Uriah Y. Kim is the guest blogger this week for the on-going blog series called PomoChurch, which features a variety of people reflecting on the meaning of Postmodernity and its implications for the Church.
What does Postmodernity mean?I will offer a short reflection on what I think postmodern means to me. I just returned to the United States after spending a semester at a university in Seoul, South Korea; it was my first visit to Korea since I came to the United States more than thirty years ago. While there I had an opportunity to teach a course for undergraduate students. I’m sure there are some readers of this blog who will assume that all the students in my class were Koreans and I taught in Korean. But, there I was, teaching a course in English as a “foreign” faculty (since I’m an U.S. citizen I’m considered a foreigner from Koreans’ perspective); there were six Korean students and two American exchange students. Korean students learning from an American professor who looks like them yet conducts the class solely in English seems odd. What may seem even stranger is the fact that American students are learning in English from a professor who looks like a Korean and the class takes place in Korea. This scene is not as rare as one might think in the postmodern age and goes against a modernist stereotype that would have a white American professor teaching in English and Korean students with limited English learning at his feet.
Modernist categories or thoughts are rigid and demarcated, allowing national identity to define one’s language, culture, and allegiance. Postmodernity encourages crossing boundaries modernity has constructed over the last five hundred years. Postmodern celebrates and allows new possibilities and permutations of thoughts and identities. But postmodern sometimes, perhaps often, celebrates differences without acknowledging or addressing inequalities that are still in place due to or privileges afforded by modernist legacies. We need to ask, in referring to my case above, why it is the case that even though English no longer belongs to those people or lands that traditionally used English, English speakers have unmerited advantages over those who speak little English even in Korea. For me to fully embrace postmodernity, it not only needs to embrace differences but address inequalities that are encoded in modernist thoughts and structures.
What does Postmodernity mean for the Church?
Postmodern in general questions central authorities and absolute truths, therefore, the Church and what it claims and stands for are contested in the postmodern age. Although postmodern does not mean post-Church or post-Christianity (that is, it is not an end to Church or Christianity), however, it does mean a time and an attitude for exploring alternative configurations of ecclesia are in order. There is no one normative church; instead, there are many models that are equally valuable and valid to a wide variety of constituents. Whether one is participating in a mega, cyber, steeple, or house church, there are different types of ecclesia for Christians to be involved. I say “involved” rather than “attend” because postmodern means that the Church needs to provide multiple sites of practicing faith for people with common interests or causes rather than one physical location for Christians to be members of.
Let me end with a reflection on how the Bible is being interpreted in the postmodern world. I do not think going back to pre-critical, pre-modern understanding of the Bible is the way to go. We have to accept and acknowledge much of the knowledge about the Bible and its world that has been accumulated by modern biblical scholarship. We cannot go back to those days when the Bible was at the mercy of “subjective” explications of the interpreters or served as proof-texts for the Church doctrines, but, at the same time, we cannot leave the interpretation of the Bible to the experts who claim to be doing “objective” scholarship. Postmodern places a greater burden on individual Christians to discern the will of God, requiring Christians to become informed interpreters of the Bible, taking into account of personal experiences and relying on local knowledge as much as on the authority of the preacher or the scholar. We, however, would be unwise to dismiss the knowledge provided by the scholars or the inspiration by the preachers.
Uriah Y. Kim is professor of Hebrew Bible at Hartford Seminary. He earned a B.A. at New York University, an M.Div. at Princeton Theological Seminary, M.Th. at Emory University, and a Ph.D. from the Graduate Theological Union. Kim has published two books: Identity and Loyalty in the David Story: A Postcolonial Reading and Decolonializing Josiah: Toword a Postcolonial Reading of the Deuteronomistic History. He has also made contributions in other books, including The Peoples' Bible.