There are to quite unique voices within Christianity today. One can be seen in the words of Douglas who claim that both N.T. Wright and Rob Bell are heretics who deny Sola Scriptura and the doctrine of justification by faith. The other side might be represented by Kurt, who is arguing over at the OOZE that postmodernism should be the new lens by which Christians read the Bible. Kurt’s article cites Derrida and Lyotard as his sources for deconstruction as the central metaphor of the Bible.
Douglas’ representation of Bell is reminscent of about a century of liberal/conservative debates in the church. I admire Douglas’ zeal, even if I disagree with him on his final conclusions about Bell. I agree with others who have criticized Bell for being too one-sided in this view of scripture, but I think that his perspective is both valuable and needed. Kurt’s representation of scripture, likewise, is reminscent of many emergents who want to move beyond a liberal/conservative debate to what MacLaren and others are calling a “third way.” This movement tries to look beyond the culture wars that have plagued Christianity for the last 100 years or so.
I find both voices to be incomplete in their analysis of the contemporary situation. I have asked Douglas (with no response thus far) what Christians did before Calvin and the doctrine of Sola Scriptura. Whether we protestants like it or not, Christianity did not begin with Calvin or Luther and protestants have only been around for a quarter of Christian history. If Christians history was worth $1 million, we would be missing $750,000 worth. This is not to say that Calvin was totally wrong or that I believe scripture is unimportant, but the question must be asked, What did Christians do for the 300 years before the Bible was canonized? What did Christians do for 1200 years between the canonization and the printing press? The Bible has always been important, but for 3/4 of church history, both in Western Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodox understandings of faith, people understood the gospel and Jesus’ message sacramentally. There was deep personal and communal aspects to the Eucharist and Baptism and they were the formation of society.
But I also find Kurt’s post incomplete. He sees scripture as boiling down to an oppressed people who stood as the “other” against empire. In this way, Kurt argues, it is incorrect to think of the Bible as having “authority,” because the people who wrote the book were fundamentally opposed to the authorities and powers of the present age. I would surely agree with Kurt that a large portion of scripture deals with oppressed people, just as I agree that Calvin had many good things to say, but to say that the Bible IS all about an otherness in the face of empire is an overstatement. Outside of the Exodus story, most of the Torah is about contractual agreements between the Lord and his people. The books contain blessing and curses for those who follow and break Torah. There certainly are some laws that deal with social justice, but to say they are at the center of the Torah is again (probably) an overstatement. Similarly, the story of Israel is, in reality, a creation of empire under the Davidic kingdom.
I also think that Kurt may be proving Derrida’s point. Kurt, trying to show that the Bible can be read as a book of deconstruction, makes deconstruction the construction of the Bible. In other words, in attempting to show that the Bible is ultimately about the other who is against the authority of empire, Kurt is showing that the structure of the Bible is ultimately deconstruction of empire where the mountains are made low and the valleys are raised up. Do you see the problem? It is a fundamental one to anyone who seriously considers deconstruction. In the introduction to Derrida’s work in Baird’s Plato To Derrida, he explains that Derrida was careful to constantly change the terminology in his works of philosphy to constantly frustrate those who thought they understood him. Derrida ultimately showed the limits of language in explaining the structures around us.
I would also like quote Brian, who commented on Kurt’s article, because he raises another important point about Derrida:
unfortunately, or fortunately, i think derrida was a poor communicator. most of his thoughts are too nuanced to be of any service to anyone, which is why he is a passing phenomena in philosophical circles. the church, unfortunately, hasn’t moved on for a number of reasons. i think much of the allegiance to derrida and other french philosophers is trendy at best. moreover, much of the concepts associated with being a “postmodern” church are just pedaled to sell books. lyotard, who has one of the funniest names in modern thought, actually writes intelligibly, but his ideas have extremely narrow application to scripture or our current worldview climate.
Brian is correct in his assertion that Derrida is extremely confusing. I have read people like Kurt who try to sum up Derrida, but Brian brings up the point that Derrida is extremely nuanced and he is not unlike the teacher who constantly asks you more questions to make you realize who much you don’t know. I think Derrida has some good things to offer the church, but to use a label like “postmodernism” as a structure is inherently anti-Derrida, because Derrida would never have let himself be labeled.
There is a general tendency in many emerging circles of Christianity to try and avoid any sort of labels. Bell is notorious for calling out to his congregation and in his books to move beyond labels and bumper-sticker theology, but like Kurt, they create their own anti-bumper-stickers (“love wins” etc.) that become bumper stickers (literally) in their own right. Bumper stickers almost always are devoid of meaning because they become familiar.
I am not a proponent of a “third way” and I have always been careful not to label myself “emergent,” but I do think there is a general flow in which we can move that tries to stay away from either extreme. First, we should be careful before we say “the Bible is all about [fill in the blank].” Some might fill in the blank with concepts like: redemption, salvation, Exodus, prophecy, the spirit, or whatever other word you might want to put here. Second, we should study scripture carefully with a lens of history and with a lens of contemporality. Our historical lens should help us to see what the Bible meant to the audiences it was originally written to. This will inevitably require us to move beyond our own theological traditions. Our contemporary lens will help us to establish a hermeneutic that is helpful to the people around us. Third, we should study whole books within the Bible and not just fragments of books out of context.
These three things will help us to move in such a way that is faithful to scripture while avoiding generalizations or fuzzy facts. Inevitably, we will have to grapple with some very difficult passages, but it is necessary to grapple with these to understand the Biblical narrative as a whole.