Monday, June 14, 2010

Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson and... N.T. Wright? - On Postmodernism

Pat Robertson and the late Jerry Falwell often grabbed the spotlight of the media and drew the ire of their political and social opponents, as well as from many fellow Christians (undoubtedly amongst them liberal theologians such as N.T. Wright), when they made pronouncements about what they believe to be God's judgment. Such as when they made the claims that Katrina was God's judgment upon homosexuals, or 9-11 was God's judgment on America for it's sinfulness. Such statements are, for the most part, rightly renounced by the public. The key fallacy behind such statements is that they arrogantly presume to know God's will.

I stumbled on an old article by N.T. Wright yesterday on postmodernity and the proposed response for the church. As usual his Biblical scholarship is exquisite. He goes over the story of Christ visiting the disciples in Luke after his death and breaking bread with them before vanishing. He tells it with "musical accompaniment" from one of the Psalms. He goes on to describe the moment when the disciples realize who Christ is and their eyes become open, and juxtaposes it with a moment in Genesis after the fall when Adam and Eve's eyes become closed. All quite brilliant stuff.

What does any of that have to do with postmodernity and how we should respond to it? I'm not quite sure. He makes some allusions to how the two connect, but honestly it seems like he should have separated this into two different articles. The opening and closing of this piece are on postmodernity and the church, while the center is a piece of Biblical scholarship that seems to me mostly disconnected from the introduction and the conclusion. It's possible I'm just being obtuse but, in any case, I didn't really follow him here.

What struck me as particularly odd was Wright's claim that postmodernity is an outworking of God's judgment on the arrogance of modernity. How is such a claim, where Wright claims to know the will of God and claims that a particular event is the result of his judgment, fundamentally different from the types of statements made by Falwell and Robertson? My assertion is that there is no difference. Wright's claim is more cerebral and abstract, and it doesn't cynically play on tragedy, but the key fallacy is identical. Even if Wright were as visible a public figure as the other two, undoubtedly his statement would not strike people as being offensive because, again, it's more cerebral (a lot fewer people would even know what he's talking about), and because in this example Wright is claiming an extremely broad, general judgment that applies to the whole of mankind. Where Falwell and Robertson's statements claimed to know when God was judging specific sub-sets of humanity. Nevertheless, the underlying fallacy is the same.

As a second, mostly unrelated point, Wright's acceptance of postmodernity itself seems to be made on grounds that appear to be quite modern. His entire method of critique that he employs for evaluating postmodernity--wherein he concludes that we should not fear it but embrace it--is itself based in wholly modern epistemology. For example, he states with a great deal of certitude that "what we must not do, I believe, is pretend [postmodernity] hasn't really happened." But, if postmodernity does in fact hold sway, then there's really nothing that we must not do. Indeed, such a claim belongs to the arrogance of modernity which he has already renounced.

Wright goes on to assert that there are "no such thing as bare facts", and that postmodernity has revealed this to be the case. In other words he claims that it's a fact that there are no facts.

Directly after stating that postmodernity has undermined the validity of all "metanarratives", revealing them to be mere power games, he proceeds to introduce a coherent, linear metanarrative of his own which culminates in his revealing postmodernity to be a judgment upon mankind, and he expects us to accept his own metanarrative as valid and important.

Such is the absurdity of postmodernity.

I suppose within the nihilistic constructs of postmodernity you can create metanarratives while simultaneously denouncing metanarratives as inherently meaningless. You can make heavy-handed pronouncements about things that we "must" do, while simultaneously asserting that postmodernity has revealed that we need not do anything in particular. You can reject the arrogance of modernity while arrogantly, modern-ly asserting that modernity is dead, and that it's death is the result of God's judgment.

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