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The Oxford Illustrated History of the Bible A richly illustrated account of the story of the Bible written by leading scholars.

Postmodernism and Biblical Studies

It is a commonplace of academic discourse that we are living in a postmodern era, although there is little agreement about whether ‘post’ is to be understood in a temporal or a structural sense. Understood as a temporal term, ‘postmodern’ denotes a period of time that has succeeded the ‘modern’ period. Understood structurally, ‘postmodern’ denotes features of thought that are not necessarily new, such as a distrust of grand narratives, but which are in conflict with what are often, perhaps unfairly, regarded as legacies of the Enlightenment. My own view is that it is more accurate to say with Anthony Giddens, in his Modernity and Self-Identity, that we are living in late modernity, and that the phenomena that are pointed to as indicators of postmodernity are developments from within modernity itself. I can also agree with Zygmunt Bauman's definition of post-modernity as ‘modernity without illusions’.

In his Postmodernism: A Reader Thomas Docherty reminds us that the whole topic, this amorphous thing, as he calls it,

remains ghostly—and for some, ghastly—for the simple reason that the debate around the postmodern has never been properly engaged. The term itself hovers uncertainly in most current writings between—on the one hand—extremely complex and difficult philosophical senses and—on the other hand—an extremely simplistic mediation as a nihilistic, cynical tendency in contemporary culture.

Something of the confusion that arises from the lack of clarity about the meaning of ‘postmodern’ can easily be illustrated. Jean François Lyotard, one of the most important theorists of postmodernism, wrote in a letter to Jessamyn Blau in 1985,

There is a sort of grief in the Zeitgeist. It can find expression in reactive, even reactionary, attitudes or utopias—but not in a positive orientation that would open up a new perspective…Technoscientific development has become a means of deepening the malaise rather than allaying it. It is no longer possible to call development progress. It seems to proceed of its own accord, with a force, an autonomous motoricity that is independent of us. It does not answer to demands issuing from human needs. On the contrary, human entities—whether social or individual—always seem destabilized by the results and implications of developments … We could say that humanity's condition has become one of chasing after the process of the accumulation of new objects (both of practice and of thought). (Docherty, Postmodernism, 49)

There is much in this statement with which I can agree, but which is also reminiscent of the book of Ecclesiastes in the Old Testament, with its insistence that much of life at the time of the writer (probably the late fourth century BCE) was vanity and a chasing after wind. From this perspective, there is nothing new about ‘postmodernism’, a point made trenchantly by Terry Eagleton in a review in the TLS on 2 January 1998 of a book by M. J. Devany, Since at Least Plato … and Other Postmodernist Myths:

M. J. Devany … brings to aspects of postmodern thought the grossly unfair advantage of a knowledge of the history of philosophy. One thing in which that knowledge instructs her is just how old-hat most postmodernism is. Moral relativism, the arbitrary sign, the world as ‘constructed’ rather than as given, the mediated nature of knowledge, the self as processual rather than stable: all of these doctrines of course are at least as old as Plato, and no doubt as Adam. ‘Antirealism’, as Devaney caustically puts it, ‘is as much of a foundational principle in western philosophy as realism is’. This is bad news for those credulous souls who believe that all this avant-garde speculation started with Saussure, or Jacques Derrida, before whom all philosophy was a dreary mixture of native realism and autocratic rationalism.

Eagleton's broadside, however, indicates that for some advocates of postmodernism what is being claimed in its name is a feature of a new age, a new age in which relativism in ethics and ‘deregulation’ in the interpretation of texts have produced a situation in which almost anything goes. Christopher Norris, in an attack upon Lyotard, accuses him of deliberately skewing Kant's philosophy in order to achieve ‘a wholesale aestheticisation of ethical discourse which redefines “autonomy” in private-individualistic terms, and which blocks the appeal to any wider community of intersubjective understanding’ (Reclaiming Truth, 41). From some feminist quarters comes the accusation that postmodernism is a male phenomenon that has succeeded in ‘reconstituting an overwhelmingly male pantheon of proper names to function as ritual objects of academic exegesis and commentary’. It is necessary to reclaim ‘women's work and women's names, as a context in which debates about postmodernism might further be considered, developed, transformed (or abandoned)’ (M. Morris in Docherty, Postmodernism, 378, 381).

Within the context of biblical studies some, but by no means all, of the advocates of deconstructionist, ideological, and feminist critiques of biblical texts regard themselves unashamedly as postmodernists and as subscribing to some of the positions that are anathema to critics such as Eagleton and Norris. My own view is much closer to that of Eagleton and Norris than to that of those whom they attack. At the same time, I am strongly drawn to what are often regarded as the typical features of postmodernism, if only because they express standpoints that I find represented in the Bible, and which seem to me to be realistic assessments of the human predicament. The first is a distrust of grand narratives, that is, explanatory theories designed to make sense of the whole of reality. Such theories can also be found in the Bible, as in the view of the ‘wisdom’ literature of the Old Testament that virtue will always be rewarded and evil will always be punished; but at its most profound, in books such as Job and Ecclesiastes and in Psalms of Lament, the Old Testament challenges such simplistic outlooks. Secondly, there is a distrust in postmodernism of the Enlightenment belief that human reason has the capacity to emancipate humanity from dogma and superstition so that the human race can make its own history and destiny. The Bible, of course, knows nothing of the Enlightenment; but it has a good deal to say about what happens when the human race believes that its destiny is best left to humanity. The opening chapters of Genesis are powerful commentaries on this viewpoint. Thirdly, there is an awareness that things that seem to be innocent in themselves, such as knowledge and education, can and do conceal powerful ways in which some groups of people can exercise power over other people and thus control them. The Bible is well aware of the problems of the exercise and abuse of power.

My own position, then, is that I share the distrust of grand narratives, accept that aspects of the Enlightenment project led to German fascism and Stalinist totalitarianism, and am very conscious of the autonomy of other people and the need to respect them. I prefer, however, the term late modern to postmodern because I believe in the Enlightenment project, and because radical criticism of that project from within is not essentially new. I also view with alarm some of the implications of postmodern theories, such as that texts only have the meanings that can be accepted by interpretative communities. Some of the versions of ethics that have come to the fore under the aegis of postmodernism also seem to me to be capable of justifying practices such as apartheid, although I would never want to imply that such an outcome would be intended or welcomed by those who are ethical relativists.

However, the actual definition of our present intellectual condition, whether we call it postmodern or late modern, is less important than the fact that, in the humanities at least, we are operating in a different world compared with that of forty years ago. If, as has been argued above, Giddens's theory of ‘talk’ makes possible a sensible reconciliation between the need to search for the communicative intentions of biblical texts and to allow that, separated from their original contexts of production, such texts can be interpreted in new and creative ways, the opportunities presented by the current pluralism in biblical studies will yield positive results without leading to absurdities that contradict common sense and the realities of human lives.

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