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Blog // Thoughts
August 22, 2006

A Heretic’s Guide to Eternity РThe Ugly

When it comes to explaining postmodernity, there is a well-worn but explanatorily deficient path that many Christian commentators follow. Sadly, A Heretic‚Äôs Guide to Eternity follows that path. Let‚Äôs call it the road to 1991. It‚Äôs the tired rant that populates far too many powerpoint presentations at youth ministry training seminars and poorly thought out […]

When it comes to explaining postmodernity, there is a well-worn but explanatorily deficient path that many Christian commentators follow. Sadly, A Heretic’s Guide to Eternity follows that path. Let’s call it the road to 1991. It’s the tired rant that populates far too many powerpoint presentations at youth ministry training seminars and poorly thought out undergraduate college courses.

This cleanly sequential modernity = X, postmodernity = Y, approach, (the two are like oil and water) gives the authors scope to talk about emerging spirituality and skepticism towards organised religion but leaves them treading water on topics like fundamentalism and consumerism. I suspect that if A Heretic’s Guide to Eternity had employed a more nuanced reading of postmodernity and by extension, of society, it is would have been a more compelling book, not just for those that have studied postmodernity, but for everyone who lives and breathes it and wants to understand with spiritual yearnings.

Reading A Heretic’s Guide to Eternity one gets the impression that the natural spiritual state of modernity was secularity or fundamentalism, but the natural state of postmodernity is emerging spirituality. That’s partly right (secularism is dying or at least smells funny), but it is ultimately false. Fundamentalism and emerging spirituality, in their current forms, both grow from the same postmodern soil.

Postmodernity breeds both fundamentalism and emerging spirituality for exactly the same reasons it breeds shopping malls and organic farmers markets, global terrorists and the creative cosmopolitan class, gated communities and the blogosphere, George W. Bush and Bono.

The youth ministry training camp view of postmodernity fails to explain that. Every-time I hear someone say “occasionally I feel modern and then postmodern,” or “some people in my church are moderns and some postmoderns,” I just want to scream “that’s because your model of postmodernity sucks Рdude.”

OK, I’m going over the top to make a point. So, let’s look at it a little more dispassionately.

My claim is that postmodernity’s dynamics are most evident in globalisation. From there we start to form a bigger, more nuanced and more compelling picture. The world is simultaneously becoming more local and more global, more fundamentalist and more cosmopolitan, more mass-produced and more boutique, more consumer and more anti-consumer. These are not different eras of history overlapped on top of each other; they are concurrent shifts and forces driven by the same dynamics.

The world is interconnected, but not really interconnected as Rushdie suggests in Shalimer the Clown (cited in AHGTE). Rather, it is patterned in webs of influence (global cities) and retreat (exurbia). The closer we get the further apart we grow.

I’ve been saying this for a long time (I recall writing my first words on the subject in 1995 after sitting through a pathetically ill-conceived theological college lecture on postmodernity). In February of 2001 I gave a paper drawing together postmodernity, globalisation and the rise of fundamentalism. I saw a dynamic best explained by the concept of resentment. When we understand the link between resentment and the desire to prioritise the local and territorial we start to really understand fundamentalism and the dark underbelly of postmodernity.

It’s not that A Heretic’s guide misses the point completely. The tendency of fundamentalism towards nostalgia and a hesiodic view of the past is noted. But I don’t see this as a response to “a shifting moral ground,” (107) that’s the symptom. The cause is closer to vulnerability (187). It is a feeling of powerlessness, alienation and inability to change mainstream culture. That’s the postmodern pattern of fundamentalism, retreat from culture, resentment with culture, expeditionary and guerilla raids into culture.

Postmodernity and globalisation ask us to negotiate difference Рdifference of culture, language and practice. Some manage better than others. For some that leads to flourishing and growth. But for others, it is a struggle, a challenge. They sense failure, discomfort, alienation and this can breed anger and ultimately resentment. This is not modernism, this part of the postmodern condition. What these people, to borrow AHGTE’s lanaguge nostalgise is not a modern reality, it is often a hypermodern projection, a simulacra. Think gated community, think megachurch articulations of old time religion, think 50s themed malls.

A Heretic’s Guide to Eternity tends to dismiss those kinds of responses a little too glibly for my taste, maybe because they are conceptually invalid as modern or non-postmodern responses. However, that not only shows a lack of really joining the postmodern dots, it also dulls the missional edge of the book. Consider, folks who are fearful because of the mainstream media they consume, anxious about their prospects as their job is outsourced, worried about the emotional health of their kids in an at-times toxic culture. IS our response to them as simple as “you’re response is just wrong, change that and you will have a spiritual yearning like me?”

The failure to really deal with the tensions of postmodernity doesn’t invalidate the claims of AHGTE, but it does problematise them. If those who do not share my emergent spiritual yearnings are not drinking from a different cultural well, but actually siblings with me in postmodernity, then the challenge we face is different, not just in terms of religion but also in terms of education. Maybe we need to validate responses that do not work for us. Maybe we need more grace as we deal with those who struggle to adapt to cosmpolitanism and difference.

One trend I currently see in criticisms of the various emerging churches is that it is replacing one form of cultural prejudice for another. I’d go further and say that if some writers are to be believed, it is replacing one form of localist fundamentalism for another. Consider the angst, the insider language, critical and often derogatory comments about existing structures. Any proposal for faith today, any properly postmodern proposal for faith today needs to have an internal check for the tendency to fundamentalism and resentment. A Heretic’s Guide to Eternity doesn’t quite get there, which is a real shame.

I accept my quibbles about postmodernity are the rantings of a specialist on the subject. Maybe, I’m going too far, but i don’t think we need another popular book with an over-simplistic picture of postmodernity and by implication, society. My experience is that exactly the kind of throughtful Christians and seekers I suspect AHGTE wants to speak to are being turned off by this defecit in analysis. They expect the new books they read on spirituality to have a real depth of reading and thought about society and feel cheated when that is missing.

See also,
A Heretic’s Guide To Eternity – The Good
A Heretic’s Guide to Eternity – The Bad
A Heretic’s Guide to Eternity – Conclusion

[tags] A Heretic’s Guide to Eternity, Spencer Burke, Heretic, Resentment[/tags]

Geoff Holsclaw 18 years ago

thanks for this very thoughtful engagement with Spencer’s book.

I have a question: do you think HGTE suffere from a truncated view of postmodernity because for them it is essentially an epistemological or aesthetic/cutlural issues, rather than a global and political issue?

I like the way you equal ’emerging spirituality’ and ‘rising fundamentalism’ as both children of global postmodernity/late capitalism, which means you’re linking the aethetic/cultural with the political/ethical. do you feel that linking is what HGTE is lacking?

Fernando Gros 18 years ago

Yes, the picture of postmodernity in AHGTE is mostly about epistemology. There are threads there that could connect to more comprensive analysis, but they tend to get shut down too quickly. This is most evident in the way AHGTE deals with systemic religion – it puts that down to modernity, or something lacking in grace.

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