Leithart, Peter J. 2008. Solomon among the postmoderns. Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press. Reviewed by Karl Franklin. [Draft 19 December, 2008]
Peter Leithart (born 1959) is an ordained minister of the Presbyterian Church in America and a senior fellow of theology and literature at New St. Andrews College and pastor of Trinity Reformed Church in Moscow, Idaho. He has written numerous books and is a contributing editor for Touchstone magazine.
Solomon among the postmoderns is from a series of lectures Leithart gave at Hillsdale College and at the Dabney Center of the Auburn Avenue Presbyterian Church in Monroe, Louisiana, both in 2006. Leithart is responding to those he calls the pro–postmodern Christians, who “have adopted the inflated rhetoric of secular postmodernists” (p. 13).
The book is divided into five chapters: Vapor’s Revenge, The Elusive Word, The Decentered Self, Power Is with the Opressor, and Eat, Drink, Rejoice.
Leithart’s metaphor of vapor follows that of Solomon – a search for and an exercise in “shepherding wind”. The vapor is inherent in the name “postmodern”, which is a generalization that includes a plethora of cultural “assumptions, beliefs, practices, institutions, and styles” (p. 18) representing the dominant ethos of the age.
Postmodernism, according to Leithart, started with the Renaissance, which was an attempt to interpret the world without the supernatural, and has since moved in an indirect line to modernity, the precursor of postmodernity. To the humanists of the Renaissance the world and its humanity were “vapor, a whirl of change without fixity, smooth edges, or symmetry” (p.23). The Reformation occurred during this period, and was followed later by a century of revolution and war. Occurring concurrently were various philosophical movements and trends, including an effort to control time. Here the clock helped to form a boundary, in an effort to keep the world divided and under control.
During the Middle Ages Christianity spread through Europe and carried technology with it. In modernity the ancient view of cyclical time was abandoned and the new cycle of “detached human time” formed a “fundamental boundary … between ‘us’ and ‘them’” (p. 30). Moderns, like the early Christians, believed that anyone who refused to adopt modern ways was a throwback to an earlier age. Proponents of progress and modernity have a dividing line between what went before and what comes after.
Leithart claims that postmodernism is “another protest movement from within modernity” (p.35), although nothing about it is completely new. Nevertheless, the thoughts of recent decades and modern aspirations can now be unmasked to reveal the “real truth” about modern pretenses. Contemporary culture continues with efforts to control and liberate – from the mapping of the genome, the use of the computer, outsourcing, the spin of the media, multinational organizations and companies, and much more, all contributing to the selling of lifestyles and products, what some call “the Disneyfication of economic life” (p.49).
Leithart feels that “The rise of cultural anthropology has been one of the key driving forces in the development of postmodernity” (p. 51), especially when it challenges assumptions about ‘us’ and ‘them’. In so doing the boundaries of some disciplines become malleable and show that “we are not nearly so advanced, rational, and scientific as we pretend to be” (ibid). And, in a surprising development, “missionary and mission field have begun to change places…” (p.52).
Leithart concludes the chapter on “Vapor’s Revenge” by noting that postmodernity is “a knot of cultural, philosophical and social developments, arising from intensifications, inversions, and unmasking of modernity…” (p. 55). Modernity may have tried to unify groups, but postmodernity represents a multiethnic nation now threatened with fragmentation. Leithart contrasts modernity with postmodernity using the following metaphors and phrases:
|Regular rhythm, like a piston||Syncopated|
|Hard particles||Particles dissolve into energy|
|GNP, GDP, trade deficit, policy||Quality of life, ecological impact|
|Statistical analysis||Outcomes–based and qualitative|
|One–stop department stores||Megamall of specialty shops|
|Systematizes theology||Poetry and the priest with a banjo|
|Zones of activity and interest||Mixing of work & fun, religion & politics|
|Tests hypotheses with
|Hedges all conclusions|
|High culture trickles down to
|Everything in a commercialized pop culture|
|Suit at the office; slippers at home||Work at home in bathrobe; jeans to the office|
|A city of smog||The green belt|
|A clock||A turbulent weather stream|
In Chapter two, The Elusive Word, Leithart notes that postmodernists are most often classified by Christians as “relativists” because they claim that anything goes and there are no absolute standards, although differences and diversity are in and of themselves standards. However, “relativism is obviously self–refuting” because “Celebrating unorganized difference is intellectual suicidal” (p. 60), where the absolute truth of any statement cannot be absolute.
Modern media efforts give rise to skepticism and cynicism because “Most of the messages we receive… are efforts to incite certain feelings as much as they are efforts to communicate information” (p.65).
All of this would not have surprised Solomon, who saw the vapor or mist as an elusiveness of everything that the world offers. His projects were not permanent and led to the same kind of weariness that we find today.
Leithart reviews scholars who have contributed to the movement of modernity and postmodernity: from Plato to Stephen Toulmin, Rene Descarte and Jacques Derrida (in particular), Freud and Foucault, Marx and Nietzsche, Shakespeare and Max Weber, Richard Rorty and George Lakoff, as well as many others, whose writings have influenced our thinking. However, postmodern theory “is [also] deeply suspicious of all metanarratives (saving, perhaps, it own)” (p. 79). This is because metanarratives of scientific progress attempt to justify expenditures of resources and talents. The claim of postmoderenism is that it “unmasks the truths that modern science has tried to hide” (p.80), such as experiments and the so called scientific method.
Even “standard English” comes under criticism: Who gave anyone the right to determine what is proper in style and meaning? Postmoderns, such as Derrida, claim that texts have no meaning and need to be “deconstructed”, with attention given to “fissures, gaps, loose ends, and internal contradictions in every text” (p.84). Derrida questions even the hierarchy of speech over writing that runs through the Western philosophical tradition. Language then becomes “diffuse, disseminating, elusive, vaporous” and every text, when supplemented does “violence to the original” (p.92).
Again, this does not surprise Solomon, who saw all knowledge as limited. We cannot know the future, the past is inaccessible – who knows what God has in mind? And yet Solomon wants to know what is going on and in the process of his quest he claims that there is nothing better than to rejoice and do good in one‘s lifetime (Ecclesiastes 3:12). Because Solomon does not believe that his world is the only world, he is willing, unlike Derrida, to wait for the final word, the judgment of God.
The Decentered Self, Chapter 3, examines questions of what makes us what we are. We live our lives in relation to others, to places, to culture, and from these things we learn who we are. Yet, we are influenced by others, by advertisers, to the extent that postmodernists see the self as a fiction or a mask, without stability and transient. There is no caring about the future life because it will be someone other than me after I die!
The traditional family, neighborhood and community have been split, so that our family and friends form one set of relationships, and our fellow workers and colleagues form another. We are also exposed to alternate cultures and lifestyles by a host of virtual immigrants, hooked into the Internet and blogging with complete strangers. “As a result of this fragmentation and fluidity, our relationships become temporary, loose, contractual at best” (p. 117). Even our bodies become art industries and people are defined by what they can afford.
For Solomon, if everything is vapor, isn‘t the self vapor as well? He worked hard, he enlarged his works, he controlled those around him, in short, he wished to shape and to manage the world around him. He did what we try to do with the same results: we get old, power leaves us, nothing we do is remembered, and we die like the beasts of the field. And Solomon found, as we do, “we have to search outside this world of vapor” (p.132) for meaning.
Chapter four, Power is with the Oppressor, outlines the modern notion of progress in terms of its management and control, such as that present in Soviet communism or Western liberal democracy. Religion is one part of life to be suppressed in public because people practicing religion may challenge the normal operations of society and politics.
Leithart sees the demonopolization of the nation–state as the end of an era, no longer running the show, as countries form regional alliances and extremists react to American and Western powers.
Propaganda, especially commercial aspects of it, likewise oppresses us. “Selves are not fixes, and their desires can be manipulated” (p. 145) with brainwashing, especially by political candidates who are chosen for their photogenic appeal. Politicians know they are being watched and we know that they know this. So postmodern political theory is critical of the media and its controls, whether over our time, behavior, speech, body, or sexuality. The “government” controls the population by surveillance in census, tax codes, receipts, and so on. “They seek to instill self–discipline through the threat that at any moment they might be watching us” (p.153) and largely as a result there is a noble “Nietzschean despair” undermining the postmodernity promise of liberation and freedom.
Solomon also saw that power often belonged to the ruthless oppressors of the poor, remarking that “A rich man who speaks folly is more likely to be heard than a poor man who speaks wisdom. And even if the poor man is heard, he will not long be remembered” (p.162). But Solomon does finish his book with a firm belief in God‘s judgment: He “will bring every act to judgment, everything that is hidden, whether it is good or evil” (12:14).
Chapter 5 is called, fittingly, “Eat, Drink, Rejoice” where Solomon recognizes that human achievement and control is always partial and limited and therefore vaporous. But vapor hides something, and Solomon suggest that God himself is screened for the time being “behind the veil of the vaporous world” (p.166).
Solomon therefore commits, by faith, to a future where God is just and he does this with joy because all the good things we have are a gift of God. Further this is a life of faith and joy “because faith liberates us from the burden of taking care of a creation that was never outs to begin with” (p.168). Eating, drinking and, finally, rejoicing, lead us to worship – Solomon provides a table for us in the mist.
As I read this book I thought of Wycliffe (in particular my agency, the US) and SIL International and their place among the postmoderns. How has postmodern thinking influenced our present corporate decisions and views? Of course, those in charge of policy and controls may not, for the most part, have even considered postmodernism, but here are some things that suggest we are following its trends:
|The Historical||The Modern||The Postmodern|
|Specific core values||Generalized values||Malleable values|
|Development organization||Funding organizations|
|Field structures||Centralized structures||Network structures|
|Language research||Translation research||Missiological research|
|Pioneering distinctive||Pioneering adaptation||Pioneering instances|
|Govt. & church
|One basic approach||Flexible approaches||Hidden approaches|
|Africa emphasis||Diaspora emphasis|
|SIL & WBT as twin
|Search for birth mother|
|Mainly American||Mainly Western||Multi-ethnic|
|Biennial conferences||Triennial conferences||Virtual conferences|
|Management by Board|
|JAARS a subsidiary||JAARS as international||JAARS as independent|
|Ad hoc Literacy||Professional literacy||Developmental Literacy|
|Emergency support||Supplementary support||Approved supplementary|
|Crisis problems (hunger, etc.)|
|Individual programs||Entity programs||Global programs|
|Consultant support||Virtual support|
|Subsidized support||Solicited support|
|Personal care||Member care||Institutional care|
|Typewriters||Computers||Multiple electronic tools|
|Mentoring leaders||Appointing leaders||Ad hoc leaders|
In other words, the values of the organizations and their leaders are changing, although slowly and more subtly. I had reflected on some of these issues and changes years ago and outlined them in a paper published in Word&Deed called “SIL – This is not the organization that I joined,” but I had not interpreted the trends in terms of postmodernism.
It seems to me that future membership relationships will also be largely a product of postmodernity. with changing relationships as follows:
|Professional recruitment||Virtual recruitment|
|Life-time members||Short-term members||Drive-through members|
|Member categories||Blurring of categories||No categories|
|Village living||Center living||Off-shore living|
|Language and Support||Mostly support workers|
|Individual programs||Partnership programs||Professional programs|
|Individual witnessing||Scripture Use techniques||Evangelism emphasis|
|Corporate project funding||Corporate project budgeting|
|Reference to Informants||Reference to Assistants||Reference to Partners|
|Peer consulting/support||Professional consulting||Network consulting/support|
|Expected to publish||Some publish||Few publish|
Leithart’s consideration of Solomon and postmodern analogies is instructive as we take a close look at our own organizational tendencies. They may not be empty or vaporous, but there is a log of wind blowing through the organizations and we cannot always be easily discern its direction, much less control it.
Karl Franklin, January 09