The Poetic Case Against Postmodernism

Human language is a gift of God. When God created Adam, He gave him many gifts. He gave the Garden, and all that it contained. He gave him the woman, bone of his bone, and flesh of his flesh. And God also gave Adam the gift of speech, which enabled him to talk about all the other gifts. When Adam saw Eve, he opened his mouth, and the first recorded words of a human being are poetry.

This is now bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh:
She shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man.

The true nature of human language is best seen in poetry. The fact that language is a grace, a gift, is plainly set before us. It is also evident that language is polysemous, which is Greek for “many signs.” Language has multiple layer, many indicators. Poetic language is wonderfully textured. At the same time, poetry elevates everything about language, including its meaningfulness. Everything that language is and does is heightened and accentuated in poetry. Words are given to us so that we may give to one another polysemous, meaningful grace.

Those who do not love Jesus Christ, the eternal Logos of God, can know nothing of this. By God’s common grace, they can enjoy bits of it here and there, but without the grace of God, they cannot really possess the grace of language. Neither can they have polysemous complexity. Neither can they have meaning. Both modernist and postmodernist are shut out of the cathedral of poetry, but for different reasons.

Louis Markos has done a wonderful job describing how we got here.

“For Saussure there is nothing magical, nothing God-given, nothing essential about the words we use. Language is a man-made structure that works upward from material, physical, natural realities, not a divinely ordained system that descends from above . . . As a structuralist, he believed that all meaning, whether philosophical, theological, aesthetic, or linguistic, did not proceed downward from some divine presence but upward from physical structures” (Lewis Agonistes, pp. 114-115).

Man in his hubris thought that he could build a tower that reached into heaven. Babel was the modernist project. Babel was a structuralist endeavor. “We can build this thing from the ground up.” But the Lord God looked down from heaven upon the sons of men, and said, “Go to, let us go down, and there turn them all into poststructuralists.” And so He did, confounding their language, and they left off building the city and scattered to every English department on the face of the earth (Gen. 11: 7-8).

Modernists are Babel-builders early in the morning, shortly before lunch. Postmodernists are Babel-abandoners late in the afternoon. But whether men in rebellion have one Cartesian language (Gen. 11:6), or multiple confused languages (Gen. 11:9) does not matter. Both sets are men in rebellion, and believers have absolutely no business being more sympathetic to one over the other. A plague on both your houses about sums it up.

Markos continues:

“Though Sassure killed the ‘illusion’ that words can point back to an absolute, eternal meaning, he did allow for the possibility of meaning within the confines of the linguistic system. Within the structure, at least, meaning was not wholly arbitrary but was fixed within a fairly stable web of differences. But even this small faith was soon shattered by a second wave of revisionary energy that we call, variously, postmodernism and poststructuralism” (p. 116).

Christians who were seduced by the modernist project, and were trying to help build the tower ought to do nothing but repent. Christian who have been seduced by the postmodernist confusions need to do the same thing — repent, and turn back to the law and to the testimony. But when they do this, they must turn back to Scripture as it was given to us, and this means, among other things, a return to poetry.

“Christians — and here I speak specifically of evangelical Protestants who have been outspoken in their criticism of the excesses of modernism and postmodernism — have not fought for poetry with anything like the vigor they have fought for creationism or biblical morality or the authority of Scripture” (p. 119).

I believe this charge is true. Christians have not fought for poetry — language that exhibits the grace of God, its multiple textures and referents, and its glorious and reliable connection to transcendent meaning. “Is it any wonder that modern evangelicals along with a major portion of orthodox believers seem unable, if not unwilling, to defend poetry from the attacks of modernism and postmodernism?” (p. 121). They have not done this because they have wanted to defend the Bible against the modernists on modernism’s terms. They have wanted to beat them at their own game, and it hasn’t worked.

Markos grasps what so many Christian critics of modernity do not. He sees that postmodernists are just as hostile to poetry as modernists are, only in a different way. He sees the problem with modernism, but he is not clambering to get on the pomo bandwagon, the one with square wheels.

“Why can’t we rise above our modern aesthetic naysayers to fashion a literature that, while replete with irony, paradox, and ambiguity, can yet assert not in spite of, but by means of its ‘slippery’ metaphors and symbols the existance and reality of transcendent truths” (p. 122)?

“That is to say, we must cast our eyes backward to the medieval church and seek out a counter-vision of the arts that we can hold up against the ‘logocidal’ fury of the modern and postmodern world” (p. 122).

The language of Scripture — narrative, poetry, apocalyptic, aphorisms, didactic epistles, all of it — connects us to the ultimate reality of the triune life who gave us this gift. The connection is possible because of the ambiguities and layers, not in spite of them. A cleaned-up, mathematical set of pristine formulae would not connect us to Him. In short, poetry is a means of grace.

“On the one side, then, we have conservative evangelicals who argue that language is meaningful because it is not slippery; on the other we have liberal theorists who claim that it is slippery and therefore meaningless. In the center, I would suggest, we have poetry that cries out on the rooftops that language is more meaningful precisely because it is slippery. Indeed, poetry, with its desire to incarnate transcendent truths in material images while yet maintaining via metaphors, symbols, allusions, and other devices a vital sense of play and interchange between the two, comes much closer than science or logic or even systematic theology to capturing and embodying the mystery inherent in the Incarnation” (p. 130).

Modernists banned poetry because building the tower required engineering skills. And after the tower failed, the postmodernists retreated to opaque justifications of nihilistic yowling. The former said the tower was meaningful (on their own terms) and therefore they didn’t need no stinking poetry. The latter said that the tower was meaningless, along with all the elegies and coffee house laments they composed in the aftermath of the divine “cease and desist” order. “Howl, ye white rice turn aside pea gravel let the shovels fly and borkety!”

But the Christian is in a place to actually receive the gift of God, which is the Logos of God Himself. And that Logos brings with Him all that words can accomplish. God has placed eternity in our hearts, and He did not do it to taunt us. God gave us language. We ask for bread and He does not give us a stone. We ask for poetry and He does not give jargon of the academy.

“Now this is not to say that poetry can explain the Incarnation or that it should take the place of doctrines and creeds. It is to suggest, rather, that the aesthetic process by which poetry embodies universal truths in a concrete form is analogous to the mystery of the Incarnation” (p. 130).

And precisely because it is a wonderful illustration of incarnational realities, we ought to give ourselves to poetry and the poetic arts far more than we do. This aspect of the needed reformation is something we have been urging for many years. The entire chapter on poetic knowledge in Angels in the Architecture is dedicated to various aspects of this. I certainly do not believe at all that the ministry here is somehow beyond criticism, but honest critics really have to take this aspect of what we are doing into consideration. So do not listen to those who have evaluated the reformational work here with a rationalistic thumb on their rationalistic scales. This is not just a question of propositional truth (although that is certainly part of it). One particular critic of ours, a former student of mine, has stumbled over just this point. He simply does not understand the glory of poetry. If he did, he would know that the words of God to us are gracious, polysemous, and meaningful.

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