Monday, November 07, 2005

Afterword to "Meltdown" by Marcus Honeysett, published by Kregel, 2004

Marcus Honeysett has written an engaging and important primer on postmodernism, a subject that typically resists lucid introductions. While other books by evangelicals put postmodernist thought into historical and intellectual context, they often lack the requisite apologetic critique so evident in Meltdown. Yet a successful Christian apologetic requires the refutation of the postmodernist denial of objective truth and normative rationality. This is because apologetics must appeal to rational arguments to defend the objective truth revealed in the Bible. Without objective truth (or what Francis Schaeffer called “true truth”) and rationality, apologetics has no tools with which to work.

Meltdown is an extraordinary book for at least two reasons. First, the author’s assessment of postmodernism (the philosophy) and postmodernity (the set of contemporary cultural conditions in the West) is dead-on. Unlike not a few evangelical authors, Honeysett discerns that postmodernism is not our great liberation from modernist metanarratives. Rather it is a truth-denying, authority-denying philosophy set against the truths authoritatively revealed in Holy Scripture and in Jesus Christ. Instead of fruitfully opening people to all kinds of spirituality (Christianity included), postmodernity discourages rational discourse, is hostile to Christian truth-claims, and encourages relativism and philosophical pluralism. Against the flow of many evangelical trendsetters, Honeysett has not made his peace with postmodernism—and for this we should be grateful.

Second, Honeysett states his case in an understandable but intellectually responsible and deeply challenging fashion. This combination of being both accessible and accurate on challenging topics is indeed rare. (He also exhorts when needed, which is refreshing in a book not lacking in academic substance.) This is no simple task when dealing with such daunting themes and authors as complex (and often opaque) as Derrida, Baudrillard, Foucault, and Butler. Honeysett navigates the conceptual terrain deftly, summarizing difficult material without over-simplifying, analyzing it logically (often exposing internal contradictions in postmodernist theory), and assessing it biblically. He shows a knack for discerning just where postmodern thought collides with Christian truth, why this matters (and not just to academics), and what we should think about it.

It is encouraging that postmodernism is vigorously opposed by a number of Christians, especially among those leading the renaissance in Christian philosophical work in the analytic tradition—a tradition that is antithetical to the continental waters in which postmodernism was spawned.[i] Yet too many evangelical theologians have been accommodating to postmodernism in significant ways. For example, after discussing 1 John 1:1-3, an evangelical theologian, attempting to engage in apologetics, writes, “Postmodernity concurs. No human being knows anything for certain”[ii] The author implausibly sees John as merely giving his own impressions of Jesus, not as marshalling convincing and evidence for the objective reality of Christ. He thinks that the posture of epistemological uncertainty is appropriate for doing apologetics in the postmodern world. But this is ill advised for at least five reasons.

First, the Apostle John would never agree with the statement, “No human being knows anything for certain,” since he himself evinces certainty that Jesus is the Christ and endeavors to make this known throughout his apostolic writings (John 20:30-31; 21:24-25). Second, most postmodernists are not skeptics, but nonrealists or antirealists. Roughly speaking, skeptics hold that objective truth exists, but that it is not knowable. For nonrealists or antirealists, knowledge is not difficult but easy. Just assent to the language game (or social construction) in which you find yourself—unless you deem it a totalizing metanarrative like Christianity—and stop worrying about what doesn’t exist: objective truth. (Philosophical realism, on the contrary, claims that objective truth exists and can be captured through the right methods.) Honeysett clearly makes this point about nonrealism and antirealism throughout Meltdown. Third, if one is certain that no human being knows anything for certain, then it is not clear how one could know this proposition to be true. It looks self-refuting. If so, the statement is necessarily false, and falls into the same illogical ditch that so many postmodernists already occupy, as Honeysett adroitly notes. Fourth, there are plenty of counter examples of propositions that we know for certain to be true: (1) “Torturing the innocent for pleasure is always wrong,” (2) “The law of noncontradiction is universally true,” and (3) “There is a physical world.” Fifth, Scripture repeatedly promises that confident knowledge of God is possible for humans rightly related to their Maker (see Romans 8:15-16).

Honeysett’s treatment of Jean Baudrillard (who is something like an updated French nihilistic version of Marshall McLuhan) is, to my knowledge, the only Christian critique of this important thinker who challenges the very notion of objective reality in our media-saturated environment. Baudrillard has recently emitted some egregious statements about the twin towers of the World Trade Center committing suicide on September 11, 2001,[iii] which some have taken as grounds for dismissing him without reflection or critique. But despite his penchant for flamboyance and his tortuous prose, Baudrillard is a thinker with which to reckon.

Honeysett also keenly assesses key aspects of postmodern culture, which is every bit as important to understand as postmodernist philosophies. Few may read the philosophers, but all imbibe the culture. First, Honeysett investigates the postmodern ethos of the university culture—something he knows well as a thoughtful campus minister—and shows how to respond to it with integrity and intellect. I especially appreciated this advice in light of my twelve years of involvement in campus ministry. Sadly, evangelical campus ministries often fail to engage the intellects of students, leaving them prey to “arguments and every proud obstacle raised up against the knowledge of God” (2 Corinthians 10:5). This must change if Christianity is to win a fair hearing on intellectual matters.

Second, in discussing “postmodern Bible reading,” Honeysett rightly argues that too many Christians have swallowed a postmodernist rejection of all objective authority, which has corrupted their understanding of the Bible as God’s authoritative revelation of objective truth. The answer is to return to Scripture as the ultimate source for truth; it should not be deemed a subjective, self-help tool. This cannot be underscored too strongly. A popular and contemporary evangelical writer claims that a strong view of biblical authority is merely a modernist invention that postmodernist Christians should throw off as an aberration.[iv] This leaves the Christian in the postmodern ocean with neither an anchor nor a rudder for navigating the intellectual storms of the day. The question of biblical authority is a crucial issue at all times. Postmodernism has not rendered it a moot point.

Third, Honeysett notes that postmodern ideas have similarly undermined a biblical understanding of the church, which is too often viewed as more of a consumer item than as an institution founded by the divine Son of God for his glory (Matthew 16:13-19). Since American evangelicals are notoriously weak on ecclesiology (given their proclivity for individualism, innovation, and parachurch entrepreneurialism), this reminder comes as a needed tonic.
Fourth, Honeysett forthrightly attacks postmodern influence in culture as “immoral,” because it rejects God and fills the void with the autonomous self and its God-denying principles. Although he does not quote him, Pascal’s warning fits the spirit of Honeysett’s critique. “When everything is moving at once, nothing appears to be moving, as on board ship. When everyone is moving toward depravity, no one seems to be moving, but if someone stops he shows up the others who are rushing on, by acting as a fixed point”[v]

Fifth, Honeysett observes that a leading engine of the postmodernist rejection of truth and authority is television, in both its nature and its content. Christians should, therefore, engage it critically and carefully and not be swept away with its unreality (as Baudrillard warns). Honeysett is one of the few evangelicals who understands that communication media are not neutral, but invariably shape their content according to their form. As McLuhan said, “The medium is the message.” As long as evangelicals have their minds shaped by the medium of television (which favors the graphic over the textual and the titillating over the edifying), they will remain intellectually enfeebled and unable to discern and disarm the deceptions of postmodernism.

Honeysett concludes this rousing and thoughtful primer by emphasizing the need to proclaim
the “authentic Jesus” in a postmodern world of pluralism, syncretism, and outright hostility to the gospel. The authentic Jesus must be presented to the watching world in terms of a fully biblical and philosophically defensible concept of truth, a concept that cuts against the grain of postmodernism. While so many evangelicals scavenge for food among postmodernist philosophies, the worldview outside of Christianity that is gaining the most adherents has no truck with postmodernism whatsoever. It wins converts and promotes a view of civilization based on the concept of authoritative, universal, absolute, and objective truth. That worldview is Islam.[vi]

My hope and prayer is that Meltdown will be read and discussed by high school seniors in preparation for college, Christian university students and campus ministers, and by anyone who wants to make sense of the postmodern world and speak to it in the name of Jesus Christ, who is nothing less than the Truth Incarnate and the only hope for erring mortals east of Eden (John 14:6).

Douglas Groothuis, Ph.D., is Professor of Philosophy at Denver Seminary, where he chairs the Philosophy of Religion Masters Degree program. He is the author of ten books, including Truth Decay: Defending Christianity Against the Challenges of Postmodernism (InterVarsity Press, 2000).

[i] For an excellent example of Christian philosophy in the analytical tradition, see J.P. Moreland and William Lane Craig, Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2003).
[ii] John Stackhouse, Humble Apologetics (Oxford University Press, 2002), 166. See also 232.
[iii] Jean Baudrillard, The Spirit of Terrorism, Chris Turner, trans. (New York: Verso, 2002), 8.
[iv] See Brian McLaren, A New Kind of Christian (San Francisco: Josey-Bass, 2001), 52-56.
[v] Blaise Pascal, Pensées. A. Krailsheimer, trans. and ed. (New York: Penguin, 1966), 699/382, p. 247.
[vi] See Irving Hexham, “Evangelical Illusions: Postmodern Christianity and the Growth of Muslim Communities in Europe and North America,” in John Stackhouse, ed. No Other Gods Before Me? (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2001), 137-160.


Bethie Marie said...

I'm led to believe objective truth exists and is knowable by listening inside to the Voice for God.

Mike Darus said...

I wonder if the erosion of belief in absolute truth is linked to a new definition of certainty. Certainty seems to requre assurance "beyond all doubt" rather than "beyond resaonable doubt." Two contrasting standards establish an impossible standard of proof. On the one hand, naturalistic materials requires physical proof that can be replicated in controlled environment. On the other hand, "star treck philosophy" suggests that any world is possilbe. The first limits the known to the physically verifiable. The second questions all reality and replaces it with potentialities that exist only in the imagination.

We are left with maximum doubt and minimum assurance of reality. No wonder post-modernism leaves us in the philisophical ditch.

Peter M. Head said...

Footnote 2 leads to the following:
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