Postmodernism Gone Viral, Part 3: Responding to My Critics

The board of Lutheran CORE would like to thank Brett Jenkins for the time he has served on the board.  Brett is an ardent defender of the historic, orthodox Christian faith.  He has added greatly to the ministry of Lutheran CORE through the contributions he has made to the discussions at our meetings as well as the articles he has written.  Notable among these articles are the ones he has written about the post-modern worldview which is reflected in the ELCA social statement on “Faith, Sexism, and Justice.”  We wish Brett God’s richest blessings in his continued ministry and are very happy that he is willing to continue writing for Lutheran CORE.

I was pleased that my Postmodernism Gone Viral article garnered a decent amount of response both positive and negative from those who read it.  Though I have no doubt that my rhetorical hacking did not quite reach the “roots of evil” present in the document, that it instigated such responses may indicate that I was at least striking heartwood rather than mere leaves.  In this article I will respond to the criticisms I received as a result of publishing the initial article.  Because these criticisms were received as private correspondence rather than “letters to the editor,” I do not feel I can publish the full texts of them.  I will therefore try to faithfully capture the gist of the criticisms, though I will not reproduce the verbal abuse.

To be sure, the ELCA’s proposed social
statement Faith, Sexism, and Justice
is not a battleground I would have chosen or even expected to engage.  My mother was an original 1970’s feminist and
although as an adult I hardly walk in lock-step with her views any more than your
typical grown child, she raised all three of her boys to see the world in
fundamentally the same way.  I am in deep
sympathy with the impetus behind the social statement, which makes the timbre
of the accusations leveled at me in the negative correspondence more difficult
to bear.  Those accusations included being
motivated by “hate” (this, at least, was expected), not understanding
postmodernism, not having actually read
the proposed social statement (this was incredible), appointing myself the
gatekeeper of what it means to be Lutheran, and acting like an “angry,
resentful spouse after a bad breakup.”

Undermining the Faith Once Delivered

Although, along with the charges of sexism and a fear of white male heterosexuals losing their cultural hegemony, the accusation of hate was anticipated, it does not make it less painful or untrue; my article was clear as to my motivations.  Love, whether agape, storge, or philia, does not affirm or neglect when it finds the beloved to be in serious — let alone, grave — error.  The desire to pursue justice is noble, but the adoption of postmodern categories of meaning in the pursuit of justice (including those advanced by gender as opposed to equity feminism, a distinction I recognize) rather than the use of those categories revealed to us in Holy Scripture is, in my estimation, dangerous, undermining “the faith delivered once for all to the saints.”

It is fascinating for me to speculate on how someone could infer that I have not read the proposed social statement; how could I level the critique I do without reading the document in question?  I must say that it is the emotional timbre of some of my hate mail letters that strikes me as reactionary, imputing to me a lack of knowledge and poor motivation where none is in evidence in the actual text of what I wrote.  While my acquaintance with the reality of postmodernism dates from my undergraduate days in the arts, my acquaintance with its theoretical underpinnings goes back to the required reading assigned to my wife during her doctoral work in the mid-90’s.  I do not claim to be an expert in postmodernism (who can be with its deliberately amorphous categories of meaning?), but I am well acquainted with it.  We can disagree with one another without impugning each other’s character, knowledge, or motivations.

Gatekeeper? Yes!

Who made me “a gate keeper of what it
means to be Lutheran?”  Since the Lutheran reformers rejected the
authority of the Roman Magisterium, that is a responsibility that falls to all who call themselves Lutheran. 
It is our dialogue, what philosopher Charles Taylor refers to as our “web of
interlocution,” utilizing common theological reference points that defines the
“Lutheran family.”  The great majority of the Lutherans of the
Two-Thirds World have been warning us for a long time that we here in the West
are jumping off a theological cliff, departing from the theological fold, using
sophisticated language (that is, sophistry)
to disguise even from ourselves that we are becoming apostates.  I suggest
that it is high time we drop our neo-colonial sense of intellectual and moral
superiority and heed their voices.

Range of Emotions

As for acting like an “angry resentful
spouse after a bad breakup,” while the metaphor is faulty (I initiated the
separation, so the breakup wasn’t “bad” for me), I will own what I
imagine are the emotions of someone in that situation in the following manner:

I am angry that what I describe as a “viral” ideology, foreign to the mind of the church catholic and the Lutheran tradition, largely eclipsed solid confessional theology within my own seminary and professional experience within the ELCA; had I not had theological colleagues and conversation partners with broader experience and advanced degrees, I might have entirely missed the great voice of Christian orthodoxy speaking its Gospel wisdom down the ages.  (I wrote about this in a Forum Letter article in 2010.)  It upsets me that many bearing the name of Lutheran do not (or cannot) distinguish Law from Gospel in a way that engenders sorrow, contrition — and yes, terror — for sin in the hearts of people, that they have no idea that Two Kingdoms theology is inseparable from the broader tapestry of Luther’s thought, and that they do not understand why Luther so stridently rejected all “theologies of glory.”  I confess that I view all forms of “liberation theology” as theologies of glory because they seem to believe that humanity, whose best possible ontological condition is simul iustus et peccatorpossesses the insight, wisdom, and character to forge a just system in anything more than the most provisional of ways.  This includes a functional theology that treats our necessary pursuit of justice as a form of realized eschatology.  “God’s Work: Our Hands” is the last motto any church bearing the name Lutheran should ever have considered, let alone adopted.

In my view such people—many of whom I love
deeply at a personal level—are Lutheran by connection to historically Lutheran
institutions rather than historically-conditioned theological conviction. 
It is why they work so hard to redefine or “re-imagine” Christianity
as a thing no Christian prior to their own historical moment would recognize as
bearing any resemblance to their own.

resent what the ELCA is
increasingly becoming because in my estimation it besmirches a solid
theological tradition. I love many, many people who gather at its Communion
rails and I am afraid for them… afraid that they are being convinced that an
alien cultural ideology can be “baptized” and made authentically
Christian.  And because this ideology often takes the place of authentic
proclamation of the Gospel “whereby sinners may repent and have
life,” I am afraid that the salvation of such people may even be imperiled,
for faith means nothing without its object.  As Pr. Tim Keller (a Reformed
theologian) puts it succinctly, “Strong faith in a weak branch is
infinitely inferior to weak faith in a strong branch.”

Theologians Call Out Theological Errors

The first great theologian of the Church after Paul was Irenaeus, and his seminal treatise was entitled Against Heresies.  Augustine fought against the error of Pelagius, and Luther disputed both the Roman Curia and the Anabaptists.  It is part of the catholic tradition of the church to call out theological error when one sees it with a force in accord with the depth of the error perceived.  Because the categories endemic to postmodernism undermine and effectively preclude the Church’s traditional theological discourse as a thing engaged with categories of Truth rather than mere political power, it is quite possible that my article may actually have been too tempered and moderate in its timbre.  Theology is not mere “word games” nor is it predominantly “metaphorical” as Sally McFague would have it; it is the use of words with real referents to describe (or attempt to describe) genuine realities.  Theology is properly understood as “the queen of the sciences,” not some sort of “me too” liberal art that can hope to do no more than follow gratefully where her social and intellectual betters, philosophy, anthropology, and psychology, lead the way.

Fatal Flaws

One piece of negative mail I received ended by asking me “in the Love of all that is Holy, [to] read the document (FSJ) with an open mind.”  It seemed to assume that the only reason an open-minded, Gospel-motivated individual would fail to embrace Faith, Sexism, and Justice was a predisposition against it.  I remember David Mills once writing something to the effect that, “A person properly opens their mind for the same reason they open their mouths; to bite down upon something.”  I bit down upon FSJ and found it wanting in both substance and taste; I have explained my reasons — I hope persuasively — so that some with open minds will be persuaded to vote against it or at least amend it to correct the worst of what I view as its fatal flaws.

So, I end this series of articles by paraphrasing
my critic and begging people, for the love of Jesus, who with the Father and
the Spirit alone is Holy, to read
again my critiques with an open mind… and read the work of the French
Structuralists I referenced to see whether I have misrepresented the
implications of their work.[1]  If I understand them
right, postmodernism is acid to the foundations of Christian theology and faith…
and is to be utterly rejected in all its forms.

[1] As an introduction to the topic of
postmodernism, I suggest the book by Frederic Jameson of the same name with the
subtitle The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism; it is an oldie but