Changing Signs of Truth: Thinking about Postmodernism with Stan Grenz and Crystal Downing

I will always be indebted to InterVarsity Christian Fellowship (IVCF) for its culture of developing the Christian intellect. It isn’t that I had come from a brain-less community. My undergrad studies were rigorous, if anything my church culture had been too weighted on teaching and doctrine.

When I stumbled in the IVCF world, first as a volunteer and then as a staff member, it wasn’t that they thought more or harder about life, the universe, and everything. It was that they thought about these things while at the same time asking two key questions:

  1. How do we know the things we know?
  2. What can we learn from and inform culture?

I am still, fifteen years later, working on these two questions.

ford jesus for a new generationI encountered IVCF in the heady days of “Generation X” conversations. Though at first looked like a generational divergence from its parental norm, in the 1990s we began to understand that we were actually experiencing a revolution in the way we as a culture think about the world. I don’t remember exactly how that awakening occurred in me, but by the year 2000 I was using the word “Postmodern.”

And I meant it.

Even though GenX have slipped out of cultural interest, the movement of postmodernism is still very important.

One of those early resources was a little book by Stanley Grenz called A Primer on Postmodernism. I don’t know that I actually read this when it came out 20 years ago. It has sat on my bookshelf ever since with no creases in the binding. Recently I decided to pick it up.

I have been reading for the last couple of years some of the great minds that contribute to the postmodern conversation, such as Richard Rorty, Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, Ferdinand Saussure, Claude Lévi-Strauss, Stanley Fish, and the existentialists, including Camus, Sartre, and Nietzsche. These are incredibly difficult authors to work through. What they all have in common is that they are working out a new way of thinking about our relationship to “truth.” In the past—in the “modern” world—we have had an assumption that there is such a thing as reality or truth, and that we have reasonably good access to it. Postmodernism, built on the foundations of these thinkers but also emerging from our exploding, diversifying, digital world, pulls the rug from beneath these assumptions. It questions whether there is an ultimate reality or truth, and it doubts that we could know it anyway.

It’s pretty heady stuff, and it sounds completely upside down. If we can’t know reality, how can we assert that we can’t know? And if there is no ultimate truth, how can we say there isn’t in the first place? This conversation leaves some kernels in our teeth.

stanley grenz primer on postmodernismIn picking up A Primer on Postmodernism, it was intriguing to see how far I’ve come in understanding this shift in human understanding. In the 2nd through 6th chapters, Grenz slowly lays out the key philosophies of the modern and postmodern world. In particular, in ch. 6 he narrows in on Rorty, Foucault, and Derrida, giving postmodernism it best shot at being understood before critiquing it in ch. 7. Even now, 15 years later, I found that Grenz was helpful in phrasing some difficult things. Experts in each of these thinkers may quibble, and Grenz’ focus is narrow—just the question of postmodernism. It is in serious need of updating. But for people who are able to read and think at a university level it is still a great introduction.

Probably the best chapter is the first one, “Star Trek and the Postmodern Generation.” This short chapter is a very clever introduction to postmodernism at its simplest. It is a good resource for anyone, Christian or otherwise, in trying to grapple with shifting foundations in culture.

Even more than the ideas in the book itself, however, is how much it reminds me that I think the way I think not just because of philosophical choices, but because I am in the midst of a cultural shift. Ideas about truth, relationships, teaching style, writing, storytelling, and morality are all being formed in us by our culture as we wrestle with the ideas themselves.

red yellow green appleI’ll use teaching as an example. I refuse to pretend in the classroom that I am an unbiased observer to the material. I have shed off the modernist assumption that I can come to my subject matter—whether science or text or the human experience—and observe it without inserting my own belief into the experiment. So I don’t pretend with students. I tell them up front what my biases are, and then I ask them to critique both me and the material I present.

ERenewing the Centre- Evangelical Theology in a Post-Theological Eraven more than that, I am exploratory in my approach. I intend to deconstruct the patterns of thought we expect, and suggest no possibilities of viewing the world. My classes are not info-centric; they are student-centred. I am not downloading information to students; instead, I am inviting students into the story I am telling, allowing their stories to encounter mine, and then together we form a new narrative.

In all of this I am a “postmodern” teacher. I intend to be.

As I reread Grenz, though, I wonder how much I have really been successful in charting my own course, and how much I am bound by the riverbanks of thought in my world–as modern people before me were bound by theirs. It is a startling question, and I am grateful to Grenz for helping me think it through.

I met Stan Grenz only briefly, at the back of First Baptist Church in Vancouver. He died not long after, leaving his theological legacy unfinished.

As helpful as this little book is, the eager reader who wants to think more about these things will come up short. For students who want to follow up on Grenz’ work, his Renewing the Centre: Evangelical Theology in a Post-Theological Era lays a foundation for how to do Christ-centred thinking in a postmodern era. It is only the beginning of this project, but it is an important work that hints at the deeper currents in North American Baptist thought that is not caught well in media sound bytes.

crystal downing postmodernism serves my faithA second resource I would recommend is Crystal Downing. I would start with How Postmodernism Serves (My) Faith: Questioning Truth In Language, Philosophy And Art. It is an IVPress book, and fairly approachable. I first met Crystal at a conference when someone made a comment about “our postmodern world,” equating it with an attack on faith. Crystal kindly suggested that the postmodern world offers us a tremendous advantage in embracing Christian faith. This book works that tremendous truth out for introductory readers.

Her real gem, though, is Changing Signs of Truth: A Christian Introduction to the Semiotics of Communication. It is a little more challenging, putting her argument into a philosophical and literary context. Crystal plays with the idea of “signs.” crystal downing signs of truthWords are symbols of thoughts, and we are always creating and using symbols in our speech. Crystal shows us not just how those symbols are shifting in this new age, but how we can “re-sign”—communicate in today’s language.

As a critic of culture and Christian thinker, Stanley Grenz helps me get started in the conversation with our contemporary world. Crystal Downing’s work, however, takes it to the next level. For those who are able to receive its truth, Downing shows the tremendous opportunities we have as faith-sharers, intentional teachers, and loving neighbours to tell our story in authentic ways.

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About Brenton Dickieson

“A Pilgrim in Narnia” is a blog project in reading and talking about the work of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the worlds they touched. As a "Faith, Fantasy, and Fiction" blog, we cover topics like children’s literature, apologetics and philosophy, myths and mythology, fantasy, theology, cultural critique, art and writing. This blog includes my thoughts as I read through Lewis and Tolkien and reflect on my own life and culture. In this sense, I am a Pilgrim in Narnia--or Middle Earth, or Fairyland. I am often peeking inside of wardrobes, looking for magic bricks in urban alleys, or rooting through yard sale boxes for old rings. If something here captures your imagination, leave a comment, “like” a post, share with your friends, or sign up to receive Narnian Pilgrim posts in your email box. Brenton Dickieson is a father, husband, friend, university lecturer, and freelance writer from Prince Edward Island, Canada. You can follow him on Twitter, @BrentonDana.
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18 Responses to Changing Signs of Truth: Thinking about Postmodernism with Stan Grenz and Crystal Downing

  1. L.A. Smith says:

    Really interesting, thank you. I will add those books to my ever-growing list. It’s so important to step back once and awhile and try to discern the times in which we live. Especially as Christians, for too often we get stuck in our own little bubbles and completely ignore what is happening in the larger context of our society. Which does not do us any good, and ultimately makes our message utterly irrelevant. Great food for thought!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I also recommend Crystal Downing’s excellent book on Dorothy L. Sayers, entitled Writing Performances!

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  3. Steve says:

    Very interesting. I don’t think I’ve read any of those books. My spur to investigating postmodernity and postmodernism was David Bosch’s book Transforming mission (1991). I’ve said something about it here, if you are interested Postmodernity, mission and Orthodoxy | Khanya.

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  4. sdorman2014 says:

    checking for satire at the IVCF site…and finding nothing so far. i tried to introduce the subject on an agency blog by sending them an email question, as per the link on their site for such questions. no activity on that so far. i hope those publishing will approach the subject of satire some time, even publish some of it. have been reading Terry Lindvall’s 2 books on the subject but seems like that’s about it. (he is thorough though.) is anyone having this conversation, blogging or otherwise? one selling point mentioned in descriptive material about Lindvall’s book is that the subject is “dangerous.” my scare quotes must work in at least two directions here. and in what way does it relate to postmodernity? it has been there for modernity of course. does it differ?

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    • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

      I had fun working on Donne’s satires as a graduate student, as well as looking at Chaucer’s Hous of Fame as ‘comic teaching’. (And Fielding’s Tom Jones, as an undergraduate, come to that.) There has been a lot of Christian satire – and varieties of humorous writing including some pretty fierce and ‘dark’ stuff – Dorothy L. Sayers saw a lot of both in Dante (a controversial analysis, I discovered as a graduate student, and noted again in one of Lewis’s recently republished reviews), while Williams seems to see it in some Dominical sayings in the Gospels! I don’t know how surveyable it would be, but it could be a very interesting subject attempted.

      Liked by 1 person

      • sdorman2014 says:

        So far in Lindall’s satire book the best chapters for me are one and five. “Circumcised Satirists,” and “Reformers and Fools.” Your examples are covered and contextualized in God Mocks. (Sayers and Williams are not mentioned, according to the Index).

        I don’t understand the reference: “Dominical sayings and the Gospels”. Any light on this for me?

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        • I think “dominical sayings” means things that Jesus said–at least on the pronouncement level. My undergrad biblical studies teacher did his thesis on hilarity in the gospels. Humour is a little broader than satire. The beattitudes, for example, are inversions–meant to catch us up short, turn our expectations around, like a good joke. Humour is inversive, and satire is a poignant version of that.
          Were you first concerned that IVP doesn’t have a book on satire?

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          • sdorman2014 says:

            “Were you first concerned that IVP doesn’t have a book on satire?”

            maybe a book of satire itself? is it considered dangerous by publishers like Concordia, Baker, Zondervan, InterVarsity Press, Thomas Nelson, Eerdmans, Ignatius and others? plus, agencies don’t seem interested in tackling the issue of satire for publication on their blogs. would you write satirical novels? (That form would be too long for me.)

            thanks for answering my question. i’m understanding the sermon on the mt. a bit better. 🙂 i will have to ask David about the Williams aspect.

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            • I see your point. Of course, I’m the wrong person to ask: I write what I write, and have sold almost nothing (a few magazine articles). I would write satire, but I’m not sure I’m clever enough.

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              • sdorman2014 says:

                the practice might be worth trying in order to find out.

                Are you the wrong person to ask … to start a conversation about this topic relevant to CSL? would he think it dangerous for these publishers for instance? i think i’m being overbold, but forgive? could it be a topic you might consider here in a post later — when your other responsibilities recede a bit? i know you are colossally busy now.

                …maybe … maybe publishers you have blogged about would be interested in such a conversation. or also, if love is a fit at Signum…what about satire? i was never able to travel far with Gulliver by myself. (is that what’s called a non sequitur?)

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              • This is an interesting discussion.
                First, on publishers I can say nothing at all. I don’t know any, and right now isn’t a good time to be coming out with Lewis stuff at all. Another couple of years when I have a book ready, hopefully the market recovers. I don’t know that any publishers are peaking in to my blog, but some publicists are–I get requests from them to review books. I don’t know why satire would be a dangerous topic for nonfiction publishers, but I don’t know how it sells (after about 2005 it seems to have disappeared).
                On Signum, there might be a place for satire in the future. I don’t know, and won’t be on the rotation for a new lecture series there for 3 years or so. Sam Joeckel is a C.S. Lewis scholar who has done some thinking about humour and satire, I’d encourage you to check it out.
                Where it would fit in my work is in my “theology of the small”–the idea that Lewis, Tolkien, and others use unlikely heroes, the unwise and the small and unskilled, to do the great jobs. That upside-down approach, I think, has the same roots as the sermon on the mount that you pointed out–the inversiveness that gives satire its punch.

                Liked by 1 person

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