Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Book Review: Who's Afraid of Postmodernism

For many Christians, the word postmodernism represents all that is bad about the contemporary world. An unholy trinity of postmodernist thinkers would be Jacques Derrida, Jean-Francois Lyotard, and Michel Foucault. Could we think of anything worse than actually allowing these three to speak in church? Well James K A Smith has done just that in his brilliant little book Who's Afraid of Postmodernism: Taking Derrida, Lyotard, and Foucault to Church.

For Smith, these three postmodernist thinkers have some very important things to say to Christians. And what they have to say will surprise you and make you rethink your approach to Christian belief and practice. And the message is equally important for "orthodox", "traditional" believers and those who see themselves as part of the "emergent" or "progressive" streams of Christianity.

The first thing that Smith does is identify the essential message of each of his three conversationalists. They are:

  • "There is nothing outside the text" (Derrida).
  • Postmodernity is "incredulity toward metanarratives" (Lyotard).
  • "Power is knowledge" (Foucault).
In the first chapter, Is the Devil from Paris? Smith introduces the reader to postmodernist thought, outlines his agenda for the book, and discusses the nature of Christian apologetics and witness in contemporary society.

After this introductory chapter, Smith spends one chapter each on the above essential messages from Derrida, Lyotard, and Foucault. In each chapter, he teases apart the meaning of each of the statements trying to represent the thought of each philosopher as carefully as possible. He then applies his understanding to the contemporary church. Here is a summary of each chapter as provided by Smith in his first chapter:

    • 'Derrida. Deconstruction's claim that there is "nothing outside the text" ... can be considered a radical translation of the Reformation principle sola scriptura. In particular, Derrida's insight should push us to recover two key emphases of the church: (a) the centrality of Scripture for mediating our understanding of the world as a whole and (b) the role of community in the interpretation of Scripture.
    • Lyotard. The assertion that postmodernity is "incredulity toward metanarratives" is ultimately a claim to be affirmed by the church, pushing us to recover (a) the narrative character of Christian faith, rather than understanding it as a collection of ideas, and (b) the confessional nature of our narrative and the way in which we find ourselves in a world of competing narratives.
    • Foucault. The seemingly disturbing, even Nietzschean claim that "power is knowledge" should push us to realize what MTV learned long ago: (a) the cultural power of formation and discipline, and hence (b) the necessity of the church to enact counterformation by counterdisciplines. In other words, we need to think about discipline as a creational structure that needs proper direction. Foucault has something to tell us about what it means to be a disciple.' (pp. 23-24)

In his last chapter, Smith turns his attention to a movement known as Radical Orthodoxy which he believes comes closest to incarnating the principles he has derived from postmodernist thought as outlined above. The section titles for this chapter are wonderfully enticing:

  • Redeeming Dogma: A More Persistent Postmodernism
  • Recovering Tradition: Taking History Seriously
  • Renewing the Body: Space, Place, and Incarnation

Smith is a superb writer, explaining deep concepts simply and elegantly. Each chapter begins with a summary and analysis of a contemporary movie (eg, The Matrix – Chapter 1; Memento – Chapter 2) which forms the basis of his discussion of each theorist. The last chapter draws on Whale Rider to illustrate the way in which the contemporary Christian church needs to live in the world while drawing on ancient traditions to express and form its work and worship.

Unfortunately, Smith doesn't engage in a discussion about relativism and pluralism — both issues of concern to many Christians. He briefly mentions relativism in a footnote, suggesting that it is the fruit of modernist thought rather than postmodernist. And on page 50 he engages in a brief discussion of hermeneutic, or interpretive, pluralism. I would have liked to see a deeper discussion. But they can certainly be found elsewhere.

Who's Afraid of Postmodernism is essential reading for the contemporary Christian. Smith's analysis is scholarly (he has published widely in postmodernist thought) and penetrating. And he does a wonderful job of challenging the way we think.

I would also recommend this book to those who have moved away from their religious faith. In particular, the third chapter of the book entitled Where Have All the Narratives Gone? is a brilliant analysis of the hegemony of the science narrative in society (promoted especially by writers such as Richard Dawkins who are thoroughly modernist in their approach). In addition, those interested in the emerging church movement will discover that there is much that is modernist in the approach (even though it claims to be postmodernist).

Who's Afraid of Postmodernism? packs a potent punch. Put this on your reading list for the new year!

Related Links

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Darkness Is My Only Companion: A Christian Response to Mental Illness

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Captured by Grace: No One Is Beyond the Reach of a Loving God

An inspirational meditation on grace using the hymn Amazing Grace for its structure.


Supernatural thriller about a group of people who have to abandon their broken down car on a highway and find themselves in a house where a mad man plays a game of cat and mouse. One game. Seven Players. Three Rules. Game ends at dawn. Co-written by Frank Peretti and Ted Dekker.

The Nature of the Atonement: Four Views

One of the books in the Four Views series. Gregory Boyd, Joel B Green, Bruce Reichenbach, and Thomas R Schreiner share their perspectives on the atonement and critique the others. Up-to-date treatment of the issue.

Is God to Blame?: Moving Beyond Pat Answers to the Problem of Evil

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Thursday, December 18, 2008

Movie Review: Twilight

Released: 2008

Go to IMDb page

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I was pleasantly surprised by Twilight — the dark, sensual vampire romance based on Stephenie Meyer's book of the same name. The movie is clearly targeted at older teens but it deals with deep moral issues that will hopefully be discussed by these teens.

Bella Swan (Kristen Stewart) moves to Forks, Washington to live with her father, Charlie. At school in her science class, she finds herself buddied with Edward Cullen (Robert Pattinson) a mysterious boy to whom she is strangely attracted. As she gets to know him, she discovers that Edward is a 180 year old vampire. Edward is deeply attracted to Bella - physically and emotionally. The smell of her human blood is almost overwhelming. But Edward's father has taught his vampire children that to kill humans for food is immoral and they have lived on animals hunted in the nearby woods.

Edward knows that, if he gives in to his sexual desire for Bella, his vampire instincts will take over and he will kill her to drink her blood. So he decides to resist and, although their friendship deepens, there is a constant temptation beneath the surface that each must resist.

Complicating all this is the arrival of a band of renegade vampires who put Bella's life in danger. Edward's family rally around her to try to protect her. Will they be able to save her? And will Edward succumb to temptation?

I really enjoyed Twilight. The fresh approach to the vampire tradition is engaging. Stewart and Pattinson both inhabit their roles well and, apart from one overacted scene from Stewart and a shaky start from Pattinson, are great. The tinges of horror keep the suspense going at the right times. The sexual tension is taut and well handled. It is a rare narrative that makes self-discipline and restraint the dominant plot device! And the photography is beautiful as Edward transports his love interest above the tree tops and then down into the forests.

The two lead roles are obviously attractive if the teenage audience in the cinema was anything to go by — particularly when Edward first appears on the scene. A cheer ascended the moment he walked into view.

Stephenie Meyer is a Mormon who earned her degree in literature at Brigham Young University. She has stated that she wrote the Twilight book following a dream she had of a vampire who fell in love  with a girl but also thirsted for her blood. On the front cover of the Twilight book there is a red apple held in two hands. Inside the book there is a biblical reference to the tree of knowledge of good and evil found in the opening chapters  of the Genesis. Here is what Meyer says about the apple symbolism:

The apple on the cover of Twilight represents "forbidden fruit." I used the scripture from Genesis (located just after the table of contents) because I loved the phrase "the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil." Isn't this exactly what Bella ends up with? A working knowledge of what good is, and what evil is. The nice thing about the apple is it has so many symbolic roots. You've got the apple in Snow White, one bite and you're frozen forever in a state of not-quite-death... Then you have Paris and the golden apple in Greek mythology—look how much trouble that started. Apples are quite the versatile fruit. In the end, I love the beautiful simplicity of the picture. To me it says: choice.

Choice — that does indeed summarise the theme of Twilight. It's a good yarn and there's lots of thinking to be done about the theme of choice — not only in the movie but in our own lives as well.

My Rating: **** (out of 5)

Positive Review
'A sometimes girlie swirl of obsession that will delight fans, this faithful adaptation is after teenage blood, and will most likely hit a box office artery.' - Will Lawrence/Empire

Negative Review
'I've had mosquito bites that were more passionate than this undead, unrequited, and altogether unfun pseudo-romantic riff on Romeo and Juliet.' - Marc Savlov/Austin Chronicle

USA: PG-13

Content Advice
some violence and a scene of sensuality

More movie recommendations

Two friends get lost in a desert. A demanding movie that (very) slowly arrives at a devastating ending. (***1/2) - DVD

The Secret Lives of Dentists
A quirky drama about a dentist who believes his wife (also a dentist in partnership with him) is having an affair. We see him dealing with it in his imagination in the person of a client who becomes his alter ego. (***1/2) - DVD

The story of the UK television presenter, David Frost's, famous interviews with US President Richard Nixon where Frost manages to elicit a confession from the President about his role in Watergate. (****)

An on-the-edge-of-your-seat thriller. A TV journalist covering the life of fire fighters during a night shift is called to an apartment block where some strange behaviour is being reported. When it is discovered that a virus is loose, the building is quarantined and no one can get out. Things go from bad to worse. (****)

A sweeping drama set in Australia during the Japanese invasion of Darwin in early 1940s. An English woman travels to Australia to prevent the sale of her and her husband's station. Very enjoyable. (****)

The Lemon Tree
Set on the border between Israel and Palestine. A newly elected Palestinian government official moves to a residence where, across the border on the fence line, is a lemon orchard run by a widowed Israeli woman. To improve security, plans are made to cut down the lemon orchard. The woman decides to take the official to court. A pleasant and moving story. (***1/2)

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Sunday, December 07, 2008

Movie Review: The Bothersome Man (Den Brysomme mannen)

Den Brysomme mannen Go to IMDb page

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I have stumbled on a brilliantly surreal Norwegian movie which, from a Christian perspective, might be seen as a critique of bland views of eternal heaven or, for the secular audience, a dystopian view of modern society.

The Bothersome Man (2006) begins with Andreas (Trond Fausa Aurvaag) standing on a train platform where he is aware of a couple engaged in gross mechanical, emotionless kissing. Andreas then jumps in front of an oncoming train. We are then transported back to the time he arrives alone, and without memory as to how he got there, at a desolate outpost. He is "welcomed" by a man in a black car who transports him to a city where everything is perfect. There is no pain, no death, relationships are conflict-free, and sex is mechanically free of any complications such as love. And there are no memories from the past to intrude in this idyllic life. Andreas is given a perfect job and a perfect house and lives with a perfect wife who makes no demands. Everything is just perfect ... or is it?

Andreas is ill-at-ease. Something is not right in this city. The food is tasteless, alcohol has no effect, there are no children bothering anyone and there are no elderly. Life is one endless round of going to work and coming home at night to an "idyllic" existence.

Then Andreas discovers a man living in a basement who has found a hole in the wall from which comes beautiful music and the sounds of children's laughter. In desperation, Andreas tries to tunnel through to the other side. But Andreas is a bothersome man to this society and they need to deal with him. He is disrupting their perfect existence.

The Bothersome Man (2006) is a superbly crafted dystopian vision. The director, Jens Lien, has produced a finely balanced, subtle story in which the performers provide wonderfully understated portrayals of the deadness of their perfect existence. Sound plays an essential role in painting the utopian vision. Dialogue is kept to a minimum (maybe that is some people's idea of perfect existence!) and the cinematography uses the imagery of vast land- and cityscapes to heighten Andreas sense of disconnection and loneliness. In addition, there are some "high points" of very black comedy as Andreas is hit multiple times by a train but cannot die.

The Bothersome Man can undoubtedly be "read" in different ways. For some, the movie represents the alleged (by some) contemporary nature of modern Norwegian society. Others see a general warning of contemporary society and its pursuit of pleasure and avoidance of pain. For me, I couldn't help thinking of some Christians' views of heaven. They seem so bland and boring I wonder why anyone would want to end up there. It seems to me that the Bible says very little about the reality of heaven. It affirms its existence. But the biblical descriptions often referred to by Christians are most certainly culture-bound at the time they were written. They are constructed around whatever utopia was for those people.

Whatever interpretation you place on The Bothersome Man it is a film that had me sitting and thinking as the credits rolled (an interesting thing happens as the first few credits roll — watch out for it and consider what it might mean). The ending of the movie is highly enigmatic. But the very best art should leave room for us to draw our own understandings. Lien has resisted the temptation to didactically explain the meaning of the narrative. Films like this offer wonderful opportunities for discussion. In that sense, this is a superb piece that truly bothers the intellect — Lien is a bothersome director! The Bothersome Man, is most definitely worth the bother of tracking down.

My Rating: ***** (out of 5)

Positive Review 'A few flaws but this is visually captivating and psychologically disturbing.' - David Parkinson/Empire Reviews Central

Negative Review 'There are several ways to take this bothersome trifle, none of which are at all resonant.' - Ed Gonzalez/Slant Magazine (warning: some coarse language)

Content Advice Sexual references; violence and gore; frightening/intense scences

AUS: MA15 USA: Not rated