Wednesday, November 14, 2007

"What Would Jesus Deconstruct?" Reviewed and "Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism?" Revisited

John D. Caputo’s What Would Jesus Deconstruct? The Good News of Postmodernism for the Church (2007) is the second in Baker Academic’s The Church and Postmodern Culture series.

The first (James K.A. Smith’s [2006] Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism?) was a good introduction to three postmodern “bumper stickers” (“there is nothing outside the text,” “incredulity towards metanarratives,” and “power is knowledge”) – and I used a few of his filmic vehicles to explain postmodernism to undergraduates in a lecture on postmodern christologies – but it failed in its attempt to convince me that ‘a “radical orthodoxy” is the only proper outcome of the postmodern critique’ (2006:25; my emphases) and that, in the last chapter especially, applied Radical Orthodoxy is the only appropriate outcome for the “emerging church.”

To begin with, Smith never addresses other possible theological and ecclesiological outcomes of the postmodern critique in order to argue for the supremacy of Radical Orthodoxy (or perhaps, rather the “out-narration” of other possibilities by Radical Orthodoxy). Secondly, when we reach the last chapter, we’re left with the thought: this is the emerging church???!!!???

While I agree that ‘what the emerging church is reacting against is a deep, hurtful experience of sectarianism [and] the antidote to this is a generous orthodoxy and healthy catholicity’ (2006:132), when this is translated into a ‘radically orthodox church’ experience in the last few pages, I’m not sure this looks much like the emerging Christian communities that I’ve been exploring for the last few years.

Much more relevant to the experiences of those I’ve been interviewing and observing, Caputo’s What Would Jesus Deconstruct? gives more voice to doubt than to orthodoxy. At heart, this book is a call (kletos) to deconstruction through an exposition of the above phrase. Caputo argues that there is a deeply deconstructive event that ‘stirs within the figure of Jesus’ (2007:26), and that deconstruction is the hermeneutics of the kingdom of God, a kingdom which he has described elsewhere as a ‘kingdom without kingdom’ (The Weakness of God).

“What Would Jesus Do?” ‘…what Jesus does, is deconstruct’ (2007:30), and with this presentation of deconstruction comes a plethora of correlatives: hyperrealism, undecidability, destinerrancy (possibly my favourite Derridean neologism at the moment!), vocation, theo-poetics, weakness, justice, the impossible, gift, forgiveness, hospitality, and love. This book is a call to deconstruct the name of God / Jesus / Church / Kingdom in order to release the event that stirs within these names.

Caputo’s work has lots of resonances with my study. Not least, his understanding of truth as a name which needs to be similarly deconstructed in order to release the event of truth: ‘“truth” means what is trying to come true, which points to our responsibility to make it actually come true’ (2007:61). For Augustine and Derrida truth means ‘facere veritatem, doing or making the truth’ happen (2007:134).

Similar to the format of Smith’s first volume, What Would Jesus Deconstruct?’s last chapter considers the future of the church, through John McNamee’s (1993) Diary of a City Priest and Pete Rollins’ (2006) How (Not) to Speak of God – the title of which you’ll understand a lot more after Caputo’s previous explanation of the step/not (pas) (2007:42ff). Two very different texts, both with a lot to say about the place of doubt, of uncertainty, of the impossible. As Caputo writes, ‘faith is impossible, the impossible; one is called on to have faith in a world in which it is impossible to believe anything… Doubt as the condition of faith, not its opposite, making faith possible as (the) im/possible’ (2007:121).

Maybe my reading of this book in a day and my reviewing of it only a few more later mean that I’m currently too close to the text to treat it as I have Smith’s Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism?, but I can at least ask the same question of Caputo’s final chapter: Is this the emerging church???!!!???

From my memory, and from the book’s index, Caputo only uses the term “emergent” once, and “emerging” never. So maybe this question isn’t a fair one. The two communities described by Caputo are very different – McNamee’s St Malachy’s is ‘an institution that struggles against institutionality; Ikon is hardly an institution at all’ (2007:129) – as are the texts and their authors, though postmodernism’s ‘tropes and movements are everywhere at work’ in both (2007:129). And I am growing in my conviction that Ikon is not an “emerging church,” as that term is communally defined, used, and understood – despite the clear resistance involved here.

Nevertheless, the book’s forward is written by Brian McLaren. ’Nough said?... or is it?

However, I haven’t found the number of instant reviews of What Would Jesus Deconstruct? among “emerging church” bloggers that I was expecting . Maybe you can point me in that direction if I’m not looking in the right places? Or, maybe, this (positive) text is going to take a while to seep into the collective “emerging church” conscious, in contrast to the (negative) texts which seem to be read by everyone as soon as humanly possible and debated hotly (for example, John MacArthur's recent critical contribution).

Finally, I love Caputo’s (Eckhartian) emphasis on Jesus’ prayer, Eloi Eloi, lama sabachthani as the ‘perfectly auto-deconstructing prayer: it is addressed to God – which presupposes our faith that we are not abandoned – and asks why God has abandoned us’ (2007:127). I love that.


Paul said...

thanks for the review - i've ordered the book off the back of it so if i don't like i'll have to blame you ;)

Katharine Moody said...

I think I should be pretty safe, then! Enjoy it! And let me know what you think? x

Anonymous said...


i confess that i have just read this book - a few comments.

Caputo indulges in the depessingly familiar 'bash the Christian right'
rhetoric as so many emergent Christians do. Satan is no longer the devil but George Bush is!! perhaps one day we can get past all this

Jesus called Christians to love both God and man - the transcendental dimension of loving God implies a sense of connection/experience/relationship with the mystery of God in prayer,worship,actions etc. This essential, central aspect of the gospel is completely missing in the book. ( God becomes a sort of irrevelant unknown black hole)

The church and pomo site is going to do a review of the book.

I decided to end my blogfast!!

Hope things go well in your research.

The religion without religion skeptic

Katharine Moody said...

Hi again, glad you ended your fast.

I think it's hard for many people (both within and outside of emerging Christian communities) to 'get past' the way the Christian Right positions itself on many issues. Remember, though, that the political left hasn't got everything right, either. And both these (and all other) positions need to be deconstructed.

And I have several questions along a similar vein to your comments about the practical aspects of a relationship with God when God is understood as an event rather than as an entity. In particular, I'm interested in what prayer might look like in this context.

The fact that Caputo seems to bracket out these concerns in What Would Jesus Do? is more to do with the premise of the book than with his possible disinterest in issues of this kind.