Postmodernism, Take 1: Exposing Modernity’s Shortcomings

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Ruminating on DFW the past few weeks I’ve been re-examining a lot of the critical literature on postmodernism, pro-, con-, confused, condemnatory, and clueless, and sifting once again through the debris of Western civilization’s attempt to understand the logical outcome of its intellectual development which, in true Oedipal fashion, tried to murder its father and get randy with its mom (why do you think icons are big in [what remains of] emerging churches?). And now, re-tackling Gravity’s Rainbow and grappling with its techniques and its targets, I thought it might be fun to share some useful insights on this bizarre phenomenon, postmodernism, to illuminate just what the flip it actually is, what good it brings to the table, and what’s detrimental about it (“it” being a convenient shorthand to describe what, in reality, is anything but a monolithic, totalizing force). Should any of them prove exceptionally useful in deciphering the alien glyphs of GR, I’ll be sure to unpack that as well. So, without further ado, here’s Michael Shepherd on postmodernism’s benefits for biblical interpretation, most particularly w/r/t the possibility of standing above the biblical text as a “neutral,” objective interpreter:

If postmodernism has been of any value at all, it is that it has taught the children of modernity about the fallacy of objectivity. Everyone comes to a text from a particular viewpoint and with a certain amount of baggage. But this does not demand that the reader capitulate to reader-response criticism as the only mode of interpretation. Rather, when a reader comes to a text like the biblical text, he or she must acknowledge and evaluate his or her own presuppositions. Once the reader has gained a new awareness of his or her stance toward the text, the task is to read and reread the text in order to obtain a high level of competency. Such competency enables the reader to play according to the author’s rules and leads to better alignment with the author’s intention. The goal is not necessarily absolute knowledge of the author’s intention but adequate knowledge. In other words, the reader’s job is to be a critical realist — someone who avoids the pitfalls of fundamentalism and postmodernism through critical reflection on the reality to be known. For the reader of the biblical text, this means the reality or world created by the biblical authors, authors who insist that their representation of reality- the world of divine creation and providence- is indeed the only real world.

(Michael B. Shepherd, Daniel in the Context of the Hebrew Bible [New York: Peter Lange, 2009], p. 122)

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2 thoughts on “Postmodernism, Take 1: Exposing Modernity’s Shortcomings

  1. I have been wrestling through developing a holistic view of authorial intention. Some Postmodern readings bring surprising clarity to authorial intent, as your post indicates, but unfortunately carries over the Modernist modus operandi of methodology-production. In this case, critical realism. Granted, critical realism is about the best approach I have seen, but my one concern is that it does not hold in tension the dual authorship of Scripture. I get so consumed with the author’s rules– narrative structure, cultural background, rhetorical analysis, etc.– that I completely forget there is also a divine agent– a divine authorial intent– behind the text as well.

    How do we bring divine authorship back to the table? How do we reconcile, keeping in mind the tools Postmodernism supplies, that God speaks his intentions to us and humans speak their intentions to us in the same flick of a pen? For this, Speech-Act Theory is helpful, but not enough, and it seems a greater understanding is warranted, because we’re not after what the text says, but what the text means. And, unfortunately, our doctrine of inspiration has been neglected, because Modern theologians were content to say, “Hey, I just want to let you all know that the Bible is inspired. Written by both humans and God.” And they let that as a scientific fact be known. Thanks, but how on earth does that affect the wise reading of Scripture, how does that contribute to our pursuit of its meaning?

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    • One clarification: I did not mean to imply that Speech-Act Theory is not after textual meaning, but I did mean to say it is slightly deficient for this problem.

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