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Mention `Postmodernism' in certain circles and a chorus of groans will fill the room, such is the omnipresence of the word. Nevertheless this is a book that should be taken seriously. A concern for evangelism has led Middleton and Walsh to address the subject afresh (having previously tackled related issues in their book The Transforming Vision), and their understanding and appreciation of the likes of Derrida, Foucault and Lyotard are evident. The significance of this book lies in its ability not only to explain esoteric concepts to the novice, but also to draw on instances in popular culture where these concepts find their expression (such as the Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy series and Star Trek). The challenge of Postmodernism should not be dismissed or underestimated, for its influence is increasingly common.
We gain much from Postmodernism, not least the exposure of the self-authenticating (and therefore unstable) foundations of Modernism. But its dismissal of that `metanarrative' (a worldview which claims universality) of the Enlightenment threatens all others in one fell swoop, including the so-called pre-modern religions such as Christianity. The charge is that they are all `inevitably oppressive and violent in their false claims to "totality"' or universal applicability (p72). It is the book's contention that Christianity is unique in its potential for not being a totalising metanarrative, despite the necessary concession that over its 2000 year history, the Church has not lived up to this potential. Middleton and Walsh are surely correct here. Furthermore, they rightly see the cause of the world's problems lying not with the dominance of metanarratives, but `the violence of the human heart'. This `requires a remedy considerably more radical than that suggested by Postmodernity' (p79).
However even if Christianity is able to sustain the accusation of being a metanarrative, problems still remain in the realm of epistemology. Middleton and Walsh are indebted to Tom Wright's New Testament and the People of God for a resolution, along the lines of a `critical realism' which takes into account the obvious fact of all knowledge being `provisional' (p170). Scripture stands as supremely authoritative, our interpretations do not. Any efforts to derive a theological framework from Scripture must always be open to challenges, as passages strike us in fresh ways. This seems entirely reasonable. However the problems arise as soon as Middleton and Walsh attempt their project of `attending to offensive biblical texts in the context of the metanarrative's overall thrust'(p 240, fn 36). They see the biblical metanarrative as one of liberation of the oppressed, and so the offensive texts they cite are for example Phyllis Trible's `texts of terror'. (In doing this of course, they seek to take seriously and rebuff the Postmodernist critique of metanarratives being inherently violent.) In these instances the larger story of the Bible `has gotten stuck' (p178). The texts must be `attended' to, which is effectively to see them discarded. Surely it is one thing to find a text `angular' because it fits uncomfortably into our understanding of the Bible's framework, but it is quite another to determine that it has no place within the biblical metanarrative at all? Furthermore, a text can be deemed irrelevant because it does not concur with `contemporary sensibilities'. How is this supposed to be consonant with an obedience to 2 Tim 3:16-17 (p 240)?
This situation is perhaps compounded by the incorporation of Tom Wright's clever analogy of the unfinished Shakespearean masterpiece for biblical authority. The embryonic 5th Act (representing the first few decades of the Church) lacks development and conclusion, and is crying out for an improvised climax. The 6th Act is, of course, the Parousia, about which `there are hints', but `no clear line leading from the break in Act 5 to the conclusion of the drama' (p 182). Any verbatim repetition of previous text is therefore (following the analogy) inappropriate. We are told that the NT presents a model of just such an improvisation in the Council of Jerusalem in Acts 15, where apparently `like us, they had no script' (p 193). But surely, this situation was merely one of apostles coming to terms with the sufficient script of OT prophecy being fulfilled, rather than improvisation in entirely uncharted waters? It is true to say that application of Scripture can be problematic. However, there is a subtle, but crucial, distinction between application and improvisation. The very authority and sufficiency of Scripture are at stake.
The model opens up huge and dangerous possibilities, since it actually legitimates `not only going beyond the biblical text but sometimes even against the text' (p 184 - their italics) in order to be faithful to the text. However, one is left wondering how we can ultimately be prevented from succumbing to `every shifting wind of cultural life that comes our way', despite their optimism to the contrary (p194).
This book should certainly be read for its incisive and helpful overview of Postmodernism, especially because the latter's threats to the gospel are real. Yet, there must be solutions which do not concede as much as Middleton and Walsh seem prepared to concede.