Thursday, 31 May 2007

Taking Lyotard to church

In a previous post, I started a review of James Smith's book, Who's Afraid of Postmodernism? Taking Derrida, Lyotard and Foucault to Church and considered what he had to say about Derrida and his theory of deconstruction. This post focuses more on Smith's chapter on Jean-Francois Lyotard.

Again the chapter opens with a film reference, this time O Brother, Where Are Thou? Smith sees a powerful message in the film's closing scenes, where despite apparent evidence to the contrary (and despite having just found himself praying in a moment of distress), the film's main character, McGill, ridicules religion as 'spiritual mumbo jumbo'. Smith describes it thus:

Everett Ulysses McGill is never quite disabused of his (religious) commitment to modernity. Despite the persistent challenges to his scientistic faith, he clings to the religion of the Enlightenment.

To this view, Smith contrasts the suspiciousness of the postmodern mindset. Postmodernity has led to the erosion of confidence in seemingly 'rational' and 'objective' deliverers of truth (what Lyotard calls 'meta-narratives'), such as modern science, which claims to have an ultimate theory of everything. Those of us who have studied geography, sociology or other social sciences will, for instance, know of the work of Bruno Latour and others, whose work in the 1980s showed that there are many subjective factors in the creation of seemingly objective 'scientific' knowledge. Postmodernism is therefore suspicious of knowledge that comes from all-encompassing meta-narratives such as science, which by nature then rule out other forms of knowledge. McGill's commitment to the meta-narrative of rationalistic scientism caused him to rule the spiritual out of hand completely, without even examining the pre-suppositions of the meta-narrative on which he had built his claims. Similarly Lyotard would seek to cast doubt on the claims of other meta-narratives, or 'all encompassing theories', such as Hegelian dialectics, the rationalism of Immanuel Kant and others, 'the invisible hand of the market' championed by Adam Smith, and theories of Marxism. All of these meta-narratives are, as James Smith puts it, 'opposed to narrative, which attempts not to prove its claims but rather to proclaim them within a story'. They are, 'universal discourses of legitimation that mask their own particularity ... [they] deny their narrative ground even as they proceed on it as a basis.'

All of this can seem bad news for Christianity, which forms its understanding of the world from Scripture. Is the Christian worldview a meta-narrative to be dismissed?

Not according to James Smith. Instead, he argues that 'the biblical narrative and Christian faith claim to be legitimated not by an appeal to a universal, autonomous reasons but rather by an appeal to faith'. In other words, Christians claim that Christianity is true not because of rational thought, but because of spiritual revelation (it should be noted that here Smith does admit that evidential apologetics do seek to present Christianity as meta-narrative in the way rejected by Lyotard). In other words, Christians can publicly share their narrative and should not be rejected because it is based on 'faith' - because 'faith' presupposions are everywhere, even in modern science. Smith sums up thus:

While in modernity science was the emperor who se the rules for what counted as truth and castigated faith as fable, postmodernity has shown us the emperor's nudity. As such, we no longer need to apologise for our faith - we can be unapologetic in our kerygmatic proclamation of the gospel narrative.
Taking Lyotard to church

Smith sees several implications from Lyotard's work on Christian life and witness:
  • Lyotard shows us that there is no such thing as 'neutral' public or secular space. Lyotard calls all thought to own up to the presuppositions it requires. Secular thought requires as much presupposition as thought more obviously based on 'faith'. The debates up and down the country a few months ago regarding the PURE course came based upon an argument that public space ought to be 'secular', on the presupposition that the secular is somehow 'faith-free'. According to Lyotard, this is a myth.
  • Lyotard's work has profound implications for our evangelism. Everyone makes presuppositions about the world. Evangelism that pays attention to Lyotard's work will require everyone putting their own presuppositions on the table and then narrating the story of the Christian faith, proclaiming the story of the gospel in the power of the Spirit (see Chris' blog for someone who is attempting to do this). Evidentialist apologetics which refuses to admit to its presuppositions will, increasingly, only be met with suspicion (and I have heard of how some of the great evidential apologetic speakers in the US have all but abandoned their campus outreach events for this reason).

Some of Smith's other suggestions seem to be somewhat more abstract. He speaks about the need for church-based hospitality (which I heartily endorse but fail to see how that comes from Lyotard's writings), an emphasis on biblical theology that shows how the story of the Bible fits together (amen!), but then also an emphasis on traditional worship. This was where I really failed to follow his line of thought. I think that Smith was arguing that Christianity should not be ashamed of its distinctiveness and the presuppositions it makes, and that it therefore should not pander to modern culture too much. But I wonder whether this is helpful - after all, the presuppositions of Christianity do not necessarily play to one style of worship more than another. I guess that sometimes modern evangelical worship can overly 'de-spiritualise' and I recognise that this is a balance that could be redressed, but does this demand a return to more 'traditional' styles of worship? Or am I showing my own evangelical presuppositions here?!

Tim Chester of the Crowded House Church in Sheffield, Director of the Northern Training Institute and all-round legend reviews the book more adequately than me here.

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