Tuesday, October 31, 2006

AT: Say Something

Charis Connection is happy to welcome Ann Tatlock to our group of contributors!

Several years ago, I attempted to read a critically acclaimed novel published by a large secular house. About a third of the way through, I gave up. I simply could not figure out the purpose for the story, or even what it was about. It seemed like nonsense, because it made no sense.
Thinking I’d glean some insight by checking out the readers’ comments on Amazon, I discovered the book was being touted as a postmodern novel.

I had no idea what that meant. So I began to do some research. What I learned, briefly and in broad strokes, is this: In postmodern literature, the author isn’t saying anything. More accurately, the author can’t say anything. In a culture where absolutes are lost and everything is relative, even words no longer have intrinsic meaning. A text may mean one thing to the author, but sure as one man’s tree is another man’s god, that same text is going to mean something entirely different to the reader. Every reader.

Out with the old rule for literature: The author is saying something. In with the new rule for postmodern literature: You, the reader, have to decide what the text is saying to you.

This is one more lie that our postmodern culture is trying to feed us, right up there with the classic: “It doesn’t matter what you believe, as long as you are sincere.”

Nope. It doesn’t work that way. It does matter what a person believes. There is such a thing as absolute truth. And words do have meaning that can be universally understood.

Recently my writers critique group considered the work of a fledgling author. We read her first
chapter, and then she gave us her general outline for the novel.

After silently considering what appeared to be a series of events held together by chewing gum and seemingly going nowhere, one of the women in the group said as kindly as she could, “So what’s your point?” I chimed in with, “You need a theme.”

A story tells us what happened. A theme lets us know why we should care.

The theme is the abstract idea--philosophical, theological, humanistic, moral--that the author is trying to portray using the vehicle of fictional events. Maybe it’s suffering and redemption, as with Dostoyevsky’s “Crime and Punishment.” Or hypocrisy, guilt and revenge, as with Hawthorne’s “The Scarlet Letter.” Or maybe the author is exploring angst or absurdity or alienation, as Camus does in “The Stranger.” (What else do you expect existentialists to write about?)

The human condition offers us a multitude of themes. Happily, when we see the world from the Christian point of view, those themes are beautiful: hope, faith, truth, perseverance, forgiveness, restoration. The list goes on.

God has called you to the writing life. The computer screen is blank and the cursor is flashing. Now’s your chance. Don’t just give us a series of events. Say something.

Christy award winner Ann Tatlock writes stirring fiction and we're happy to have her aboard. You can read more about her novels at www.anntatlock.com.


At 7:26 AM, Blogger Deborah Raney said...

Welcome, Ann! Wonderful post. I've heard Ann speak on the topic of postmodernism and she has great insight into the topic. If you ever get a chance to hear her, GO!

At 8:34 AM, Blogger Kristy Dykes said...

Great post, Ann. Thanks for sharing it.

At 8:38 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Welcome Ann! Would love to know what the novel was...just 'cause I'm a curious bloke.

I agree with you completely. And if you DON'T have something to say, then why are you writing?

This is such an important topic because we all (writers and readers) have limited time for both. To "waste" it on either side of the word processor is not a good thing.

At 8:44 AM, Blogger Carol Umberger said...

Welcome, Ann. What a thought-provoking post. You have helped me understand why my list of favorite secular authors continues to dwindle and why I increasingly look to Christian writers for good books to read.


At 8:56 AM, Blogger Ann Tatlock said...

Michael, the novel was "The Last Samurai" by Helen DeWitt (not to be confused with the Tom Cruise movie of the same name). And good for you--we should all be curious blokes!

Thanks to all of you for your warm welcome to Charis Connection. I'm delighted to be part of such a great group.

At 11:41 AM, Blogger Heather said...

I'm sorry, but I disagree. This is actually one of the misnomers of postmodernism in general.
Their is structure to postmodernism, but it's different than the structure of modernism. Without understanding how the structure works, it is easy to misunderstand what is going on. Look at jazz music. Very structured, but if you don't know what that structure is, you hear it as going whatever direction it wants to go. Look at the Guggenheim museum in Bilbao, a postmodern building. It uses some of the same building materials as traditionally modern buildings, and it is highly structured (or else it would collapse), but it appears to be free-flowing and communing with nature. It's probably the most beautiful building I have ever seen.
There are rules to postmodernism. Some of them are anti-Christian. Some of them are more Christian than the rules to modernity.
Not having read this particular book, I am not in a position to defend it. However, before we dismiss postmodernism outright, and hence, postmodern literature, maybe we should ask to learn their rules. Maybe it is a chaotic, seemingly themeless book. But maybe that's exactly the point: reflecting a chaotic world.

At 6:35 PM, Blogger Heather said...

Matt - first, let me clarify my "I disagree" statement. I tend to stumble head over heels when i get started on something. I agree that writing (and all art in general) should have some purpose, whether beauty, grace, a reflection of the evil in the world and in each of us, hope, redemption, etc. (although I would be careful to say that art needs to be utilitarian to be useful or appreciated). I want to be careful about dismissing all of postmodern literature in one fell swoop. Hence, my disagreement.
I have only heard postmodernism and postmodernity used interchangeably, so you'll have to help me out on that one.
I would define postmodernism as a rethinking of the modern model, a rethinking of Leibnitz, Spinoza, even back to Plato. Therefore, some characteristics that are consistent with the biblical worldview: rethink Plato's spirit=good, material=bad; question scientific and human "progress"; globalization (post-national); perspectivism. I agree that some in the postmodernism movement doubt an understanding of authorial intent and a complete placement of responsibility on the receiver. Actually, I have seen the opposite. Within those who call themselves postmodern, both Christian and nonChristian, I see a greater attempt to understand an author/culture/art/etc on its own terms within its own culture and presuppositions.
On the flip side, I have also seen a shift to attempt to communicate in a way that the receiver can understand. It is saying that unless the receiver can understand the intent of the message, the message is useless. (I see this in the incarnation. Christ became man so that man could understand.)
I think this point has been understood to an extreme. No one, when they ask someone to take out the trash, expects that the listener can understand that however they would like.
As far as structure, modernity (or modernism: since I don't know your distinction, I am using these terms interchangeably; as soon as I understand how you define the terms, I can use the best term), is linear. Since postmodernism is still a western worldview, it continues to be linear to an extent. However, it moves toward spacial, connections, like the internet. I don't move down a line. I move from this connection to that connection to the other connection. Some examples: Run, Lola, Run and Syriana. This may be one factor influencing postmodern literature. I have seen how it affects preaching, movies, music, and visual art.
I do not wish to defend the whole of postmodernism nor every book under the postmodern tag, I just wish to remain open to understanding it on its own terms.
Perhaps, in order to keep this from tangling the lovely curls of Charis, we should continue this discussion on my blog.
Ann, I am terribly sorry if I have offended you. Like I said, I agree that our literature should have some sort of meaning.

At 9:20 PM, Blogger matt e. said...

Heather-Thanks for your reply. I think I can make this relatively short and sweet. First, you didn't really mention any "rules" because the only rule of postmodernism is that there are no rules! (Or maybe the reader gets to make up the rules as he/she goes along.) You did give some fine examples of books or movies that could be called "postmodern". As a descriptor, I have no problem with the term. It's really more of a mood or a style when spoken of that way. When we speak of something looking "postmodern" we generally mean that it defies normal forms and is somewhat incomprehensible. In the realm of literature it would be a story void of a point. (To say the point is that there is no point is not particularly helpful.) I'm not suggesting that we should write moralistic stories. I am suggesting that this world has meaning precisely (and only) because Christ is reigning over it. It seems to me (in all my subjectivity) that postmodernism is pretty anti-authority, and, of course, "rules" are handed down by those in authority.

To your question...I'm no expert in this area (or any area for that matter)but some people make the distinction between postmodernism and postmodernity by saying that the former is a philosophy while the latter is the time period we're currently living in. I think it's true to say that we have moved beyond the modern period (modernity)into postmodernity. As you say, peoples' confidence in scientific and human progress has eroded. I don't think that's a bad thing. There certainly seems to be a lot of people interested in "spiritual" things these days (which can be an opportunity for the church) and I suppose that's a move toward the spatial rather than the linear. No doubt about it, significant hanges have occurred in our culture.

I need to say a word about postmodernism in the church. I think what you're really talking about is the now famous church word...RELEVANT! Of course the church should be relevant! I go to a church that is extraordinarily relevant. We get criticized in some circles because of it. Countless churhes are stuck in a rut and the world has passed them by. They do need to become relevant. However, they don't need to embrace postmodernism (nihilism, subjectivism) to do so. The emerging church movement is largely a reaction against traditionalism, and like most reactions it is an overreaction. In it's attempt to be relevant it often becomes too much like the world and so is unable to influence the world. Still, it's not all bad. The emphasis on community is good. The call to social justice is needed. The problem is, some adherents of it have unnecessarily adopted a silly epistemology because the idea of "mystery" seem so much more humble than the arrogance of claiming "absolute truth". Postmodernism, and it's offshoot, relativism are self-refuting and fail the livability test. Truth is that which corresponds with reality and God defines both truth and reality. Just because we can't know the truth perfectly doesn't mean that it doesn't exist and we're left with meaninglessness. Okay, I'll stop. I guess it's impossible for me to make this short. I hope some of this made at least a little bit of sense. Good discussion I think. More light than heat I hope.

Thanks for the post Ann.

At 11:20 PM, Blogger Heather said...

Matt, I have certainly enjoyed this conversation.
Actually, at no time in my posts was I speaking about the church. I think "emergent" is just as hard to define as "postmodern," and I prefer to keep them in different conversations.
Thanks for the dialogue. I am learning more every day.

At 8:20 AM, Blogger ~michelle pendergrass said...

Matt E--I'm confused.

Are you saying there is no mystery in Christ with your comments on the Emergent Church?

I don't know much about this Emergent Church, just that it seems to be in the hot seat. Is it one church or a movement of the body of Christ?

At 8:40 AM, Blogger Ann Tatlock said...

A Note to Heather and Matt--

Heather, no offense taken at all. You are obviously an intelligent young woman who knows and cares about our culture, and I commend you for that. Also, I believe a website such as this is a place for dialogue, not simply a place to agree. Sometimes it’s through disagreements that we learn something new! I do think we agree that it isn’t enough simply to hand our reading audience a picture of chaos, as is the stated task of many postmodern writers. Our readers don’t need the chaos (which they can see for themselves anyway), they need answers, and as Christians we know the One in whom the purpose for our existence is found.

Matt, thanks for chiming in on this discussion! You have incredible insight into today’s culture, and a firm understanding of how the culture is affecting the church. I have read a good deal about the emerging church, but as I attempt to deepen my own understanding of this and other issues, I have a feeling I could learn much from you. If you’d be willing to bounce some ideas around, please email me at anntatlock@yahoo.com. [I hope it’s kosher to include my email here. If not--too late!]

At 9:59 PM, Blogger matt e. said...

Emerging church info...To my great delight I found an excellent web site that consolidates a lot of information both pro and con regarding the emerging church "conversation". It lists all (or many) of the important books on the subject and it has articles by key people on both sides of the debate. The web site is... http://www.theopedia.com/Emerging_church


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