Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Tenth Printing of Truth Decay: Some Reflections

My publisher, InterVarsity Press, has sent me a copy of the tenth printing of Truth Decay: Defending Christianity Against the Challenges of Postmodernism (2000). There are 24, 934 copies in print. Why mention this, outside of crass self-promotion? It is remarkable to me that a philosophical and theological critique of the many aspects of postmodernism--artistic, ethical, theological, philosophical--would stay in print this long and sell this many copies. I am not blowing my own horn, I am simply thankful. Of course, 25,000 copies is a hiccop for J. R. Rowling or Eckhart Tolle, but it isn't bad for a book with footnotes and arguments written by a curmudgeon.

My central thesis is that Christianity is a worldview that is inexplicable apart from its claim to objective, absolute, universal, and knowable truth. It is only by articulating, defending, and applying this view of truth that we can commend the Christian message in its fullness today and tomorrow.

This book has its detractors; it probably got more bad reviews than any of my other books. But it also won awards, including a second place in apologetics (or social criticism) from Christianity Today. (Getting no reviews is worse: a fate experienced by several of the other books.) Some expected the book to be an in depth textually dense analysis of Foucault, Derrida, Rorty, et al. (I did go into the most detail with Richard Rorty, partially because he wrote in intelligible prose.) They were disappointed, since that was not the purpose of the book. Some criticized my use of secondary sources, but the vast majority of footnotes were not to secondary sources. Moreover, quoting a secondary source does not mean it is wrong! The book received endorsements by academics such as C. Stephan Evans, Winfried Corduan, and J.P. Moreland. Moreover, Millard Erickson's Truth or Consequences (IVP, 2001) goes into considerably more detail in exegeting the likes of Derrida, et al, and comes up with essential the same conclusions as I did. Many wanted an embrace of postmodernism as "the next big thing." They, of course, were repulsed and disgusted and called the book all manner of names.

Eight years on, I think the book holds up fairly well. It should give insights to those trying understand the philosophy behind "the emerging church," although that movement (which more headline than text, I think--and hope) was not yet named in 2000.

One reason why some critics attacked the book is that it is written at an intermediate level. It has loads of footnotes and arguments, but it is not an academic tome per se. Neither is it a memoir (my precious thoughts on postmodernism) or a breezy treatment (postmodernism for dummies). I was taken by the idea of writing at an intermediate level in 1980 after listening to a remarkable lecture by Os Guinness from a series of lectures he gave in Houston, Texas called, "The Defense Never Rests." (Some years ago this was available from Ligonier Ministries.) Guinness claimed that the church suffers from the want of literature that makes more scholarly ideas accessible. Yet his kind of writing gets hit from both above and below. Academics call it "popular"--the death sentence. Nonacademics may get frustrated with the demands that this writing makes on them. Exemplars of this manner of writing are Francis Schaeffer, Os Guinness, Nancy Pearcey, James Sire, and Charles Colson (who usually works with a co-writer).

I recently received a request from a man in Iran for a copy of this book. May it stay in print as long as it glorifies God and advances the Kingdom. Of course, God is the final judge of its worth.

15 comments:

pgepps said...

I have not yet had the pleasure, but I will.

Your comment about writing at an intermediate level reminds me of a paper Wayne Grudem gave at ETS a few years ago, titled "Do we really behave as though we believe that 'The Bible alone, and the Bible in its entirety, is the inerrant Word of God'?"

Rich Davis said...

I recently built a Directed Studies course in philosophy around 'Truth Decay'.

What I like about the book is that it quickly gets you to the heart of the arguments, dissects them, and then pulls together all the various strands (philosophical, theological, etc.) into a coherent picture of truth.

Wish I'd written this book. :-)

Kevin Winters said...

Just to be clear, my criticism has never been its "popular" level of writing and my criticism on footnotes is not that the majority of the footnotes in the book are from secondary sources, but that the majority of references on Derrida and Foucault are secondary sources, including using a secondary sources simply to cite _Limited Inc._, one of the more important texts of Derrida (and the most easily understandable), and the reference of an enclyclopedia article for Foucault when a standard and far superior work by Dreyfus and Rabinow was available and had been used in much of the literature on Foucault (and Foucault himself endorsed it).

I'll be uncharacteristic (i.e. by giving what I liked about it) and say that the book is well written: Dr. G has a lucid way of writing and, as I've said before, I fully endorse the fight against relativism. But I do think this is overshadowed by profound misunerstandings of Derrida and Foucault. Though you were right to focus on Rorty (as most Evangelicals do) as he is a genuine relativist.

Kevin Winters said...

Correction: _Limited Inc._ is *one* of the most easily understandable works by Derrida. :o)

Rich Davis said...

Perhaps you could say, precisely, what (e.g.) Foucault's concept of truth *is*. Then we can see whether it entails relativism, and whether there really is "profound misunderstanding."

Yossman said...

Descartes wrote on the intermediate level; he wrote in French instead of Latin.

Why do the vast majority of people in the West adhere to a naturalistic worldview without even realizing it? They get it thrown at them at every level through the media including the intermediate.

The antidote to this worldview should not stay within the confines of the academic world. If it does, the academic world would loose its raison d' etre.

Truth Decay has helped me understand better the nature of truth as well as the postmodernistic outlook of our culture.

Tim said...

Yossman,

Small correction: Descartes's Meditations came out in two editions, one in Latin, one in French.

Doug Groothuis said...

Well then, Kevin, let's call a cease fire!

I was really thinking more of published reviews in academic journals than what you have said, but there is overlap.

Kevin Winters said...

Dr. G.,

What kind of curmudgeon would I be if I dropped this? As I see it, your scholarship (along with Moreland, Craig, Scott, etc.) is poisoning Evangelical minds against figures like Heidegger, Derrida, and Foucault because of what I see as terrible scholarship and a significant lack of making a distinction between these thinkers and the wider current culture (even the occasional qualification isn't enough to disuade your readers from equating the two). If such is my understanding and if I am right, should I declare a "cease fire" on the spreading of lies?

Yes, the above is an honest question. So-called "postmodernists" are criticized for terrible scholarship on matters of physics, for example, and I would agree: most uses of quantum physics to invalidate epistemology (rather than simply showing some potential shortcomings) are horrible readings of the physics literature (spruned on by the early popular writers who were prone to flights of fancy that extended the scientific findings beyond what they actually show). I see a similar issue with you and other Evangelical writers. Asking me for a "cease fire" is similar to me asking for an admission of ignorance on your part: neither of us apparently see ourselves as being in the wrong and both of us think it important to fight for the truth, as we understand it from our limited, finite understanding.

So, sorry, but I won't let this issue fall as long as Evangelicals continue to interpret your and other prominent Evangelical works on postmodernism as indications that Heidegger (at least, as he is truly the one I am most able to defend out of the three I tend to mention) is essentially a relativist. Even if you disagree with him, Heidegger is just as much an opponent to relativism as you are, if perhaps more so given the extant of his work on the issue of truth and the immense importance of truth for the whole of his thought.

Rich Davis said...

Strong words. It would be helpful to have a statement of Derrida's or Foucault's or Heidegger's concept of truth before us. Then we might make some headway.

Kevin Winters said...

RD,

But just giving a statement isn't enough. Every time I've attempted to summarize Heidegger's work in this kind of a context it ends in failure, largely because of the medium. Try summarizing any philosopher in a few paragraphs and you're bound to failure, beyond the most basic caricature, which is one of my issues with Evangelical scholarship.

If you want excellent works on Heidegger and truth, any of Mark Wrathall's works (including his dissertation) would be a great place to start. You can also find a good piece on Heidegger, truth, correspondence, and science on Hubert Dreyfus' home page. I do have a few PDF files of some good works on this issue, so feel free to email me if you are truly interested.

Kevin Winters said...

If you have interlibrary loan, I would also suggest Dreyfus and Wrathall's (eds.) _Heidegger Reexamined_ vols. 2 and 4 for a slew of articles on truth and language.

Rich Davis said...

Right. You won't be able to include all the nuances. But surely there is *something* that can be said (in this context) about what these authors think about truth.

If this can't be done, then perhaps charges of "profound misunderstanding" should be saved for forums where they can be properly substantiated.

Doug Groothuis said...

Kevin:

Well, I refuse to engage any longer on this. You have made all your points in spades, writing more on this topic on my blog than I have.

Honestly, I have better things to do: write an apologetics text.

Thus, I ask you to cease and desist.

Kevin Winters said...

RD,

No, the inability to summarize a particularly difficult philosopher in this medium is not sufficient to invalidate the charge of "profound misunderstanding." However, I'll refer you to some old blog posts of mine.

First is a paper I presented at a conference that summarizes Heidegger's thought from _Being and Time_ on. It might require some background understanding of Heidegger, but it is a start.

Second is a summary of the first four sections of _Being and Time_: ¶1, ¶2, ¶3, ¶4.

Third is an unfinished summary of the introduction and first six sections of Heidegger's "On the Essence of Truth": Intro, ¶1, ¶2, ¶3, ¶4, ¶5, ¶6.

The summaries are a little old and I would probably change a few small aspects of them, but overall I believe they are accurate. Of course, reading commentaries isn't as good as reading the real thing, but hopefully it will give you a place to start.