In his book Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism: Taking Derrida, Lyotard and Foucault to Church, James K. A. Smith examines three primary postmodern philosophers and their catchphrased lines that have, in a sense, come to define postmodernism. When I was in Bible college, the consensus was that postmodernism means that everything is relative, there is no such thing as objective truth (and thus truth at all), and that everyone can just believe whatever they want, meaning that Christianity has no authoritative position on reality at all. There was one prof who was all about postmodernism, and we all thought she was crazy (sorry Karen, but we surely did). With that background in mind, I’m quite excited to read a book that actually explains what those philosophers actually meant when they said these infamous lines. It’s quite possible that postmodernism isn’t the devil after all! I’ll start with Derrida today, Lyotard next, and finish up with Foucault.
Derrida’s deconstructionist philosphy somehow has been brought down to a single (supposedly defining) line: “there is nothing outside the text.” Many Christians hate this notion, as I have come to discover, not because of what it means but because of what they think it means. Many people, and not just Christians, thought Derrida was talking about some kind of literary idealism – the notion that reality only exists as a story in the mind of God, like we’re all stuck in the Matrix but without any form of existence outside of it. That thought has come up before, but that’s not at all what Derrida is talking about. If that was what he was saying, we’d be right to reject it; if all reality were just a story in the mind of God, then what would it mean for the Word to take on flesh? If flesh was just another word in the cosmic story, then the Word would take on…another word? Basically, the Incarnation of Jesus Christ would mean nothing – no human action in history would mean anything either, because none of it actually happened. But that’s not at all, even remotely, what Derrida is saying.
What he’s actually saying is that there is nothing outside of context. Like a “text” or book which must be interpreted, we are actually actively interpreting all of reality. There is nothing that you know or see that isn’t affected by your own interpretation of it. Smith uses the example of Disney’s The Little Mermaid. Ariel, being a mermaid, doesn’t know what a fork is; when it is brought to her by a seagull, she finds it strange and interesting. The seagull tells her that it is called a “dinglehopper”, and is used for combing hair. Later, Ariel is seated at the table of the human prince, and sees a “dinglehopper” on the table in front of her; excitedly, she picks it up and starts combing her hair with it – a scene that is totally bizarre to us (and to the handsome prince). Ariel and the prince had very different concepts of what a fork is, because they both experienced forks in totally different contexts. In Ariel’s context, there are no forks; there is only a dinglehopper, which is for combing hair. Her dinglehopper came to her in the open sea by a seagull, not in the context of a meal. For the prince, who has seen forks used and named all of his life, there is no use for a fork outside of the context of a meal. Both of their previous experiences and presuppositions had helped them to interpret the name and use of this metal instrument – this part of reality. Everything – even forks – is interpreted.
That’s much, much less whacky than saying that all reality is a story in the mind (or book) of someone else (or God), right? But still, many Christians have a serious problem with this. If everything is interpreted, then that implies that there are other interpretations of everything as well – things like the Gospels, for example. We don’t like that, because we have so many doctrines and notions that limit our story to a few authorized accounts (we don’t even like to call them ‘interpretations’), and we don’t allow other interpretations for the sake of orthodoxy – not a bad idea, in my mind. In Bible college I was taught (and rightly so, in the right context) that there is only one interpretation (of a Biblical text) and many applications. Of course, what they meant by that is that there is only one correct interpretation, because there are clearly many interpretations (otherwise we wouldn’t have different denominations, we wouldn’t have words like “heresy” or “orthodoxy”, etc, because everyone would see it the same way). To a certain, small extent, there probably isn’t anything that any two people in the world fully agree on, because we don’t even know to what extent we differ in our understanding of things; so even if we agree that God is “Father, Son and Holy Spirit”, the notion of God as a father makes some people laugh and some people cry, even if they agree that it is a valid desription of God. There are, actually, as many interpretations of a Biblical text as there are people to read it, because we all read it through the lens of our past experiences and understandings of everything we’ve ever known. When we say “there is only one interpretation” we mean that truth exists, and we all try to make sure that our interpretation of events is as close to the truth as possible.
A problem here is that we (the Church) don’t really understand just how modernist we are: our notion of truth is tied entirely to the notion of objectivity, which is basically that something can be known or accessed by all people everywhere. To many of us, the only real truth is objective truth, truth that exists regardless of what anyone else thinks about it and is available to or discernable by all. But if everything is interpreted, then there is no objective anything; reality as it truly exists is not accessible to us without interpretation, and thus it is not equally accessible to everyone everywhere because we all interpret it differently. To a modernist who ties truth to objectivity, that means that there is no truth, or at least no truth that can be known, and this is a really big problem! If we can’t know the truth, then we can’t know God and we can’t trust the Bible, because even it must be an interpretation, and so when we read it were are interpreting an interpretation of an event.
Smith brings us back down to earth a bit though, with the calming notion that just because something is an interpretation doesn’t mean it isn’t true; there are some interpretations that are much closer to the truth than others, and some interpretations (like the Bible) are fully trustworthy and true. It’s okay if we recognize that the Bible is only one interpretation of events; the Bible itself recognizes that fact, as we see Jesus going head to head with the Pharisees over interpretations of scripture, telling us that there were many interpretations, but some were more true than others. Many Jews living in Jerusalem saw the execution of a political prisoner from Nazareth, and in a sense they were right; others saw the Son of God, and they were even more right – closer to the actual fact, perhaps even bang-on, depending on their level of understanding.
This view has some important benefits for us. If we recognize that every view in the world (even other religions) are merely interpretations of reality, this means that every view is on an even playing field. Many Christians don’t like this notion, because we think that our view is best; what I’m saying is that recognizing that all views are interpretations allows us to assert that our interpretation is best – because if we stick with the modernist notion that says that real truth is objective, then we have to assume that everyone who doesn’t agree with us is crazy, and most of the time that means that other people think that we’re crazy. If we take a little bit of humility and admit that there are many interpretations other than ours, and that these interpretations exist because they make good sense to other people, when we share information with each other we’ll all be more inclined to listen and apply that information and interpret it rather than simply dismissing it as wrong. To put that another way, postmodernism gives the Church a voice – i.e. people can pay attention to us without immediately dismissing us as crazy and wrong simply because our interpretation of reality is different. On the other hand, we need to be willing to give the same voice to others, hearing out their interpretation of reality (but not necessarily appropriating it!), and this will improve our relations with…well, with everybody else that we’ve traditionally polarized and demonized as being unbelievers, pagans or heretics. These improved relations also strengthen our voice, allowing us to make a stronger case for the truth of our interpretation of reality.
Another huge benefit of this deconstructionist view is that it reminds us that we see all of reality through our own lens, a lens made up of all of our previous knowledge and experience – including the revealed Word of God. To put it another way, if we acknowledge that we see all of reality through our own presuppositions, that means that absolutely everything in our life is interpreted through our knowledge of God as revealed in Jesus Christ – with Paul, we can say that we know nothing except Christ Jesus, because that fundamental knowledge changes the way we see all of life. There can be no separation of your ideas about God and the way you live your life, because if you take the Gospel to be the truth then it changes everything.
And finally, this view should help us respect other denominations and interpretations of the Bible. African Christians often see the world, reality and God in a very different way than I do, but when I recognize that they do so because their interpretation of the Bible is affected by a very different set of experiences and perspectives, that they interpret the Bible a certain way because it makes sense in their context, and that they have the very same Holy Spirit that I do (and that inspired the Bible in the first place), I can embrace them as brothers without the pre-requisite of making sure they see things exactly the same way as me. That doesn’t mean that there isn’t room for criticism (there always is!) but merely that I don’t need to make everyone else in the world just like me in order to point them to Jesus Christ – because after all, it’s not my view or interpretation of Jesus that saves people, but Jesus Christ himself.
And, as always, please read Derrida (and everything else) critically; not all of his interpretations are accurate.