Monday, July 24, 2006

Not Engaging the Postmodern Soul

I picked up Walt Mueller’s Engaging the Soul of Youth Culture: Bridging Teen Worldviews and Christian Truth because I teach a class called Canadian Youth Culture at Tyndale. I’m always on the hunt for new text books because I’m not sure that my selection last time was perfect (Gordon Lynch’s Understanding Theology and Popular Culture, Niebuhr’s Christ and Culture and Adams Fire and Ice; the Lynch was good, the Niebuhr ok but the Adams didn't work the way I wanted it to). I needed something more evangelical. I needed something that was more directly related to youth culture and youth ministry in particular.

Mueller's latest doesn't exactly fit the bill either. It certainly is evangelical and Mueller is perhaps strongest when he is gracefully dealing with what he describes as the "bunker" mentality found in many evangelical/fundamentalist circles. I came across some of this bunker mentality in my class and I think that Mueller's response is both Biblical and helpful so I may assign that chapter near the start of the class. At the same time as Mueller's evangelicalism is a strength, he also has some of the weaknesses as well. He never develops a systematic theology but rather relies on some amorphous "Biblical worldview" as his touchstone for the Eternal Truth of the Gospel. I'm never sure what author's mean when they say a "Biblical worldview." The Bible does not present on particular worldview having been written over a thousand years in various places and in various genres. To reconcile Paul's epistles with the Deuteronimistic history and the prophets is very difficult if not impossible. What I think Mueller means by "Biblical worldview" are some very strongly held orthodox theological beliefs. That is, a "Biblical worldview" is really the Evangelical interpretation of the Bible but that interpretation is never given systematic definition.

This becomes a bigger problem when Mueller begins to interact with postmodernity. Correction Mueller doesn't actually interact with postmodernity. He interacts with postmodernity's evangelical detractors with a few supporters thrown in for good measure. If IVP, Zondervan, Eerdman's and a handful of other Christian presses disappeared (say in the rapture?), Mueller would have no one to quote. The 3 1/2 page bibliography contains about half a dozen books not published by a Christian press. Middleton and Walsh get some quote-time as does Stanley Grenz but unlike Mueller, these scholars actually engage primary postmodern sources. Not once that I could find does Mueller quote a postmodern philosopher or theologian, evangelical or otherwise. The irony is that Mueller puts forth Paul in Acts 17 as the prototype for cultural engagement but misses that Paul engaged with the philosophies of Athens not with the folk culture of Athens. I am quite glad that Mueller and his oft promoted Center for Parent/Youth Understanding know popular culture but I do not think that he can mistake Marilyn Manson for Derrida or Hoobastank for Stanley Grenz and John Franke. How can Mueller call the culture that youth grow up in today "postmodern" but never engage in serious debate with the sources of postmodern thought?

I'm still waiting to find a book that combines the best of cultural studies with a thorough going evangelical theological position. If there are any suggestions out there, feel free to post them.


Blogger Rev. John @ Clarkson said...


Have you ever read Tom Beaudoin's book Virtual Faith? I'm not sure if it's the kind of thing you're looking for, but it's certainly more food for thought. The only drawback, of course, is that he nails GenX fairly well, but falls down when it comes to the post-GenX cultures. However, there does seem to be a better engagement of postmodernism in it.

It's been a while since I've read it, but your post reminded me of it.

9:44 p.m., July 24, 2006  
Anonymous Walt Mueller said...

Blair - thanks for your critique. I think you have a good sense of who I'm addressing and the agenda I have through my approach. Believe it or not, I agree with you on your very accurate observation regarding my interaction with postmodern thinkers - or lack thereof - in the book. That said, don't equate that with a lack of interaction with those thinkers on my part elsewhere. Perhaps I can clarify my approach in the book. Paul's interaction with Athenian culture was with the roots and popular expressions of the paganism of his time - something he had to do because there was a basic understanding among the Athenians of those roots. In today's world, few people are consciously aware of their postmodern leanings. They haven't thought about postmodernism philosophically, nor have they made a conscious decision to embrace it. This is the way I see it with kids. They have adopted a philosophy/worldview that is pragmatically postmodern without any sense of its philosophical roots. (And, I still haven't met a true postmodern person in the pure sense.) In addition, the pop culture expressions of such are typically marked by the same rootless pragmatism. It is pragmatic postmodernism that I'm encouraging those in ministry to understand and address. In addition, I do think that at some point the philosophical roots of that type of thinking should be addressed as well. That was not the intent of my book, nor was it within the scope of the book (IVP actually cut half of the book before publication!). In fact, I've had conversations with folks in cutting-edge philosophy programs in the academy and many will quickly tell you that as a philosophy, postmodernism is passe. At a YS Convention last year I heard a Brit tell Tony Jones that everything Tony was putting forth was a "been there done that" proposition in the UK and that Tony was really behind the times. All that to say, my intent in the book was to give a simple explanation of pragmatic postmodernism that could be understood by readers.

I would encourage you to have your students read some primary sources, which will probably make their heads spin, but would be a healthy exercise nonetheless. In addition, have you heard of James Smith at Calvin College and his growing body of thought/writings on Radical Orthodoxy? Some very interesting and good stuff. He has a book out called "Who's Afraid of Postmodernism" which offers great interaction with primary sources.

Thanks for interacting with the book, and keep your students thinking.


Walt Mueller

8:32 a.m., July 27, 2006  
Anonymous Walt Mueller said...

Oops - forgot to mention another great book on worldview - one that basically changed my life - Al Wolters' "Creation Regained." And, your students would benefit from checking anything James Sire and David Naugle have written on worldview.

8:40 a.m., July 27, 2006  
Blogger blair said...


Thanks for your graceful response to my potentially ungraceful critique.

I can certainly see where you engage the pragmatic postmodernism of our time and agree that very few people know where some of the philosophical underpinnings lie. As far as that goes, you and the Center do a great job and I point my students in your direction when they need to analyze pop culture artifacts. (on that you may be interested in looking at the archives of this blog since many of the posts are my students interacting with pop culture from a Canadian perspective).

Perhaps, in light of your comments and thinking it over, my concern is with the emphasis that the evangelical community places on pragmatism as a whole, and even mores so American evangelicalism. Terms like "efficient" and "application" dominate our thinking whereas the theological underpinnings are more vague and unarticulated. I want my students to approach pop culture from a theological perspective not a pragmatic one and most of the tools that I find are rooted in the pragmatic. The audience of practicioners likely leads towards pragmatism but as an educator I'm interested in my students probing deeper.

For the record, I have done quite a bit of work with thinkers like Derrida, Foucault and Deleuze and I too am not convinced they have anything of substance to add. At the same time, their critiques are insightful and I still struggle to answer some of them. Grenz and Franke in Post-Foundational Theology start to answer them but they still seem to come back to foundations, something which I'm not sure that we as Christians can ever avoid when we believe that Christ is the Rock upon which all is built. Still, it is in the Grenz and Franke direction that I'm interested in thinking further because they are trying to offer a systematic engagement with postmodernism from a thoroughly evangelical perspective. Sadly, Grenz's passing cut short what was a great partnership.

The Brit folks critiquing Tony (who I confess is a friend of mine) are likely correct in saying that some of the Continental philosophy has become passe. A softer, less nihilistic postmodernism seems to have some potential and has developed in the US, so perhaps that is a direction to go. Tony's role seems to be that of gadfly and so he is used to taking it on the chin for the team.

As for the Radical Orthodoxy project, I'm aware of it through John Millbank and Catherine Pickstock. I met Millbank at a lecture and he got ripped by the folks that were there so I haven't pursued it much further. I'm now interested in James Smith and you will see him on my bedside reading list sometime soon. Thanks for the tip.

I have not read Wolter's before but everytime you quoted him I was reminded of Miroslav Volf's Work in the Spirit. Volf does quite a bit with an eschatalogical understanding of work which means that we are working with God towards the New Creation. Like Smith, you'll find Wolters on my list soon.

Once again, thanks for your continued work in engaging pop culture from a faithful perspective. Perhaps I can find some money in my budget to bring you to my class sometime.

10:02 a.m., July 27, 2006  
Blogger blair said...

John, I've read Beaudoin's book and it is good but has some weaknesses. First, I think it is a bit dated now. Second, I think you are correct in stating that the future relevance of Beaudoin's analysis is limited. He does engage post modernism (he was big at the time on Foucault) but the third problem with him is his ambigious theological commitments. The Gordon Lynch book I use incorporates some of Beaudoin's stuff and I list it on the bibliography but it is too much for the students to read for not a huge benefit.

On a personal note, hope everything is going well with your little one.

10:05 a.m., July 27, 2006  
Anonymous Walt Mueller said...

Blair - thanks for your thoughts. No apologies needed on your critique.

I share your concern regarding the emphasis on pragamatism, efficiency, and application in the church, particularly the American Evangelical Church. These are my roots and I confess a love/hate relationship here. I think the fruit of years of the church doing ministry without theological reflection is Christian Smith's label for something that's concerned me for a long time - a faith that's nothing more than theraputic, moralistic, deism.

If you go to our website ( and look at my blogs from 4/5 and 5/1 of this year you'll get a sense of just a few of my many misgivings. These blogs got me in big trouble with a megachurch pastor. I'm hoping to get some time to dig deeper on these things once I'm done with some writing that has to be completed by 8/31.

I'd love to some Canadians start a blog on their thoughts regarding American evangelicalism. Canadian's ability to look at us and see how ridiculous we are is one of many reasons why I love Canadians and I love coming to Canada. I remember watching the film "Air Force One" with Paul Robertson at his home in Toronto. He looked at me about halfway through the movie and said, "You AMericans are so self-absorbed!" Dead on. I followed up by becoming a huge fan of "Talking to Americans." Have you seen that?

10:14 a.m., July 27, 2006  
Blogger Rev. John @ Clarkson said...

Talking to Americans is one of the staples of Canadian Popular Culture... or at least it has been. Although I've always been curious as to how Americans would take it.

Blair, thanks for the feedback on Beaudoin's book. I feel a bit out of date, and am only starting to get back into reading some decent literature. Your reading list is most helpful, as is watching this discussion between you and Walt.

Personal note reply: Thanks for the concern and prayers. Megan is fine and has healed nicely.

12:01 a.m., July 28, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Bigoted Americans would be insulted, I think. I love the show. It captures our country's arrogant pride. I would love to see Canadians do a show called "Talking to Evangelical Americans." I'd even sign up to the be the producer of that one! How can American's think so highly of themselves???

8:10 a.m., July 28, 2006  
Anonymous Walt Mueller said...

Oops - I'm "anonymous."

8:11 a.m., July 28, 2006  
Blogger blair said...

Walt - I lived in the States for four years and showed some of my American friends the Talking to Americans pieces. They chuckled, sort of, and then put on South Park and belted out Blame Canada at the top of their lungs. I still love them, sort of.

9:38 p.m., August 10, 2006  

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