Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Carl Raschke: GloboChrist: The Great Commission Takes a Postmodern Turn

Carl Raschke (PhD, Harvard University) is professor and chair of the department of religious studies at the University of Denver. In addition, he serves as an adjunct faculty member at Mars Hill Graduate School and is the author of twenty books. He recently returned from traveling over the holidays and has made time to discuss his most recent book GloboChrist.

Morehead's Musings: Carl, thanks again to you and Baker Academic for your help in my taking a look at this book. How did the subject of postmodernism come to capture your interest in GloboChrist: The Great Commission Takes a Postmodern Turn (Baker Academic, 2008) and your earlier volume The Next Reformation (Baker Academic, 2004)?

Carl Raschke: I have been reading and reflecting on what these days is called “postmodernism” since the late 1970s when I began to publish more technical, philosophical, and theological books and articles on the subject. My book The End of Theology, available as a reprint these days through The Davies Group publishers, was a pioneering work in an emerging field that is now quite establishment and mainstream. Because I was already known as “Professor Postmodernism,” but I also had a reputation as a committed evangelical, or evangelical sympathizer (depending on how you specify those terms), Baker asked me to write The Next Reformation as a way of explaining how postmodernity was quite compatible, in contrast to much of the know-nothingism and trashing of the word by certain self-appointed “authorities” out there, with biblical faith and commitment. In light of the fascination of younger Christian pastors and academics with “postmodernism,” Baker then launched the series which includes my latest book, which represents an effort to expand the parameters of the earlier conversations.

Morehead's Musings: You define your subject matter in the book beyond evangelical concerns over epistemology to include "the growing anxieties over what is happening under the impact of the forces we call globalization and the political, cultural, and religious upheavals that arise in its wake." Why do you think many evangelicals in the West so focused on epistemological issues and have missed the broader implications of the global change?

Carl Raschke: What we have experienced in the past twenty years in the evangelical world is a grievous – perhaps we should even say “gruesome” - disconnect between theological reflection and God’s actual call upon our lives. The problem began at least two generations ago when evangelicals felt they had to mount an ongoing “fundamentalist”, or literalist, defense of the truth of Scripture against the attacks of Darwinists, historical reductionists, and the many varieties of “scientism”. The so-called “battle for the Bible” was really a clash of sectarian epistemologies and, in retrospect we can see, had little to do with the truth or authority of Scripture. But, ironically, the evangelical magisterium at the time felt the only way it could defend its biblical convictions – after all, that’s what makes an evangelical in the first place – was to fight with the captured armaments of the enemy which for decades, ever since Bertrand Russell, had been used against them. The preferred weapon was a form of Anglo-American philosophy that idolized the “scientific method” and was known as logical positivism.

Logical positivism became obsolete in the secular academy in the early 1960s and was effectively brought to its knees – rightly – by the French and German “post-structuralists” who were later renamed postmodernists. The second, and even greater, irony is that in attacking postmodernism as a philosophical movement – what is really under attack, however, if you read the polemics carefully, is some vague notion of contemporary culture as a whole that has nothing to do with any substantive, academic issues – the evangelical old guard is attacking their own liberators. It’s not unlike the Shia militias in Iraq who started shooting at the American forces who saved them from the oppression of Saddam Hussein.

The third irony is that in insisting on a now irrelevant, obsolete, and discredited form of late modernist epistemological certainty as the basis for Christian faith – the total opposite of the Augustinian dictum of fides quaeranas intellectum and the Reformation principle of sola fide – the old guard has essentially destroyed the credibility for non-believers of that which it sought fanatically to make credible, which it never really succeeded in doing anyway. It’s the contemporary version of “tithing mint and cumin” while neglecting what the gospel is really all about. As we are now witnessing with the collapse of the so-called “Religious Right” in America and the rise of what Phillip Jenkins calls the “next Christendom,” the old guard will have its reward.

Morehead's Musings: You critique both "carping old-guard evangelicals" and those in the postmodern "emerging church" equally in this book. How would you describe the errors of both camps? And how do you see this internal squabble as "simply a replay of the modernist-fundamentalist debates of a century ago."

Carl Raschke: The “error” can be summed up in a simple characterization – a narrow sort of time-bound, uniquely American, religious parochialism that has exhausted itself in an ultimately inconsequential fight that has come to be known as the “culture wars.” Call it our own contemporary Christian version of the Thirty Years War. And like the Thirty Years War of the seventeenth century, it has left living and committed faith prostrate in this country.

Morehead's Musings: In your discussion of global postmodern Christianity you state that "Westerners cling to the outmoded modernist assumption that Christianity is basically the same, or should be the same, everywhere in the world." How has this assumption kept evangelicals from moving beyond the culture wars within the church to consider the broader issues of global Christianity and contextualization?

Carl Raschke: God is always the same from age to age, but he accomplishes his will and purpose in a vast variety of different ways and by using myriad historical actors and heterogeneous cultural forms and expressions. The danger from the human side is that believers easily confuse these forms and expressions with the ultimate will and purpose of God himself. In a biblical sense we call this confusion “idolatry.” As the Hebrew prophets showed us, true believers always tend to confuse this with “truth.” The history of idolatry from the golden calf worshippers to Ahab to the “false teachers” which the apostolic writers constantly reference is one of those “believers” who thought they could “improve on” the epistemological uncertainty of walking in faith by providing us with a “once and for all” and non-contextualizable version of “Christian truth.” We are called constantly as Christians to contextualize because God is always contextualizing. That’s what we really mean when make the very biblical statement that God is sovereign and in control of human history. Otherwise, faith would be nothing more than a simple form of propositional assent, as it is in Islam, or some timeless illumination of a putative eternal “truth” (i.e., Gnosticism). History, especially the history of Christianity itself, is the record of God contextualizing.

Morehead's Musings: At one point in your book you state something that will likely be considered provocative by evangelicals: "To be Christian is not simply to believe in the divinity of Jesus or to subscribe to a set of doctrines, although historically these epistemic tests of the faith have not been inconsequential. It is both to reveal Christ in who we are and to see the face of Christ in those we encounter". Can you expand on this idea of incarnational Christianity that you have in mind and how it relates to the epistemic and doctrinal aspects usually conceived of in terms of self-definitions by Western evangelicals?

Carl Raschke: If you may permit me, I would like to invite you to examine the very premises of your own question here. You ask me to justify somehow incarnational Christianity in terms of “epistemic and doctrinal aspects” of the “self-definitions” of Western evangelicals. First, I would question whether there really are such “epistemic and doctrinal aspects” in the first place, unless you are subtly offering a certain theological position as normative for all evangelicals. Can you really find a common “self-definition” among Calvinists, Lutherans, Mennonites, Southern Baptists, etc. other than the different ways in which they all adhere confessionally and theologically to the Reformation precept of sola Scriptura? But, of course, it is that adherence which distinguishes evangelicals from other forms of Christianity for the most part anyway, and the distinction has little to do with epistemology or even “doctrine.” I can’t think of one set of “doctrines” that define all, or even most, evangelicals. It’s not the Westminster or the Augsburg Confession or the Chicago Statement on inerrancy, although I’m sure there are quite a few evangelical theologians who are convinced to this day they’ve distilled the whole of evangelicalism with the Chicago statement. We’ve also got the issue of Pentecostals who consider themselves “evangelicals” (in my mind they are without question), though there are other denominations that deny it.

Of course all evangelicals subscribe to the ancient creeds, particularly the Nicene and the Chalcedonian, but so does Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy, and that of course begs your question. The bottom line, as Luther discovered half a millennium ago, is that you can’t ultimately “define” Christianity, let alone “evangelical” Christianity, “epistemically”. Epistemologies are time-bound and culture-bound. God’s reality, his promise, and his faithfulness are not. That’s why we have to keep going back to Scripture and read it faithfully in our own language and through our own cultural lenses so that the Spirit, as Augustine pointed out long ago, will reveal its timeless meaning at a particular moment in time.

As for the premise that Christianity is “incarnational”, that doesn’t need to be defended theologically and it certainly isn’t dependent on any “epistemology.” As Lamin Sanneh points out, it’s the very core of the Christian revelation, as the Fourth Gospel proclaims. As I’ve put it myself, the Christian revelation is not a text (otherwise, we might as well become Muslims); it is not a doctrine (otherwise, we evangelicals are far more Roman Catholic than we want to admit); it is a person. That’s what makes the Christian revelation unique. And as Christians we share in the death and resurrection, the “eternal life” of that person, who dwells or “tabernacles” with us wherever we go, wherever we are gathered together. Luther in The Freedom of a Christian, the most important and powerful Reformation tract ever written that more than any document perhaps does “define” evangelicalism, wrote that to be a Christian means that “we are Christs to each other” (the phrase I quote extensively in GloboChrist), he was merely boiling down the whole approach of sola Scriptura into an essential statement of what the Christian revelation really amounts to. The Christian revelation cannot be contained in a doctrine. The revelation is a relation.

Morehead's Musings: In your discussion of Islam and the idea of competing revelations with Christianity and its rapid growth in the Southern Hemisphere, you cite the "fatal attraction to contemporary consumer culture" that represents a great weakness for Western Christianity. Must it overcome its own "demons" in this area before it can hope to grapple adequately with the challenge of Islam?

Carl Raschke: Yes. Without doubt. The fatal attraction is of course even more fatal because we’ve made Christian practice and participation in the West a matter of consumer satisfaction. Bells and smells, or candles and sandals? Do you prefer electronic guitars and pastors with tattoos, or traditional hymns to a bellowing organ? No matter, we’ll package and customize your spiritual life in a manner that works for you and you’ll be comfortable with. “Seeker-friendly” really means user-friendly. That’s what I call “Burger King Christianity” after the hamburger chain’s famous slogan – “have it your way.” Of course, Jesus was the opposite of P.T. Barnum, whose motto was to give ‘em what they want. Unfortunately, the majority of churches in America these days aren’t much different from Barnum and Bailey circuses. Having it our way and having it God’s way is the simple difference between sheer idolatry and profound faith. Hopefully, the sudden collapse of the global consumer economy since I finished writing the book may be God’s wake-up call to all of us. We can’t have it our way necessarily any more.

Morehead's Musings: You state that one of the facets of global Christianity must be its "rhizomic" nature. Can you briefly define Gilles Deleuze's concept of the rhizome and how you see it as applicable to global Christianity?

Carl Raschke: Sure. I won’t use Deleuze’s philosophical language to explain the rhizome, but just think of an iris, which is a rhizome. If you plant iris bulbs one fall and several years later dig them up to transplant them, you will be amazed how all those “bulbs” are now a rapidly spreading and interlinked network of tubers that manifest above ground as an iris bed. The ginger plant is another classic example of a rhizome, and many of those weeds in your garden you can’t ever seem to “root out” because they are spreading everywhere beneath the soil have rhizomic properties. What distinguishes rhizomic growth from what Deleuze calls “arboreal” growth (i.e., roots and shoots) is that the rhizome does not depend on soil, moisture, and sunlight for growth as much as its own internal system of nourishment, which is usually underground In other words, all the parts are dependent on each other and nourish each other as they grow. The rhizome goes where it grows and grows where it goes. That’s why Paul’s “church planting” was so successful and why the early church grew so fast, despite intense persecution.

Western Christianity has lost its rhizomic relationality and “global” connectivity, which the early church had in abundance. Because cultures in the global south have adopted a church model that follows these trajectories of rhizomic relationality – actually, many of them, particularly in Africa, are just trading on natural kinship and extended family ties, but with a distinct difference – this “next Christendom,” as Jenkins terms it, is expansive and dynamic, while Western Christianity with its individualistic and “arboreal” culture of spiritual consumerism is slowly dying. Most churches in America are simply glorified mom-and-pop shops (“Jesus boutiques”) that cater to very local constituencies with their own spiritual tastes, which are constantly changing or becoming obsolete. They can’t, and won’t, survive the global changes that are already happening. Have you noticed that certain grasses – e.g., Bermuda grass, another rhizome – always survive droughts and winter kill, while arboreal forms perish?

We talk a lot about in Christianity about the “body of Christ,” which was Paul’s term, adapting for the early church the dominant political metaphor of his day for the interdependence of the different ethne or “nations” under the rule of Rome. The term “body of Christ” was simply a way of saying the risen Lord is now the true “head” of this vast and connected corpus, rather than Caesar. We don’t have a global empire any longer, Hardt and Negri’s book Empire aside. But we do have an interlinked and incredibly interdependent dynamic world linked through communications and diplomatic and trade relations. Animating those worldly relations with the relationality embodied in Christ – Christ not just “for me”, but “for each other” – is what the church of the twenty-first century has as its “postmodern” version of the Great Commission.

The church as Christ-rhizome, the GloboChrist. God’s great “iris bed” to come.

Morehead's Musings: Carl, thanks again for an engaging book, and for discussing it here. I hope it spawns more discussion.


Steve said...


Thanks for performing the interview. I've read Globo- and Next Reformation and "hearing" the author in this setting helps to further personalize and grasp those books. I have trouble understanding postmodernism and even more trouble communicating it to others despite my enthusiasm for it. This helps.

Matt Stone said...

Excellent interview. I'll have to get the book I think.