April 1997

           

 

In This Issue

I can still vividly remember one Sunday evening from my childhood I was only 8 or 9 years old at the time when our church in Holmes County, Ohio rented a projector to show a film on Noah's ark. Those planning the service had advertised the event widely, hoping that the film's subject would pique the interest of the unchurched in our community. Once inside the church doors, the unconverted were confronted with archaeological evidence offering conclusive proof that the biblical story of Noah and the flood happened exactly as the Bible described it. Though the full details of the film are no longer clear in my mind, I do recall the conflicted emotions I felt during and after the event. On the one hand, it was a relief to hear that stories from the Bible could be defended by empirical evidence. And I was pleased that the strangers in our church that evening would have to consider the hard logic of archaeological factsfacts that communicated the truth in terms that they took seriously. Yet at the same time I remember a vague disconcerting sense that there was something wrong with this blatant appeal to science to defend the trustworthiness of scripture. If the truth of scripture and the coherence of Christian faith ultimately had to be validated at the bar of Reason, then the odd rituals of singing, testimony and prayerand indeed the language of faith itselfseemed unnecessary.

I must confess that I had something of the same disease when I initially considered for publication this set of papers on the subject of "Mennonites and Postmodernity." On the one hand, postmodern theory is a serious intellectual current in contemporary universities. Its logic and arguments are sophisticated, powerful and compelling. If The Mennonite Quarterly Review is going to stay current in scholarly circlesif, above all, we are going to be relevant to our readershipthen we should not flinch from presenting Anabaptist/Mennonite convictions through the lens of postmodern inquiry. But at the same time, I was uneasy with the sense that the framework of the discussion was once again being defined by a particular culture-bound logic. Reason now displaced by the "deconstructionist" impulse of postmodern thoughtin which the very terms of the argument guaranteed that the language of faith would be nudged aside as a problematic, if not embarrassing, relic.

Although I am not yet a convinced "postmodernist," my initial uncertainties regarding the papers have long since dissipated. As I have corresponded at length with the various authors and wrestled with the arguments presented here, it has become clear to me that my initial analogy with the Noah's ark film breaks down in at least one crucial respect: the authors of the papers presented in this special issue are not addressingat least not primarilythe unconverted. Rather, as Christians deeply committed to the Anabaptist/Mennonite tradition, they are seeking to reconstruct meaning and order for those within the faith, calling for a fresh and fuller understanding of the gospel amidst the givens of a postmodern context. Although provocative and disturbing at places, these essays have a timeless and venerable implicit goal, namely: a Christian discernment of contemporary culture which calls for repentance, conversion and renewal. Whether the old wineskins are sufficiently flexible to contain this new wine, will depend on the discernment of MQR readers and the response of the broader church.

With the exception of the contributions by Scott Holland and Rudy Wiebe, the papers in this special issue had their origin in a project initiated by Holland and Gerald Biesecker-Mast titled "Anabaptist Radicalism and Postmodern Publics." The participants in that projectthe authors of these articlesare all relatively young scholars, many of them finishing doctoral programs or in the early stages of their careers. As a group, they have been deeply influenced by postmodern critical thought; but they are also all engaged in research or teaching related to Anabaptist/Mennonite studies. They are undoubtedly the first generation of Anabaptist/Mennonite scholars who have read Wittgenstein, Derrida and Foucault alongside the texts of Guy F. Hershberger and Harold S. Bender.

Possibly some MQR readers are not familiar with postmodern theory. Thus, rather than summarize each article individually, I would like to offer a brief overview of the main features of postmodern theory and some additional thoughts on its potential relevance for contemporary Anabaptist/Mennonite groups.

* * *

Though the term is used frequentlyindeed almost casuallyconcise definitions of "postmodernity" nearly always collapse under the weight of nuances, qualifications and exceptions. In part, this reflects the wide-ranging expression that postmodern critical theory has been given in such disparate disciplines as literature, history, music, philosophy and theology. But it is also a result of the inherent suspicion that postmodern theorists have of any attempt to describe reality in a systematic or hierarchical manner. Here we begin to find points of common ground among postmodernists. Virtually all postmodernists, for example, begin with a deep distrust of Reason and the triumphalist claims of science, progress and liberty which, since the Enlightenment, have been the foundations of modern civilization in the West. In place of the Enlightenment confidence in the universal truth of Reason, postmodern theory argues that everythingevery person, every deed, every "fact," every claim regarding Transcendence, Truth or Ultimate Realityis ultimately embedded within a particular, and therefore limited, cultural context.

Though such notions as Reason or Truth appear to be self-evidently woven into the very nature of reality, they are in fact linguistic fictions, historically contingent creations of particular cultures or communities. In a closely related vein, postmodern theorists also challenge the standard western notion of the Self as an sovereign agent, capable of free and independent choices. They argue instead that the individual is ultimately constituted by the dominant cultural logic (or "discourse") of the community. The illusion that these concepts are universally validthat they somehow transcend their specific contextis a useful means by which self-interested elites within a culture or community maintain their power. Thus, one central task of the postmodern theorist is "deconstruction," namely, exposing the intricate webs of power interests whichconsciously or unconsciouslylie behind the deepest assumptions a particular community holds regarding the nature of Truth. In short, postmodernity announces not only the demise of the Reason as the grounding of society and human identity, but it also exposes any universalizing theory (or "metanarrative") as a human creation which serves particular vested interests within a given society.

Not surprisingly, many Christian intellectuals have reacted to postmodern theory with deep skepticism, if not open alarm. At its best, some have argued, postmodern theory is an elitist academic exercise, a cynical word game played by scholars anxious to ensure their publications and academic tenure by cloaking old ideas in the patina of technical and obscure jargon. At its worst, others have claimed, postmodern theory is blatantly hostile to Christian faith. Like some new computer virus unleashed in the academic community, its relentless "deconstruction" of Transcendence leaves in its wake a trail of intellectual chaos and ethical confusion.

Yet even though some Christians might wish it otherwise, the issues raised by postmodern thought, like the troubles unleashed from Pandora's box, are not simply going to disappear. More than merely an academic whim, postmodernism attempts to describe a "condition" of western thought and culture which ultimately cannot simply be ignored or pretended away. Although one may ridicule its linguistic reductionism, scoff at its self-inflated jargon, or denounce its moral relativism, the questions posed by postmodern theorists demand a thoughtful response, not least because the reality its theorists describe is, for better or for worse, an unavoidable part of the (post)modern world. More important, as readers of this issue will discover, it is indeed possible for critical analysis informed by postmodern thought to move beyond the "deconstructionist" impulse towards a prophetic vision of a new heaven and a new earth rooted both in Christian convictions and in Anabaptist/Mennonite sensibilities.

* * *

But why should postmodern thought be of any interest to contemporary Anabaptists/Mennonites? Why should readers of MQR bother to wrestle with the conundrums posed by another academic theory?

We should care about postmodern theory, in the first place, because our lives are indeed embedded in the culture around us. Even people of faith live in a temporal worlda world in which our commitment to Christ is always expressed through the "filter" of contingent human institutions, whether they be the local congregation, our workplace, civic organizations, or the economic choices we make as consumers. Not only do we participate in a culture which extends beyond the boundaries of the "redeemed community" but our lives within the "redeemed community" are also profoundly shaped by the assumptions of this broader culture. If we are indeed called to be faithful discerners of the culture within which we speak, think, work and worship, then we should use every tool and insight at our disposal to understand its inner logic rather than simply to react, as has often been the tendency in the past, to its particular manifestations. As the papers in this special issue suggest, postmodern theory has the potential of offering the church new insights into the challenging task of cultural discernment.

In a related vein, Anabaptists/Mennonites should also take note of postmodern theory because we share several key points of interest and emphasis. Anabaptists/Mennonites, for example, have long been aware of the ways in which public rhetoricparticularly in times of warcan disguise the hidden realities of selfishness and violence. Anabaptists/Mennonites share with postmodern theorists a deep awareness of the role of the community in shaping individual, as well as collective, character and identity. And both streams of thoughtsensitive to the persistent idolatrous human temptation to confuse the created with the Creatorregard humility as a primary virtue. If Anabaptists/ Mennonites wish to become conversation partners with theo rists of postmodernity, numerous topics of common concern are readily at hand.

Finally, Anabaptists/Mennonites should be interested in postmodern theory because it provokes, challenges, disturbs and critiques traditional assumptions and realities. Contemporary Mennonites, for example, have tended to be quite articulate about the fallen nature of the culture outside its boundaries; but postmodern theory suggests that even the "community of the redeemed" participates inescapably in the logics of power which canand shouldbe exposed to the light of day. Postmodern theorists are also critical of the traditional Mennonite focus on "boundary maintenance," structured by a well-defined set of doctrines at the center and a vigilant enforcement of ethical standards at the margins. In their view, this understanding of community too easily confuses human rules with the will of God, it suppresses the liberating movement of the Spirit with its capacity to surprise, and it arrogantly rejects the gifts of perspective and dialogue offered by seekers and strangers outside the boundaries of the community.

Postmodern theorists also challenge Mennonites to think more carefully about the meaning of the Body, particularly when it is used to identify the church with the "Body of Christ." Such rhetoric, they argue, can easily dis guise the fact that the congregation or denomination is embedded in a particular history and culture, that it is an "earthen vessel" which re flects the idiosyncrasies and flaws of its human leaders. In a similar vein, the abstract language of the "Body of Christ" has encouraged a preoccupation with regulations controlling the individual body in a way which devalues the flesh-and-blood physical body within which we live. Thus, several of the articles in this issue explicitly challenge Anabaptists/Mennonites to embrace the passion and poetry and aesthet ics of a life truly "embodied" in time and space.

The articles in this issue of MQR are not always easy to read. Readers who are not already familiar with the literature of postmodernism may find the vocabulary or writing style of some articles to be confusing and needlessly obscure. Those looking for a tidy coherence to this special issue are likely to be disappointed by the wide variety of styles and arguments presented here. And some readers may even be irritated or shocked by the substance of what follows in this issue.

Since one central goal of the issue is to encourage open discussion on postmodern thought, I invite readers to send critical responses and reflections to MQR or directly to the authors. Certainly neither postmodern theory nor the articles in this issue offer the final word on questions of Christian faithfulness. But at the same time, we would do well to remember that flourishing faith traditions are continually renewed and sustained by fresh encounters both with culture and with the Holy Spirit. Thus, in the last decades of the nineteenth century John F. Funk promoted cultural innovations such as Sunday schools and a church-related printing press to invigorate a new generation of mission activity within the (Old) Mennonite Church; at the same time, pioneer evangelist John S. Coffman borrowed the forms, language and emotional energy of Protestant revivalism to inspire hundreds of young Mennonites to dedicate their lives in a new way to the work of the church; in the 1930s and 1940s Daniel Kauffman sought to focus a fragmenting Mennonite identity by introducing a new emphasis on systematic theology, doctrinal purity and biblical inerrancy which he found in the contemporary Fundamentalist movement; and even H. S. Bender's historical-mindedness, his concern for church polity, and his organizational zeal reflect the Reformed influence of his seminary training. In each case, these leadersnow largely regarded with deep respectbegan their careers in the church under a cloud of suspicion because their innovations and efforts at renewal disturbed the established certainties of their day. This is not to suggest, of course, that every new impulse within the church should be adopted. In all things we are to "test the spirits" and not to "blow and bend with every wind of doctrine" that comes our way. But at the same time it behooves us to remember that each generation needs to reappropriate the tradition anew and that in so doing the tradition is renewed in ways that may challenge and surprise.

My hope is that the articles presented in this issue of MQR might servein form, if not always in substanceas a model for the church's own engagement with contemporary culture, namely:

that we might tenaciously seek after Truth, even as we are humbly aware of the limits of language and the seductions of power in our claims to understand that Truth; that we might respect the voice of the dissenter in matters of faith, even as we celebrate the gift of community;that we might creatively tell and retell the stories of our tradition, even as we listen to new stories from the "margins" and from those outside the tradition; and that we might have the courage to act boldly upon our convictions, even as our actions lead us to new and fresh convictions.

John D. Roth

 


This page and all its contents ©1995 The Mennonite Quarterly Review. All rights reserved.
E-mail The Mennonite Quarterly Review: mqr@goshen.edu
Voice: (219) 535-7433  

Fax: (219) 535-7438