“Postmodern” is a dirty word for Christians. In many parts of Christendom, it is associated with relativism, individualism and the jettisoning of tradition for the sake of the new or kitsch (sometimes justifiably so from personal experiences).
But as James KA Smith cogently suggested in his Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism: Taking Derrida, Lyotard & Foucault to Church, postmodernism can actually be a counterpoint for the deeply modern committments of many Christians, be they Neo-cons or even those who think they are maintaining Christian tradition merely by sticking with traditional lines of thought. Indeed, postmodernism can actually provide the idiom to the recovery of the ancient treasures of the Church in a way that is not assured either by liberal or seemingly conservative factions.
An example given by Matthew Tan at a Formal Hall presentation at Campion College this week was the deconstructive project of Jacques Derrida and the power of Scripture and the Liturgy. With all the enthusiasm with deconstruction as such, what often gets ignored in Derrida’s project is the notion of treating the text as a subject rather than an object. If a text is treated as an object, it is often treated as something to be controlled, something whose meaning is sucked out by the reader for his own purposes. At the risk of oversimplification, if a text is treated as a subject however, the reader treats the text as if it was another person. As a subject, the text would be resistant to the readers attempts to control and indeed “push back” against the reader, so much so that in the process of reading, the reader could actually become read by the text just as much as the reader is reading the text. This decentering of the reader becomes one of the buttresses of the deconstructive project, where Derrida hopes to bring into the center of the reader’s attention marginalised voices – migrants, the colonised and women to name a few – voices that could be rendered mute from conventional frameworks of meaning.
Such themes may seem so foreign to Christian practice as to be worthy of nothing but indifference, if not scorn, but is such a treatment called for. Why is the notion of the “text as subject” so foreign when, in the reading of Scripture, what we should be coming to know is not a set of rules, but the person of Jesus, the subject to end all subjects? After all, was it not Jesus himself who on the road to Emmaus, explained to the disciples in the Scriptures “all things concerning himself” (Luke 24:27)?
Thus, the reading of scripture is the reading of Jesus. The reading of Scripture is also at the same time a call by Jesus to co-abide in Him (John 15:7). Is the process of co-abiding in Jesus not a transformative one for the one abiding, as St. John of the Cross indicated in his Dark Night of the Soul? If so, why can this not be a deconstructive process? In the process of reading the Scriptures, what gets deconstructed is not the text, but the reader. The reading of scripture is deconstructive because it brings a marginalised voice to the center, the voice of Jesus Christ. For if we are really honest, who can really say for certain that it is voice of Christ at the centre of one’s life in the world? Can we be certain that it is not the voice industry, commerce and power posing as Christ? Christ did caution us against false Christs who speak in his name, claiming “I am He” (Luke 21:8).
In this bringing of Christ back to the centre, what gets deconstructed in the reader is the false sense of self. For if we think we are sure of ourselves, suggests Augustine, it is a sure sign of a false self. In the embrace of Christ, elements of a false self fall away – be it the self that thinks he is sure of himself, the self that thinks he is better than others, or the self that thinks that he is right before God.
But a Christian deconstruction goes beyond Derrida’s version, in that while the idols of a false self fade away in the illumination by Christ, that same illumination does not obliterate the self. Rather, deconstruction in the light of Christ brings to light the true self, the self that manifests the imago Dei. As the marginalised voice of Jesus becomes louder in the reading of Scripture, we are reminded of not only what we are, but what we are called to be, nothing less than a part of the Body of the Risen Christ.
Postscript: Australian readers might be interested to know that James KA Smith will be presenting a series of lectures at New College in the University of New South Wales between 22nd and 26th May on the theme “Imagining the Kingdom: On Christian Action”. For details, please click here.