Truth Stranger than it used to be (review)

(3 out of 5 stars)

This book was one of the earliest salvos into the postmodern situation, at least from a semi-“conservative” Christian position.   The authors (hereafter MW) highlight the collapse of the “modern” project, examine the postmodern response, and then offer their own Christian response.   In terms of structure and outline, the book is formed in a chiastic pattern.  This is a move of sheer genius on the authors’ part.

MW call attention to legitimate postmodern critiques of the modern project (the latter which they date roughly from the time of the  Renaissance until now).  Modernism, which is usually–rightly or wrongly–defined as a variant of Western liberal capitalism, sought a narrative which gave a universal legitimatization of Modernity’s goal.  For example, modernity–however defined–saw itself as the culmination of humanity’s story and progress (big oversimplification, but fair enough).  Postmodern thinkers–and even Christian premoderns–pointed out that any story they told was always conditioned by a certain community at a certain moment in history.  “We can never get outside our knowledge to check it against objective reality” (MW 32).   Further, this metanarrative is shown to be a highly contingent one which serves to legitimate power (a common, if overdone postmodern refrain).  MW then continue with a lucid description of key postmodern thinkers.

The next sections highlight the postmodern flux of decentered selves and unconnected narratives.  The endnotes to these sections are particularly valuable, as they give pointed critiques to key postmodern thinkers.

The Scriptural Response

The book should have ended before this point.   Their diagnosis of the postmodern situation was masterful.   Their response was terrible. Well, it’s terrible only in the particulars.  Against the postmodern suspicion of metanarratives, MW offers the biblical metanarrative.   For anyone who is familiar with covenant theology, this is familiar ground.  But MW is quick to point out that the biblical metanarrative does not legitimize power structures, but shows us the one who divested Himself of power.

Against the postmodern decentered self, they give us the empowered self.   MW then proceeds with a succinct summary of the imago dei as ruling image bearers.  Pretty good stuff.

Some Problems

While the narratival thrust of the book is wonderful (and there are many helpful vignettes scattered throughout), the particulars are so bad, if not dangerous, that I cannot really recommend this book.

Never escapes modernism:  Ironically, given their wonderful expose of modernity and their summation of postmodernity, I don’t think the authors are aware of just how modern their application is.  There are the standard leftist litanties (pp. 37, 90, 192) that bemoan capitalism, destruction of the environment, and racism.  Certainly there are legitimate concerns here, but I can’t help but notice how “abstract” these causes are.  Modernity deals in abstractions, they rightly note, but do they not see how they, too, are championing abstractions?  Their litanies, so to speak, are no different from the New York Times editorial section, that flagship of Empire.

Sin defined as oppression:  Unless I missed it, they never defined sin as a violation of God’s law, but usually as an outworking of oppressive power structures and Empire.  The problem with creation, so they reason, is that we are enabling the oppression of the marginalized (usually defined as tenured feminists).  So why do we need a savior?  Well, we need one because he brings up the integrated wholeness of shalom (162).   There is a dangerous half-truth here.  Jesus does bring in shalom and I love how they defined shalom.   That’s just not my biggest problem in life.

Surrendering the field to feminists:

The saddest irony, though, is for all of their vaunted “narrative-ness,” they seem incapable of knowing how a story “works.”   They end the book with a discussion of Phyllis Trible’s Text of Terror.  The question is a legitimate (pun?) one:  if the narrative of Scripture is so great as narrative, then what do we do with those narratives that seem to offer violence to the marginalized, often sexual violence?

And like true Evangelicals, they quailed before the challenge.  With regard to the Tamar narrative, they note that what is condemned is “the affront to male power-holders and not to ‘inferior’ women” (177).  This is the stupidest thing I have ever read in my life.   Is the text really saying this?  Of course not.  In fact, Tamar’s story must be seen within the larger Davidic narrative and that larger narrative shows that the crime is symptomatic of a deeper problem.  In no way does that justify crime.  It’s simply a “more narratival” reading of the problem.

Conclusion

This book is good and successful on many fronts.  Unfortunately, where it is wrong it is badly wrong and one is hard-pressed to recommend it.