Review: “The Postmodern God: A Theological Reader”

Tony Sig

“The Postmodern God: A Theological Reader, ed. Graham Ward”

  • Paperback: 416 pages
  • Publisher: Wiley-Blackwell (January 13, 1998)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0631201416
  • ISBN-13: 978-0631201410

Thanks to Blackwell for the review copy!

I know, I know.  We’re all sick to death of the term “Postmodern.”  I’ve found the term to be drastically decreasing in it’s utility.  I think that it can still carry meaning in reference to particular genealogies of “the modern” but I think we’ve all heard one too many people spout off about “postmodern” philosophy that haven’t but read a book by Tony Jones:  Perhaps the daring may have read some Peter Rollins but generally the word has been tossed around ad nauseum both for attack and dismissal and uncritical acceptance.

It is for this very reason that this book is very useful.  The Postmodern God is a reader in “postmodern theology” edited by Graham Ward, professor of Contextual Theology and Ethics at Manchester University.

The book is roughly divided into two parts.  The first being a collection of essays by various influential and authoritative authors loosely identified as “postmodern,” relating to specifically “theological” topics; the second part is another collection of essays by more recent theologians who build in diverse ways off of the foundational works of authors featured in the first part.

There is a short biographical preface to each of the essays by the “primary” authors which not only introduces the author’s bio but gives a concise sketch of the larger “projects” which they undertook.  I found these introductions to be spectacularly useful as I approached this book in self-study.  If I had read just the essays I would have had a rough time knowing which authors works to pursue more for my own interests.  Piecing these introductions together one gets a loose historical narrative of the development of early “postmodern” thought and how each author fits into the intellectual spectrum.  In this way I was able to see for myself how, for instance, the work of Roland Barthes will  be important for me as one who wishes to train in historical theology.

In addition to this, Graham Ward has written an introductory essay which is worth the price of the whole volume.  In it he gives shape to what “postmodern” means (to him) and gives a vision for what he believes are necessary correctives to “liberal” and “nihilistic” postmodernities.  Ward sees the information age as the logical and nihilistic pinnacle of the “modern” obsession with making men into gods.  The internet eliminates all boundaries of time and space thereby creating a false omnipotence:  On can access chat rooms in Argentina, databanks in Saudi Arabia, images of every place including a picture of the very house one is in.  Everything and everybody is immediately and unmediatedly present to the cogito who controls and manipulates all according to h/er whim.  Ward goes on to trace how postmodernity manifests itself in culture and gives a concise historical intro to the entire volume from Nietzsche to Cupitt.

It think that it would be rather laborious to sum up each of the essays but I will list the contents so that you can understand how wide the net is cast in this fine collection:

Part I

Georges Bateille: From Theory of Religion
Jacques Lacan: The Death of God
Emmanuel Levinas: God and Philosophy
Roland Barthes: Wrestling with the Angel: Textual Analysis of Gen 32.23-32
Rene’ Girard: The God of Victims
Michel Foucault: From The History of Sexuality
Michel de Certeau: How is Christianity Thinkable Today? & White Ecstasy
Jacques Derrida: From How to Avoid Speaking – think Peter Rollins
Luce Irigaray: Equal to Whom?
Julia Kristeva: From In the Beginning was Love

As you can see this features a wonderfully diverse crew:  Feminists like Irigaray and Kristeva; philosophers like Levinas, Derrida and Foucault; and Catholic thinkers like Girard and de Certeau.  Each of the essays are filled with potential insight and sparring material.  They relate to everything from epistemology to “thick descriptions” of phenomenon.  A veritable cornocopia of critical thought.

The second part features essays by John Milbank, Jean-Luc Marion, Catherine Pickstock, Jean-Yves Lacoste, Rebecca S. Chopp, Gilian Rose and Edith Wyschogrod.  Notable among them for me were Wyschogorod’s essay from her excellent book “Saints and Postmodernism” and also Milbank’s “Postmodern Critical Augustinianism: A Short Summa in Forty-two Responses to Unasked Questions” originally published in Modern Theology- is an absolute must-read introduction to his larger “project.”  It’s as clear as you’re ever going to get him to be, his language is much less obtuse and abstract than it normally is and it is a joy to read.

This volume is an outstanding introduction to “postmodern theology” that is both well conceived and well executed.  It can stand alone, but it can also be coupled with another Blackwell collection of essays that I will be reviewing very soon, the Blackwell Companion to Postmodern Theology.  I will also tip my hat to another Ward book that is very helpful, aptly entitled Theology and Contemporary Critical Theory.  Though expensive I’ve found it the easiest to read of any “intro” book to these sorts of topics.

In passing I should also mention that Graham Ward is a priest in the Church of England and a prize for us Anglicans.  I am currently composing a comprehensive essay examining his erotic ecclesiology through his “Cities Project.”  Expect that at the beginning of the summer.

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8 Comments

  1. This is on my “short list” of things to read in the next few weeks. Thanks for the review.

    Reply

  2. That’s the problem with Blackwell (and Routledge I should add)…they put out fantastic material; some of the best in contemporary theology, philosophy and patristics; but all of their books are damned expensive. If they could hover them closer to the $20 mark I’d buy more than I can afford.

    Reply

  3. Yes you do, and I deleted that comment after I realized it – but wordpress put it back up.

    stupid wordpress

    Reply

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