The Demeaning of Meaning: Why it Matters, Biblically
Posted by Brian
In recent years, we’ve been told we, as readers and writers, must choose between two mutually exclusive propositions: either we must accept the author as tyrant or promote ourselves into his/her place.
“Hogwash” and “poppycock” are two appropriate technical terms.
While there is something to the critiques of both extremes, the idea that we must accept one or the other is nonsense. In my own opinion, there is a better, deeper, and more truthful answer to the question–one I hope to introduce you to this month. Maybe you’ve already thought of it, but regardless, I hope you find the discussion of it as engaging as I do.
This week I am speaking specifically to Christians, particularly those who take their Christianity seriously. Therefore, I am assuming a few things I know I would need to defend elsewhere. Perhaps it will “sound like a sermon,” but I think the ideas important enough to take that risk. Choosing to accept postmodernism and the relativism it brings with it–often through the back door–can appear on the surface to be both beautiful and empowering. Unfortunately, postmodernism is also philosophically shallow, and it doesn’t take much digging before you reach the rotten parts underneath. For Christians, the postmodern way of reading in particular is deadly to a living, breathing belief in Christ and cannot be lightly held.
To say that postmodernism, properly understood, is completely incompatible with Christianity seems to be a drastic, over-the-top statement to many these days. After all, postmodernism is thinking outside the box and giving voice to your own, unique ideas. It opens the doors to your imagination by defying the stultifying structures of the past that arbitrarily box us in. As we mentioned last week, it clears away the possibility of authorial idolization, and it encourages the reader to search for new insights in the text. It has, for Christians, helped people to move beyond simple “hellfire and damnation” legalism to a freer, more caring belief that focuses on God’s acceptance and love–something that was definitely needed at points in the Twentieth Century. What could possibly be so wrong about it that I think I’m justified in calling it “deadly“?
To be a “Christian” is to strive to be “like Christ.” We base our lives and our beliefs off the incredible fact that the Son of God deigned to debase Himself and enter into our world in mortal form, just like us. More amazingly, He didn’t just do it to stop by to say “hi” or to try out something new as a way to escape cosmic boredom. He intentionally suffered one of the most painful deaths imaginable to a human being in order to span the gulf between us and God. In doing so, he took on the sins of an entire race’s existence* on His shoulders. Christ is the centerpiece of the Christian uni-multi-verse, and the main theme of the Story that God has written into the foundations of space and time, from which our own stories emanate. Further, Christians are People of the Book. Without the Bible, we have no reliable knowledge of Christ or of His Story other than to say He existed. There is the testimony of nature and the “inner light” (for lack of a better description), but the backbone of it all is the Book, and Christians explicitly say they worship the Author of the Universe.
The fundamental premise of all forms of postmodernism I’ve ever encountered–relativism–undoes and invalidates all of this. Indeed, it assaults the very idea of the author, not only in the text but in our lives. If we regard God as postmodernism regards the author, then at best we’ll be gracious enough give Him a passing nod; at worst we’ll be taught to completely disdain Him and to actively rebel against Him. Simply put, we set ourselves in His place. (This is starting to sound familiar….) Can we trust the Bible–a book–if we don’t believe that books have meaning or that they convey the mind of the author? Should we believe that there is Meaning to the universe if we don’t believe there is meaning in even the little piece of it we hold between two covers in our hand? Should we share a faith with someone else if we don’t believe that any one narrative is truer than another?
The short answer is that we if we accept a postmodern worldview, we have no compelling reason to say “yes” to any of those questions. We can try, and that is what many Christians who have incompletely understood postmodernism attempt to do. They accept contradictory premises: The Bible is accurate and Christianity is the exclusive way to salvation while also insisting on and applying a worldview that denies authors matter, books can communicate objectively, or indeed there is anything we can know is true. The result is the lukewarm Christianity that we see around us.** People accept a premise from scripture to be true only while it is convenient. When it ceases to be easy, they invent a new interpretation of it that suits them better, imposing their will (more often, that of others) onto the plain meaning of the text. It is, in fact, the death of Christianity by any real, historical definition and the realization of the serpent’s promise to Eve: We are defining our right and wrong over God.
But there is a better way. Christians don’t have to accept the false dilemma posed by postmodernism. The Biblical worldview provides us with a way to understand both author and reader that will allow us to transcend the cold confines or modernism without having to drink the poison of its successor. We can give respect to the author without neglecting the reader, and the combination of the two can allow for powerful new evolutionary ideas. More of that, next week.
Next Week: A Better Way
*Perhaps He was righting the entire universe. After all, He has only told us our story. Other stories might be more incredible still–and that is saying something!
**You might say, “But I don’t believe that, and I consider myself a postmodernist!” Perhaps you don’t, but you are feeding your mind and your spirit on a steady diet culled from a society of thinkers who do? Further, what premises did you unknowingly have to accept in order to decide you were a postmodernist in the first place? For example, in deciding to express a postmodern love and respect for all points of view did you accept the reasoning behind it–that they are all equally valid and no one is “more true” than another?
Posts in this Series
- The Author as Tyrant?
- The Reader Ascendant, Impoverished
- Why it Matters, Biblically
- The Redemption of Meaning: Freedom with Respect
About BrianI am a history professor and author living with my family in the Virginia Mountains. It's hard to improve on a life like this!
Posted on August 21, 2014, in Authors, Books, Brian Melton, Literary Criticism and tagged author, Enlightenment, Meaning, postmodernism, reader, reading, Reason, truth. Bookmark the permalink. 14 Comments.