When I first picked up this volume, I fully expected the argument that dominates its first hundred pages. In the book’s initial chapters, Downing advances a deceptively simple claim: namely, that “postmodernism serves faith. It certainly has served mine” (19). Chapter one defends this claim autobiographically, narrating how the author’s discovery of the “situatedness” of all truth claims allowed her to reclaim her Christian identity in the secular academy. The next three chapters narrate a different but related history: the rise of postmodern thought, from its origins in modernism (ch. 2), through postmodern developments in literature and the arts (ch. 3), to the Christian “antifoundationalism” of Radical Orthodoxy and certain strands of neopragmatism (ch. 4). Downing points out that, far from undermining Christian orthodoxy, postmodern thinkers actually undermine its modernist critics. She writes: “ . . . when postmodernism exposed that the modernist denial of Christian truth was merely a human construction—a vault inside ‘the modern’ house—it allowed for the return of what modernism had entombed: Christian faith. With the return of faith, the house of modernism fell” (77).
Thus far, no surprises. But the remainder of the book goes well beyond “the enemy of my enemies is my friend” position to a creative reconsideration of Christian truth and Christian confession in a postmodern age.
One of the first signals of a more profound enquiry comes when—in chapter four—Downing classifies Christian fundamentalists along with “de-mythologizers,” “cultural conservatives,” and “objectivists” as living “in the modernist mansion” that crumbles before postmodern critiques (103-9). Then, in the next two sections of the book, Downing delves more deeply into “deconstruction” and the cultural construction of knowledge (chs. 5-6), as well as addressing the charge of “relativism” (ch. 7), before concluding with some suggestions for fostering a more critical and authentic form of American evangelicalism (ch. 8). Downing largely grants the postmodern critique of “objective” knowledge, but denies that this erodes Christian faith. It turns us instead toward what, following Jacques Derrida, Downing characterizes as “the possibility of ‘the Impossible’: that there may be something—the ‘messianic’—that transcends human language. It is ‘impossible’ because as soon as we attempt to communicate this Truth, we conform it to our towers” (206-7).
Downing, a self-identified evangelical Protestant writing for an evangelical press, does not capitulate to relativism; in fact, her chapter on the topic suggests that the term encompasses so many diverse and mutually contradictory positions that its explanatory value may be very limited. Instead, she points readers toward mystical experience, relationality, and the concrete practice of love as better guarantors of Christian identity than pseudo-modernist claims to “objective” truth. Postmodernism does not insulate Christians from critique, in Downing’s view; instead, it encourages us to rebuild our evangelical witness on a more complex, and ever-shifting, foundation.
In a book that popularizes difficult ideas, the author inevitably risks over-simplification. One wonders, for example, whether the repeated metaphor of construction-paper towers in an athletic field really captures the diversity of “discursive practices” and religious claims. I also found myself growing impatient with the frequent references to C.S. Lewis and Dorothy L. Sayers as ideal models for contemporary Christians coming to grips with postmodern thought. Anyone who has ever attempted to write at a popular level—much less teach undergraduates—is likely to grant Downing a good deal of latitude on this score. Downing’s basic argument in favour of Christian “positionality” is persuasive, and she provides an accessible introduction to many influential postmodern thinkers along the way. And her sharp indictment of those who offer verbal protests against “postmodernism” while capitulating to a no less “postmodern” consumer culture (209-11) should give any thoughtful reader pause.
Most importantly, Downing offers a thoughtful, compelling and non-defensive reflection on Christian witness in a pluralistic world. The dialogue with postmodenism is not made merely with an eye to survival, but also with evident curiosity and conviction that one might, through such dialogue, become a more authentic disciple of Christ. Perhaps for this reason more than any other, How Postmodernism Serves (My) Faith recommends itself as an excellent text for the undergraduate theology classroom. There is much here to challenge the presuppositions of Christian evangelical and post-Christian skeptic alike.