Wednesday, September 28, 2005

"Blue Like Jazz"--Reflections by Rebecca Merrill Groothuis

[After showing Rebecca Merrill Groothuis the paragraph in Donald Miller's Blue Like Jazz that sparked my recent essay and the flurry of responses to it, she has written her own response. Some you asked for more of her reflections on this web log. Here is a meaty one. --Edited on September 29, 2005.]


On page 103 of Blue Like Jazz, Donald Miller says essentially that Christianity is not an intellectual issue for him any more. He has grown past that. Having intellectual discussions and debates about God is just an exercise in arrogance and ego; it's only about who's the smartest. "Who knows anything anyway?" he says. If I walk away from God, he says, I will not walk away for intellectual reasons. Rather, "I will walk away for social reasons, identity reasons, deep emotional reasons, the same reasons that any of us do anything."

If there is no objective truth that is knowable, if there is only the endless, pointless argumentation of "smart guys" who disagree with each other on the one hand, and only the smarmy, pseudo-righteous opinionating of those who shun such argumentation on the other hand, then what else is there at bottom? Nothing. There is nothing else. Any Christian who has capitulated to this postmodern cultural view of the nature of "belief" can say he believes in biblical authority or biblical inspiration, but the words will be meaningless. And this individual's interpretation of Scripture will basically be free floating, unmoored by the bedrock articles of faith that, from the beginning of God's covenanting with his people, have been taken to be true regardless of anyone's opinion. The notion of mind-independent, objective truth necessarily grounds belief in biblical authority.

Biblical authority has to do with author-ity, the author's intended meaning in writing what he wrote. The postmodernist view of truth as merely a social or personal construct (a constructivist view of truth) renders the author's intended meaning utterly irrelevant. What counts on this view is the reader's understanding and perspective of the matter. So much for biblical authority. So much for the full inspiration of the biblical text. Hello, theological liberalism.

So, you see, evangelicals who want to be culturally hip and intellectually cutting-edge cannot succumb to the truth-eviscerated notion of "belief" propagated by the likes of Donald Miller and Brian McLaren (who endorsed Miller's book) while at the same time arguing for a particular interpretation of Scripture based on the authority of Scripture. A constructivist view of truth does not permit Scripture to have any intrinsic authority; it can only have the authority that the reader chooses to impute to it. Someone who holds this cultural view of truth will not hold to Christian “belief” because of the truth and authority of Scripture, but because of his or her “social reasons, identity reasons, deep emotional reasons.” This is not a stand that is either honoring to God or edifying for the church.

Donald Miller’s comments cleverly turn a deep theological error into a point of “righteousness.” What he says strikes a chord. It sounds wise, profound, countercultural even. But that is exactly what it is not. The insidious element in this culturally constructivist view is that it appeals to some things that are true: Modernist notions of objective truth are in some ways arrogant, false, and unworkable. Much debate over the existence of God is carried on by arrogant, know-it-all guys who do nothing to further people's faith in or knowledge of the true God. Faith in Christ is more than intellectual assent. But to skip from these observations to the assertion that no one knows anything anyway, and all belief is based on purely personal notions and needs, is a classic example of a non sequitur: the conclusion does not follow from the premise. But, of course, this would not bother the truth-constructivist, because logic—along with biblical authority—has necessarily disappeared with the demise of objective truth.

I really cannot understand the appeal of the postmodernist worldview. When I hear that Donald Miller believes in Christ for mere "social reasons, identity reasons, deep emotional reasons" (since these are the reasons he does anything), I have zero interest in hearing anything else he has to say. What have his social, identity, and emotional issues to do with what I should believe? If no one "knows anything anyway," then Mr. Miller simply has no way of knowing what he's even talking about! He has no way of even knowing what he should believe, much less what anyone else should believe. And if his deep emotional issues should somehow steer him away from Christian "belief," then there is where he will be going. Away. What incentive would anyone have to ground his or her faith in such an utterly groundless faith?

Rebecca Merrill Groothuis is the author of Women Caught in the Conflict and Good News for Women. She co-edited Discovering Biblical Equality.

15 comments:

David said...

While I definitely share your frustrations with postmodern philosophy, I wonder if we are creating a straw man by portraying Miller's statement as an instance of a constructivist theory of truth.

Granted, this may be partly his own fault for not being more clear, but I'm slightly uncomfortable with such a comprehensive critique based on this one statement. This is not to deny that he holds to such a theory, but simply that this doesn't seem obvious from the quote.

Can you explain how you reasoned to this conclusion? Maybe it's more explicit when read in the full context.

Thanks.

Adam Omelianchuk said...

Hey Becca, it's Adam Omelianchuk. I read this book not long ago and I remember that page. Although I think you are right in the direction you went in your thinking, I am not sure Miller is arguing for a repudiation of objective truth. An anti-rationalist one maybe? Unfortunately, this is where my philosophy skills are rusty.

Thanks for posting

~Adam

Gloria said...

I have been in the evangelical church 44 of my 52 years. I admire biblical scholarship and see its necessity. But all this knowledge has not made for a vibrant, kingdom life for churches. Mr. Barna can attest to that. Our knowledge turns out nice people who are doing the best they can, but not transformed people. I see in my life that knowing more isn't making me more loving.I want to see real change in my heart,not more real facts in my head. Is that what Mr. Miller is struggling through?

Rob said...

I think you might be confusing sloppiness and rhetoric for bad theology.

Yogger said...

I agree with your commentors. I applaud you for your insight on Don's book, however, I think you may be throwing the baby out with the bath water in your one statement.

I think that one of the dangers of Postmodernism is that truth can be viewed as subjective, but I do not believe this is the case with Postmodernism as a whole. Many Christian believers hold to the Scriptures as being authorative, but are trying to go beyond the intellectual cage that moderism has placed God in.

Truth is truth, but we will never be able to fully understand God... as God is infinite and we are finite. I think that Don was trying to tap into this... "who knows anything anyway?" To me that statement is not talking about the authority of the Holy Scriptures, but rather our human understanding in light of an indesribable God.

There are many doctrines that Spirit-filled believers don't agree with in regards to Scriptural interpretation. There are some issues that are non-negiotable (which any Christ-centred church would agree upon i.e. the divinity of Jesus, etc...) but in regards to other issues there are multiple views and sometimes people get sick of hearing about them.

Dr Mike said...

FWIW, I don't think the comments here reflect a grasp of the issues at stake in the postmodern emergent church. A careful reading of Truth Decay (which I just finished) would be quite profitable, I think. But that's not why I'm writing: consider the above just a drive-by comment.

You wrote:

"I really cannot understand the appeal of the postmodernist worldview."

While the motivations for postmodernism in general and the emergent manifestation of it in particular are likely to be - what shall we say? - legion, one thing seems in keeping with the culture (which might explain why they need to write and believe what they do!): irresponsibility.

Taking responsibility and being responsible for one's positions is a rare commodity today, and if one can successfully eliminate any and all authorities, then you are free to do or think whatever you like. No one is right and no one is wrong. Perfect.

The U.S., at least, is one of the most irresponsibly minded cultures I have ever heard of. Postmodernism/the emergent church is an ideal (non-)belief system/religion for them.

poserorprophet said...

Rob,

If one chooses to view religion from a "cultural-linguistic" perspective (cf. George Lindbeck's The nature of Doctrine), then bad rhetoric is bad theology.

To shrug off Miller's book as bad rhetoric but (by implication) good theology seems (to me at least) to not fully appreciate the fundamental impact words and language have upon the ways in which we live and think.

Douglas Groothuis said...

Our theology and worldview should inform and shape our rhetoric (in the classical sense of the term). Christian rhetoric (in the teaching and writing mode) should be serious, reverent, attentive to ideas--their reception and their nuances and their power. That is what is lacking in Miller. He is cavilier and trying to be "cool," something he (ironically) writes against. I say this while not accepting Lindbeck's doctrine of revelation.

By the way, being serious doesn't exclude humor. Kierkegaard could be hysterical, but you will find no more serious a writer. Something similar can be said of CS Lewis. On the other hand, Francis Schaeffer, who was utterly serious, was never very clever. But so what?! I'll take true and rational and passionate over cutesy any day of the week.

poserorprophet said...

Dr. Groothuis,

I would love to hear more of your thoughts on Lindbeck's doctrine of revelation. Have you commented on this somewhere else?

Dan

Douglas Groothuis said...

I have not written on Lindbeck explicitly. My views of revelation largely reflect those of Carl F. H. Henry in his magisterial, "God, Revelation, and Authority." One might also want to consult my chapter on postmodernism and theology in "Truth Decay," where I critique S. Grenz, who was influenced by Lindbeck.

Adam Omelianchuk said...

My reading of Grenz has never been that clear. Though I think it is OK to critique him on certain points I am still somewhat puzzled by his use of Lindbeck.

caity said...

as has been noted, miller doesn't explicitly talk about postmodernism or apply the label to himself. i don't think this is fear...i think it's because he truly wouldn' t categorize himself that way. i tend to agree with the commentors who said that there is a difference between bad rhetoric and bad theology.

nothing stood out to me as contrary to scripture. if someone would disagree because of how miller worded something, i ask, which translation did you want him to speak in?

"9As we have already said, so now I say again: If anybody is preaching to you a gospel other than what you accepted, let him be eternally condemned!" -galations 1:9 NIV

"9 I say again what we have said before: If anyone preaches any other Good News than the one you welcomed, let that person be cursed." -galations 1:9 NLT

cursed/eternally condemned. rhetoric. are either of these REALLY saying something different than the other? i'm all about treating scripture with the utmost seriousness as the authoritative, inerent word of God. but how dogmatic to we get about rhetoric? perhaps we should all learn greek and hebrew, so we can understand all of the different words used for love in every passage of scripture. no doubt we lose a good deal otherwise. but the way we can understand Scripture and relate to God through it is only by way of the Holy Spirit, which we have only by way of faith in Christ. the most scholarly athiest could study the bible and break down all of the exact language and meaning. someone like my brother, who can hardly handle reading anything at 19, can have the Holy Spirit dwelling within Him and understand Scripture when it is broken down for him more simply by others. who then is better off?

i think that the point that miller is making in his writing is that the Gospel IS more important than anything...like paul says earlier in galations, any other 'gospel' is really no gospel at all. but quite often, we lose something when we go over everything with a fine toothed comb. God is relational. we have the priveledge of experiencing this firsthand through Christ, our Mediator and Savior. we lose that relational side sometimes because we don't balance out the truth with love. Grace, Truth and Love can't be had, one with out the other.

Grace without truth leads to libertarianism. Truth without Love leads to legalism. Love = Grace + Truth.

i think miller had a pretty good handle on that equation, personally.

"For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ." John 1:17

-caitlin

caity said...

as has been noted, miller doesn't explicitly talk about postmodernism or apply the label to himself. i don't think this is fear...i think it's because he truly wouldn' t categorize himself that way. i tend to agree with the commentors who said that there is a difference between bad rhetoric and bad theology.

nothing stood out to me as contrary to scripture. if someone would disagree because of how miller worded something, i ask, which translation did you want him to speak in?

"9As we have already said, so now I say again: If anybody is preaching to you a gospel other than what you accepted, let him be eternally condemned!" -galations 1:9 NIV

"9 I say again what we have said before: If anyone preaches any other Good News than the one you welcomed, let that person be cursed." -galations 1:9 NLT

cursed/eternally condemned. rhetoric. are either of these REALLY saying something different than the other? i'm all about treating scripture with the utmost seriousness as the authoritative, inerent word of God. but how dogmatic to we get about rhetoric? perhaps we should all learn greek and hebrew, so we can understand all of the different words used for love in every passage of scripture. no doubt we lose a good deal otherwise. but the way we can understand Scripture and relate to God through it is only by way of the Holy Spirit, which we have only by way of faith in Christ. the most scholarly athiest could study the bible and break down all of the exact language and meaning. someone like my brother, who can hardly handle reading anything at 19, can have the Holy Spirit dwelling within Him and understand Scripture when it is broken down for him more simply by others. who then is better off?

i think that the point that miller is making in his writing is that the Gospel IS more important than anything...like paul says earlier in galations, any other 'gospel' is really no gospel at all. but quite often, we lose something when we go over everything with a fine toothed comb. God is relational. we have the priveledge of experiencing this firsthand through Christ, our Mediator and Savior. we lose that relational side sometimes because we don't balance out the truth with love. Grace, Truth and Love can't be had, one with out the other.

Grace without truth leads to libertarianism. Truth without Love leads to legalism. Love = Grace + Truth.

i think miller had a pretty good handle on that equation, personally.

"For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ." John 1:17

-caitlin

Trenton said...

Yogger,

You said that God is indescribable, but God is love and he is patient and kind and just and holy and so much more, are not those descriptions?

You also said that we cannot fully understand Him. We cannot fully understand God, for His ways are higher than our ways and His thoughts are above our thoughts (Isaiah 55). But the apostle Paul was convinced that it was possible to know Christ Jesus our Lord and he was pressing on to achieve the goal. (Phil. 3:10-14)

Eric Clancy said...

Douglas, I like your blog. Though I am an atheist, I read BlueLike Jazz some few days ago. Somewhat ironically I share many of your opinions with the book. I have a profound literary appreciation for the Bible. I found Miller's misreading of it fascinating, somewhat poetic, and blissfully vacuous. I laughed out loud in a few places, including Penny's conversion experience on Page 47-50. Miller is an ironic Christian, but then Christianity is a religion seaped in irony. Thanks for your contributions.