Peter J. Leithart’s latest book, Solomon among the Postmoderns, is a gem.
The anti-postmodern backlash among conservative evangelicals has centered on the contradiction-ridden epistemology of postmodernism, and with good reason. That is one of the central threats of postmodernism, and the thoughtless ignorance of most postmoderns about their own basic epistemological contradictions (e.g., “Metanarratives are dead”) also constitutes one of postmodernism’s chief weaknesses.
Liethart, however, largely bypasses this issue for another, very edifying, set of considerations, to wit: modernism was and is idolatry. The central tenet of modernism is that we can understand and control our world, down to the last molecule. All we lack is sufficient research and know-how…and we’re getting closer all the time. In biblical terms: all our frantic productions are not grasping for the wind.
But Solomon’s God will not be mocked: all things under the sun are vapor after all, and it is this fact that the postmoderns press to the hilt. In this way, Leithart suggests, postmodernism is largely a rebellion against modernism’s idolatry. This understanding of postmodern thought offers a double rebuke: first, to the Christians who act as if the rejection of modernist certainties is, in itself, the whole problem, and second, to the postmoderns, who in their vaunted position as the cutting edge of pagan thought have finally caught up with what God’s people knew in 900 B.C.
Okay, not quite. God’s people also knew that fearing God and keeping His commandments is man’s all — something the postmoderns are avoiding like the plague by substituting one idolatry for another. If I have a major frustration with this book, it is that Leithart does not really offer a comprehensive response at this point. However, he is not trying to.
I said in the introduction that I wanted to offer a “stance” rather than an “agenda,” and I’m sticking with that plan. The stance is simple to describe: it is the stance Solomon recommends in Ecclesiastes, a stance of faith, joy, and worship. In the midst of the postmodern mist and vapor, Christians are called to be Christians.
So begins his last chapter, which articulates this stance in a mere four and a half pages. I wanted more…a lot more. However, in his terse articulation of a “stance” instead of a full-blown “agenda,” Leithart follows the example of a master teacher: Solomon. We could do much worse.
Self-contradiction is not the sort of thing that can be determined from an external perspective; it is not enough to see something like “all married men are bachelors” and thereby find self-contradiction because meaning is not in the form of the text itself but in the intent of the writer. That said, I hesitate to declare self-contradiction.
Otherwise, a very helpful review. Thanks!
Thanks for your kind words.
Granting that the intent of the author matters enormously, that doesn’t confer a right to use words just any way one wishes in a communicative act. Loving your neighbor extends to giving some attention to the shared meaning of words; Humpty Dumpty notwithstanding, “That’s glory for you” does not mean just anything that one says it means.
When the author says, “But I meant ____,” there’s a point at which he is no longer assigning meaning to his previously spoken words; he is just confessing his authorial ineptitude. A non-contradictory rendering of “All married men are bachelors” would seem to fall into this category.