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What the Heck is Wrong with Systems, Anyway, Part 3: Enter the Deconstructionists

October 22, 2013

She was a young, naive church girl. He was a dashing Frenchman. Her parents told her that he was dangerous, immoral–a very devil. But they didn’t know him like she knew him. To her, he was kind, gentle. And he was wise, so wise. After she had known him, she could never go back to her provincial ways. She ran away with him without telling her parents, and they went to live in Paris. Soon, however, she began to have second thoughts. He was often kind, but occasionally he seemed possessive. He began to get angry with her when she disagreed with what he said. She realized that the urban sophisticate who had promised her a new life had not quite delivered on his promise. She was worried, but she still loved him, and did not know what she should do.

Is this the story of a 1940s blockbuster film? No–it’s the story of the Church’s relationship with postmodernism.

While the Nietzche’s influence on the Church has been fairly subtle (few Christians want to declare their allegiance to the world’s most notorious atheist), many followers of Jesus have eagerly embraced the ideas of “postmodernism,” or, at the very least, have been itching to engage with them. Among these “postmodern Christians” would be the philosophers Merold Westphal, James K. A. Smith, Bruce Ellis Benson, and Derrida groupie John Caputo. In another category, we can put the theologians who incorporate or engage with continental philosophy in their work, such as Michael Scott Horton and Peter Leithart. Finally, in a third category, there are the “postmoderns,” the square-glasses, hipster, “system-hating” crowd that has been the main target in this series. They’re hard to pin down, but some examples might be Rob Bell, Brian McLaren, Tony Jones, Christian Piatt, Rachel Held Evans, and “The Ordinary Radicals” (Chan, Platt, Claiborne).

But what is postmodernism? In this series, postmodernism or French Deconstruction will refer to the ideas of a group of mostly French continental philosophers: Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, Jacques Lacan, Lyotard, Gilles Deleuze, and Paul de Man. Hans-Georg Gadamer, author of Truth and Method, is also viewed as one of the Founding Fathers of postmodernism, but since I am unfamiliar with his work, I will not be referencing him much in the coming posts.

Sorry, Hans. Maybe next time.

However, before we begin, we need to clear up some misinformation about postmodernism. Oftentimes pastors and church leaders on the conservative side  will  use the term “postmodern” to describe anything they don’t like (see the works of Nancy Pearcy). Like “Gnostic,” it is a helpful catch-all that sends a simple message–this is bad. However, it’s hard to see what relation Pulp Fiction, and Miley Cyrus have to continental philosophy.

Lacan’s ideas came in like a wrecking ball.

In the same way, Christians from the liberal/emergent side use the term “postmodern” to describe things that they like; however, their ideas have almost nothing to do with actual postmodern philosophy. As a friend ranted to me, “These people who call themselves postmodern don’t actually read Gadamer or Derrida.”

Another unhelpful but prevalent idea  is that postmodernism has to do with something called “relativism.” Relativism is often portrayed as the cause of all moral decay in our time (see the works of Nancy Pearcy). But relativism isn’t so much a coherent philosophical position as it is a state of mind–specifically a state of mind only attained after several bong hits. If you’re stoned, the statement “there is no truth” is probably the deepest thing in the world; if you’re sober, it makes no sense. And it doesn’t accurately describe the philosophical positions of Derrida, Foucault, Deleuze, Lyotard, Lacan, et al.

Derrida’s Of Grammatology is just the gateway drug to Descartes’ Discourse on Meth

Along with “relativism,” the word “Deconstructionism” is often thrown around. Deconstructionism is often seen as the very hand of Satan at work in the humanities–the idea that there is no meaning in a text. But that’s not actually what Derrida was saying in his work, and Deconstruction isn’t a quasi-demonic ideology of nihilism. Deconstruction is simply a method of analysis. John Caputo writes, “Whenever deconstruction finds a nutshell–a secure axiom or a pithy maxim–the very idea is to crack it open and disturb this tranquility.” One could offer a basic and oversimplified definition of Deconstruction as looking at an object of analysis with the maximum amount of suspicion possible in order to gain some insight into it. And even though this might lead to a mindset of perpetual suspicion, the tool is not to be blamed for the misbehavior of the owner, any more than a punching bag can be blamed for making someone punch-drunk.

The saga of the French Deconstructionists reads like a bad soap opera. Michel Foucault hated Jacques Derrida, who hated him. Derrida and Jacques Lacan had an ongoing rivalry that resulted in a long, boring, back and forth argument over Poe’s story “The Purloined Letter.” Paul de Man was a thoroughly nasty character who spent his formative years passing out Nazi leaflets in occupied Belgium and his later years cheating on his wife; ironically, his biggest defender was Jacques Derrida, who was Jewish. Michel Foucault died under mysterious circumstances–it is rumored that when he found out he had AIDS, he tried to spread it to as many other people as possible, in order to show that he wasn’t bound by any social conventions. But that might not be true, and he could have died by drowning in the bathtub. The only thing that could have made the story of the Deconstructionists any more melodramatic would be a raging, Verlaine-and-Rimbaud-style affair between Deleuze and Lyotard. At any rate, the Deconstructionists are tame compared to Bertrand Russell and Jean-Paul Sartre, the bad boys of analytic and existentialist philosophy.

The Deconstructionists also weren’t especially hostile to religion. Both Lyotard and Derrida were Jewish (Derrida didn’t practice), and Derrida moved closer to Christianity (or at least theism) later in his life. Lacan was somewhat hostile to religion due to his background as a Freudian psychologist, but no more than Hume or Kant. And Foucault loved I Corinthians 9:27.

The important question that Christians need to ask about the Deconstructionists is, “Is anyone actually reading this stuff.” Continental Philosophy is not known for its lucidity. Consider this selection from Derrida:

This is why one perhaps could say that the movement of any archaeology, like that of any eschatology, is an accomplice of this reduction of the structurality of structure and always attempts to conceive of structure on the basis of a full presence which is beyond play (“Structure, Sign, and Play, Jacques Derrida: Basic Writings, 218).

Derrida doesn’t need a refutation; he needs an editor. Occasionally in his writings, he switches his voice from bureaucratic to sophomoric:

The crude word, fight with him in this way over what’s crude, as though first of all I liked to raise the stakes, and the expression ‘raise the stakes’ belongs only to my mother, as though I were attached to him so as to look for a fight over what talking crude means, as though I were trying relentlessly, to the point of bloodshed, to remind him, for he knows it, cur confitemur Deo scienti, of what is demanded of us by what’s crude, doing so thus in my tongue, the other one, the one that has always been running after me…(Derridabase/Circumfession, Geoffrey Bennington and Jacques Derrida, 3)

If you can understand this, please share your drugs with others. And speaking of drugs, this comes from Derrida’s Circumfession, which is a reply to Geoffrey Bennington’s Derridabase, which sounds like it should be an expensive brand of French cocaine. Bennington’s book is an attempt to “describe, according to the pedagogical and logical norms to which he holds, if not the totality of J.D.’s thought, then at least the general system of that thought.” Perhaps Bennington can help make Derrida’s thought more clear:

“Contemporary,” contemporaneus, cum tempus, with (the) time(s). Derrida thinks with (the) time(s), not at all in that he represents the spirit of the times (“postomdern,” post-philosophical,” so they say), but in that the time he thinks he dislocates all contemporaneity. Unhappy he who claims to be his own contemporary. Derrida does not: I would imagine him, rather, with Plato and a few other, at Heliopolis, in Egypt (Derridabase/Circumfession, 8).

Perhaps not. Foucault said that Derrida was the kind of philosopher who gave BS a bad name. Then again, Foucault isn’t always the most lucid either:

…the author is not an indefinite source of significations which fill a work; the author does not precede the works; he is a certain functional principle by which, in our culture, one limits, excludes, and chooses; in short, by which one impedes the free circulation, decomposition, and recomposition of fiction. In fact, if we are accustomed to presenting the author as a genius, as a perpetual surging of invention, it is because, in reality, we make him function in exactly the opposite fashion (“What is an Author?,” The Foucault Reader, 118-119).

It may seem like a cheap shot to make fun of how tangled and confusing postmodern prose is. I don’t want to be dismissive of Derrida, et al. However, it is precisely their intentionally obscure prose style that leads to some of the problems that occur when the Church and postmoder philosophy meet. In the next post, I will look at some of the problems that postmodern philosophy’s influence on the Church has created, particularly in reference to the hatred of systems.

Recommended reading:

  • Jacques Derrida: Basic Writings, especially “The end of the book and the beginning of writing,” “The pharmakon,” and “Structure, Sign and Play in the discourse of the human sciences”
  • Derridabase/Circumfession by Jacques Derrida and Geoffrey Bennington (worth reading for the trancelike state created by the non-linear prose style.)
  • The Foucault Reader
  • Graven Ideologies: Nietczhe, Derrida, & Marion on Modern Idolatry by Bruce Ellis Benson
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