that Science was really the end-all be-all with regard to what human beings can know. Take for example this response:

“Absolute truth can only be awarded to one religion. So let us look at the probability for a second. All religions say they are the truth, what are the odds that even one of them is remotely close to the truth?? It seems to me that all religions are actually wrong… none of them hit the nail on the head about anything. The closest thing to truth and the closest thing to finding actual truth through knowledge is science.

So my conclusion is that all religions are at least 98% incorrect and inaccurate. Some day religions may be proven to be 100% incorrect through the triumphs of science. Ahh science… the calming, soothing, realistic, logical, factual quest for actual truth. I’m excited to see what science can show us in the next few years.”

Notice, that although this person discounts religion completely as being able to find absolute truth, he claims that Science will find the Truth. There is a direct trade: Science for Religion. His faith in the “triumph of science” as he puts it is unwavering, and his conviction that it will find all of the answers is a very obvious mode of modern Enlightenment thinking. Stanley Grenz, in his aforementioned book, gives this concise description of Enlightenment thinking:

“At the intellectual foundation of the Enlightenment project are certain epistemological assumptions. Specifically, the modern mind assumes that knowledge is certain, objective, and good. Moreover, moderns assume that, in principle, knowledge is accessible to the human mind. [. . .] The Enlightenment perspective assumes that knowledge is not only certain (and hence rational) but also objective. The assumption of objectivity leads the modernist to claim access to dispassionate knowledge. Modern knowers profess to be more than merely conditioned participants in the world they observe: they claim to be able to view the world as unconditioned observers—that is to survey the world from a vantage point outside the flux of history.

[. . .]

In addition to assuming that knowledge is certain and objective, Enlightenment thinkers also assume that it is inherently good. The modern scientist, for example, considers it axiomatic that the discovery of knowledge is always good. This assumption of the inherent goodness of knowledge renders the Enlightenment outlook optimistic. It leads to the belief that progress is inevitable, that science, coupled with the power of education, will eventually free us from our vulnerability to nature as well as from all social bondage.

[. . .]

Enlightenment optimism, together with the focus on reason, elevates on human freedom. Suspect are all beliefs that seem to curtail autonomy or to be based on some external authority rather than reason (and experience.) The Enlightenment project understands freedom largely in individual terms. In fact, the modern ideal champions the autonomous self, the self-determining subject who exists outside any tradition or community.”

This description does not only describe Enlightenment science, though I think it’s fairly clear to see how the comment above fits almost exactly with Grenz’s explanation. In some ways, this describes the mindset of the modern Christian as well. The assumption of the modern Christian is that God is completely “knowable”—a point of theology that we’ll perhaps have to dive into later on as this conversation progresses. The modern Christian also believes that all the evidence for God is merely lying around, waiting to be collected and catalogued in order to build a case for the existence of God. Of course, this affinity is what seems to cause the greatest point of tension between Science and Christianity. Like the commenter above, those who hold to a scientific ideology are naturally going to be at odds with someone who holds to a modern Christian ideology because they seem to be diametrically opposed. Science, at the level of ideology, is no longer a tool. It becomes a worldview complete with its own system of priorities, exclusions, inclusions, and claims. This is then to suggest that a Christian worldview that is not modern, will not be diametrically opposed to Science.

There is nothing superficially wrong with Science at the level of worldview. To be sure, all of us, many even without realizing it, adhere to some kind of worldview. Our perception is shaped by our families, our communities, our culture as a whole—our heroes and villains, teachers, friends, and so on. But there are two problems with the contemporary scientific worldview, specifically within the popular culture of new atheism created by Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, and the like.

Cultural Duality and the Veil of Perception

The first issue at hand is that of the prominence of relativism and scientific certainty at the same time in Western culture. Coupled with the problem of ideological incompatability between the scientific worldview and that of the modern Christian is the sense that Christians are close-minded, intolerant, and archaic. Part of this stems from the perception that Christianity attempts to provide a literal explanation of natural phenomena like the creation of the universe that seems to rooted in myth (viewed as an inferior way of knowing,) but it also stems from a desire to be inclusive of all religious viewpoints. I’ve seen questions posted on soulpancake.com asking things along the lines of “How can Christians be atheists with regard to every god except their own?”, a reworking of a similar question that has been posed by Dawkins, essentially asking, “Of all the ‘beings’ invisible to us, how is it that Christians have the nerve to claim their invisible being is the right one?”

The question raises some very interesting problems. On the surface, it is a question about the “close-mindedness” of Christianity and the atrocities Christians have perpetrated in the name of it. Dawkins and his followers will point to the death, war, and pain caused all for what they see as an ultimately ridiculous endeavor. Their solution is to either outlaw individual religion altogether, or to attempt to convince people of individual faith that they should adopt a pluralistic view for the greater good. The underpinnings of this answer, however, are tied to two very non-relativistic presuppositions. First, it presupposes that Science is the actual location of absolute truth, and furthermore seems to suggest that wars, death, and pain would not be caused by Science—a claim the survivors of the twentieth century know to be a complete load of crap, if I may be frank. Secondly, it seems to suggest that asking one to abandon his conviction regarding the “rightness” of his religion for a pluralistic view is not contradictory, when it most definitely is. In other words, a staunchly pluralistic worldview regarding religion is in fact not pluralistic. This is the classic problem with absolute relativity—it can’t truly exist. There seems to be then a duality, culturally speaking, that desires Scientific certainty, even autonomy, but also religious plurality and an illusion of cultural relativism.

The second issue is tied to the fact that there is a strong sense among the popular atheistic community that atheists do not have to make a case for their position. In fact, it is not a position at all. For many, it just “is” as evidenced by the previous comment and the following two:

“But the thing is, it’s not a system. One doesn’t have to understand science to be an atheist. One merely needs to reject/ignore religious claims. Atheism is a neutral stance, not making any claims. Although some do say, “There is no god,” atheism says “I don’t believe in a god.” Semantics, but important. As an atheist I see no evidence for a god therefore I don’t believe in one. I’m not making a statement, but rather dismissing the statements of others. You can consider it the default setting. It really is that simple.”

“Let me be clear, what I believe is not at issue, because it is self evident and within the natural Universe. What you believe is supernatural and not of the Universe. That is an extraordinary claim. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof. That, as they say, is that.”

These two positions are also distinctly modern. What is most interesting is that neither accounts for the veil of perception that we experience as observers. They speak of what Christopher Hitchens calls “the chainless mind.” I see this desire to be a chainless mind, to simply believe only what you can see, as symptomatic of an extreme backlash against what Western culture has perceived to be the “blind faith” of religion. In other words, if one hates Religion and everything it stands for, one is going to attempt to find a location that is furthest from it.

Conclusion: The Search for a New Core

I’ve touched on quite a bit that needs further explanation. I hope that this site can be a forum for developing these points. But before that, we need to take a look at where this confluence of worldviews leaves us. First, it is important to realize that the church is confronted by culture on at least two major fronts: Science and postmodernism. Even though the academy is beginning to abandon postmodernism, it will certainly be a few decades before culture does. Paradoxically, modernist Science still thrives within a culture that is more and more distinctly postmodern. The church, however, is fading into obscurity the longer it clings to the dying body of modernist thought. How did the Church become so irrelevant and how do we make it relevant again? The answer to that, I believe, lies in radically changing the way we as Christians view not just The Church, our individual, and secular culture as well. How we react to the responses offered to our faith like the ones above is important too. If we attempt to fight fire with fire, we will lose. However, as I’ve hopefully demonstrated to some extent, the modernist view of Science is not just an objective position, free of human influence. Despite what the third comment says, it is at issue. But if we approach this problem from the same point he does, a modernist worldview, it will be very difficult to convince anyone that what we have to say is valid. The third commentator is correct on one level after all—there is lots of evidence in the natural world, which validate the claims of Science. But that is certainly not the only kind of evidence there is.

Addressing the popular claims of postmodern culture requires a similar strategy—we must find a different ground from which we can critique these claims. This is how the dialectic of history works. Whatever foundation we find now will have to be modified again when nonbelievers come up with a rebuttal. It won’t end. The Bible tells us as much. Why should we assume that the modern church, the church of our parents and grandparents, were the ones who got it right? the problem has been that The Church as a whole has been steps behind, culturally and academically, for nearly 150 years now. It’s time for us to take a leap forward.

by Joel Harrison

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