February 2009: Books Read

1. A Primer on Postmodernism by Stanley Grenz. This book was published 13 years ago, but it is still exactly what is needed to get people (especially Christians) up to speed on the philosophical developments that have been taking place in our culture over the last half century or so.

For some in the church, postmodernism has become the boogeyman. It is a notoriously slippery concept to attach a definition to, and so often Christians will make it represent everything that is bad about our culture. This is uninformed, and does not in any way help us to relate to people who have been influenced by postmodernism. Grenz realized in 1996 that in order to preach the gospel in a culture, you had to do the work of understanding that culture, and so he sets out to show what postmodernism is all about. He begins by taking note of the many disciplines that have been affected by postmodernism, and attempts to show that postmodernism is, at root, “a revolution both in our understanding of knowledge and our view of science” (39). He then spends three chapters giving a history lesson: first he deals with the rise of the modern world, then the cracks in modern epistemology (theory of knowledge) that began to show in the 19th century, and finally the philosophers of postmodernism in the late 20th century: Foucault, Derrida and Rorty.

He ends the book with a chapter called “The Gospel and the Postmodern Context,” which I found extremely helpful. Instead of saying, “Postmodernism is relativistic! Christians must have nothing to do with it!”, he says that in order to preach the gospel to a postmodern context, we must, yes, reject those things that are in opposition to the gospel, but we must also search for common ground. So, while Christians, according to Grenz, could not affirm the postmodern rejection of metanarratives, we must affirm the postmodern rejection of Enlightenment epistemology. Grenz writes that “in contrast to the modern ideal of the dispassionate observer, we affirm the postmodern discovery that no observer can stand outside the historical process” (166). We do ourselves and others a great disservice when we try and get back to the modern ideal of objectivity. When we do this, I think, not only are we deluding ourselves that we can be objective knowers, but we often make concepts more important than people. This is no way to present the gospel winsomely.

The gospel preached to the postmodern world, Grenz writes, should acknowledge the shortcomings of modernity. It should be post-individualistic, post-rationalistic, post-dualistic, and post-noeticentric (that is, it acknowledges that our existence is about more than just accumulating knowledge). The gospel has gone out in every generation for the last 2000 years, and just like in every generation up to now, it needs to be articulated in a way that people (including postmoderns) can understand.

2. Prisoner of Trebekistan: A Decade in Jeopardy! by Bob Harris. I took the Jeopardy! Online Test for the first time in January, and since then I’ve been thinking about Jeopardy! way more than usual. I have no idea whether they will contact me to do an in-person audition, but I thought it couldn’t hurt to read a book about someone’s experience on the show.

Prisoner of Trebekistan is part that, but it is also part autobiography. It’s the story of Bob Harris, who became a 5-time winner on the show in the late ’90s, studied like crazy for the Tournament of Champions that year, lost big, then was invited back twice more: for the Masters Tournament in 2002 and the Ultimate Tournament of Champions in 2005. In the book, he reveals a lot about how the show works, and about his own study methods, but he also tells the story of his life during the 8 or so years that Jeopardy! and other game shows were a big part of it.

I liked this book, and it was a quick read. The only thing that irritated me from time to time was that Harris seemed to be trying hard to be funny. He never met a metaphor he didn’t like, and there are many pages with three or four. Some of them I thought were good, like when he called Ken Jennings a nice feller with “the instincts of a pissed wolverine.” Others I thought should have been edited out to keep the narrative flowing.

1. Now, Discover Your Strengths by Marcus Buckingham and Donald O. Clifton. The associate pastor of my church gave this book to me, describing it as “a spiritual gifts inventory without the Spirit.” The main thrust of the book is that, instead of focusing on overcoming weaknesses, all people should discover their innate strengths and cultivate them. Everyone has strengths, and if people focus on using their strengths instead of becoming well-rounded, they can have “consistent near-perfect performance.” People who read the book can take an online test called the StrengthsFinder to find their 5 top strengths (out of 34). If they are managers, they can also learn from the book how to best manage a person with a particular strength.

I think there is something to this idea. Everyone has God-given talents and abilities, and I think God intended people to use them and derive joy from them. But there is also one possible outcome of this idea that should be avoided, and here is where the “without the Spirit” part comes in. Just because we all have particular strengths does not mean we can avoid doing things that, if we are Christians, God calls everyone to do. For example, one of the strengths listed in the book is Empathy. Empathy was not one of my top five, so should I give up on trying to be empathetic? No, I don’t think so. I think that when God puts his Spirit in our hearts, we are enabled to change. We are not all given the same strengths and abilities, but when we are in step with the Spirit, we exhibit the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness and self-control (Gal. 5:22-23). These things are available to everyone with the Spirit, no matter what his or her strengths are.