How Far Should We Take Literary Criticism?

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In class this past Thursday, we gritted our teeth and headed into the world of poststructuralism.  One of our introductory articles to the school was Jacques Derrida’s article, “Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences.”  I don’t think I am exaggerating when I say that the majority of the class felt overwhelmed by the article or the idea of poststructuralism.  While I did find his article to be extremely complex, I did my best to remain positive about the school.  During Ellen’s enlightening presentation, many students expressed their frustration at poststructuralism’s circular nature of non-meaning.  Katie expressed her concern that it could seep into other areas of one’s life besides literature.  After all, many of us hold a strong opinion about what “truth” is and if it exists.  I like to think Derrida did not truly believe that there is no purpose in life, but instead that he was challenging us to question texts.  He wants us to look at literature in its entirety, not avoiding contradictions or complexity, yet still having some point.  After all, his essay had some final goal or point to it. 

Closely related to poststructuralism (although not exactly the same thing according to Wiki) is postmodernism.  My focus of this blog is not to explain the differences between the two, nor is my knowledge sufficient enough on this topic to attempt this endeavor.  I simply wish to explain the logic which brought me to the topic which is the subject of this blog.  The discussion in class about how far to take poststructuralism lead me to consider how postmodern philosophy has been addressed recently as it relates to religion in light of the fact that Seton Hill is a Catholic University.

I think one of the first ideas to consider is what modernism is versus postmodernism.  After all, we first learned what structuralism was before we learned poststructuralism.  Basically modernism, according to Ross P. Rohde, says that “the measure of all things is man and that man can fully understand his world through science and reason.”  The picture I get in my mind when I think of such a person is Spock.  The logically driven Vulcan searching for the sensical explanation.  The problem with modernism though, as Rohde points out is that it does not ask such questions as: “Where do I come from? What is the meaning of life?”

Postmodernism is an alternative to this reasoning, Rohde explains it: “For a postmodern, rational thinking and science, emotion, tradition, intuition and community are all equally helpful for understanding our world.”  So in this sense postmodernism seems to be the preferable option, after all, look at all these different types of thought it encompasses.  It seems like it would lead to a more balanced and broadminded perception.  However, there is an unfortunate hitch.  Postmodernism (like poststructuralism) rejects the idea of a solid “truth,” which leads to potential lack of purpose or meaning.  As  R.C. Sproul points out, “And there we are on a collision course with the New Testament understanding of truth.”  So how does one deal with the fact that “In postmodern terms, wrong and right are not real categories” (Let’s)? As in most controversial topics, there are three general responses: acceptance, rejection, and a middle ground between the two.    

The first thing I actually watched/read about the topic was an interview with R.C. Sproul, Al Mohler, and Ravi Zacharias.  For those who are unfamiliar with these three people: R.C. Sproul is actually from this area, he was born in Pittsburgh and does a lot in the Ligonier area, he is a Calvinist minister.  Al Mohler is a Southern Baptist theologian and minister.  And Ravi Zacharias is a Christian apologist.  All three of them are well-known and influential.  Despite their denominational differences, all three of them are strongly against postmodern ideals.  If you’re curious you can watch the YouTube video of their interview, but there are three comments they made that I thought were the most important.   

  • Ravi Zacharias pondered: “Were they bored with God, what brought this about?” 
  • R.C. Sproul opined: “The problem is we have noncritical people listening to this stuff and they absorb it.”
  • Lastly, Al Mohler stressed: “It [postmodernism] is the abdication of Christian responsibility…it is an abdication of Christian conviction, and it is a cave-in of Christian courage.  We do have an answer.  And it’s not like we don’t know what it is.” 

Next, there are those who lie somewhere in the middle.  For example, Rohde does not rule out postmodernism completely, but instead makes a distinction between “postmodern sensitive churches" and "postmodern churches".  Postmodern sensitive churches are those that while not rejecting all of postmodernism’s ideas, still maintain a strong scriptural basis.  Postmodern churches on the other hand, Rohde says “have failed to distinguish those aspects of postmodernism that clash with the biblical worldview.”  He continues on in his article to champion postmodern sensitive churches. 

Lastly, there are those, most notable being Brian McLaren, who have created “emergent/emerging churches.”  These churches accept postmodernist thought.  They allow people who have problems with institutionalized religion to maintain a sort of organized spirituality.  Interestingly, the idea actually spread largely through blogging and was meant to prevent frustrated people from giving up on religion as a whole.  A documentary on PBS showed members of these nondenominational emergent churches gathered on couches in a circle instead of in pews to encourage dialogue.  There are typically no sermons, the focus is on discussions, “worship is participatory and multi-sensory.”  It allows people to “pick your own mix.”  And they want people to wrestle with theological ideas instead of just accepting them.   

So there is a brief run-down of this un-going debate.  This debate about postmodernism’s relation to/incorporation into religion poses us, as students of literary criticism with a challenging question.  How far do we take these schools of criticism?  They are certainly lenses which allow us to see and analyze in new ways, but how much or how little do we want to carry these lenses into other parts of our lives? 


Works Cited

 Emergent Church movement PBS Religion and Ethics News Weekly. 27 Nov. 2007. YouTube. 6 Apr. 2009 <>.

Let's Talk Post-Modernism and the Emergent Church... With R.C. Sproul, Al Mohler, and Ravi Zacharias. 17 Nov. 2007. YouTube. 6 Apr. 2009.  <>.

McKnight, Scot. "Five Streams of the Emerging Church." Christianity Today. 19 Jan 2007. Christianity Today. 6 Apr 2009. <>.

Rohde, Ross. "Practical Considerations for Postmodern Sensitive Churches." Facing the Challenge. 2000. Focus. 6 Apr 2009. <>.

Other Websites You Might Want to Check Out

  • Website for Ligonier Ministries founded by R.C. Sproul. 

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