Thursday, November 29, 2007

Conspiracy Theories - PoMo's Metanarrative Impulse

Don't let anyone convince you that postmodernism ushered in the end of metanarratives. PoMo writers and analysts can claim all day long that postmodernism rejects overarching metanarrative notions of understanding reality in favor of radical individualistic understandings of life. But that doesn't really make it so. It has sometimes been said that PoMo is really just a logical extension of the modernism it supposedly rejects, and I happen to think there's a lot to this. The postmodern obsession with 'conspiracy' eloquently demonstrates both its commonality and divergence from modernism.

Conspiracy theories are often attempts to explain and organize random data points under a common (and usually sinister) larger umbrella reality. People on both the right and left adopt a conspiracy mentality with equal gusto. The 9/11 conspiracy theory, the JFK conspiracy theory, the one world government conspiracy theory, and the vast right-wing conspiracy are all examples of what postmodern metanarratives look like. These alleged conspiracies and other theories like them are all attempts to construct some larger explanatory story that tries to bring all or some portion of reality together. Seemingly isolated events and realities are not isolated at all once the conspiracy mindset is employed, but are part of a much larger interconnected reality - ie: a metanarrative. Lest anyone think that such conspiracy theories are the exception rather than the rule, one should take a few minutes to consult the internet. A conspiracy grid is the mindset of our day. In the arena of politics, many supporters of Republican (really Libertarian) candidate Ron Paul are absolutely convinced that there is a conspiracy among the media to squelch his campaign. This sounds eerily familiar to what supporters of Democrat Howard Dean were saying during the 2004 election cycle as his campaign was going down in flames. The intent is the same in both cases - there must be some grand larger (and darkly sinister) reason why things aren't going the way we think they should.

I'm not saying that culture has embraced the conspiracy mentality solely for the purpose of finding explanatory comfort in metanarrative. But I do think it's one reason behind the conspiracy craze. Metanarratives soothe many human tendencies that are shaped by the whims of the age. During the modernistic period, the great optimism that was bestowed on human nature and the ability of humans to eventually figure out all reality resulted in very optimistic metanarratives that exalted universal reason, science, and epistemic exploration by exalting the human. The major change between modernism and postmodernism is not that metanarratives are no longer useful, but that they are useful in a different way. With PoMo's often depressing appraisal of the human condition, metanarrative conspiracy theories are dark, sinister, and often justify human fear of power consolidation rather than exalting the pursuit of grand global ideals and goals.

Let me hasten to add that PoMo, despite its rampant cynicism and skepticism regarding human motives, ironically does exalt (in a rather twisted way) human beings more than modernism did. Why? Because the individualistic stress of PoMo actually bestows greater faith in the individual to construct his own reality than modernism ever did. PoMo's extremist pursuit of epistemic individual power (the power of the individual to define reality for themselves) is constantly at odds with its fear of power accumulation and consolidation, and it's a dilemma that PoMo has never been able to overcome. But the incessant urge toward the conspiracy mindset demonstrates (to me at least) that even PoMo's hyper-stress on individual reality has not quenched the desire, even of the negative version in our PoMo age, of trying (or needing) to see reality as a larger interconnected whole, rather than random, non-purposeful, unrelated pieces that happen to chaotically coexist. This is a very delicate tension, but actually makes some sense. So often, conspiracy theories are employed to try to explain larger reality by opining about how a few extremely powerful elites are supposedly pulling the global strings to define reality for the rest of us. Such theories are then used as justifications for our fear of others wrongly invading our own reality and compromising our own turf (this kind of thinking has certainly come to dominate certain theological systems of thought as well). This then reinforces PoMo's prime directive of non-interference in individual self-determination, including the supposed right of the individual to create his own little reality without outside coercion or consideration. Far from being eliminated, conspiracy, the PoMo metanarrative of choice, becomes a tool by which individual resistance to outside authority is cultivated and nurtured. The optimistic modernism age had positive metanarratives as virtuous goals for society to shoot for. The pessimistic postmodern age has negative metanarratives to act as warnings of what we should be fighting against. In both cases, metanarratives mirror the spirit of the age and reinforce it. To the extent that the Christian metanarrative has lost its fire, metanarratives like conspiracy fill the void that's left behind.

The challenge of the Church today is not to convince people of the value of and need for metanarratives. The supposedly anti-metanarrative PoMo generation is operating with its own metanarratives just like every age before it. The challenge is to offer better and more solid metanarratives to a culture that I believe has grown tired of the "it's true for you but not for me" wasteland we find ourselves in. The challenge is not to make the concept of metanarrative acceptable again; it's to make the Christian metanarrative the one that beats out all other cultural competitors. To undo the sinister conspiracy theory mindset in favor of the Colossians 1 metanarrative is heavy lifting to be sure. But that's our task, and we can succeed once we better understand what the true lay of the land is.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Some Personal Stuff

Every now and again, I do a post like this to keep interested readers informed of what's up in my neck of the boonies. A few things:

1) The adoption process is proceeding. All our paperwork has been submitted and is currently being translated over in Kazakhstan. Once the translation process is complete, the documents will (oddly) be delivered to the Kazakh government via their consulate in NYC. No, I don't understand, but that's the deal. The good news is that we've been told by our agency that we might get an invitation to travel to Kazakhstan as early as next February. We'll see if this actually pans out, but every indication we've gotten is that the adoption might happen sooner rather than later. We're obviously very excited and are trying to keep things in balance if it turns out that more snares are in the offing.

2) The Christianity Explored course that we've been hosting since September recently concluded. I'm pleased with the way it went. We reliably had around 15-17 people in our home each week, and best of all, nobody peeled off even though it was a 10 week class. My hope is that this class might provide a good foundation for subsequent rollouts and give us some momentum for evangelism as we head into the new year. We are hosting a Christmas dinner party on Saturday 12/15 for the group members, and we've invited some other folks as well. Any readers who wish to come to the party are very welcome. I relish the opportunity to meet new people, so don't be bashful if you wanna come.

3) Starting in January, I will be teaching a Sunday school course at our church titled "Christian Hospitality - A Way of Life". I still have to prepare most of my lesson plans, and I'm starting to stress about it (tick tock, tick tock). But I'm really looking forward to it. As I say in the introductory lesson plan, "Martha Stewart didn't invent hospitality, and perhaps more heretically, she hasn't perfected it either." Christian hospitality has become my main ministry and academic interest dating back to my last year at seminary, and I'm really looking forward to this upcoming class where I will have the opportunity to continue deepening my understanding of hospitality along with the other folks who might attend. Again, if anyone is interested in attending the course who resides here locally but doesn't attend Faith Church, please get in touch with me to find out more. If the course goes well and people respond positively to the material, I may try and submit my course lessons to 3Mil for publication, or at least try to make them available on the church's website for others to peruse.

It is a busy but exciting time.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007


This week, most Americans will 'give thanks' as an act of civic custom. And while the initial act of giving thanks over 2 centuries ago had the divine as its object, today, many who give thanks simply feel thankful without directing their thanks to anything, or any One, in particular. Thanksgiving is the great American holiday precisely because it is a holiday that can be celebrated by everyone in any way one chooses. It can be religious or secular, selfless or selfish, and even accommodates carnivores and vegetarians alike these days. Thanksgiving, while ostensibly being about good communal times with family and friends, has largely given way to being the pinnacle of pluralism and individualistic preference. There is nothing more American than being able to express generic thanks without any point of reference for our thanks to which one has to commit.

As a good American, I celebrate Thanksgiving and enjoy it immensely. Why? Because as a good Christian, I give thanks to the God of all blessings. I give thanks to God the way David does in 1 Chronicles 16. Psalms 100, 107, 118 and 136 are all psalms of thanks to the God of every good and great thing. Repeatedly in the Gospels, Jesus himself gives thanks to God for loaves of bread and fishes, acknowledging that even seemingly ordinary and common provisions for sustaining life emanate from a loving God who makes unceasing provision for his creation. Paul continues this practice in Acts 27.35 & 1 Cor 11.24. Conversely, Paul cites a lack of thanks to God as a characteristic of those who are foolish and depraved (Rom 1.21). Put simply, Paul says we should thank God for absolutely everything (Eph 5.20, Col 3.17).

Properly 'giving thanks', therefore, has two basic properties. First, it is directed to the One who ultimately deserves it because he provides all the reasons and gifts that legitimize our desire to give thanks. Second, giving thanks is not something we do one day out of the year. God does not limit his grace and provision to one day a year. Therefore, we should not hold back our gratitude and thankfulness to the one day of the year that our culture has decided we should collectively give thanks. We should be thanking God daily, hourly, waking minute by waking minute. How else are we supposed to truly thank God for everything? To make this aspect of Thanksgiving a daily event is to commit ourselves to ever deepening our appreciation for God and going further in bringing glory to him than we will ever do otherwise.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Thursday, November 08, 2007


We have a problem in the church today, even the evangelical church. It is a problem of trust.

It is well known that as children of the Enlightenment, it has become our nature to question, doubt, and distrust authority. There is no doubt that such distrust has entered the field of theology with full force. In particular, the Bible has been the most obvious and sustained target of distrust, with scholars, pastors, and laypeople alike all openly casting doubt on the authority and trustworthiness of the Bible. Distrust of the Bible has moved along the scholarly waves, where modernistic naturalism gave way to manuscript evidence, which gave way to textual criticism, which has now largely given way to postmodern critical concepts of canon and/or interpretive agnosticism a la McLaren. And with each wave has come an encyclopedia of (usually) conservative responses that question the trustworthiness of the latest scholarly fancy in view.

From a conservative theological vantage point, evangelicals today have formidable scholarly tools at their disposal to reject efforts to discredit the Bible, or to seriously truncate its applicability and relevance. Along with that, evangelicals are in an increasingly strong position to defend their belief in the trustworthiness of the Bible with intellectual integrity. This is a very good thing, and represents a considerable advance in evangelical scholarship over where we were 30-40 years ago. But along with this has come a problem that needs to be addressed.

While questions about the trustworthiness of the Bible will always be with us, we cannot, while rightfully trying to defend Scripture's trustworthiness, ignore an arguably bigger 'trust' question. Increasingly, the trust issue in Christianity is not centered on the Bible, but on God. For many people, the question is not "Is the Bible trustworthy?", it's "Is God trustworthy?" I would submit that the latter question is the more important and enduring question of the two.

Scripture repeatedly declares God to be trustworthy. I'm not crazy about the whole 'life verse' concept, but if I had a life verse, it would be Nahum 1.7 - "The Lord is good, a refuge in times of trouble. He cares for those who TRUST in him." So it's true that one way to demonstrate that God is trustworthy is to demonstrate that the Bible that says God is trustworthy is also trustworthy. Once that is demonstrated, we often think it's a simple matter of saying, "Look, the Bible says God can be trusted, so that's how we know God can be trusted." And while on one level this is certainly true and deserves to be pointed out at length, it is also true that simply reading words about God has the danger of depersonalizing the reality of God's presence and reliability in not only our lives, but in the lives of those who struggle with the trust issue. In the end, I think it's clear that we need to do more than trust the Bible.

Let me be clear. I believe the Bible is trustworthy, that we should trust it, and that we make a serious mistake if we don't (1Cor 10). But I do think there can be a difference between trusting the Bible and trusting God, and that we need to be careful not to substitute a trust in the Bible for trusting God with our steps. This is where I think the evangelical church needs to improve its preaching and teaching. We have spent so much time and effort (rightfully) in defending the trustworthiness of the Bible that we have spent far less time flushing out a deep robust theology of God's own trustworthiness. And yet, this latter concern is tons more prominent in the pages of Scripture itself than the former concern.

Many books of the Bible both directly and indirectly touch on the issue of God's trustworthiness (entire sections of the Psalms are almost obsessed with this theme). This is not a new question. And often times in the Bible, the remedy for doubts, while including remembrances of God's covenantal and written promises, also involves the aspects of prayer and remembrance of very personal blessings and felt assurances given by God to refresh the hopes of the saints. Just as in Bible days, those of us today who are seeking to demonstrate God's trustworthiness (or to come to know it for the first time) must expand their sphere of trust to include things other than the Bible that nonetheless complement the Bible. A question about God's trustworthiness is an intimately personal and relational question - perhaps the most intimate question that can be asked. We have to understand that responding to such an intensely relational question exclusively by pointing to words on a page will often not be entirely adequate any more than it was for the people in the Bible. To trust God involves more than trusting the Bible. It doesn't exclude trust in the Bible, but it includes other things as well. We know this is true. It's the reason why we can trust every word the Bible says, and still be hesitant to do what it says because we don't trust God the same way we trust the Bible.

If all we do is trust the Bible, and equate this with trusting God and end our striving with trust right there, our trust in God will not set us on fire for the Gospel. We cannot simply say that we trust God just because we trust the Bible, and think that ends the issue. It doesn't, because if it did, the Christian life wouldn't be as much of a struggle of trust as it often is. The evangelical church must continue stressing the trustworthiness of the Bible. But in doing so, we must return to an even greater emphasis on the trustworthiness of God not only in ensuring the trustworthiness of the Bible, but also to stress the intensely personal applicability that a real relational trust brings about. A trust in God and a trust in Scripture cannot be fully separated, as if you can truly and authentically have one without the other. But they are distinct and should not be equated. We are in personal relationship with God. It is God to whom we have appealed for forgiveness. It is God who saves. Ultimately, it is in God where our trust must be, and while this trust includes a trust in the Bible, it is not exclusively that. The sooner we make these kinds of distinctions, the sooner the evangelical church will be able to more fully model the joy and peace of trust to a culture that has been ravaged by the chaos of distrust and desperately wants something better.