Friday, April 11, 2008

Postmodernism and Contemporary Christianity

I'm working on a short book right now that is designed to help non-philosophy people gain a basic understanding of postmodernism, how it differs from Biblical Christianity, how it has infiltrated the church, and what to do about it. The title of this post is, at least for now, the working title of the book. One chapter in this book is going to address how vastly different theologies can emerge from what seem to be relatively small shifts in our foundation. In other words, every logical progression has a starting point. When you make small changes in that starting point, then follow the logical trail where it leads you, you may just find that the paths start to diverge more and more the further you go. The particular context I will be addressing is the inerrancy verses non-inerrancy on the Bible and how this seemingly small change, when followed through to its logical conclusion, leads to drastically different theologies. But the general point certainly holds true in other contexts as well.

I thought I would give you a bit of a preview of the example I was thinking of using to illustrate this point, and invite anyone to comment if they think they have a better one (with the understanding that you would be giving me permission to use it in the book if I agree it is a better example). I was looking for something not too complex and that would be familiar to people who don’t spend every moment of every day discussing deep philosophical issues. Remember, this is supposed to be a book for laypeople.

The thought that occurred to me was the movie “Back to the Future.” Marty McFly’s parents, George and Lorraine, are not exactly the parents every child would dream of. George is extremely timid and allows himself to be bullied by his boss, Biff Tannen, who also happened to be the old high school bully. Lorraine lacks the passion to do much of anything and is hooked on alcohol. But at least they got married and had three kids.

Marty winds up traveling back in time and inadvertently prevents his parents from ever meeting. When Marty sees George about to get hit by a car in the street he pushes him out of the way. Unfortunately, it was Lorraine’s father driving the car. In the old timeline he hit George, George met Lorraine, they kissed each other at the school dance and fell in love. Now Lorraine’s father hit Marty instead, and that one small change made all the difference. Marty’s very existence was in jeopardy because his parents never met and Lorraine was falling for him! It may seem like a small change at first, but when one consequence builds on another, the end result down the line is drastically different.

Marty does end up getting his parents to kiss each other at the dance and get things “back on track”, but George had to stand up to Biff in the process. Even that small change has vast consequences down the line. Now, back in present day, George is much more authoritative, and Biff is the timid one. Lorraine has taken much better care of herself and has her own self-confidence.

What was true for Marty McFly is true for any logical argument as well. When we make a small shift in our starting point, our two positions may not seem too far apart. But when you start following the logical outworkings of those positions we get further and further away from each other.

If anyone feels like sharing how they would illustrate this point, please feel free to chime in. God bless.


Jim Jordan said...

Two things you might want to focus on. 1) The problem when inerrancy is seen as covering an interpretation. Many who claim innerancy of the Bible make the mistake that a certain interpretation is also inerrant. So you must discern what is inerrant and clear and what is not specific.

The best example of this wrong turn is the Answers in Genesis determination that not believing in the 6-24 hour day interpretation on the creation precludes any true belief in God.
2) Also, I think a great philosopher of the 20th Century to know is Ludwig Wittgenstein. Wittgenstein was adamant about seeing things as they are and exposing confusions in language that lead to deviations from the truth. His methodology was very helpful in my faith journey.
Good luck with the book.

Ten Minas Ministries said...

Very valuable suggestions. Thank you Jim.


DagoodS said...

So you are comparing/contrasting postmodernism with Christianity as it is practiced today? And one of your chapters has the point small initial shifts can later account for much larger shifts? And the doctrine you are using to demonstrate this point is inerrancy? Are you looking for an analogy to explain a demonstration of inerrancy as an example of small shifts to support a differentiation between Christianity and postmodernism?

Seems a bit convoluted to me—but somehow I don’t think I am your target audience! *grin*

O.K., a simple rule of analogies is that no analogy is perfect. It always requires some charity on the part of the reader to get the point being made, and not simply tear apart the analogy as being a poor comparison.

I would generally avoid: 1) Movies, 2) Time travel and 3) Aliens (or other mythological creatures) within an analogy. Too much opportunity for a critic to focus on how inapplicable the analogy is, as compared to getting the point which is trying to be communicated. (Hint: How effective is the Flying Spaghetti Monster analogy on Christians?)

Why not write something personal from your own life? Use an experience in which an initial wrong-turn led to numerous and greater complications. For example, to make this point, I would write:

“Have you ever built some furniture from Ikea, or your local office supply store? You know what I am talking about—the one with three non-descript cardboard boxes that are supposed to look like an entertainment center once completed, yet when opened looks like a pile of various-sized pieces of wood. Along with a bag of screws helpfully labeled, “A,” “B,” “G” and “J.” And the most important item within the boxes—the instructions.

“Without those instructions it would forever be just a pile of wood and screws.

“I was putting together a desk for my wife. As I typically do in these projects, I glance through the instructions to get the general idea, and then dive in slapping Wood Part 1 together to Wood Part 4 using Screws B. The project was moving along swimmingly.

“Until about Step 3 in which I realized I had put Wood Part 1 backwards to what the instructions called for. It looked close enough, and I figured I could fudge it as I move along. Would it really matter if the holes on one side were in a different spot as the other? I thought not!

“By Step 9 it was clear this one backwards piece of wood was causing more headaches than any one piece should have the right to do so! After struggling and fighting and (occasionally swearing), the project was coming to a crashing halt. A moment of reflection—I had to take it apart; back to Step 1.

“One seemingly minor change in the very beginning caused a huge change within a few steps of progression. In the same way, only a minor change in theology can later on cause the whole project to look nothing like the picture on the box!

Something like that, maybe?

Ten Minas Ministries said...


I didn't get into too much detail on the context this will arise in the book. Basically, I am pointing out that the postmodern belief in a lack of absolute truth, and more specifically the belief that we cannot really take anything from a text (because we all bring our own preconceptions to it and its meaning will necessarily be altered based upon those preconceptions) often leads to a rejection of the Bible as the inerrant word of God. Then as a lead in to show some of the theological differences that can develop as a result, I was looking for an example to illustrate the "snowball effect", so to speak.

I'm happy to see that the example I came up with only hit two of the three things you cautioned me to avoid! Maybe I can work aliens into some other chapter. I like your desk example (although my latest personal experience in that department dealt with a bookshelf I was putting together for my daughter's room). Do I have your permission to use it if it seems to flow with the chapter?


DagoodS said...

Of COURSE you are free to use my example. Anything I write upon the internet is free to all.

Just wait, it grows from bookshelves to bicycles to balance beams to basketball courts in what seems like no time at all.

I would be curious to see how you would develop the argument postmodernism was a cause for the recent upswing in belief the Bible contains errors. Wouldn’t it necessarily entail (due to the lack of absolutism in postmodernism) that people who hold to errors in the Bible would(under postmodernism) accept inerrantists’ position as a possible truth, though?

What I see (and I may be wrong) are non-inerrantists who say inerrantists are wrong; not simply bringing a different interpretation or perspective to the Bible. Doesn’t postmodernism dispense with absolute determinations of “right” and “wrong”? I would be interested in any quotes or sources you could divulge of non-inerrantists who allow for inerrantists to use their own preconceptions.

Do you understand my question?—not sure I phrased it well.

My understanding (which could be quite wrong) is that postmodernism allows for any and all interpretations of a text to be both “right” and “wrong” since there is no ultimate “right” or “wrong.” Whereas in the inerrancy debate, I tend to see inerrantists say non-inerrantists are wrong and vice versa.

In other words; nothing “postmodern” about it.

Ten Minas Ministries said...

You are both right and wrong.

The type of errantist versus inerrantist discussion you and I may engage in are of the nature you describe. One person says they are right and the other is wrong. This is a very modern approach to the issue.

The postmodernist perspective I am talking about is within the Christian Church itself. It would arise in an individual church rejecting the Bible as inerrant authority, all the while still claiming to be Christian, then in response to the errantist camp, citing some very postmodern ideas (i.e., you may think the Bible is inerrant, we think it is not, but that is okay, we can all still belong to the same denomination even without any unified consensus as to what we believe because both "truths" are equally right and can co-exist). I am somewhat sensitive to this issue myself, being part of the PCUSA, because we are confronting it quite a bit. If you were to ask someone what Presbyterians believe (at least in the PCUSA), you would not get any unified answer. Some churches accept inerrancy, some don't. Some believe Christ is divine, some don't. It is not that they claim the other camp is wrong. Rather they claim that the other camp cannot tell them that they are wrong.

I hope that makes sense and answers your question.


akakiwibear said...

Aside from analogues, (and I think the movie Sliding Doors is a better example) I think the point is self evident - it is not so complex that you need an analogy to explain it!

Once you embark on divergent paths you ... diverge ... and it takes a lot of effort to converge as group identify gets established.

I would suggest that the problem of inerrancy is two fold - yes it leads to divergence among Christian groups, BUT perhaps more important is that the opportunity it affords atheist evangelisation.

Some of those brought up with inerrancy appear to have a real problem when faced with the apparent contradictions and errors in the bible. Trolling the atheist sites provides plenty of testimony to apparent ease of crippling the faith of those who grew up with a literal trust in every word in the bible and the simplistic tri-omiperfection it leads to.

Certainly some atheist sites (DC for example) rely so heavily on arguments based on inerrancy that they would have little to say if we all held an errant view.

My thesis is that the inerrancy/errancy split leads to consequences far worse than divisions in the Church, but ultimately opens the door to loss of faith. It is ironic that the inerrant community is often considered to be the strongest in faith, and yet they fall like skittles when their faith foundation of errancy is challenged.

Perhaps the guy so often depicted in movies with pointy ears and a barbed tail sowed the seed of inerrancy and is now merely taking in the harvest.

Sala kahale - peace

Ten Minas Ministries said...


I appreciate your comments. We will have to respectfully disagree about the inerrancy discussion as I do believe in the inerrancy of the Bible (but as Jim Jordan described it, the inerrancy of the Bible, and the original texts at that, not of a particular interpretation of it; we all must be prepared to acknowledge our own fallibility). I have seen far too many examples of alleged "contradictions" or historical mistakes that have turned out to be nothing of the kind (see, e.g., the discussion I had with dagoods about the alleged errors in Acts on his blog,, under the heading "Why I Don't Trust Acts of the Apostles").

But both because the point of this post was not to discuss that debate, and also because (due to recent events) my heart simply isn't in it at the moment, I will leave that topic for another day.

Thank you again for your participation. God bless.