Saturday, July 02, 2005

"C" Is For "Clueless"

I despise postmodernism and "emergent churchism." Not having to play the scholarly game of looking open-minded and entertaining nonsense in an attempt to show the arbiters of scholarly respectability that I am not a reactionary, I can safely describe these affairs as exercises in silliness and posing for those who are too lazy to do anything of intellectual substance.

My friend Tim McGrew is Professor of Philosophy at Western Michigan University, and he kindly gave me permission to post his review of a book written in part by one of the go-to guys of the whole Emergent Church shebang.The book under discussion is A Is For Abductive by Brian McLaren and Leonard Sweet. I have reproduced the review in the text following the line with five asterisks. Everything that follows from this point on is Tim's work.

C is for Clueless, July 2, 2005
Reviewer: Timothy McGrew "Philosopher" (Kalamazoo, MI) - See all my reviews

My initial reaction to this book, when a friend (laughingly) sent it my direction, was unprintable. But -- slightly redacted -- it went like this:


Have the editors at Zondervan lost their minds? Did they have minds to begin with?

I cannot find a single redeeming feature to this tragicomical book. The authors are earnest, but they are completely clueless about the philosophical concepts they are trying to summarize and employ. They might, with equal hope of success, have attempted to explicate quantum field theory. (Hmm, let's see, Fock space -- well, have you seen "Meet the Fockers" ...?)

In the space of an Amazon review it is impossible to do more than point out a few typical errors. Here are three classes of mistakes.

First, the authors put their foot in it when they try to deal with terms from logic (p. 31). If they were merely making up some new technical terms, we might deplore their decision to redefine words that already have established meanings and let it go at that. "Deductive method" as they define it has nothing to do with deduction; ditto for the other terms. But no; they intend to pin the third category on the American logician Charles Sanders Peirce. And they seem to think, as Stygius comments below, that "abduction" here means "kidnaping":

Abductive reasoning (a seismic little phrase coined by the philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce) has powerful implications for preaching -- and all communication, really. To go abductive, get rid of your inductive/deductive outlines and make your sermons pointless! In other words, don't build your sermons around analysis (the A-word of modernity), but instead, build them around an abductive experience, one that takes people out of their current world of assumptions and issues, of boredom and anxiety. ... Rather than leading your hearers along in an orderly, step-by-step, predictable, reasoned argument, like a lawyer before a jury -- proving and moving on, proving and moving on -- seize them by their lapels, like a friend in crisis. Grab them by the scruff of the neck (their imagination) and throw them into something they never expected. (pp. 31-32)

Warning: Do not try this on people with trained minds unless you want your cognitive hand broken. The only good thing I can find to say about this passage is that the authors are doing their level best to practice what they preach. There isn't any sign of reasoned argument here. There isn't even any sign of grammar. (Or did they really mean to indicate, as a puckish part of me wants to believe, that the friend in crisis is the one doing the seizing?)

But there are some incongruous trappings of scholarship. A footnote refers the reader to K. T. Fann's sober little monograph Peirce's Theory of Abduction. I defy anyone to find a trace of this kind of silliness in Fann's book -- or in Peirce. (See his collected papers, section 5.189.) You will, I grant, find much nonsense (though more subtly presented) in Julia Kristeva's work, which they incomprehensibly bundle into the same footnote. I doubt if the authors have even read Kristeva. But unless we begin questioning their honesty we cannot possibly believe that they've read any serious amount of Peirce, the fellow who was so enraged by fuzzy thinking that he fulminated that "nothing can clear it up but a a severe course of logic." Amen.

Imagination is a wonderful thing, and properly disciplined it can be a great tool. C. S. Lewis comes to mind here. But it should be used in conjunction with reason, not as a substitute for it.

Second, the authors make ridiculous claims about the current state of scholarship. "It is hard to find scholarship that is not destabilizing assumptions about rationality and challenging intellectual categories inherited from the Enlightenment," they crow on pp. 20-21. A footnote directs us to another po-mo chic tract but not to the supposed void in traditional scholarship. Actually, the problem is that the authors aren't reading anything outside of a pathetic little circle of their po-mo friends. Otherwise they would surely have encountered something by Doug Geivett or Doug Groothuis or William Lane Craig or Bill Vallicella or Peter Kreeft or Dallas Willard or Charles Taliaferro or Paul Copan or Stephen Parrish or Stephen T. Davis or J. P. Moreland or John Warwick Montgomery or John Gerstner or R. C. Sproul or N. T. Wright or ... okay, you get the picture. And I'm just listing people who would probably be comfortable describing themselves as (broadly) Evangelical Christians. In the main currents of secular analytic philosophy, "scholarship" that is "destabilizing assumptions about rationality" is nearly non-existent. Pick up a recent issue of Mind or Journal of Philosophy or British Journal for the Philosophy of Science and see for yourself.

Third, the authors fuddle and fuzzify major theological categories in the manner of old-fashioned theological modernism. "Easter," Sweet tells us on p. 12, "is all about dying into the new," and he goes on to identify "the new" with "postmodern culture" which "thrums with possibility." Odd. I thought Easter was about the resurrection of God incarnate. Can we at least find room to mention that little point?

Readers who think I have simply picked soft targets are welcome to leaf through the sample pages made available here on the Amazon site and see for themselves. I won't even recommend pages. Start anywhere.

Brian McLaren writes in his preface that this book has given the authors "a chance to lodge in key words some of our best thinking so far" regarding postmodern ministry (p. 13). The scary thing is, I almost believe him.


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