Review: “The Blackwell Companion to Postmodern Theology”

Tony Sig

My thanks to Blackwell for the review copy!

Church of England clergyman Graham Ward, professor of Contextual Theology and Ethics at the University of Manchester is most notably (notoriously?) known in academic circles as being heavily involved in the so-called “Radical Orthodoxy” movement.  But what isn’t often noticed is that Ward has also over the years invested much scholarly energy in bringing continental critical theory into conversation with theology.  As I mentioned previously he has written an introductory book of sorts well worth the cost (the book is unjustifiably expensive).  That book provides a solid foundation to build on from which one cannot go wrong by then investing time and energy in the collection of essays which he edited, ‘The Postmodern God,” that I reviewed here.

Ward considers “The Blackwell Companion to Postmodern Theology” a continuation of that work and I believe it is best read in conversation with the Postmodern GodPostmodern Theology is another collection of essays dealing in many and various ways with the perceived shift in theological method and exploration in lieu of the demise of the Western narrative of cultural, intellectual and moral progress.  This Companion extends the second part of the Postmodern God creating an even more comprehensive picture of how contemporary theology is creating new vistas and destroying old hegemonies.

The Companion is organized into seven categories or parts.  In his introduction Ward notes that he was having a difficult time knowing how to organize the essays and had all but decided to simply put them in alphabetical order according to author but at the prodding of Robert Gibbs he reconsidered and came up with seven categories with which to organize the work.  The categories are able to allow for the different emphasis’ and approaches of each author to rub up against each other, fill out or critique potential weaknesses, expand potential insights and create overall a more coherent picture of this branch of contemporary theology most in touch with continental thought.  The organization can therefore be only a pointer and should not be thought to determine the essays prematurely.  As with my previous review, given the nature of the collection and the sheer volume of the book, I will refrain from summarizing each essay but will point to the general structure of the book and its content.

Part I deals with “Aesthetics.”  The reader is lucky enough to be presented with the thoughts of some who are not widely known in anglo-american circles, not least among them Mieke Bal, an academic from the Netherlands who has an insanely wide field of research from unique biblical readings to reflections on the paintings of Rembrandt, but also well known figures like Gerard Loughlin.  Most of these essays reflect on art, be it paintings, movies or texts.

Part II moves into “Ethics” and features much material that most explicitly deals with traditional dogmatic themes (not that such themes are absent in the other essays, but most in this section will be most clearly understood by even those not familiar with continental thought).  Given my own interests this proved to be my favorite section and is alone good enough recommend the book.  The authors are well known in Christian circles and feature mostly “postliberal” and “radical orthodox” voices.  Stanley Hauerwas  and William Placher make appearances as do Milbank, Pickstock and Ward; Gavin D’ Costa and Mark I. Wallace fill out this part.

Part III relates to “Gender.”  Several American women mark this section such as Mary McClintock Fulkerson and Serene Jones.  The whole part is filled with female voices and the essays are excellent.  Among the pieces, Virginia Burrus contributes a splendid essay which deals with the figure of Macrina in St. Gregory of Nyssa’s Dialogue on the Soul and Resurrection and Jones examines what feminist theorists can gain from feminist theologians.

Part IV, with only three essays, is among the shorter sections but contains distinctly Jewish voices such as Peter Ochs and Edith Wyschogrod (I would have loved an audio companion telling me how to pronounce her last name).  Ochs essay is helpful for someone like me in that it elucidates the larger Jewish theological spectrum about which I know nothing.  I have a theory that that John Piper might have a different opinion than me of Wyschogrod’s essay “Intending Transcendence: Desiring God.”

Part V is concerned with phenomenology and is a phenomenal section of this volume (I’m willing to bet I’m the first to make the semantic connection between these two words).  Most of the authors are French Roman Catholics well schooled in Husserl, Heideggar and Derrida.  The most famous is Jean-Luc Marion (see especially his “God Without Being”) but there is a brief essay by the largely untranslated Jean-Yves LaCoste and a biblical essay by Richard Kearney, being one of several essays in this book dealing with the Transfiguration.  Marion’s essay considers the “Formal Reason for the Infinite” and posits that the very conditions for knowing are themselves Christological.  Joseph S. O’Leary’s essay on religious pluralism is also worth an explicit mention.  Again, really good.

Parts VI and VII represent what has been called the “postmodern liberalism.”  VI entitled “Heideggarians” and VII “Derrideans.” Thomas J. J. Altizer of  “Death of God” fame makes an appearance followed immediately by Laurence Paul Hemming on prayer, a more stark difference in product and approach I cannot think, but this goes to show how loose these categories are.  The famous hermeneuticist Gianni Vattimo closes this part with an appropriately themed essay on how the Christian message dissolves metaphysics.

The “Derrideans” finish out the book.  John D. Caputo is at the top of his game in his “The Poetics of the Impossible and the Kingdom of God” and the remaining essays by Walter Lowe (Is there a Postmodern Gospel?) and Carl Raschke, both widely regarded contemporary theologians, bring the party out with a bang.  There is unfortunately also an essay by Don Cuppitt, a “radical” theologian whose influence thankfully was as small as it was short lived, being consigned mostly to the annals of British oddity.

As with it’s sister volume, Ward contributes an introductory essay to the whole edition and all the authors are introduced with brief bio’s, though considering the number of authors the bio’s are justifiably shorter yet surprisingly packed with vital and concise information.

All things considered this book’s greatest strength is also it’s greatest weakness.  The material covered, the methods used, the insights gathered, are all so broad as to render the book frustrating when considering the implications in any depth.  But it has so many great little essays I cannot but recommend this book.  One potential use is as a reference book.  A person would have to scrounge around a lot of journals, books and original language material to gather some of these essays.  It makes for great “bathroom” reading material, an essay here and essay there for fun, challenge and edification.

But it works best I think as it was designed; as a “Companion” to the Postmodern God Reader.  If you consume all or even most of the essays in these two books you’ve set yourself a very broad foundational understanding in the varied braches of contemporary critical theology from which you can go anywhere.  This would be especially useful for upper (upper) undergraduate and graduate level readers who are still trying to figure out what the hell they want to study for the rest of their lives.

Advertisements

9 Comments

  1. Thanks, Tony. Great review. I really need to get a hold of some Ward. I’ve been on a Zizek binge for about three weeks, now I need someone who is just as erudite of a theologian, but who also happens to believe in Jesus.

    Reply

  2. Thanks, I’m glad you liked it James. Keep in mind though that Ward has only one essay in this book, not counting his introductory essay which I suppose should count. Either way, he has several other books of which he is the only author.

    Reply

  3. Tony,

    Disagreement is one of the spices of life. I mention “Cities” to James, because it is the work that authors like James Smith seem to point to with regularity when trying to differentiate Ward from Milbank, Pickstock or Blond in matters of philosophy – especially those matters which correlate with Zizek.

    Although, and I say this with candor, I could be exactly wrong on all counts. I have not spent nearly the time examining RO that I have other matters. So, your disagreements are welcome and probably warranted. 😉

    Reply

  4. Shawn,

    Ward is definitely different than Milbank in many ways, but all his books (I’ve read so far) deal with different themes and take different stances than Milbank so one doesn’t need to go with Cities. I’ll say this, if I would have started with books II and III in his “Cities Project” (Cultural Transformation and Religious Practice and The Politics of Discipleship) than I know that Cities would have made more sense and had a firm enough base to make it’s various parts more coherent. Either way, Cities is pretty good but I’d start with some of his other work and then go back.

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s