The Condition of Ultra-Modernity in my Historical Jesus

By Anthony Le Donne
Lincoln Christian University
March 2012

In the introduction of my very short (but colorfully pixilated) Historical Jesus, I begin by discussing “the philosophical questions that guide the postmodern historian.”2 Or, at least, I discuss the questions that relate to the topics of perception, memory, and history. Because of my intended audience and choice of tone for this book, I was unable to discuss the topic of postmodern thought more thoroughly. Perhaps then, this essay will serve as the bridge between my The Historiographical Jesus3 and the more popular (but positively neon pink) book mentioned above. I write:

The word “postmodern” is often maligned and even more often misunderstood. Having used this term several times already, I risk being maligned and misunderstood — of this I am well aware. If the word is evil, I am convinced it is necessary nonetheless. I prefer to use this word as an adjective because the nouns “postmodernity” and “postmodernism” tend to confuse people. It can be confusing because most “isms” refer to an established system of propositions or beliefs. This is not the case with postmodernism. There is no unified system of propositions or beliefs that can define “postmodernism” clearly. To understand what makes something “postmodern” requires an understanding of what made the forerunner of that thing “modern.”4

I then discuss the variety of manifestations of “the modern,” using the examples of modern medicine, modern architecture, and modern dance. These three examples were meant to demonstrate that no single philosophical umbrella is big enough to describe what makes each of these examples particularly modern. My point here is that postmodern thought is best described locally, in terms of a particular reaction within a specific field.5 My particular interests are historiographical and, as such, my interactions with postmodern thought inform the questions that I ask as an historian.

While many good introductions exist on the topic of postmodern thought,6 it seems that academic and non-academic readers alike (at least many of them) are prone to draw a conceptual dichotomy between modern and postmodern — as if these two spheres are mutually exclusive. This false dichotomy can lead to egregious misunderstandings and I am remiss for not making this point more clearly in my book.

So allow me to render the thesis of the present essay as clearly as possible:

Any tendency toward the postmodern exists (and must exist) within the realm of the modern. Indeed, this is the case with historiographical thought; postmodern turns away from historical-positivism are turns within the sphere of modern thought.

I resonate with Thomas Oden’s critique of the term (even though he is critiquing my own roots, as it were) when he writes:7

Experience teaches that when avant-garde academics bandy about the term “postmodern,” it is usually more accurate to strike post and insert ultra. For guild scholars, postmodern simply means hypermodern, where the value assumptions of modernity are nostalgically recollected and ancient wisdoms compulsively disregarded. Meanwhile the emergent actual postmodernity that is being suffered through outside the ivory tower is not yet grasped or rightly appraised by those in it…. We do not at all mean by postmodernity what many academics mean – deconstructionist literary criticism and relativistic nihilism….[What is named “postmodern”] is actually a desperate extension of despairing modernity that imagines by calling itself another name (postmodern), it can extend the ideology of modernity into the period following modernity.

Oden goes on to say that architectural studies “began to shanghai the idea.”8 While I would not call myself an “avant-garde academic,”9 I’ll confess that I was first exposed to the idea of a “postmodern turn” in my architectural study.10 It was almost twenty years ago that I discontinued that study (and gave up the chance of ever making any real money), but I carry that impression with me. That said, Oden’s harsh criticism of the misuse of the term “postmodern” is one I would emphasize for heuristic reasons, even if such an emphasis weakens the ground on which I stand.

It is quite possible that my advocacy for a “postmodern” historical consciousness would be better expressed as an “ultra-modern” historical consciousness. But I would take it a step further — a step beyond Oden — and echo my colleague John Castelein who points out (in private conversation) that “postmodern” critique might simply be another name for “ultra-modern” critique.11

One might describe the mission of the modern, scientific consciousness as the mission to classify, isolate, reduce, parse, examine, critique, determine the origins for, and/or demystify reality. Let me clarify that I am quite grateful for the advances of modern scientific consciousness! Mindful that one of my most beloved mentors suffers from post-polio syndrome, I am thankful for modern science. The embrace of medical science by the industrial West means that my children have a polio vaccine. I enjoy driving over suspension bridges and am engrossed by thoroughly modern narratives like 2001: A Space Odyssey. And yet, the deification of medical doctors, the advent of the atom bomb, and the rise of reality television are all byproducts of modern science. At the risk of stating the obvious, it was only a matter of time before the mission to “classify, isolate, reduce, parse, examine, critique, determine the origins for, and/or demystify” was aimed reflexively toward the scientist, observer, and – in my case – the historian.

This is the condition of post(ultra-)modern interpretation. The scientist who was hell-bent on demystifying the universe ended up demystifying the self; s/he who deconstructed became reflexively deconstructed. In this way, postmodern interpretation is the logical extension of modernization.12 This is similar (although not identical) to what Ulrich Beck writes:

“Reflexive modernization” means the possibility of a creative (self-)destruction for an entire epoch… The “subject” of this creative destruction is not the revolution, not the crisis, but the victory of Western modernization.13

To put this in historiographical terms, historians who realize that all historical data is filtered through the lenses of memory (and thus narrativized, pithified, expanded, etc.) will also be self-conscious of their own mnemonic lenses and begin to deconstruct their own perspectives. Or to personalize this, my “postmodern” approach to history inevitably forced me to deconstruct myself. For example, in my Historical Jesus, I give an autobiographical account of a typological memory:14

He asked me to take my shoes off. I knew immediately that Matt was inviting me to reenact a particular story. I had heard the story of Jesus’ foot-washing enough times to recognize it when I saw it. I also knew that resisting the story would only play me into Matt’s plan. I’d just be acting like Peter who refused to let Jesus wash his feet. Matt had trapped me in that narrative. He proceeded to wash my feet and pray for me. Matt used to carry around a Gideon’s Bible in his back pocket. But he didn’t need to pull it out and read it for me to understand what had just taken place. We both knew the story well enough that neither of us needed to say it out loud. Ever since, whenever I hear that part of the Passion Narrative, I can’t help but project my own experience onto it.

After I tell this story, I attempt to parse out four levels of interpretive agenda(s):15

Notice the narrative refraction on four levels:

(1) Matt had obvious intentions to evoke a narrative before he arrived. The guy brought a plastic tub for this very purpose. The narrative was in place in his mind before and during the event.
(2) I recognized the story in which I was going to participate. I knew my cues and knew their significance without needing a verbal explanation.
(3) Subsequent tellings of Jesus’ act of service continue to cause me to juxtapose my own story alongside the original narrative.
(4) As I write of Matt’s Christlike act, I am presently retelling the story with a particular agenda. I have included details that serve to illustrate my point.

Notice that, in point four, I am aware that my own perspective is subject to deconstruction. In this way, I classify, isolate, reduce, parse, examine, critique, determine the origins for, and/or demystify my own historiographical bias. Notice also that I am (in the essay before you now) presently deconstructing a previous deconstruction, so we can add a fifth refractive lens to the above analysis.

I make other statements that attempt to deconstruct my own epistemological limitations when it comes to accounts of the supernatural in pre-modern narratives. I know that I am a modern man, with modern lenses (I am a modern historian). But I also know that my modern lenses are problems that I project onto the narrative; my modernity must be qualified if I am to be intellectually honest (I am an ultra-modern historian). This is something similar to the idea of “reflexive modernity” stated above. I cannot help but demystify the pre-modern; and I also use the same perspective to qualify my own biases.16

I have been criticized for appealing to postmodern historiographical thought. Perhaps those who are uncomfortable with the term “postmodern” are justified. But my point is this: there is nothing quite so postmodern as critiquing the postmodern. In the end, postmodern thought is the modern consciousness turned inward. Thus it is impossible to be a “postmodern” thinker without being well at home within modernity.


1 I offer my gratitude to Prof. John Castelein for his close reading of my book. His gracious response spurred me to develop the present essay.

2 Anthony Le Donne, Historical Jesus: What Can We Know and How Can We Know It? (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2011), p.4.

3 Anthony Le Donne, The Historiographical Jesus: Memory, Typology, and the Son of David (Waco: Baylor University Press, 2009).

4 Historical Jesus, p.5.

5 Cf. Richard Rorty, “Lofty Ideas that May be Losing Altitude,” The New York Times B 13:3, November 1, 1997; Rorty argues that the multiplicity of use of the term “post-modernism” renders the term entirely unhelpful. It is “a word that pretends to stand for an idea” according to Rorty.

6 E.g., from a distinctly Christian, theological perspective, Kevin Hart, Postmodernism (Oxford: One World, 2004); Stanley E. Grenz, A Primer on Postmodernism (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996).

7 “The Death of Modernity and Postmodern Evangelical Spirituality,” in The Challenge of Postmodernism (ed. David S. Dockery; Wheaton: Bridgepoint/Victor, 1995), p.26. My thanks to John Castelein for pointing me to this source. Cf. also Charles Taylor, Sources of the Self: The Making of Modern Identity (Cambridge: CUP, 1989), p.489.

8 “Death of Modernity,” pp.26-27.

9 Postmodern philosophy includes (but is not limited to) the embrace of ideological revolution – as opposed to institutional stability – and/or Marxism. I would distance myself from such political ideologies.

10 Cf. David Harvey, The Condition of PostmodernityOxford: Blackwell, 1990).

11 Oden clearly states that what he meant by “postmodernity” in 1969 was “spiritual wanderers searching for roots” (“Death of Modernity,” p.26). As is almost always the case, etymology cannot tell us the whole story. As such Oden’s intentions cannot guide the discussion in retrospect.

12 Cf. Matei Calinescu, Five Faces of Modernity: Modernism, Avant-garde, Decadence, Kitsch, Postmodernism (Durham: Duke University Press, 1987), pp.265-78.

13 Ulrich Beck, “Preface,” in Reflexive Modernization: Politics, Tradition and Aesthetics in the Modern Social Order (eds. Ulrich Beck, Anthony Giddons, Scott Lash; Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1994), p.2.

14 Historical Jesus, p.116.

15 Historical Jesus, pp.116-17.

16 Because of the focus of this essay, I have only emphasized one aspect of what I consider to be a “postmodern,” historiographical approach. “Self-critique” is not the main agenda of my book. In this way, my project differs considerably from that of Hal Childs, The Myth of the Historical Jesus and the Evolution of Consciousness (SBLDS 179; Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2000). I remain quite confident that a better understanding of the interplay between perception, memory, and mnemonic refraction can help us argue plausibly for early and widespread memories of Jesus.

I argue elsewhere that historians “must discontinue our simplistic dichotomies between historical memory and revisionist history. While these two categories should not be collapsed entirely, to some extent every history is revisionist. This is so because every memory is a refraction of past perception via the lenses of the cultural, communicative, and cognitive present. Furthermore, we must move past the assumptions that (1) facts precede interpretation, (2) a definitive account of the past is our goal, (3) objectivity can be obtained and employed, and (4) there is a necessary distinction between events and perceptions of events” (A. Le Donne, “The Criterion of Coherence: Its Development, Inevitability, and Historiographical Limitations,” in Jesus, Criteria, and the Demise of Authenticity (eds. Chris Keith and Anthony Le Donne; London: T&T Clark, 2012), forthcoming.

Comments (1)

Maybe modernism called, as an ethical matter, for supplying standardised facts to the mass market to help people escape ignorance just as a Model T would help them to escape immobility. Postmodernism sees people browsing information boutiques and comparing the different versions and interpretations that are on offer. Again, an ethical point: let us be slow to judgement and mistrustful of those who hurry and hustle us towards what they want us to accept and consume.
I wouldn't want us to take the idea of being slow to judgement to the point of never judging. At that rate we would have nothing at all to say.

#1 - Martin - 03/24/2012 - 23:16

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