Our Postmodern God

This post is a response to Tony Jones’ call for progressive theological bloggers to write a post about God. So here goes …

That postmodernism is indefinable is a truism. However, it can be described as a set of critical, strategic and rhetorical practices employing concepts such as difference, repetition, the trace, the simulacrum, and hyperreality to destabilize other concepts such as presence, identity, historical progress, epistemic certainty, and the univocity of meaning.

– The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

It’s struck me lately that the best way to think of God is to compare him to an elephant.

Specifically, I think of God like the elephant in the old South Asian tale of the blind men who each grab hold of a piece of him and describe the animal they think they have. One has the trunk and thinks he’s holding a snake; another has an ear and thinks he’s holding a fan, etc. Each of them is attempting to accurately describe what they know, and some do a better job than others, but none of them is exactly right – indeed, being exactly right would have been impossible if they had never seen or felt a whole elephant before.

Which is why I call God postmodern and why it would serve the church well to stop running in fear from the notion of postmodernism. Perhaps no era in the history of the world better suits the God we worship than the one that openly and completely questions the ability for anyone to fully grasp and explain truth.

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Can Faith and Learning Coexist?

NPR’s “Fresh Air” last week aired an interview with Elaine Pagels, author of The Gnostic Gospels who has written a new book, Revelations: Visions, Prophecy & Politics in the Book of Revelation.

Setting aside my inability to get over having the same word twice in one book title, the interview is fascinating and well worth a listen. Growing up with a belief in “Left Behind” eschatology, I find the idea that this particular interpretation is wrong both intriguing and compelling, but I haven’t done my own research into the subject. So I basically store whatever information I glean from interviews such as the one with Pagels for whenever I have the time to really dive into Revelation on my own (or, even better, as part of a class).

One thing that struck me, however, was Pagels’ response when asked near the end of the interview about her own faith.

Pagels discussed how she first read Revelation as a teenage member of an evangelical church. From a family of nominal Christians, Pagel said she became an evangelical at age 14 because of “the intensity of the emotional power – of the  music, of the preaching, of the group identity.” She left a year later, however, because she couldn’t stomach the theology of a Jewish friend being condemned to hell.

I just suddenly said, “Wait a minute. That’s not what drew me into this group. That’s not what I loved about the messages I heard here. That is not anything to do with the power of Christianity, as I understood it.” It’s ridiculous because Jesus and all of his followers were Jewish, to say nothing of anything else.

So I had to leave that group, and becoming a scholar of religion is an interesting path because later I had to think, “What is it about Christianity that was so compelling and powerful?” I think it is about the religious imagination and a sense of a spiritual dimension in life. But I also had to think about why did I have to leave that group, and I think it’s that insular sense of being in a righteous, homogenous, good group against a sort of a faceless mass of people who are Satan’s people. That is a very dangerous way of looking at the world in the 21st century, particularly.

So far, this makes complete sense. I fully believe narrow views of us versus them (with “them” inevitably defined with increasing narrowness) are a large part of why churches are bleeding followers these days.

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The Day After

I love my Bible class.

It’s called Sojourners, which obviously fits well with the theme of this blog – and of my life – and it isn’t afraid to discuss hard issues of faith and life. In fact, the very first class we attended was the second part of a series about 2 Peter, specifically how it wasn’t actually written by Peter and what that meant for traditional concepts of biblical inspiration and inerrancy.

That class changed the course of my life; it is arguably the biggest reason why I’m now studying theology in graduate school.

We’re now going through the book Reading Revelation Responsibly, by Michael J. Gorman, and yesterday also happened to be the 10th anniversary of 9/11.

I’ll be honest: I’ve been having a hard time getting into the remembrances that have probably been saturating the airwaves (they’ve certainly taken over my RSS feed) in recent days. I remember the day well; I shed my share of tears and as a student newspaper reporter spent the next week working almost nonstop covering the campus, local and national angles. But I’ve been having trouble articulating exactly why I wasn’t interested in the understandable significance of the 10th anniversary.

Then along came the class yesterday, in which we discussed the historical context of Revelation.

Revelation was written as “resistance literature,” telling its readers that God alone was worthy of worship, which in of itself was a political act because through worship we declare our allegiance.

Revelation was written in the midst of a culture that prized its civil religion. The Roman empire believed it was chosen by the gods to spread salvation to the world. Loyal citizens were considered blessed by the gods, the emperor was considered divine, and the age of the empire was considered a “golden age” of world history. Allegiance to the empire – and therefore to the gods – was encouraged through the media of the time: athletic events, parades and coinage.

Sound familiar?

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