Book Club Discussion: Confronting our "situatedness"

Crystal Downing’s How Postmodernism Serves (My) Faith is our book club selection for the month of March. It’s Monday, so let’s continue our discussion. 

I don’t know about you, but I think Downing does an excellent job of bringing to light historical examples of the tendency of Christians to use the Bible to support views that, in hindsight, seem pretty irresponsible. This reinforces her point that interpretive communities do in fact  play a significant role in helping us define truth. Our  own history shows us that Christians are not immune to “situatedness.” Downing’s examples include: the Church’s stubborn marriage to geocentricism, the brutal persecution of the Anabaptists by Protestants for believing that confession should precede baptism, the use of Scripture to support owning slaves and marginalizing women. 

We would all like to believe that, had we lived in the days of the early church or the Protestant Reformation or the Civil War, we would have chosen the right side of things, but I think that’s a bit presumptuous. We must be careful not to imitate the Pharisees, who bragged that had they lived during the time of the prophets they would not have shed the blood of innocent men, but who then proceeded to crucify Jesus and persecute his disciples (Matthew 23:30-34). 

I can’t help but wonder what convictions I might have held had I lived in my hometown of Dayton, Tennessee just five, ten, or fifteen decades ago. Would I have used Scripture to defend my right to own slaves? Would I have opposed racial integration?  Would I have remained silent as the Cherokees stumbled by my house on the Trail of Tears? With this in mind, I often wonder if evangelicals will someday look back on our treatment of the homosexual community and wish we had done things a bit differently. 

Perhaps for this reason, Downing is refreshingly non-condemning of our historical counterparts. Instead of issuing a sweeping indictment on past believers, she uses these historical examples to warn Christians of the tendency to “presume that their construction of language is the true one: the tower that reaches into the heavens, the tower that encompasses the mind of God.” 

I think an appropriate response to this analysis is an attitude of humility, a willingness to release the death grip I personally have on certain theologies and interpretations of Scripture. All my life I was told that the most mature Christians were the convicted ones, the ones who believed without a doubt that they were right. Now I’m beginning to wonder if true spiritual maturity is marked by a healthy dose of trepidation, a willingness to be wrong and an openness to new ideas.

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Book Club Discussion: The Church's one foundation

Today we continue our discussion surrounding Crystal Downing’s How Postmodernism Serves (My) Faith

In Chapter 4 Downing develops the idea of “moving foundations” within the Christian faith.  She uses as an illustration the fact that foundations for new skyscrapers in Southern California are placed on rollers, enabling them to roll with the movements of the earth during an earthquake so that they won’t crack apart. “The foundations hold strong,” she writes, “precisely because they move.” 

The Church operates in much the same way. “Sometimes Christians get so rigidly committed to a certain idea of ‘truth’ as foundational that when the earth, or at least culture, moves under them, their faith develops huge cracks…” 

Of course, the best example of this is geocentricism. In Galileo’s day, support for the traditional paradigm of an earth-centered universe was adamantly espoused by the Church. Anyone presenting evidence to the contrary drew accusations of heresy. Even John Calvin argued that “those who assert that the earth moves and turns…[are] motivated by a spirit of bitterness, contradiction, and faultfinding; possessed by the devil, they aim to pervert the order of nature.” 

 If the survival of the Christian faith were dependent on the earth sitting still, Christianity would have most certainly perished sometime in the 18th century when the existence of a sun-centered solar system became widely accepted by the scientific community and the public. But because the Church successfully evolved, because believers were willing change their minds about the structure of the universe in order for their faith to makes sense in a modern world, what was once considered heretical is now embraced as scientific fact. What was once thought to be an essential, fundamental element of the faith-a geocentric universe-is now considered a ludicrous idea to any educated believer.

I often wonder if the current debate about evolutionary theory might turn out to resemble the fight about geocentricism. I saw in a Christian magazine the other day a headline that read, “Why we must teach our children to be young earth creationists,” as if young earth creationism was one of the most important, unmovable fundamentals of the faith. 

Is it? 

I’ll conclude with a quote from Augustine that I really think supports Downing’s theory. Oddly enough, Augustine was writing about the mysteries found within the book of Genesis, when he said, “in matters that are so obscure and far beyond our vision, we find in Holy Scripture passages which can be interpreted in very different ways without prejudice to the faith we have received. In such cases, we should not rush in headlong and so firmly take our stand on one side that, if further progress in the search for truth justly undermines this position, we too fall with it.”

While I don’t think Augustine would want us to abandon the evolution/creation dialogue altogether, I think he might like the idea of leaving a little room in our theology for God to surprise us now and again…even if that surprise involves evolution.

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Book Club Discussion: In the beginning, at 9 a. m...

It’s Monday, so today we continue our conversation about Crystal Downing’s How Postmodernism Serves (My) Faith. 

Seeing as my hometown of Dayton, Tennessee became famous for the evolution/creation debate of the 1925 Scopes Monkey Trial, I found Downing’s analysis of 17th century theologian James Usher’s creation timeline fascinating. Downing writes that “based on his reading of all the ‘begats’ in the Bible, along with the stated ages of Old Testament patriarchs, Usher systematically reinforced time frames suggested by earlier Christian leaders to conclude that the world was created on October 23, 4004 B.C.-at 9:00 a.m., no less.” 

Wow; it’s interesting that God was apparently using the Roman calendar before the existence of the Roman empire! 

Downing concludes that “Usher’s intellectual edifice was influenced by modernist styles. It reflected the early modern impulse to submit Scripture to reason more than it harmonized with early church tradition, which regarded a literal six-day creation as unnecessary to Christian orthodoxy.” 

I like how Downing describes modernism’s influence on fundamentalism: 

“During the first half of the twentieth century, scientific modernists and fundamentalist Christians seemed to stand on opposite sides of the same door. But the door wasn’t Christ; it was logical positivism, which asserted that only scientifically verifiable statements can be considered ‘true.’ Seeming to agree with modernists that only science is worthy of reasoned assent, fundamentalists argued (and many still do) for the scientific accuracy of the Bible. They turned Scripture into a collection of positivistic statements and went to incredible lengths to explain away textual discrepancies…” 

Downing takes it a step further and says, “it is no coincidence that the concept of biblical inerrancy developed in nineteenth-century England almost simultaneously with Darwin’s idea of natural selection: both were influenced by Enlightenment empiricism.” 

So, is the concept of biblical inerrancy nothing more than a byproduct of modern rationalism? Did the Old Testament prophets, with their pre-modern worldviews, think of Scripture as inerrant? Did Jesus? Should we? What do you think?

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Book Club Discussion: Duck and Cover

Crystal Downing’s How Postmodernism Serves (My) Faith is our book club selection for the month of March. It can get a bit heady at times, but I think you will find that Downing keeps a nice pace and makes some pretty complicated material accessible to readers. 

The book begins by addressing the “duck and cover” approach to postmodernism held by many evangelicals. Downing reminds readers that postmodernism “should not be judged by problematic practices carried out in its name,” but should be more closely examined by the Christian community before judgment is rendered. 

What Downing goes on to show, (and what I have experienced in my own life), is that postmodernism has both strengths and weaknesses, and that it can actually support the Christian faith. Downing describes postmodernism as “a suspicion of ready answers, an emphasis on the limitations of language, an awareness of the artifices of tradition.”

“My willingness to start asking questions about postmodernism,” she writes, “led to the discovery that it serves my faith…” 

When people challenge my own embrace of postmodernism, when they argue that postmodernism is bad for the Church, I sometimes wonder what they think is so great about modernism. The Enlightenment emphasis on intellectual autonomy and rationalism has led to the assumption that in order for Christianity to be intellectually viable, God’s existence must be proven on empirical grounds. The advantage of postmodernism is that it draws attention to the fact that all knowledge must be taken on faith. Downing writes that “it brings us back to the credo ut intelligam (I believe in order to understand) of Augustine and Anselm.” 

In college, I remember reading Gene Edward Veith’s Postmodern Times in my Christian Worldview class. In it, postmodernism is presented as a dangerous worldview system that stands in direct opposition to Christian orthodoxy. Veith slaps the postmodern label on everything from pluralism, to remote controls, to the animal rights movement. Indeed, many Christian writers continue to do so. Just the other day I picked up a book by a young evangelical who criticized postmodernism and wrote, “Still worse is deconstructionism, which says, ‘It’s not that I don’t know the truth, it’s that I just don’t care.’” I’m not sure such a loose and vague definition of deconstructionism would fly in academic circles today-be they Christian or secular. And yet many Christians continue to blame all of my generation’s problems on a cultural shift that I believe will ultimately help the Church.

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