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Beyond OpinionLiving the Faith That We Defend
By Ravi Zacharias
Thomas NelsonCopyright © 2007 Ravi Zacharias
All right reserved.
Chapter OnePostmodern Challenges to the Bible
The Bible is a controversial book that evokes both devotion and derision. It has inspired some of the greatest thinkers this world has ever known and attracted the hostility of others. It takes a central role in any study of Western civilization and touches the most unlikely of souls.
The Bible has also been the subject of wild predictions. In the eighteenth century, the French atheistic philosopher Voltaire predicted, "Another century and there will not be a Bible on earth!" What irony, then, that Voltaire's house later became the headquarters of the Bible Society, printing and distributing many thousands of Bibles.
In this chapter we will examine some of the current challenges to the Bible, and in particular, three challenges from the postmodern worldview. By its very nature the postmodern worldview is difficult to define, and some would resist calling it such. It is an eclectic movement, originating in aesthetics, architecture, and philosophy. A postmodern perspective is skeptical of any grounded theoretical perspectives. It rejects the certainties of modernism and approaches art, science, literature, and philosophy with a pessimistic, disillusioned outlook. Questioning the possibility of clear meaning or truth, this worldview is about discontinuity, suspicion of motive, and an acceptance of logical incoherence. As one scholar notes,
The postmodernist critique of science (for example) consists of two interrelated arguments, epistemological and ideological. Both are based on subjectivity. First, because of the subjectivity of the human object, anthropology, according to the epistemological argument cannot be a science; and in any event the subjectivity of the human subject precludes the possibility of science discovering objective truth. Second, since objectivity is an illusion, science according to the ideological argument, subverts oppressed groups, females, ethnics, third-world peoples.
In my experience as a Christian apologist, the postmodern skeptic raises numerous challenges to the Christian worldview and to the Bible in particular. These questions often focus on ideas of power and authority and fall into three basic categories:
1. Theoretical questions about textual authority
2. Historical questions about textual authority
3. Existential questions about textual authority
In this chapter, we will examine each of these three postmodern challenges to the Bible in more detail.
Theoretical Questions about Textual Authority
The postmodern suspicion of any claim to meaning or truth has a dramatic affect on the status of the word in both written and spoken form. We all remember President Clinton's now infamous statement, "It depends on what the meaning of the word is is." This statement caused global shockwaves because the most powerful man in the world appeared to be questioning the very nature of language. Sadly, this example has not proved to be an aberration but rather an illustration of the tendency of our age.
In fact, the idea that there is no ultimate meaning in any text has become extremely powerful in a postmodern context, and it has enormous implications for any communication about the gospel. One literary theorist writes, "Literature ... by refusing to assign a 'secret,' an ultimate meaning, to the text (and to the world as text), liberates what may be called an anti-theological activity, an activity that is truly revolutionary since to refuse to fix meaning is, in the end, to refuse God."
Suspicion of Any Claim to Authority
The postmodern questioner is likely to operate from a base of suspicion and skepticism when presented with a text such as the Bible, which makes a clear claim to authoritative truth. This is not because the individual is particularly hostile toward the Christian or even the church, but rather because he or she has developed within a cultural context that suspects authority and rejects metanarrative (an overarching or transcendent view of the world). For instance, the French philosopher Jean-François Lyotard argues that a postmodern outlook demands a "war on totality"—a fight against any claim to universal meaning. He does this most powerfully in The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, where he argues that this perspective is marked by an "incredulity towards meta-narratives."
Again, a metanarrative is a large-scale theory that seeks to make sense of the world, such as the onward and upward progress of the human race throughout history, the confidence that everything is explicable by science, or the possibility of absolute freedom. Lyotard argues that postmoderns have ceased to believe that narratives of this kind are useful for understanding reality. Instead, humans have become alert to difference and diversity, so that postmodernity is characterized by a plethora of micronarratives. Here Lyotard draws heavily on the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein and his idea that meaning is possible only within language games. In other words, different communities have different rules and principles that govern their discourse, and these do not necessarily translate across different groups. Thus meaning is possible only within a particular context or community, and truth should not be understood as transcending these barriers of diversity. When applied by the postmodern as a challenge to the Bible, this may express itself as a rejection that one truth (such as "Christ died for our sins") can be communicated, understood, and believed by all the diverse groups in the world.
Lyotard's suspicion of authority and denial of metanarrative in practice means that any worldview or framework of meaning that provides an overarching explanation of reality—like the Christian belief in the Bible as revealed truth—is attacked and rejected. As we have seen, this rejection applies equally to the modern myth of progress, the Enlightenment myth of rational beings discovering truth, as well as the Christian myth that God made human beings and reveals himself to them. So the postmodern perspective rejects the idea of the biblical text as revealed truth, as a book to be read and understood that communicates truth directly to us and provides us with a worldview from which to interpret reality.
The fundamental problem with this challenge to the Bible—this suspicion of authority and rejection of metanarrative—is that it is essentially inconsistent. That is, we soon discover when probing this denial of overarching stories that an exception is made for the overarching idea that there are no overarching ideas! Postmodern skeptics critique all worldviews except their own.
Authority as Power Play
After hearing a powerful preacher speaking to seven hundred people in a packed Oxford church, a student demanded to speak privately with him. In the preacher's study the young man tore into his host, shouting and swearing in anger at what he had heard. The main objection that the student raised was the fact that anyone would dare speak powerfully and persuasively about an idea. As a postmodern, he saw this kind of speaking as a malevolent force—an imposition of a truth claim on another person, an assault on the individual's autonomy, and something dangerous that ought to be resisted.
This classic postmodern challenge is often specifically directed at the Bible. The Bible is seen as a text that is used to take power over people's lives; its authority is seen as a power play exerted over the weak. The French thinker Michel Foucault spoke of an essential interplay between knowledge and power. Echoing Nietzsche's phrase "will to power," Foucault called any pursuit of truth a "will to knowledge" that arbitrarily establishes its own "truth." This "truth" is then imposed on others, thereby handing over power to the speaker or writer. So the human quest for knowledge is written off as the pursuit of power, and this power for Foucault and other postmoderns is embodied and expressed in institutionalized languages. He wrote, "Power produces knowledge.... There is no power relation without the correlative constitution of a field of knowledge, nor any knowledge that does not presuppose and constitute at the same time power relations."
When applied to the Bible this challenge is a powerful one, for is not this religious text simply a tool in the hands of power-hungry individuals who use it to assert authority and strengthen their own hands? Of course the problem with this idea is that it falls into the same trap as many other postmodern challenges: it lacks self-awareness and self-consistency. After all, if Foucault really believed that language and the quest for knowledge through words can be reduced to a power play in the end, how could he communicate such ideas without using words and attempting to persuade us as well? Was he not simply exerting his authority and his considerable power over us? Didn't he become as power hungry as his opponents? Shouldn't Foucault's critique of Christian thought and the Bible be applied to his own ideas as well? When all is said and done, if he really believed his own philosophy, why didn't he remain silent?
Authority and the Question of Interpretation
These postmodern challenges to the authority of a text culminate in the ultimate relativist statement: "Isn't it all a matter of interpretation?" This statement sounds like a question, but in fact, when we examine it carefully, it is a truth claim. It is a claim that there is no one truth, no one clear message. Thus, even when we come to a so-called revealed or inspired text like the Bible, the claim is that there are many valid interpretations of a given text, hence absolute truth eludes us again.
The postmodern challenge I have heard on numerous occasions goes something like this: "You don't mean to say that you take the Bible literally, do you?" I love to answer with the words of a great Christian who was asked this question and reportedly replied, "The Bible says that Herod is a fox, but we don't think that means he had pointy ears and a bushy tail. It also mentions that Jesus is a door—which does not mean that he is flat, wooden, and swings on hinges."
This question of interpretation is raised by the postmodern in order to cast doubt on the possibility that real meaning is possible at all. The idea of the nonpossibility of clear meaning in a text was most powerfully argued by the postmodern thinker Jacques Derrida. Following Nietzsche, Derrida asserted that if God does not exist, then there is no foundation for language and words are not able to signify or present any given reality. He attacked the view that human statements are representations of the world as it actually is and denied that language could have fixed meaning connected to a fixed reality or that it has the capacity to convey definitive truth. If language has meaning, it causes people to search for "the transcendental signified" (some ultimate word or essence—such as God—truth or reality). Derrida argued that such ultimate things do not exist, yet when turned on its head, what his argument reveals is that in order for postmoderns to reject God, they have to undermine language itself.
After all, if no such "transcendental signified" exists, the meanings of words must arise purely out of their relationship with an immediate context. That is, words have no actual meaning—a word on a page or a word being heard only has the meaning that a reader or a hearer gives it. It does not itself carry any ultimate meaning because there is no God ("transcendental signified") to give ultimate meaning to words. Thus language becomes completely self-referential. Any written document is meaningless because if words cannot be carriers of meaning, and they have no ontological referent, they must derive their meaning solely from the hearer or the reader.
At a popular level, this is often expressed in a simple phrase like "It's all just a matter of interpretation." This is a clever challenge to the Bible and a serious objection to the very possibility of words as carriers of meaning. However, let us remember that this is only a problem if God does not exist. But surely if this were the case, we would not be able to assert his nonexistence using words!
Once again we find a postmodern challenge to the Bible that is not rigorous enough to stand up to its own scrutiny. This idea falls at the first hurdle since it is unable to be communicated or argued without the use of words. How can Derrida tell us that a transcendental signified does not exist and that words only have the meaning a particular reader or cultural context gives them—since he used words to tell us this and expected us to understand them, no matter our culture?
How Christians practice hermeneutics with real integrity is a question for a different book. How we interpret the Bible and uphold the word of truth in our generation is a challenge for any serious student of the Word of God. But before we get there, we must recognize these postmodern challenges to the theoretical possibility of meaning in any text and deal with them if we are to give a reason for the hope within to a postmodern skeptic.
Historical Questions about Textual Authority
Having examined some of the theoretical questions about textual authority that form part of the postmodern challenge to the Bible, we will now look at the growing number of historical questions about the text of the Bible. The increasing number of books being produced that claim to rival the Bible—whether they be treatises on little known gnostic gospels or rehashes of medieval forgeries—have caught the imagination of a skeptical public interested in conspiracy theories and the like. As we have noted, the postmodern attitude toward truth makes it increasingly difficult to challenge these rival books and reveal them for what they are. Furthermore, a central plank of postmodern thought with regard to history is that we cannot be certain about what happened in the past. As New Testament scholar E. P. Sanders puts it, "Historical events could not be verified even if we had a video recording."
This rejection of certainty with regard to history is part of a larger movement characterized by disillusionment with any kind of certainty. The philosopher Foucault argued that just like any other form of ideas, historical research can make no claim to be free of the perspectives and values of the historian and therefore to be neutral. He concluded that since the desire to know the past cannot come from a disinterested quest for truth, it must arise from a desire to control the past for some purpose or other. His conception of the will to power through knowledge emerges again, but now with regard to historical narratives. Again this logic failed to meet up to its own standard since Foucault did not subject his own thinking to this idea. Thus, we are left asking ourselves why he tried to dominate and control us with all of these words.
Alternatives to the Bible
Postmodern ideas about history challenge any authoritative version of the past given by the Bible as suspicious and founded in power play. Yet interestingly, the Bible is then compared to flimsy challenges of whacky alternative theories. For instance, the Gospel of Judas has been heralded by the Western media as a serious challenge to the Bible. Upon reading it, the archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, noted, "It's actually a fairly conventional book of its kind—and there were dozens like it around in the early centuries of the Church. People who weren't satisfied with the sort of thing the New Testament had to say spent quite a lot of energy trying to produce something which suited them better. They wanted Christian teaching to be a matter of exotic and mystical information, shared only with an in-group."
According to The Da Vinci Code, the church suppressed the real version of events that can be found in so-called gnostic gospels like the Gospel of Mary and the Gospel of Thomas. These are, in fact, not gospels at all but rather collections of random sayings and stories put together to form a challenge to the first-century Christian gospels. Nevertheless, these sources were compiled and written much later than the canonical gospels, only exist in fragmentary form, and were rejected as specious at the time. Oddly, such facts do not dampen the zeal of theorists intent on casting suspicion on the authoritative versions attested by historical evidence and the witness of the church. This is all a part of the postmodern challenge that can be answered with historical data and a scholarly account of fourth-century Gnosticism. This challenge itself, though, should first be understood as being a product of the postmodern culture.
Excerpted from Beyond Opinion by Ravi Zacharias Copyright © 2007 by Ravi Zacharias. Excerpted by permission of Thomas Nelson. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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