Sunday, March 14, 2010

Book Review: The Next Reformation

Many Christians believe the term postmodernism is a dirty word. Not Carl Raschke who argues in his book The Next Reformation that evangelical Christians must '...embrace postmodernity' (the subtitle of the book).

For Raschke, evangelical thought is in crisis as it is challenged by postmodernism. Postmodernist thought has changed our culture and, according to Raschke, '... has only recently begun to pound at the door of evangelical thought and faith.' (p. 11) The door has been answered by a number of evangelical authors with perspectives that are dismissive, misinformed, or misrepresentative of postmodernist thought, as far as the author is concerned. The evangelical reaction to postmodernism is, according to Raschke, because '[p]ostmodernism is saying what we really do not want to hear. So we pummel the messenger and deny the message.' (p. 48)

The first half of The Next Reformation takes us on a somewhat dense history of the development of postmodernism. This is meaty stuff which will be quite mind-bending for some readers. But with perseverance, it is a very interesting and insightful summary of the people and ideas underpinning what has come to be called postmodernism. There is no doubt that Raschke knows what he is talking about — his philosophical and theological expertise shine through and yet he writes engagingly and informatively.

One of the major postmodern criticisms of evangelical theology is that it has concretised it into a reductionist set of abstract propositions that claim to contain absolute truth. But, as Raschke pointedly declares,

God is holier than any theology. Theology depends on the parceling out of reality in nominative quanta of formal language and draws on the categorical schemes of Greek metaphysics. Theology ends where faith begins. (p. 57)

In other words, evangelical theology has not provided the space for genuine faith to be experienced because of its obsession with objective propositions of truth. In fact, Raschke goes so far as to accuse theistic representations of God as 'not only inadequate, but when they pretend to be adequate, they become idolatrous.' (p. 58) For Raschke, whether speaking of the left or right of Protestantism, it has,

with its denominational, ministerial, and ecumenical councils, its political action committees, its preoccupation with palaces proffered as church buildings, its elaborate financial schemes and fund-raising—has swallowed the theology of glory with one gargantuan gulp. It has buttressed these totally worldly ambitions with a regal rationalism that aggrandizes the institution of the church and its claims at the expense of broken souls crying out for grace and forgiveness. (p. 110)

It is hard to disagree with Raschke's analysis of the state of institutional Protestantism.

Over and against all the criticisms of postmodernism coming from the evangelical camp, Raschke believes that 'postmodernism is congenial with evangelicalism' (p.21) and desperately needs to embrace it if a new, much needed, reformation is to occur that will bring the grace and forgiveness for which so many yearn.

In the second half of the book, Raschke turns to an explanation of how postmodernism can, in his view, lead to his vision of a 'new reformation'. In doing so, he tackles a number of core Protestant themes:

  1. Sola fide (faith alone)
  2. Sola scriptura (scripture alone)
  3. The priesthood of all believers
  4. Ministry
  5. Worship

For Raschke, Protestantism desperately needs to return to faith alone (sola fide). For the author, Protestantism has erected a theological and institutional tower of Babel in its attempts to reach toward heaven. But this has resulted in nothing more than a babble of confusion which needs to be abandoned. The idea that humans can arrive at objective, absolute truth expressed through one totalising metanarrative enshrined in one exclusive religion has, in the postmodern era, become totally dismantled. The many languages that try to name God and contain God within its narrow boundaries is, according to Raschke, 'a divine sign that the One whose name is above all names must be honoured not with sound and consistent theology, but with a contrite and humble heart.' He continues:

There is nothing that can please God except faith. The ruined tower is the only acceptable worldview in the eyes of faith. Within that worldview we behold an endlessly expansive horizon. That is the view from the desert. Faith, however, has no compulsion without content. Sola Fide is an empty cry apart from another Reformation dictum: sola scriptura (by Scripture alone). (p. 114)

When it comes to Scripture, Raschke sees the principle of sola scriptura completely destroyed and ineffective because of the doctrine of inerrancy—the common evangelical idea that the original texts of the Hebrew and Christian bibles are without error in their original autographs. As Raschke explains, the doctrine of inerrancy (which, thankfully, is not held by all Christians) is really the product of a desperate attempt to defend the Bible against critics and has led to a rationalist apologetic for the Bible's truth. This agenda has distracted believers away from the truth as it is manifest in a person (Jesus Christ) and located it in an idolatrous biblicism. Raschke explains that

The inerrantist demands that the whole story to be "true" as a tableau of impersonal facts, when in fact the facts themselves are signs of God's all-encompassing and awesome presence. Nothing about God is "impersonal." The inerrantist ... demands to be shown Scripture, when indeed the fullness of Scripture is the whole person of God in Christ. If that were not the case, then Jesus would have not gone to the cross. He would have simply written a better book. (p. 134)

Raschke's call for Evangelicalism to recover an experiential engagement with the God of the Book rather than with the Book itself would seem to be a timely and appropriate call if one surveys the battle over the Bible that has gone on over many decades in the US in particular.

When it comes to the priesthood of all believers (worshippers) the need is a return from hierarchy to relationality. People, nowadays, have very different views of authority and hierarchical structure than they used to. In a paraphrase of '... Hegel's epigram that the "real is rational and the rational real"...', Raschke makes the point that, for the postmodern Christian, '... Christian corporate life could be summed up as follows: the real is relational and the relational is real.' (p. 158) It is easy to see how congregations that do not take this shift seriously will slowly die from dwindling membership.

When it comes to postmodern ministry, Raschke, appeals for a sensitivity to modern culture in proclaiming the gospel of grace and forgiveness. While there are cautions needed to not merely accommodate to postmodern culture, there is a need to package evangelism in ways that are consistent with the way in which postmodern society thinks — there is no point in speaking if no one is listening because we speak and proclaim in ways that are foreign to the hearers. The modus operandi of modern culture is conversation rather than argument.

The greatest disappointment for me in Raschke's book is his chapter on worship entitled Dancing with the Lord: Charismatic Renewal and the Deconstruction of Worship. While there may be much of value in his discussion of the history and approach of the charismatic/Pentecostal movement(s) and the grounding of worship in activity of the Spirit, Raschke's approach is grounded in his own emotional experience of being "slain by the Spirit" in a worship service. There is no doubt that much evangelical worship needs to be revived. But surely that doesn't require an emotionalist subjectivist experience that is in danger of losing its moorings to reason altogether.

Overall, Raschke's book is an important perspective on postmodernism that is a corrective to the absolutist disdain shown to it by many evangelical Christians. It's a provocative, rigorous, intense conversation around important themes to Christians and the future of Christianity. While we may not wish to become quite as enamoured of postmodernism as this author does, there are important questions and perspectives that need to be seriously considered if Christians are going to renew their faith, their relationships, and discard the modernist idolatry that has removed the heart of the institutional Christianity of today.

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