Mainstream Evangelicalism is basically a modernistic movement — there’s no doubt about it. In many places, Evangelicals have become synonymous with Evangelical Fundamentalism. Along with liberalism, its eternal foe, fundamentalism is deeply entrenched in the modern way of reasoning coming directly out of the European Enlightenment. But where does Evangelicalism go when its underlying modernistic epistemology is disappearing? Most interestingly, large parts of the wider Evangelical movement seem to cling to modernism with all their might — steering themselves ever wider into a neo-fundamentalist trap of irrelevance to the new, postmodern culture.
While I firmly believe that Pentecostalism is and always has been part of the Evangelical movement, this is a good moment to note a decisive distinction: Pentecostalism never really was modern. Label it however you want, I for one prefer the term "para-modern" that Ken Archer argued for in his 2001 book A Pentecostal Hermeneutics for the Twenty First Century. Now, this would seem like good news and an open road ahead for Pentecostalism, where it not for many Pentecostals‘ strive to become "more Evangelical", which often brings us dangerously close to the neo-fundamentalist Evangelical. Do we really want to go there? Or might the "way out" for Evangelicalism’s current cul-de-sac be in the very Pentecostal part of its fold? Certainly, the early twenty-first century does seem like a bad time to finally jump on the modernist bandwaggon and adopt what we’ve been spared so far.
Talk about the postmodern blending of different beliefs into your very own ecclectic kind of faith: "Sara Miles, a left-wing, secular journalist and former cook, found herself an unlikely convert to Christianity." Read here about how she came to like the Bible, judge other Christians and make up her own faith mix. At any rate, it’s interesting what makes it onto Salon these days.
In another chapter of his book, Thiselton shortly expound Paul RicoeurÂ’s model (mainly based on Time and Narrative, vol. 3) of self-identity. Ricoeur touches on the age-old quest for the Â“constant coreÂ” of the self, the element which links all individual experiences, impressions and moments into a coherent person. The basic problem has always been, that the self, as far as we know it, is anything but constant. With every moment, every experience, and every new element of learning the self is changing (This assumption is actually the very basis of the so-called Â“hermeneutical circleÂ”). Yet, we always speak of this ever-changing self as Â“the same person.Â”
In RicoeurÂ’s model, there is no constant, unifying core of the self. Yet, at the same time, it is not reduced to the helpless self of postmodernity, either. Rather, there is something which provides an external structure to self-identity: narrative. The self cannot be understood apart from its temporality, its embedding into an ongoing narrative, whose plot helps to determine who exactly the individual is at any given time.
I find RicoeurÂ’s model attractive for a number of reasons:
- It provides good reason to abandon old dualistic models of the human being Â– seeing that the efforts to split a person into elements like body and soul usually just mark the attempt to find the one element that could be the Â“constant core.Â”
- It makes all the more sense once the right narrative is chosen: I am who I am not because of any constant element in my personality. I am who I am because I am part of GodÂ’s great narrative, in which he has chosen to love this ever-changing self as my person.
- It contains a further important parallel to Christian soteriology. While the self is always constantly shaped by its experience and by the unfolding narrative plot, Ricoeur allows for a special case: a major change or shift in the plot of the underlying narrative may lead to a complete Â“reconstitutionÂ” of the self. Now, wouldnÂ’t the moment where you are transformed from a sinner to a saint in the eyes of God have to be considered a major plot change? What is Â“reconstitutedÂ” would then be the Â“new creationÂ”/the Â“new manÂ” the New Testament is always talking about.
Continuing my reading of Thiselton’s Interpreting God and the Postmodern Self: On Meaning, Manipulation and Promise, I have come upon a very interesting series of points on textual interpretation. Thiselton presents a model that seems to reverse the usual direction in interpretation, which moves from the — supposedly objective — interpreter towards the text as an object to be examined. In a chapter, which he entitles "Five Ways in which Textual Reading Interprets the Self", he offers the following list:
- First of all, the text conveys information and impressions about the author to the reader. This, however, seems to be a rather subordinate function in Thiselton’s model.
- As the text talks to its reader, it has an effect on the person of the reader himself. Of course, this point (as well as all of the following), seems especially important when we’re talking about a Biblical text, where the word of God is certainly supposed to have an effect on the reader.
- As soon as the text begins to touch on the realm of the self’s understanding, the reader begins to learn new things about himself by means of the text. In the words of Ernst Fuchs, the text first becomes the translator of the self before the self can even begin to translate the text.
- Next, the interpreting self reveals a lot about himself through the interpretation. People can be seen as belonging to a certain community, for example, just by looking at the way they will handle a particular text.
- Finally, the text transforms the individual. In hermeneutical terms, the text — or rather, whatever the reader gathers from it — becomes part of the reader’s set of presuppositions, pre-judgements, and prejudices, which will influence his reading of any other text from now on.
So far, I am not entirely sure what to make of Thiselton’s list. I’ll have to think about it. To be sure, it presents an interesting alternative to the one-sided empiricist view of textual interpretation which stands at the basis of modernity. However, while this might provide a much needed counterweight, I think it’s jumping the ship on the opposite side: What I am missing is a clear indication of the role the informational content of the text is supposed to play in the whole of interpretation. Of course, Thiselton does say a couple of words on this in the last paragraph of his chapter, namely, that a certain understanding of informational content might even be a prerequisite for transformation. Yet, I still get the feeling that this is not enough.
As so often, the truth between the two extremes seems to lie somewhere in the middle (Shannon Buckner should love this: "It’s all about balance …").
I have already mentioned (in one of my replies to Brad Andersen) that I cannot but see the Christian story as a meta-narrative. Its claims to exclusivity, universality, and absolute truth are completely incompatible with the post-modern portrait of a "local story" within a community. Yet, I do think that the story of faith, i.e. the story of the Spirit-filled community, is able to escape the post-modern criticism against meta-narratives for a number of reasons.
One of them has just re-surfaced in my reading of Anthony Thiselton’s Interpreting God and the Postmodern Self: On Meaning, Manipulation and Promise: In chapter 3 ("Do All Controlling Models in Religion Serve Manipulative Purposes?") Thiselton refers to the New Testament, to Luther’s "theology of the cross", to Bonhoeffer’s writings and to JÃ¼rgen Moltmann in order to show that the Christian story is not promoting power and glory for its proponents. Criticism levelled against it from the days of Nietzsche through Heidegger, Foucault, and Rorty, has therefore no base: The Christian community is not seeking to promote itself above all other communities.
Rather, it is seeking to promote Jesus Christ, the liberator, who sets people free from oppression. But, that’s already another argument …