by: John O'Keefe
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1. How do you define ‘postmodern’ in relation to culture and theology?
I would go along with the standard definitions of postmodernism with a couple of reservations. In the broadest sense postmodernism is characterized by a shift from confidence about what we know to a lack of confidence about what we know, from uniformity and homogeneity in our value systems to complexity and diversity, from systematic constructions of truth to story-telling, from regulation to deregulation, and so on.
My first reservation is that this may be less a major shift in worldview and more the accentuation of certain cultural and philosophical traits that have been present all along. I think we have to be a bit suspicious of an intellectual construct that has become so self-conscious and fashionable. In many respects I think it makes more sense to see postmodernism as a retreat from a false rationalism, as the recovery of intellectual humility, than as a progression beyond modernism. My second reservation, related to this, is that as believers I think we have embraced postmodernism largely because it gives us permission to voice our doubts and frustrations and to explore alternative forms of Christian self-understanding. The connection between these two reservations is that traditional evangelicalism has forced us to suppress much of our natural inquisitiveness and common sense. Now we have a good philosophical excuse to take the lid off the box, but the real motivation is the dissonance that we feel between what we are and what we are expected to be.
Perhaps what I am trying to say is that postmodernism is not so much an abstract, impersonal philosophical trend, although we tend to speak of it in such terms: rather it masks various pragmatic cultural and intellectual manoeuvres. We have to keep asking ourselves, What are we trying to achieve through our allegiance to this thing we call postmodernism? I wonder if we haven’t created postmodernism as a tool for dismantling the pseudo-rationality and other distortions and falsifications of much modern Christian thinking.
2. How, if at all, do you see a postmodern reality differing between the UK and the USA?
Not sure about this. I wouldn’t want to comment in general terms though I agree with the common perception that Europe is more instinctively postmodern than the USA – notwithstanding the fact that most of the icons and brands of postmodernism are produced in America. Perhaps the biggest difference as far as theology is concerned lies in the fact that the church in the UK is culturally and politically weak whereas the church in the US is relatively powerful. Postmodernism is, one could argue, in the first place a critique of power – a deconstruction of power – especially of intellectual power. Where does that lead us? I don’t know. Perhaps there is less fear here but more boredom.
3. What is ‘open source theology’ (ost) and what do you see as its pros and cons?
The idea behind open source theology is that the church in the West is at a point historically where it makes sense to do theology collaboratively and transparently in the context of a community of practice. I can think of three main developments that have brought us to this point. First, we have a high level of lay ‘theological’ literacy, partly as a result of the disciplines of traditional evangelicalism, and partly (ironically) because a lot of people have become disillusioned with the disciplines of traditional evangelicalism and are strongly motivated to construct an alternative. Secondly, postmodernism has called into question the legitimacy of the traditional institutionalized method of producing and validating theological thought. An open source theology operates outside the official structures of evangelical scholarship and publishing, which is especially important in view of the power of mainstream marketing. Thirdly, the internet in particular has provided the technology for promiscuous, conversational lay theologizing.
What’s good about open source theology? It’s collaborative, non-proprietorial, free, contextualized, responsive, practical, and passionate. What’s not so good? It’s disorganized, slapdash, amateurish, irresponsible, reckless, spasmodic, and pretentious.
4. I love your ‘rules of engagement’. How do you envision ‘ost’ developing in individual communities?
I am part of a widely dispersed community of church-planters. On the whole, as a community, we have responded positively and enthusiastically to the new challenges posed by the emerging culture. In fact, many of us feel we are simply catching up with ourselves. However, we have noticed cracks opening up in our theology, some of them quite serious. There has been some panic, but there has also been a quite deliberate and concerted attempt to address the problems. We have put together a small group of leaders who have the time, inclination, training and experience to work through some of the issues raised by the task of creating communities of faith for an emerging culture. The aim is to meet together two or three times a year, present papers, and discuss them. We are also in contact via email and a website. I do not imagine that we will produce anything like a coherent and comprehensive theology, but I am certain that we are slowly and tentatively developing an ‘implicit’ theology in this way – a theology, a way of speaking about God, that is responsive to our peculiar circumstances and instincts.
5. How do you see ost developing a positive biblical understanding?
This is very important. There’s a lot of ‘postmodern’ theological discussion going around the web, but it seems to be driven mostly by philosophical and cultural concerns; very little of it is rooted in a careful, critical, intelligent reading of the Bible. We still seem to assume that we know what the Bible is saying. But that knowledge, for most of us, has been formed by a rather outmoded, dogmatically motivated method of interpretation. There appears to be a sort of postmodern prejudice against biblical study at work here, probably because it is so characteristic of ‘modern’ evangelicalism with its obsession with expository sermons and proof texts. There is undoubtedly a need to forget how we used to do things before we start doing them again, but an authentically Christian theology, whether modern or postmodern, must be honestly grounded in the texts that relate and interpret the life of Israel’s Christ.
There has to be a much more serious rereading of Scripture, but that naturally begs a question: whose rereading? You could argue that postmodernism encourages a pluralistic reading of Scripture. I think we are vulnerable to that because we have been in thrall to a highly dogmatic, a-historical method of reading that derives its authority from the evangelical magisterium. We need to develop instead a more plausible, self-evident, historically oriented hermeneutic. Maybe I’m being naïve, but I think that a powerful retelling of the biblical stories is still waiting to emerge from this whole process.
6. How do you see ‘ost’ working with the historical, and the mystical, aspects of Christianity in a postmodern world?
I come from a biblical studies background so I don’t personally have the skills necessary to integrate historical and experiential perspectives into the open source theology that has appeared so far on the website. But there is no reason in principle why these aspects should not be included. I think that the current postmodern ‘awakening’, if that is not too grand a term for it, compels us to rethink who we are, what we believe, what we doing, right across the board. I suspect that postmodernism will allow us to develop a much more generous and inclusive and celebratory understanding of different historical and mystical traditions. It will also make us more aware, however, of how history and personal experience can be manipulated in the interests of a dominant worldview or culture.
7. I love your site, why did you create it and where do you see it in 10 years?
Thank you. Why did I create the site? I guess basically because I am convinced that the church needs a new theology and that the ‘open source’ concept offers an intriguing and fruitful model for achieving that goal. I think it is important that we get away from the production-consumption model of theology – theology produced by experts, retailed by pastors and teachers, and passively consumed by church-goers. Christians have stopped thinking about what they believe. The open source model allows for a participatory, conversational process which, I hope, will help to reconnect believers both with the grounds of their faith and with the wider cultural and intellectual environment.
On this last point, I think it is of enormous importance that we develop an extrovert rather than an introvert theology. Too much of our theology is generated by internal debates and quarrels, which merely reinforces the isolationism and irrelevance of the Christian mind. We must learn to do theology along the border between the Christian worldview and the various non-Christian worldviews that we encounter. I think we must allow mission, in the broadest sense, to determine the agenda for the task of rethinking Christian truth.
I don’t know where ‘open source theology’ will be in ten years time. Quite possibly nowhere – after all, it’s only really a metaphor for a way of thinking together. But I hope that we will see emerging from the countless conversations that are taking place in the sphere of postmodern theology a renewed, flexible, creative, compelling ‘orthodoxy’ that will make good sense both inside and outside the church.
Andrew Perriman. I've been around the world a bit in the last 20 years, living in the Far East, Africa, Holland, the Middle East, and finally London. I've combined theological research and writing with an ad hoc pastoral and missionary ministry. How have I managed that? Well, my wife works in the oil industry. Enough said.
Apart from a number of academic articles, I have written a book on Paul's views on women called Speaking of Women: Interpreting Paul, published by IVP in the UK in 1998, available from amazon.co.uk, and I am just finishing off a book on the Word of Faith movement. I am also working with a church-planting organization called Christian Associates International, planning a church plant for the emerging culture in London. You can find out more at www.christianassociates.org.uk/london
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