Neyrey Explains Honor and Shame, Part 1

Jeremey Neyrey Honor and ShameJerome H. Neyrey.  1998.  Honor and Shame in the Gospel of Matthew. Louisville:  Westminster John Knox Press. (Go to part 2)

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

A frequent comment in the church today is the need to stop using all those “churchy” words. While the definition of “churchy” may be up for grabs, the focus of these comments is usually on words that have in the postmodern context lost their meaning. Verses, such as—“Worthy are you, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power…” (Rev 4:11 ESV)—almost certainly be classified as knee-deep in churchy words, because our buddy culture admits no one worthy of praise, glory or honor or of titles such as Lord and God.

Introduction

In his book, Honor and Shame in the Gospel of Matthew, Jerome H. Neyrey states his objective plainly:  “This book focuses on the praise of Jesus of Nazareth as presented in narrative form by the evangelist Matthew.” (1)  Neyrey sees gospel as a type of ancient writing form called an encomium which is a structured biography designed to offer praise (2). The rules for writing such encomium were the subject of rhetorical handbooks, starting with Aristotle.  Neyrey (4) writes:

“Nothing in the exercise of praise was left to chance, for students were instructed concerning the form of speech of praise, as well as the specific content of each element in that form.  They learned to organize their praise according to the conventional manner of presenting a person’s life from birth to death and in light of specific rules for developing praise at each state of life.”

Honor (τιμη) is the “worth or value of persons both in their own eyes and in the eyes of the village or neighborhood”“concern for ‘honor’ as reputation and ‘good name’ was endemic to the ancient world…” (5)

An important, but questionable, assumption in some biblical interpretation is that honor and shame play a same role in our own culture as in biblical culture. Cultural anthropologists sometimes describe American culture today as a guilt-innocence culture where guilt is only triggered when a law has been transgressed and shame, if experienced at all, is trigger when a law is broken and publically exposed[1]. The shame and guilt so important in biblical culture has lost its meaning. Complaints about the meaninglessness of “churchy” words underscore an important cultural shift that renders aspects of the biblical witness out of reach[2].

Organization

Neyrey writes in 10 chapters divided into 3 parts:

Part One:  Matthew: In Other Words

  1. Honor and Shame in Cultural Perspective
  2. Reading Matthew in Cultural Perspective

Part Two:  Matthew and the Rhetoric of Praise

  1. The Rhetoric of Praise and Blame
  2. An Encomium for Jesus: Origins, Birth, Nurture, and Training
  3. An Encomium for Jesus: Accomplishments and Deeds
  4. An Encomium for Jesus: Deeds of the Body and Deeds of Fortune
  5. An Encomium for Jesus: A Noble Death

Part Three:  The Sermon on the Mount in Cultural Perspective

  1. Matthew 5:3-12—Honoring the Dishonored
  2. Matthew 5:21-28—Calling Off the Honor Game
  3. Matthew 6:1-18—Vacating the Playing Field (v).

These chapters are preceded by an introduction and followed by a bibliography and indices.

Assessment

Neyrey is a tough read. Not only is it hard to follow the arguments, the arguments challenge important preconceptions that we hold in reading scripture. What happens if the “Jesus in our head” is not the Jesus of the bible?  What if our kids hear something different than what we do during the Sunday morning service? These are important questions which directly affect our interpretation of scripture and experience of church.  In Part 2 (look for the post on Monday, March 2), I will explore Neyrey’s arguments in more detail.

Footnotes

[1] http://www.knowledgeworkx.com/blogs/knowledgeworkx/item/141-three-colors-of-worldview.

[2] For example, read:  2 Corinthians 7: Godly Grief (http://wp.me/p3Xeut-Ba).

Neyrey Explains Honor and Shame, Part 1

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Heart and Mind: Monday Monologues (podcast), January 17, 2022

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 By Stephen W. Hiemstra

This morning I will share a prayer and reflect on Heart and Mind. After listening, please click here to take a brief listener survey (10 questions).

To listen, click on this link.

Hear the words; Walk the steps; Experience the joy!

Heart and Mind: Monday Monologues (podcast), January 17, 2022

Also see:

Monday Monologue On March 26, 2018 

Other ways to engage online:

Author site: http://www.StephenWHiemstra.net,

Publisher site: http://www.T2Pneuma.com.

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Holistic Prayer

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By Stephen W. Hiemstra

Almighty Father, Beloved Son, Spirit of Truth,

All honor and praise to you for your Triune unity unites heart and mind in undergirding law and modeling mercy, grace, patience, love and truth. May we be and do no less.

Forgive our divided hearts and minds, our disrespect for law and our willingness to practice mercy, grace, patience, love, and truth when it suits us. Be our guide; be ever near.

Thank for the example of Jesus of Nazareth who in life modeled a sinless life,  who taught us about your heart and mind, and who died on the cross that we might draw closer to you as sons and daughters.

In the power of your Holy Spirit, may our daily disciplines become habits, and our habits grow into holy lifestyles that model your image to all those around us.

In Jesus’ precious name, Amen.

Holistic Prayer

Also see:

The Who Question

Preface to a Life in Tension

Other ways to engage online:

Author site: http://www.StephenWHiemstra.net

Publisher site: http://www.T2Pneuma.com

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Heart and Mind

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“The LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and 

that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. 

And the LORD regretted that he had made man on the earth, and 

it grieved him to his heart.” (Gen 6:5-6)

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

Because we are created male and female in the image of God, it is important to understand this image. Because God’s image is closely tied to the giving of the law (Exod 20), the church has often concentrated on a cognitive interpretation. God’s revelation of his attributes in Exodus 34:6, however, introduces a more emotional  interpretation of God’s person. Thus, we see in the Godhead of scripture a more complex image of God than is normally pictured, where heart and mind are integrated closely, a characteristic that theologians sometimes refer to as Hebrew anthropology. In a postmodern context, we might describe the Triune God as emotionally intelligent.

Hebrew anthropology (the study of human beings) refuses to separate feelings and thinking. Heart and mind are inseparable. Greek anthropology separates the two, vacillating between giving priority to one or the other. Because Greek anthropology dominates the modern era (think about the division of labor among professionals), it is hard for modern people to understand Biblical writing—when Jesus talks about the heart, he means the whole person, not just the organ pumping blood or mere feelings. 

Limits to a Cognitive Approach

The cognitive approach often assumed in theological discussions cannot fully inform our faith because it is based on faulty Greek anthropology. As theologian James K.A. Smith (2016, 2) writes:

“Jesus is a teacher who doesn’t inform our intellect but forms our very loves…His teaching doesn’t just touch the calm, cool, collected space of reflection and contemplation, he is a teacher who invades the heated, passionate regions of the heart. He is the Word who penetrates even dividing the soul and spirit; he judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.”

Inherent in this statement is the Hebrew view of anthropology—note the two references to heart. What Greek would talk about “the thoughts and attitudes of the heart” (Heb 4:12)? Drawing attention to this anthropology, Smith (2016, 5) asks: “Do you ever experience a gap between what you know and what you do?” If he had the rational mind in view, no such gap would exist but, of course, we all experience this gap.

This line of thought leads Smith (2016, 7) to observe: “what if you are defined not by what you know [the mind] but by what you desire? [the heart]” If our desires are reflected more in our actions than in our words, then this Hebrew anthropology leads us immediately into an inconvenient, but vital, discussion of ethics because our hearts are not lily-white clean as our words. It also forces us to discuss how we know what we know (the epistemology question), because our hearts are not so easily persuaded to follow even our own thoughts. Suddenly, much of the New Testament language sounds less churchy and more informed by an alternative world view, one decidedly not Greek.

The Cognitive Theory of Emotions

The heart and mind dichotomy is described alternatively as feeling versus thinking or body versus mind, emotions versus logic, or even the male versus female stereotype. The terms used are less important than the concept. The postmodern concept of emotional intelligence builds on Hebrew anthropology.

While this subject is very timely, it is not new. Theologian Jonathan Edwards (2009, 13), writing in 1746 about the effects of the Great Awakening, noted that both head and heart were necessarily involved in effective discipling. Thus, he coined the phrase “holy affections” to distinguish the marks of the work of the Spirit from other works and associated these holy affections directly with scripture.

Elliott (2006, 46-47) distinguishes two theories of emotions:  the cognitive theory and the non-cognitive theory. The cognitive theory of emotions argues that “reason and emotion are interdependent” while the non-cognitive theories promote the separation of reason and emotion. In other words, the cognitive theory states that we get emotional about the things that we believe strongly. Our emotions are neither random nor unexplained—they are not mere physiology. Elliott (2006, 53-54) writes: “if the cognitive theory is correct, emotions become an integral part of our reason and our ethics” informing and reinforcing moral behavior.

God’s Wrath

God’s wrath in the Old Testament and Jesus’ anger in the New Testament suggest consistency with this cognitive theory of emotion. Unlike other gods in the ancient world who behave badly and inconsistently, God gets angry primarily over sin, as cited in the Genesis 6 passage above. The Bible often refers to this trait as righteous anger.

The only passage in the New Testament where Jesus gets angry occurs in the story of the healing of the man with the withered hand:

“Again he entered the synagogue, and a man was there with a withered hand. And they watched Jesus, to see whether he would heal him on the Sabbath, so that they might accuse him. And he said to the man with the withered hand, Come here. And he said to them, Is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do harm, to save life or to kill? But they were silent. And he looked around at them with anger, grieved at their hardness of heart, and said to the man, Stretch out your hand. He stretched it out, and his hand was restored. The Pharisees went out and immediately held counsel with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him.” (Mark 3:1-6)

In the story, Jesus asks the Pharisees if it is right to do good on the Sabbath?  In other words, is Sabbath observance more important than caring for one another?  Their unwillingness to answer incensed Jesus and he gets angry because of the “their hardness of heart”. In his anger he heals the man. The object of Jesus’ anger is accordingly a hardened heart (Elliot 2006, 214).

Emotional Intelligence

If God acts not out of impulse, but out of concern for the law and righteous, then the cognitive theory of emotion provide important insight into the character of God. Our beliefs should likewise inform our emotions.

Emotional intelligence, as it is normally interpreted focuses on employing our intuition about other people’s emotional states in crafting our response to them. This is an application of Hebrew anthropology because emotions and thinking are treated as integrated, but the concept is less fundamental to our thinking than Hebrew anthropology, which is more of a philosophical approach. 

Emotional intelligence says nothing, for example, about the righteousness of the emotions observed or the purpose to which this intelligence is put to use. People talented in intuiting emotions may become people pleasers or be tempted to use this talent in devious ways. Consequently, it is probably best to describe God’s character as holistic rather than emotionally intelligent.

One in Christ

The unity of head and heart in Hebrew anthropology is usually thought of in individualistic terms, a kind of holistic worldview, but the social implications run deeper. The Apostle Paul writes:

“For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and call were made to drink of one Spirit. For the body does not consist of one member but of many.” (1 Cor 12:12-14)

When Paul talks about slave or free, he forbids class distinctions. Unity of head and heart poetically removes the class distinction between managers and workers, who are now one in Christ. Democracy is rooted in Hebrew anthropology.

References

Edwards, Jonathan. 2009. The Religious Affections (orig pub 1746). Vancouver:  Eremitical Press.

Elliott, Matthew A. 2006.  Faithful Feelings: Rethinking Emotion in the New Testament.  Grand Rapids: Kregel Academic and Professional.

Smith, James K. A. 2016. You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit. Grand Rapids: Brazos Press.

Heart and Mind

Also see:

The Who Question

Preface to a Life in Tension

Other ways to engage online:

Author site: http://www.StephenWHiemstra.net

Publisher site: http://www.T2Pneuma.com

Newsletter: https://bit.ly/Christ_2021


 

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Smith: Speak Postmodern, Part 2

Smith_review_02032015James K. A. Smith.  2006.  Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism:  Taking Derrida, Lyotard, and Foucault to Church.  Grand Rapids:  Baker Academic. (Go to part 1)

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

Smith offers detailed comments on three, key postmodern authors—Derrida, Lyotard, and Foucault—and argues that each is fundamental misunderstood in their usual interpretation.

Derrida

Smith sees hope in the Derrida’s critique, “there is nothing outside the text.” (36), because the modern understanding of the Christian message is itself a distortion of traditional church teaching.  In attempting to frame the Christian message in ahistorical truth statements (God is love), the narrative tradition (God showed his love by sovereignly granting the exodus of the nation of Israel from Egypt) has been lost.  Because the Christian message is contextual in biblical accounts and is interpreted by the church, it meets Derrida’s primary concerns.  Consequently, according to Smith, the church must, however, abandon modern stance and language in order to thrive in the postmodern environment (54-58).

Lyotard

Smith also sees Lyotard’s idea of a metanarrative as misunderstood in its bumper-sticker characterization. Postmodern critics have trouble with the metanarrative or big story of scripture—creation, fall, redemption, and eschatology (62-64).  Smith disputes, however, that the scope of metanarratives is Lyotard’s main concern.  Rather, Smith sees Lyotard’s main concern being the truth claims of modern use of metanarratives—science is itself a metanarrative but falsely and deceptively claims to be universal, objective, and demonstrable through reason alone (64-65). Smith writes:  “For the postmodern, every scientist is a believer.” (68). Lyotard is perfectly okay with the idea of faith preceding reason, following Augustine  (65, 72).  Accordingly, Smith says that the postmodern church needs to abandon modernistic claims to truth (e.g., give up the “scientific” approach to apologetics) and, instead, to value story (narrative), aesthetic experiences, and symbols, such as the sacraments (77).  In this way, Smith takes Lyotard to church.

Foucault

Foucault’s concern about institutional power structures is hard to reduce to a bumper-sticker characterization, in part, because he resists reductionism in his writing style and focuses on tediously pure description (96).  Smith sees Foucault preoccupied with disciplinary structures, but wonders what his real intentions are.  He talks about two readings of Foucault:  Foucault as Nietzschean and Foucault as a closet enlightenment liberal (96-99).  Smith writes:

What is wrong with all these disciplinary structures is not that they are bent on forming or molding human beings into something, but rather what they are aiming for in that process (102).

Smith sees Foucault offering 3 lessons to the church:

  1. To see “how pervasive disciplinary formation is within our culture”;
  2. To identify which of these disciplines are “fundamentally inconsistent with…the message of the church”; and
  3. To “enact countermeasures, counterdisciplines that will form us into the kinds of people that God calls us to be” (105-106).

It is worth asking in this context:  when exactly did the church relinquish its internal discipline and why?  Smith sees communion, confession, foot washing, and economic redistribution (107) as the kind of disciplines that need to be maintained.  A more normal reading of discipline might ask why the teaching of the church—church doctrine—is ignored and no dire consequences follow for those most engaged in the ignoring.

Discussion

Smith gets it.  Smith is unique in seriously reflecting on how to apply the lessons he sees in Derrida, Lyotard, and Foucault.  He asks:  “…is it possible to be faithful to tradition in the contemporary world?” (109)  He opines:

A more persistent postmodern [church]… will issue not in a thinned-out, sanctified version of religious skepticism (a “religion without religion”) offered in the name of humility and compassion but rather should be the ground for the proclamation and adoption of “thick” confessional identities. (116-117)

Smith sees radical orthodoxy as admitting that we do not know the truth, but confessing a mysterious and sometimes ambiguous faith (116-118).  He writes:

A more persistent postmodernism embraces the incarnational scandal of determinant confession and its institutions:  dogmatic theology and a confessionally governed church (122).

This radical orthodoxy involves “affirmation of liturgy and the arts and a commitment to place and local communities.” (127).

Assessment

Having just published a devotional book which reviews the traditional teaching of the church [1], I find much to like in Smith’s Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism! Perhaps the only real caveat that I would offer up is that the pluriform and variegated phenomena of postmodernism (26) will likely involve a range of responses, not just radical orthodoxy [2].   Some will work; many will fail.  Re-imaged, will the old wine poured into new wine-skins yield  a church able to experience both the immanent and transcendent attributes of God?  Likewise, will the exclusivity of Christ be lost in a church claiming only the right of private beliefs?  It seems likely that for now radical orthodoxy is likely to pose an interesting postmodern experiment, one of many.

Footnotes

[1] A Christian Guide to Spirituality (T2Pneuma.com).

[2] .  Elements of postmodern, modern, and traditional cultures appear to coexist in tension with one another even in small organizations and most certainly in society more generally.  See a serious of articles online:  Can Bad Culture Kill a Firm?  For example: (http://bit.ly/1DeSLse)

Smith: Speak Postmodern, Part 2

Also see:

Books, Films, and Ministry

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Author site: http://www.StephenWHiemstra.net

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Interpreting Images: Monday Monologues (podcast), January 10, 2022

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 By Stephen W. Hiemstra

This morning I will share a prayer and reflect on Interpreting Images. After listening, please click here to take a brief listener survey (10 questions).

To listen, click on this link.

Hear the words; Walk the steps; Experience the joy!

Interpreting Images: Monday Monologues (podcast), January 10, 2022

Also see:

Monday Monologue On March 26, 2018 

Other ways to engage online:

Author site: http://www.StephenWHiemstra.net,

Publisher site: http://www.T2Pneuma.com.

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Heart and Mind Prayer

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By Stephen W. Hiemstra

Father God,

We praise you for your consistency in heart and mind. Your immutable character is eternal and unchanging with the seasons. Your judgments enforce justice and your mercy supports life itself. Help us to model our behavior after yours.

We confess that we are like reeds blowing in the wind, sinning when it suits us, and when we find advantage. Forgive our sin and teach us to live without it.

We thank you for the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ who redeems us from bondage to sin and gives life meaning.  Help us to accept his love and learn from it.

In the power of the Holy Spirit, help us to model ourselves after you, to pattern life on earth with that in heaven, and to show mercy, grace, patience, love, and faithfulness to those around us.

In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Heart and Mind Prayer

Also see:

The Who Question

Preface to a Life in Tension

Other ways to engage online:

Author site: http://www.StephenWHiemstra.net

Publisher site: http://www.T2Pneuma.com

Newsletter: https://bit.ly/Christ_2021


 

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Surface and Depth

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By Stephen W. Hiemstra

The tension between the visual image and the need for the spoken word arises because images require interpretation. The Bible itself can be described as an interpretation of the image of God that we see in Genesis. Interpretation implies multiple explanations exist of any give image. Some interpretations fit the image better than others. Because language itself changes over time, each generation must find its own best explanation of God’s image.

Interpreting Visual Images

This interpretative problem arises immediately in Genesis 1 where we find, after creation, God involved in two interpretative activities: separation and naming.  We read a series of these separations and naming conventions, as in:

 “And God said, Let there be light, and there was light. And God saw that the light was good. And God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.” (Gen 1:3-5)

God creates light, declares it to be good, and names it day. He then follows suit to distinguish the day from night. Likewise, God distinguishes evening and morning, heaven and earth, and dry land and water. Different aspects of light are repeatedly discussed—days, light, greater lights, lesser lights.

These separations highlight the interpretative problem. How does one describe a world forever in shades of twilight? Image a child trying to describe times and seasons without these distinctions? 

I am reminded of the Iraqi war veteran in the film, The Hurt Locker (2008). After facing death and destruction every day in the war as he disarmed improvised explosive devices (IEDs), on returning home his wife sends him to the grocery store for cereal. Walking down a long aisle of cereal brands in the store, he is unable to decide what to buy. Overwhelmed with choices, he grabs the nearest box and leaves. This problem of choices highlights the moral dilemma of insisting that every action we undertake be parsed from every possible social perspective.

The seriousness of the interpretation problem is underscored in Genesis when Satan asks Eve: “Did God actually say, You shall not eat of any tree in the garden?” (Gen 3:1) Here even God’s words are being twisted. How much more can a visual image, such as the image of God, be twisted by those unable to make appropriate distinctions and are generally unprepared for the testing?

Authenticity

Beauty is almost indistinguishable in biblical use from the modern concept of authenticity. In both concepts structure and character complement one another. The surface appearance reflects a harmony within. The beauty we observe in nature reflects fingerprints of our divine creator. Dyrness (2001, 80) writes: “the biblical language for beauty reveals that beauty is connected both to God’s presence and activity and to the order that God has given to creation.” 

The call for authenticity begins in the third verse of the Bible: “And God said, Let there be light, and there was light.” (Gen 1:3) Unlike our proclivity to sin as revealed in our flaws, God’s words (Let there be light) and actions (and there was light) are in perfect harmony. The contrast between heaven and earth could not be greater. Unlike heaven, which Revelation reminds us needs no light other than God (Rev 21:23), earth requires illumination that God immediately creates.

God’s pre-existence relative to creation is underscored in the name that he gives Moses in the burning bush. ‎אֶֽהְיֶ֖ה אֲשֶׁ֣ר אֶֽהְיֶ֑ה (Exod 3:14 WTT) that can be translated either as “I am that I am” or “I will be who I will be.” Or in vernacular English: “I am the real deal” that implies authentic being—something original that cannot be wholly copied. By contrast, human beings, created in the image of God, possess only the potential for authentic being because sin gets in the way.

Jesus talked a lot about authenticity and about its inverse—hypocrisy. Perhaps his most famous statement about hypocrisy began with an admonition: “Judge not, that you be not judged.” (Matt 7:1) We frequently judge people by our own estimate of the degree of their hypocrisy. In a book with an ironic theme of authenticity, Howard Thurman (1996, 106) observed about the woman caught in adultery: [Jesus] “met the woman where she was, and he treated her as if she were already where she now willed to be. In dealing with her he ‘believed’ her into the fulfillment of her possibilities.” For Jesus, the tension between our desires and actions measured not just our authenticity, but also our proclivity to sin. Anger leads to murder; lust leads to adultery (Matt 5:22, 28).

Superficiality

The Bible describes human beings as created in the image of God, but with sin this image is quickly tarnished and other images quickly morph into idols and detestable things. Superficiality literally means a focus on the surface appearance. It breaks the biblical link between heart and mind.

Think of pornography as converting human physiology from an image of God into a object of our own desires. The conversion may be prompted by particular poses or behavior, but the conversion itself takes place not in the physical form but in eyes of the observer. Pornography perverts the mind more than the body. 

The idea of luck likewise focuses on outward appearances. Here God’s blessing is seen merely as a fortunate accident, whose origin is neglected. Superstition likewise denies the stewardship and sovereignty of the Holy Spirit over the created realm and, in many cases, abandons God in favor of evil spirits or worse.

Heart and Mind

Being created in the image of a living God, begs the question of life itself. Life is the ultimate union of heart and mind—the body and the spirit cannot be separated. The bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ testifies to the unity of heart and mind in Christian thought.

The human spirit, although undefinable, is obvious by its absence. A beautiful, living human body emptied of its spirit is no more than a repulsive corpse. A body without the spirit is a zombie; a spirit without a body is a ghost. 

References

Dyrness, William A. 2001. Visual Faith: Art, Theology, and Worship in Dialogue. Grand Rapids:  Baker Academic.

Thurman, Howard. 1996. Jesus and the Disinherited (Orig Pub 1949). Boston: Beacon Press.

Surface and Depth

Also see:

The Who Question

Preface to a Life in Tension

Other ways to engage online:

Author site: http://www.StephenWHiemstra.net

Publisher site: http://www.T2Pneuma.com

Newsletter: https://bit.ly/Christ_2021


 

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Smith: Speak Postmodern, Part 1

Smith, Whose Afraid of Postmodernism?

James K.A. Smith.  2006.  Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism:  Taking Derrida, Lyotard, and Foucault to Church.  Grand Rapids:  Baker Academic. (Go to part 2)

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

It is hard to underestimate the importance of philosophical changes in our lifetime. The movement from modernism to postmodernism has been abrupt and has eroded the foundations of most modern institutions [1].  Yet, the indirect way that philosophical influences affect daily life masks their impact to those unaccustomed to taking philosophy into account[2].  Most of us take note of the culture wars, but have trouble understanding why the heated debate. “Why can’t we all just get along?[3]

Introduction

In his book, Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism, James Smith Describes post modernism as a kind of pluriform and variegated phenomena (26), an historical period after (post) modernism (19), heavily influenced by French philosophers, especially Jacques Derrida, Jean-François Lyotard, and Michael Foucault (21).  Adding to the confusion, Smith observes that postmodernism does not make a clean break with modernism, but tends to intensify certain aspects of modernism, particularly notions of freedom (26).

Smith starts with the intriguing premise that the basic ideas of these 3 postmodern philosophers have misunderstood. When properly understood, postmodern philosophy and the traditional teaching of the church remain compatible (22-23).  The collapse of the church in our lifetime can accordingly be seen to lay the groundwork for a revitalization of the church around traditional teaching—once purged of its modernistic thought patterns (epistemology; 29).  This re-imaged traditional teaching he refers to as radical orthodoxy and has an incarnational focus which takes time, place, and space seriously and which affirms both the liturgy and the arts (127).  Are you intrigued yet?

Organization

Smith writes in 5 chapters.  Basically, an introduction and conclusion wrapped around 3 chapters focused on Derrida, Lyotard, and Foucault.  The 5 chapters are:

  1. Is the Devil from Paris? Postmodernism and the Church,
  2. Nothing outside the Text? Derrida, Deconstructionism, and Scripture,
  3. Where Have All the Metanarratives Gone? Lyotard, Postmodernism, and the Christian Story,
  4. Power/Knowledge/Discipline: Foucault and the Possibilities of the Postmodern Church,
  5. Applied Radical Orthodoxy: A Proposal for the Emerging Church (7).

Two prefaces precede these 5 chapters and an Annotated Bibliography follows them.

Philosophy Explained through Film

In explaining the details of these philosophers and other points that he makes, Smith starts 4 of his chapters with a lengthy description of a recent movie.  For Derrida, the movie is Memento (31) which features a man with a really poor memory who wanders through his day taking notes about what he needs to remember.  In the case of Lyotard, the movie is:  O Brother, Where Art Thou which is a redo of Homer’s Odyssey (59).  For Foucault, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (81) exemplifies his philosophy in the story of a small-time con man who pleads insanity to his crime and ends up in a psyche ward.  His final chapter begins with a telling of the movie:  Whale Rider (109).

Philosophers have been Misunderstood

Smith’s premise that these philosophers have been misunderstood because of weak bumper-sticker summaries of them. For example, Derrida’s misunderstood statement is: “there is nothing outside the text.” (36)  The idea that one can simply read a text, particularly an ancient text written in another language, and understand its meaning is to misunderstand the role of language, context, and interpretation[4]. While often said to mean that the Bible cannot be read and understood by just anyone[5], Smith says that this is not what Derrida is saying. Derrida’s point is simply that all understanding of texts requires interpretation—the context and the interpretative community (38-40)—which implies that there is no such thing as objective truth.  Interpretation is always required (43).

Objective Truth

Smith’s point about objective truth poses a problem for professionals, including pastors, schooled in modern methods of interpretation. The search for objective truth is the goal of modern research, a fundamental principle in democracy, and a principal of management. If one, objective truth exists, then we can all work together and with enough time and effort figure it out or at least come closer to it.  If truth is fundamentally contextual, then there is your truth and my truth, inasmuch as our histories differ, making collective action intrinsically more difficult.  For this reason, many professions view Derrida with suspicion.

Assessment

Smith’s writing is provocative and timely. It is also accessible. In part 2, I will examine in more depth his treatment of Derrida, Lyotard, and Foucault. Smith’s Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism is well worth the time to understand and ponder.

Footnotes

[1] A precondition for modern institutions is the idea that collective action enhances the search for objective truth.  If no objective truth exists, the benefit from discovering it disappears.  If only my truth and your truth exist, then we do not both benefit from working together.  Collective action is simply a power game.  This perspective motivates, for example, deconstructionists to focus almost exclusively on winning power games.  If this is the dominate philosophy, democratic institutions fare poorly because losers in a democratic vote have no reason to support the outcome of the vote.  Rather, they simply continue to argue their position and attempt to undermine decisions rendered.  This makes collective action more costly, slows down decision making, and leads to general unhappiness.

[2] My introduction to the term, postmodern, dates back to the late 1990s. A staff member in my office offended a senior manager who then all-day training as a team-building exercise. After several hours of this pointless training, a colleague from New York City, who moonlighted as a stand-up comedian, reached his limit and began a long rant that included both the words postmodern and deconstruction.  The trainer later filed abuse charges against him.  Curious why she had taken offense, I looked up both words in a dictionary…my colleague aptly described our re-education experience.  Our punitive training was much like the training (re-education) offered by the communists of Vietnam to prisoners in their concentration camps after the war.

[3] Quote attributed to Rodney King (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rodney_King).

[4] In statistics, we are taught that correlation cannot be interpreted as causality.  The analyst must have a theory to infer causality.  For example, sunspots may correlate with crop failures, but it does not imply that crops failed because of sunspots.  A theory must be introduced to show the linkage or causality.  The data by themselves cannot “speak”.  Derrida is making basically the same observation, but only with texts.

[5] This idea is called perspicuity of scripture (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Clarity_of_scripture).

Smith: Speak Postmodern, Part 1

Also see:

Books, Films, and Ministry

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Author site: http://www.StephenWHiemstra.net

Publisher site: http://www.T2Pneuma.com

 

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Image of God: Monday Monologues (podcast), January 3, 2022

Stephen_HIemstra_20210809

 By Stephen W. Hiemstra

This morning I will share a prayer and reflect on Image of God. After listening, please click here to take a brief listener survey (10 questions).

To listen, click on this link.

Hear the words; Walk the steps; Experience the joy!

Image of God: Monday Monologues (podcast), January 3, 2022

Also see:

Monday Monologue On March 26, 2018 

Other ways to engage online:

Author site: http://www.StephenWHiemstra.net,

Publisher site: http://www.T2Pneuma.com.

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