Reviewed by Christopher Benson
The Messenger Is the Message
We roam the global village as Alice roamed the chessboard in Through the Looking-Glass: pawns bewildered at every turn. The word "postmodernism" appears backwards, like the poem "Jabberwocky." Even when we hold it up to a mirror, the concept remains slippery. Alice responds to the poem in the same way we respond to postmodernism: "Somehow it seems to fill my head with ideas—only I don't exactly know what they are! However, somebody killed something: that's clear, at any rate." Modernity, we surmise, was killed, and its murderers are still fugitives.
Carl Raschke is our Humpty Dumpty, perspicaciously interpreting the "postmodern moment" in GloboChrist, the third volume in Baker Academic's series, The Church and Postmodern Culture. Whereas the first two books in the series, James K. A. Smith's Who's Afraid of Postmodernism? and John D. Caputo's What Would Jesus Deconstruct?, offered textual exegesis of postmodern thinkers to correct stubborn misunderstandings and to show resonance with the Christian tradition, Raschke's book offers cultural exegesis to clarify the church's missional task in a global age. An early explorer of the intersection between Continental philosophy and theology, author of The Next Reformation: Why Evangelicals Must Embrace Postmodernity, Raschke serves as chair of religious studies at the University of Denver.
While too many Christians are tiresomely proclaiming that they are pro- or anti-postmodernism, crudely defining the heterogeneous concept, Raschke steps out of the impasse by announcing what should be obvious: "a dramatic global metamorphosis." Instead of wrangling over the "uncounted usages and syntactical peculiarities" of a word, he rightly claims: "Becoming postmodern means that we all, whether we like it or not, are now going global, which is what that obscure first-century sect leader from Palestine truly had in mind."
This book is directed to American evangelicals with the purpose of awakening them to "a pivot in world history that seems as unprecedented as the transformation of Caesar's realm during the first three centuries of the common era. That change came through the strange and distinctly un-Roman cult from Palestine centering on the crucifixion and resurrection of a mysterious nobody now known to history as Jesus of Nazareth."
Political scientists, cultural critics, economists, and sociologists have their own theories to account for today's change. Censuring the timidity of Western élites, Raschke asserts that the change agent is—hold your breath—Christ, who has been "subtly shaping and directing human history towards its consummation through the ages." After the Cold War, Raschke reminds us, futurists envisioned a "new neoliberal millennium" where peace, free markets, and technological progress would occasion worldwide democracy and prosperity. Unexamined ethnocentrism resulted in the prediction that Westernization would entail secularization. Today Francis Fukuyama and Thomas Friedman are eating humble pie. The world is not flat, but it is becoming anti-Western and post-secular. Raschke commends the dissenting foresight of French philosopher Jacques Derrida, who spoke about a "return of religion," and American political scientist Samuel Huntington, who posited the famous thesis about "the clash of civilizations." They helped reveal the "fraudulent utopianism" in the West.
Struggle—Raschke disconcertingly insists—will mark the future, not solidarity. Ethnic separatism, mass migration, feminism, gay liberation, economic oligarchy, Islamofascism, and genocide chasten our unbridled confidence, so much so that a recovering utopian like Richard Rorty confessed "it seems absurdly improbable that we shall ever have a global liberal utopia."
Globalization has a dual power to erode and empower particular identities. The fall of Christendom in Europe and North America contrasts sharply with the rise of Christendom in China, Africa, India, and Latin America. The church is uniquely "glocal," simultaneously global and local. Raschke observes three characteristics of GloboChristianity that buttress Protestantism more than Catholicism or Orthodoxy: decentralization, deinstitutionalization, and indigenization (the process by which the universal is comprehended in the particular). Remembering that "Incarnation is translation," in the words of missiologist Andrew Walls, we should not fear that indigenizing the gospel will relativize the gospel: "Christianity," Raschke maintains, "has no culture itself but belongs to all cultures."
Obeying the Great Commission in the global cosmopolis does not involve a mission trip to "lost peoples at the margins of civilization"; the margins have become mainstream, while the mainstream has become marginalized. Nor does it involve sophisticated marketing campaigns. We make disciples of all nations as the pre-Constantinian church did in the face of "daunting and promiscuous pluralism": through incarnational ministry, being "little Christs" to the neighbor; through contextualization of the message, speaking the idiom of the neighbor; and through relevance, hearing the needs of the neighbor. Raschke adds that relevance should not be confused with the prosperity gospel, "seeker-sensitive" ministry, the "hipper than thou" emergent church movement, the social gospel redux, or "bobo" (bohemian bourgeois) culture. Relevance is radical relationality.
Revising Marshall McLuhan's claim that "the medium is the message," Raschke argues that the messenger (Christ) is the message. Living in the time between times, we are acting in the role of the messenger, as the mystic Teresa of Avila recorded in her prayer: "Christ has no body now but yours. No hands, no feet on earth but yours. Yours are the eyes through which he looks compassion on this world."
For his understanding of globalization in the light of the gospel, Raschke has drawn on a wide variety of sources: political scientist Benjamin Barber, historian Philip Jenkins, Middle Eastern scholar Bernard Lewis, and Pope Benedict XVI are represented here; so too the "ideological architect of jihadism," Sayyid Qutb, and political philosophers Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri. What emerges from these insights is an ominous feeling—related to "the looming clash … between the two historico-religious tectonic plates that comprise Christian and Islamic visions of justice and the end times"—and a "hope against hope" that behind the realities of globalization there is a mysterious power at work.
GloboChrist ought to be regarded as an essential postscript to Lesslie Newbigin's The Gospel in a Pluralistic Society. Raschke is at his best when he assumes the prophetic mantle, judging the Western evangelical church for "whoring after the false gods of spiritual and material consumption"; uncovering how the religious left is just "a fun-house mirror of the religious right"; questioning if Islamism is "an understandable reaction against the global overreach of the pax Americana"; chiding fundamentalists for idolatrously substituting an "eighteenth-century propositional rationality for the biblical language of faith"; pleading for the Emergent Village to stop replaying "the modernist-fundamentalist debates of a century ago"; and exhorting postmodern Christians to overcome their passivity and "privatized sentimentality" with a witness that possesses "the ferocity of the jihad and paradoxically also the love for the lost that Jesus demonstrated."
In the film Dogma, Cardinal Glick launches a campaign called "Catholicism Wow!" and replaces the wretched image of the crucifix with the happy-go-lucky image of Buddy Christ. Neither image will suit the future, only the powerful image of GloboChrist—who brings the "clash of revelations" to a fever pitch and who subverts the triumphal secularity of the West with the humble Christianity of the South.
Christopher Benson's reviews have appeared recently in Modern Reformation, The Christian Scholar's Review, and several other publications.
Copyright © 2009 by the author or Christianity Today/Books & Culture magazine.
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