Postmodern Biblical Authority?
by Kurt Willems
We live in a world of transitions. Some examples might include: the transition from childhood to adolescence, the transition from education to a career, the transition from singleness to marriage, and so on. These times in one’s life can be adventurous, but can also initially be a time of awkwardness. When a thirteen year old boy cracks his voice in front of the girl of his dreams on Valentines Day or when a new employee realizes that there are some things that can not be learned in the classroom; these can be difficult situations. But in all of these types of scenarios, the period of insecurity will hopefully bring about something exciting.
In a similar way, it seems that the evangelical church is in the midst of some kind of a transition. For the past three hundred years, culture has embraced modernism. Recently though, something new has been moving forward. Many in our culture and some within the church have begun to explore postmodern philosophy. This has caused Christians to ask many questions during this awkward period of transition. One question that is being asked from modern Christians is: Is a postmodern approach to biblical authority possible? This is a difficult area to explore, but hopefully, through some frustration, we will be able to discover exciting possibilities. In order to do so, we now turn to modernism so that we can understand the context from which we are transitioning.
TRANSITIONING FROM MODERNISM
In order address the question whether postmodernism will make any room for some sort of a belief in biblical authority, it is important to examine the terrain from which western culture has traveled over the past three hundred years. What does one mean when referring to the era of modernism? Roughly understood, modernism found its roots in the Enlightenment of the eighteenth century. Although some philosophers made room for religion (“made room” being precisely part of the problem!), this can be observed as movement towards atheism. Only through “reason” could humanity progress, and therefore only the “rational” could suffice for understanding the world. With science as the key that opened the door to society’s greatness, miracles and any other sort of divine activity within the world of time and space had to be discounted. Therefore, the Bible became the prey of many Enlightenment thinkers, and under such rationalistic scrutiny, traditional biblical authority did not have a prayer.
N. T. Wright draws attention to three areas which make up the “modernist trinity.” The first of these is, the individual can be the “master of my fate… [and the] captain of my soul.” Second, the world can be understood with certainty through objective knowledge—“attempt to eschew all perspective rooted in particular times, places and traditions, in order to aspire to the ‘view from nowhere.’” The third member of this unholy trinity is the belief in the progression of society that was on the brink of an unrealized utopia. One summary of modern reason states that it “aspires to a comprehensive explanation of reality, including the human condition, and seeks rationally based universal criteria by which to order society and to liberate humanity through technology.”
How has modernism affected the view of the Bible? For some who are strictly Enlightenment scholars, the Bible has often been viewed as an ancient book of myths. Fundamentalism arose out a rebellion against such a perspective, only to attempt the use of their own kind of objectivity to substantiate its ‘reasonable claims.’ This protest of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries attempted to create an objective apologetic to prove that the Bible contains literal and universal truth, thus appealing to a quasi-modern view of biblical authority. There are many lingering seeds of this type of understanding and defense of the authority of Scripture in our transitioning culture, as the hyper-literalism of fundamentalism has sustained a voice into the twenty-first century.
The above gives a brief account of modernism; but it is to postmodernism that we now must turn in order to answer our question of biblical authority.
WILL THE ‘REAL’ POSTMODERNISM PLEASE STAND UP?
Postmodernism is a term that many have used in different ways. Some in the evangelical world, are still convinced that postmodernism is a method for doing contemporary ministry. Some have never heard of the term; many view it as dangerous; others may not even know that they embody such a philosophy. Within the evangelical church in America, postmodernism has endured a love-hate relationship. Many who are part of the so-called emerging church movement have embraced this philosophical shift and have redefined Christian practice in light of the rebellion against modernism. Those who have a commitment to modern apologetics, refuse to open themselves up to the critiques of postmodernism and often attempt to discredit emerging Christian leaders as heretics. Scot McKnight states:
…the evangelical world prohibited postmodernity, as if it were fruit from the forbidden tree… We found that it tasted good, even if at times we found ourselves spitting out hard chunks of nonsense.
Is it possible that the forbidden fruit of postmodernism can still lead to a Bible that caries authority in our lives? For those who have embraced postmodernism either by cultural conditioning or by choice, this question may mean the difference between faith in God and some alternative. In order to examine this question, we must turn our attention to two voices that call out to us from Paris; Jacques Derrida and Jean-Francois Lyotard. These are two of the great thinkers who have developed postmodern philosophy. We will now turn our attention to Derrida’s deconstruction and Lyotard’s collapse of the meta-narrative. By doing so, we will begin to examine whether it is feasible for postmodernism and biblical authority to find a common path.
DERRIDA: NOTHING OUTSIDE THE TEXT
Jacques Derrida was a twentieth century philosopher who is famous for stating: “There is nothing outside the text.” For many, this has been a difficult statement to deal with on a theological level. Modern Christians have taken that statement to mean a number of different things, typically believing it to have negative ramifications for how we approach faith and understand the Scriptures. On the surface, this seems to indicate that the whole world is some type of text. If that is the case, then logically it follows that Derrida must have been denying material reality and believing in only language. Often, this simplified understanding of Derrida and of his “deconstruction” philosophy has led many Christian scholars to become defensive. If the only reality is text, then the one God who is separate from the created order could not actually be existent. If the only thing that exists is texts themselves, then that which the Bible speaks about would also be false. Things like the resurrection, creation, or spiritual warfare would not be real; and therefore, there would be no redemption of the cosmos or humanity. Another common understanding of the deconstruction spoken of by Derrida is that one can make a text mean anything without boundaries. For these reasons, the more common Christian stance when it comes to deconstruction is that it opposes the foundations of the faith.
What if the common understanding of deconstruction is not what Derrida actually had in mind? What if deconstruction could be used as an advocate of Scripture rather than its opponent? In order to answer these questions it is important to explore beyond the one line slogan that has been so often been misunderstood. James K. A. Smith explains:
Thus, just before making his famous claim that “there is nothing outside the text,” Derrida says that a reading or interpretation “cannot legitimately transgress the text toward something other than it, toward a referent…or toward a signified outside the text whose content could take place, could have taken place outside of language, that is to say, in the sense that we give here to that word, outside of writing in general”…Interpretation is not a series of hoops we jump through to eventually reach a realm of unmediated experience where we don’t have to interpret anymore. Rather, interpretation is an inescapable part of being human and experiencing the world. So even this blue cup sitting on my table, from which I am drinking my coffee “firsthand,” as it were, is still a matter of interpretation.
Derrida believed that all of life is a text (not a literal book). Everything that we do requires interpretation and that language serves as the medium for such. In every act, a person is interpreting the world based on the various presuppositions that are brought to the particular experience. If all of life requires interpretation, the modern notion of objectivity is confronted. From the perspective of many Christians, this threatens our view of the Bible as an authoritative book. For instance, if the gospel is merely an interpretive understanding, then its objective truth is now threatened. But as Christians, do we really need to buy into objectivism? Is that not merely a philosophy in the same way that deconstruction is? It should not shake the believer from faith if objective knowledge is challenged in this way. The modernist longs for something that cannot be attained from a human perspective, absolute certainty. Assurance that the Bible is authoritative should not rest on objective reason, but should come from a deep conviction from a relationship to the Spirit of God. In a deconstruction, we are enabled to wrestle with pre-established constructions about the Bible, in order to search out what may lie beneath inherited beliefs.
In order to properly interpret the texts we encounter, not only do we need to deconstruct the dominant interpretive structures, but we also need to listen to the voices that have been silenced by such authoritarianism. By embracing the “other,” we now can begin to search out to find uncontainable truth; or perhaps truth seeks us out. Postmodern Philosopher John D. Caputo explains:
Deconstruction is organized around the idea that things contain a kind of uncontainable truth, that they contain what they cannot contain. Nobody has to come along and “deconstruct” things. Things are auto-deconstructed by the tendencies of their own inner truth. In a deconstruction, the “other” is the one who tells the truth on the “same”; the other is the truth of the same, the truth that has been repressed and suppressed, omitted and marginalized, or sometimes just plain murdered, like Jesus himself…
How does deconstruction apply to biblical authority? Does not the very word “authority” describe the oppressor of the “other?” How could someone use deconstruction and cling to a book as having authority? What if we suggested that the Bible represents the story of a people who were the “other?” The New Testament tells the story of a community of people whose message subverted the empire of the day: “Jesus is Lord and Caesar is not.” The Roman Empire oppressed, persecuted, and killed Christians; but the voice of the other is still experienced today via the Scriptures. The Roman meta-narrative was an oppressive force, but the church movement continued to grow in spite of being the marginalized voice in the empire. Perhaps it could be said that from the perspective of deconstruction, the Bible is authoritative precisely because it is the story of a people who auto-deconstructed Rome. If the Bible can be viewed as the proclamation of the “other,” then it is able to reveal the truth that has often been left in the margins of modernism.
LYOTARD: INCREDULITY TOWARD METANARRATIVES
In 1979, Jean-Francois Lyotard published a book titled, The Postmodern Condition. This contains his most famous quote: “Simplifying to the extreme, I define postmodernism as incredulity towards meta-narratives.” In other words, postmodernism is the distrust toward “big stories.” What does this actually mean? For instance, when we reflect on the nature of scripture, it is the big story of God’s action in the world. Could this be the roadblock that finally causes us to give up on our quest to find a postmodern biblical authority?
In order to answer the above questions, it will be productive to probe a bit to more clearly distinguish what Lyotard had in mind when he discussed the meta-narrative. William Stacy Johnson summarized it this way:
The “meta-narratives” of which Lyotard speaks are the grand, self legitimating interpretive frameworks according to which we modern people seek to define our world as complete and whole. A meta-narrative is the omnicompetent rationale according to which all individual narratives are thought to find their larger meaning and purpose.
According to Lyotard, meta-narrative describes a uniquely modern situation. They do not only contain “big stories,” but it is the self legitimizing quality by appealing to a type of universal reason that makes a meta-narrative. Ancient tribal stories tell “big stories,” but these would not fall into Lyotard’s category, because they do not rely on modern scientific knowledge to be considered rational. Homer’s Odyssey is a good example of a “big story” that does not meet the criteria to be a meta-narrative. This is because this ancient story does not appeal to universal reason, but rather it is a story of proclamation that calls on faith.
Postmodernists are suspicious of meta-narratives, but highly value the “small stories.” Your story matters; my story matters. The modern meta-narrative of progress has turned out to be a lie, but the “small stories” are what is real in daily life.
In light of this explanation of meta-narratives, does the Bible fit into such a category? Is the Bible a meta-narrative in the modern sense? The answer is clearly, no. As was discussed earlier, the New Testament church is not part of a meta-narrative, but is a movement of resistance against such. The Roman Empire oppressed the early Christians with its power, but through weakness the church endured; and this is the proclamation that we read each time we open the Scriptures. Just as Homer’s Odyssey is a “big story” of proclamation, so also biblical authority is found in the story that is told, not in some form of scientific or universal reason. James K. A. Smith states:
While in modernity science was the emperor who set the rules for what counted as truth and castigated faith as fable, postmodernity has shown us the emperor’s nudity. Thus, we no longer need to apologize for faith—we can be unapologetic in our kerygmatic proclamation of the gospel narrative.
NARRATIVE, IMAGINATION, AND IMPROVISATION
We have explored the downfall of modernism and the emergence of postmodernism. In doing so, it has been demonstrated that both deconstruction and a suspicion towards meta-narratives help demonstrate the possibility of some kind of postmodern approach to biblical authority. Considering that biblical authority does not have to rely on some form of universal reason to legitimize its claims, how can the narrative of the Scriptures exercise authority in the life of the postmodernist?
The Bible’s narrative is one that draws in the reader to take part as an actor or actress in its open-ended drama. In a drama there are multiple actors that we must perform with, which means that we must be ready to embrace the “other.” In fact, the “other” will be just as important to the storyline. A good drama requires that the characters remain consistent throughout the whole story, but also demonstrating the forward movement of the play. N. T. Wright has developed the following model for the understanding of biblical authority in the postmodern church. He compares the Bible to a five act play. The first act is the story of Scripture is creation, then “fall,” then Israel, then Jesus, and finally the church. Act five is unique in that it is an unfinished narrative. Its opening scene began with the apostolic age that we find storied in the New Testament, and will reach its consummation in the final scene as evidenced in such passages as: Romans 8, 1 Corinthians 15, and parts of Revelation. Currently, we are living as part of the fifth act, in the age of the church, which remains open-ended. In this scenario, biblical authority would be expressed through the imagination of the actor based on the scripts of the first four acts of the story. Such improvisation unleashes the postmodern imagination to dream about how “my small story” can matter within the “big story” of God.
God’s story is still unfolding today. We are invited to participate in this story during an age of transition towards postmodernism. It is within our participation that the Bible becomes truly authoritative. This will not always be an easy task and it may require some awkward moments along the way, but it is in these moments that we can re-imagine and implement our place in the narrative of God.
. N. T. Wright, The Last Word: Scripture and The Authority of God– Getting Beyond The Bible Wars (New York, NY: HarperCollins, 2005), 82-84.
. N. T. Wright, “The Bible for the Post Modern World,” 1999, N. T. Wright Page [Www.ntwrightpage.com], http://www.biblicaltheology.ca/blue_files/The%20Bible%20for%20the%20Post%20Modern%20World.pdf (accessed August, 2008).
. Brian J. Walsh, and Slyvia C. Keesmaat, Colossians Remixed: Subverting The Empire (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2004), 121.
. Wright, The Bible for the Post Modern World,” http://www.biblicaltheology.ca/blue_files/The%20Bible%20for%20the%20Post%20Modern%20World.pdf.
. The Art of Reading Scripture, ed. Ellen F. Davis and Richard B. Hays (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2003), 46.
. For a good overview of the history of fundamentalism see: George M. Marsden, Fundamentalism and American Culture, 2d ed. (New York, New York: Oxford University Press, 2006).
. Scot McKnight, “Five Streams of The Emerging Church,” Christianity Today (February 2007), 36.
. James K. A. Smith, Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism?: Taking Derrida, Lyotard, and Foucault to Church, ed. James K. A. Smith, The Church and Postmodern Culture (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2006), 34.
. Ibid., 34-35.
. The Art of Reading Scripture, ed. Ellen F. Davis and Richard B. Hays (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2003), 117.
. Smith, Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism?: Taking Derrida, Lyotard, and Foucault to Church, 38.
. Ibid., 39-40.
. Smith, Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism?: Taking Derrida, Lyotard, and Foucault to Church, 42.
. Ibid., 51.
. John D. Caputo, What Would Jesus Deconstruct?: The Good News of Post-Modernism for The Church, ed. James K. A. Smith, The Church and Postmodern Culture (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2007), 29.
. Wright, The Last Word: Scripture and The Authority of God– Getting Beyond The Bible Wars, 115.
. The Art of Reading Scripture, ed. Ellen F. Davis and Richard B. Hays (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2003), 51.
. Smith, Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism?: Taking Derrida, Lyotard, and Foucault to Church, 63.
. The Art of Reading Scripture, ed. Ellen F. Davis and Richard B. Hays (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2003), 121.
. Smith, Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism?: Taking Derrida, Lyotard, and Foucault to Church, 65.
. Wright, The Bible for the Post Modern World,” http://www.biblicaltheology.ca/blue_files/The%20Bible%20for%20the%20Post%20Modern%20World.pdf.
. Smith, Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism?: Taking Derrida, Lyotard, and Foucault to Church, 71.
. Walter Brueggemann, Texts Under Negotiation: The Bible and Postmodern Imagination (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Fortress, 1993), 65.
. Wright, The Last Word: Scripture and The Authority of God– Getting Beyond The Bible Wars, 122-3.