Posted by: kljolly | April 18, 2015

Post-post-modern: A Parable

I had an interesting conversation this last week following a master’s thesis defense–a very good thesis and defense, on an early 19th century tract translating the Genesis story of Joseph into Hawaiian.  A fellow member of the audience raised the question about the selection of that story for translation, commenting that the Joseph narrative is very “modern” because it has no mention of God (speaking) until the end.  One of the Hawaiian experts pointed out that Hawaiian traditional stories (mo`o `olelo) have plenty of gods speaking, so the absence of God’s voice would not be a notable attraction.

I just wondered to myself whether anyone other than a modern interpreter would remark on the absence of an audible voice of God in the story amid the very clear references to God being with Joseph and God as the source of the dream interpretations, even if the story does not record Joseph hearing the voice of God (or wrestling with him) as his fathers had experienced. The original questioner pointed to Walter Brueggemann for this understanding of the Joseph story’s modernity, a condition in which we learned to live without God according to Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

Nonetheless, I confess my historian’s hackles were raised by a modern sensibility being read back onto an ancient text.  Seeing the Joseph story as modern because of the absence of God’s voice says more about us moderns than the text or its range of meanings, which a post-modernist would point out immediately.  But post-modernism itself does not escape the modernist trap in devaluing the text because it focuses instead on the reader’s context and response.

So I wrote a parable.

A modernist was walking down the road and saw a tattered book in the gutter.  Making out the title, he said, “that book is out-of-date and of no value.  We have progressed beyond it with newer texts, while its views have been discredited.”

A postmodernist was standing nearby listening to the modernist.  She said, “That is just your point of view from your modern stance.  The text has no meaning in itself, there is only your response to it from your perspective.  The book is immaterial.”

A post-postmodernist (a medievalist?), ignoring both the modernist and the postmodernist, walks over, picks up the book, and begins to read it with great interest.

What does post-postmodernism offer?  Although Wikipedia’s entry on post-postmodernism is oriented primarily to philosophy of the arts, my sense is derived from two sources:  on the theological side, the radical orthodoxy movement, and on the historical side, a postcolonial deconstruction of the medieval/modern divide.

The philosophers/theologians of Radical Orthodoxy (John Milbank, Catherine Pickstock, Graham Ward) seek a return to a fundamentally NeoPlatonic and Augustinian base of knowledge lost in modernity’s bifurcated thinking (philosophy vs theology, religion vs science, etc).  They draw our attention to a pre-Duns Scotus worldview to suggest a medieval modern theology of knowledge.  Beyond that basic understanding, I found their prose impenetrable.

However, escaping the modern/medieval divide is what Kathleen Davis addressed in her Periodization and Sovereignty:  How Ideas of Feudalism and Secularization Govern the Politics of Time (2008).  I love that book because it allows us not only to get out of the modern box but throw it away.  More important for medievalists, it suggests that if we stop treating our field of study as not-modern we might have something to say to contemporary society about epistemology.

As for the story of Joseph, the medieval “four senses” of Scripture offer a richly multivalent reading (see Derek Olsen’s “Drifting Thoughts on the allegorical as play) that goes well beyond a modern Joseph’s struggle with a silent God.


  1. Thanks for a very interesting perspective. I’ve always found it depressing how often “medieval” is used as a form of abuse on certain blogs

  2. This post brightened my day, on some level I have always thought as a post-postmodernist, but never thought to define myself in this manner. I wonder if all medievalists find it difficult (impossible) to subscribe to the notions of modernism or post-modernism when honestly appraising their work and role in the world today.

  3. Thanks. My thinking along these lines has evolved into a sophomore honors seminar this semester examining “medieval moderns” G. K. Chesterton and C. S. Lewis, along with some other readings.
    Our starting point is the Matrix question: red pill or blue pill?

  4. No, thank you! Sounds like a very interesting seminar.

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