It’s Cute That We Think We Hate Postmodernism

This blog post has a thesis: Wholesale dismissal of the core insights of “Postmodernist” thinkers generally stems from never having read them – or from having read them, but poorly. 

When I said this to a friend today, he was shocked, and asked just which core insights I had in mind. I can think of at least two.

At the very least, we should not dismiss the insight, at once profound and, in hindsight, self-evident, that human communities tend to gravitate toward marginalization. This is difficult to argue with, and, if you are a student of the New Testament, for example, or Church history in general, it will not be difficult to think of (rather uncontroversial) examples of this. 

Not least, I would imagine, Paul’s lifelong struggle to conform the disparate church communities over whom he had influence to the demands of the Gospel – namely, for those predominantly Jewish churches with whom he corresponded to embrace fully the Gentile converts in their midst. 

You don’t have to be a wholesale Foucauldian to recognize the human propensity to marginalize, as did those who (quite understandably) struggled to envision God’s covenant community as fully inclusive of Gentiles – who were uncircumcised, ate pork, and had fewer  culturally-ingrained sexual taboos, among other things. 

It was a two-way street, of course: Those predominantly Gentile churches, many of which Paul had planted or was now shepherding from afar, often struggled to be fully inclusive of the Jewish converts in their midst. The circumstances here are harder to sympathize with.

Quite frankly, Romans didn’t just love their Jewish neighbors. Most of what you’ve read about how the empire was a “bastion of multiculturalism” is misleading at best. The cities, especially, were a powder keg, and the so-called “multiculturalism” of the Pax Romana days consisted mostly in explosive sectarian violence and heavy-handed imperial repression. 

There was a litany of cultures, living together in relative stability. But it was not a Lockean arrangement; The stability of the empire rested largely in its being a military state. People from a multitude of backgrounds lived in close quarters without disintegrating into full-blown civil war because the State saw to it that opportunities to do so were rare.

So prejudice ran rampant, and minority groups like the Jews – especially of the Palestinian variety, who had not Hellenized at nearly the rate of there Alexandrian cousins – were the objects of near universal scorn. What “toleration” they received from the government was purely political prudence; What toleration they received from their neighbors owed chiefly to the fact that their neighbors didn’t want to be executed for “disturbing the peace.”

So when Gentiles joined these Pauline communities in ever-increasing numbers, it was inevitable that their Jewish co-religionists would not fare well initially. And they didn’t. The product of these inter-ethnic, intra-ecclesial tensions is that most of the New Testament was written.

******

There is another “core insight” that we should not dismiss. Namely, that there is a significant degree to which, in every age, culture, and community, the language we use gradually becomes like a vast “echo-chamber” that makes it difficult to think outside of certain fairly rigid, if spacious, categories. The result, of course, being that plenty of pertinent questions, whether moral questions or otherwise, never occur to us.

There is the reason, for example, that it took so very long for much of the Christian world to catch up with Paul, among other things, in regards to how marriage should operate. Paul’s notion of the self-sacrificing husband who reflects Jesus as he relates to his wife was certainly picked up by some of the Church Fathers, and later by some Reformers and Puritans, but the overall trajectory of Western society, aside from some exceptional cases, was simply to rehearse a number of variations on the traditional Greco-Roman pater-familial model in which the matriarch of any given household is either literally or functionally the “property” of her husband. That is, of course, just one example of how the linguistic “echo-chamber” plays out. 

Unfortunately, so-called “postmodernist” authors generally use such jargon-heavy language that their writings are borderline incomprehensible, so even when they have a salient point, it only rarely comes across in digestibly. They seldom bother trying to communicate in plain language because they’re usually just preaching to the choir. 

But even when they are only preaching to the choir, they are preaching a message that, at the bottom of things, ought to be heeded. They go off the rails, of course, and often. 

One needn’t read far to find exactly what I’m talking about: There is, implicit in much “deconstructive” discourse, the rather indefensible presumption that all “norms,” everywhere – regardless of origin or intention – are inherently oppressive

I hope that I don’t have to explain why that assumption is problematic; If you can’t imagine why so many twenty-somethings are immobilized by a kind of formless and void nihilism, I might suggest that it’s because we told them that “all truth claims are power plays.” 

But claims like that are “postmodernism” at its very laziest, and least astute. These implications are by no means necessary, or intrinsic to the phenomenon. Lyotard defines postmodernism as “a distrust of meta-narratives” and it may be that. 

But it is worth distinguishing between “a frankly uncritical distrust toward meta-narrative in general” and “a measured, conscientious posture of gentle suspicion.”

Who would disagree that it is certainly worth asking whether “the dominant assumptions of our culture,” at any given time, are actually correct? It ought to go without saying that if more people asked precisely that question of our culture, today, more people might be willing to consider that the Christian faith is not an artifact from a less-civilized age. If nothing else, I guess, it’s cute that we think we hate “postmodernism”: We are all, all of us, resolutely “postmodern” in our thinking, which, in itself, ought to remind us that very term itself is far less narrow than we imagine it to be.

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