Sunday, February 16, 2003

Nomo Pomo?

a response to

Nomo Pomo—a Postmodern Rant
Why we can and should talk about something else.

by Kevin A. Miller

Kevin Miller has grown a bit fatigued with evangelicals' fascination and interaction with postmodernism. Yet he apparently stills sees value in the movement as evidenced by his willing participation in this month's Emergent Convention. His critique of the burgeoning emerging church movement has precipitated lots of keytapping in pomoChristianLand. (See, for example, comments by Next-Wave publisher Charlie Wave, iphy, Andrew Jones, and a number of posts by Andrew Carega, etc.)

First of all, I think it worth noting that Miller has styled his comment as a "rant." A rant, by the nature of the case, is meant to be taken as somewhat iconoclastic. It's a dramatized, emotional overstatement for the purpose of effect. One does not ever take a rant to be a "reasoned critique, pro and con." Rather it's the verbal equivalent of a molotov cocktail. Yet the dissonance that results from applying such a metaphor to Miller's expression reveals that it really would be more accurate to characterize his tone as "rantesque." He moderates his criticism with some positive comments about ideas drifting out beyond the bounds of the pomoChristian thoughtspace into the general evangelical atmosphere. So while we will disagree with some of his comments, let's be fair and recognize that he's raising his voice (and his rhetoric) to make a point.

So what of his specific comments?

Miller says,

"It's hard to remember now, but a decade ago, seminars were given on preaching, not on "Preaching in a Postmodern Age." Books were written on plain ol' youth ministry, not "Postmodern Youth Ministry." Of course, we were all unenlightened, unwashed then, locked in a dead, Newtonian modernism."

Miller's sarcasm serves to make the point that pre-postmodern ministry (if you'll allow the phrase) can't be absolutized as uniformly modern. To collapse the "pre-postmodern" Christian pastor to being "merely" a modern is as patently unfair as accusing every emerging church leader as subscribing to every concept advocated by Derrida, Foucault, Rorty, and the rest of the gang.

After expressing agreement with some points made by PPMs (proponents of postmodern ministry), Miller launches into his major points of concern:

"On other topics, I agree to a point. PPMs have called for metaphor, narrative, and surprise in preaching; after all, Jesus taught in parables. Good reminder. But the same Testament that gives us the elliptical parables gives us the straightforward exposition of Peter in Acts 2 and the dense argumentation of Paul in Romans 9-11, not to mention the name-by-name genealogies of Matthew and the linear history of Acts. Let us recapture indirection but not canonize it."

I think this may be a bit of a straw man. Are most PPMs advocating a wholesale abandonment of treating the Scripture's significant didactic passages?

Miller continues:

"PPMs want us to listen to the postmodernizing culture, to enter relationship and accept our common brokenness. Who would argue? But while we love the relativist, let us hate the relativism. It puzzles me why postmodern theory has drawn such praise from Christians, when its essence (beneath the turgid prose) is that there is no objective truth. The "rules" of science or morality, pomo scholars contend, are as arbitrary as the rules of baseball. "

This criticism cuts both ways, I'm afraid. While Miller is rendered confused by Christians learning from those who eschew objective truth, the emerging church movement is equally baffled by those who believe Christian ministry is merely a matter of putting in place the right organizational system and procedures and that Christian theology is perfectly expressed by a pristine cathedral of propositional truths. And if Miller were to object, "Hey, that's unfair; we don't all believe that!" I would (wholeheartedly) agree and counter that just as the pastor laboring in modernity doesn't necessarily subscribe to a tepid, two-dimensional Cartesian epistemology, so also the youth leader who's been jazzed by Stanley Grenz and Brian McLaren doesn't necessarily believe Christian ministry and thought is all chaos and spontaneity.

Miller comments,

"But as Dinesh D'Souza reminds us, "Postmodern theory suffers from the weakness that the postmodernists themselves don't believe it." When they get sick, they check into a modernist hospital, and when they fly, they step onto a plane built by engineers whose work must not be as random as the postmodernists claimed.""

I've now read or heard the self-referential incoherency argument (think Spock telling the robot "I cannot tell a lie" and smoke coming out the back of the machine's head) so many times that I've taken to writing SRI in the margin of whatever book I'm reading. This is a valid critique of those postmodern theorists who deny the ability to know and/or communicate, but only of those. And I've heard Brian McLaren make exactly the same point as Miller about desiring modern brain surgeons and airline pilots.

Miller goes on,

"We're told that "the world you and I were prepared to lead and minister in is over." But modernism is proving to be a hardy old guy who doesn't quite die, no matter how many obituaries are written. Just as pre-modern witchcraft and superstition flourished during and after the Enlightenment, so will modernist approaches survive into a postmodern world. Indeed, modernism will remain powerful (though interacting with postmodern ideas), since we live in what Jeremy Rifkin dubbed the Biotech Century."

He's right.

Miller continues,

"Until recently, PPMs have overlooked (or sometimes, delighted in) the fact that, as J. I. Packer writes, postmodernism is parasitical: it lives off the achievements and failures of modernism but offers nothing positive of its own. Its only construction is deconstruction. True, some edifices need to be demolished, but architectural awards are not given to wrecking crews."

While I have a very high respect for Packer, I'm uncomfortable with Miller's implied summary dismissal here for a couple of reasons. First, Miller is seemingly collapsing PPMs down to pomo theory. PPMs don't see postmodernism as "the answer." Jesus Christ is the answer and most if not all PPMs know this. Secondly, Christians in the emerging church movement are being constructive. There is a burst of international activity, for example, where Christians are seeking out-of-the-box ways to express their love and devotion of God through creative corporate worship. In many quarters, the emerging church movement is moving beyond its initial deconstructive phase. Surely some are stuck there but not all.

Miller adds,

"I'm fully prepared to admit that when we boomers were young, we faddishly embraced church-growth ratios and sociological analysis; we praised these modern tools as the salvation of the church. So it's poetic justice for us now to sit in the back of the room, the balding and befuddled, as the next generation praises the postmodern matrix as the salvation of the church.

But we're both wrong. We've already got a salvation for the church, and he will not share his glory with any current cultural form, no matter how valuable or necessary it may be. If the church uncritically embraced modern culture, the solution is not to uncritically embrace postmodern culture."

Bingo. On the money. Best two paragraphs of the article.

And on that point of agreement, I'll end!

No comments: