catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 4, Num 23 :: 2005.12.16 — 2005.12.29


Confessions of a Fundamentalist Librarian

Or How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love Postmodernism

“…Of making many books there is no end; and much study is a weariness of the flesh.”

So wrote the weary King Solomon several millennia ago. And if he was tired with the amount of written knowledge then, he would be downright catatonic now. In library school, for a t-shirt contest, I wanted to picture this verse with a pull down menu on the word “books,” listing above it “clay tablets,” “scrolls,” and beneath it “magazines,” “microfilm,” “microfiche,” “CD-ROMs,” “web sites,” “MUDs,” “MUSHs.” It is a list only a librarian could love.

The potential metaphors are endless, but we are drowning in a sea of information. And with the advent of web pages and blogs, the power to promulgate individual views is astounding. Gutenberg, I think, would gasp and perhaps be appalled. The chicken to this technological egg, or is it the egg to the chicken, has been the tremendous influence of postmodern theory. Actually, one is not necessarily causative of the other, but postmodernism has forced a great democratization of information and knowledge, and consequently, to a certain degree, a sharing of power. The icon of our day, Google, orders its list of results only on the criterion of how often a page is linked to, irrespective of its content. These factors make discernment a challenge.

Since some hardcore postmodern theories would call into question the very enterprise of discernment, let?s begin with it. Now if you want a more precise definition of postmodernism and why Christians should be bothered with addressing it, you would do well to read Francis Schaeffer or C. S. Lewis, both of whom predicted some of its more potentially insidious effects about half a century ago. In true postmodern fashion, though, the only account I care to give you is a story, my story, which involves an intellectual crisis and a girl.

My intellectual journey really picked up steam, paradoxically, when it came to a halt. An undergraduate InterVarsity career of classical apologetics based on reason and logic, ran into the postmodern, graduate swamp of English theory, and the wheels came off. How could I make absolute truth claims or claim normative status for anything? Were not my assertions, yes even the logic with which I arrived at them, simply a social construction? A product of the rules of my own “interpretive community?” Rules which worked only for my interpretive community? Indeed, was not everything only a social construction: the meaning of a text, the very notion of a “text” itself, gender, nature, wilderness, the universe?

I am grossly simplifying here, but I was being told that everything was a simply a matter of perception and that perception itself was merely a function of the group in which I was raised. More extreme theories posited that perception was the only thing, that nothing real, touchable, bendable, breakable, existed. It was such overreaching that helped show me the way out of the swamp. I am still determining whether that initial car that lost its wheels has come out with me or not, but I am here, and in me my faith still exists.

Ultimately, I saw that continuous deconstruction and unraveling simply led to paralysis, and worse, to nihilism. Many years ago, Francis Schaeffer in essence said, “Show me the money,” asking students to follow through to the end, to where their worldview would lead them. He would then ask them to consider whether this was both a desirable end and an end that accorded with reality. Doing this myself allowed me to identify and reject the nihilistic tendencies of many of the postmodern theories I was being taught.

A consideration of the struggle for power was another help in getting unstuck from the swamp. Many forms of postmodern literary criticism, Marxist, feminist, gay and lesbian, to name a few, exist principally to create a variety of interpretations of texts and of history, and, so, to share the power of “naming” what a text is saying, of setting the agenda. Sharing of power is a goal that is central to the postmodern enterprise, and one, I might add, which I find commendable. Nowhere in the formulations of postmodern theories themselves, however, could I find a reason to actually share power. Indeed, if everything is socially constructed, why should not the group that constructed the notion that “might is right” be allowed very legitimately to claim all power.

My time in the swamp did, however, teach me many important things. It taught me that many of the things that I once held to be absolutes, and hence incumbent for all people, were, truly, more social constructions of my own group. Indeed, the concept that groups, or interpretive communities, shape and, yes, perhaps even help create how we see the world is valid one. Only extreme applications of this principle which rule out the possibility of anything natural or universal existing are problematic. Otherwise, this notion helps me be more careful in evaluating the beliefs I am enjoining upon others.

An example of the power of groups is language. Language is conventional, i.e. words mean specific things only because a group of people, a convention, agrees, consciously or not, that they will mean those things. If nothing else proves this, slang does. I learned that controlling the naming of things, of priorities, of places, of possibilities, of people in a society does consolidate power, and it is important to consider who gets to do this.

As promised, the second part of my story involves a girl or rather more precisely, the nature of my relationship with her. You may have been in a high school science class in which the teacher put a little bit of sodium in water. If you have witnessed that drama of attraction and explosiveness, you might get some idea of how it was with her and me. It was a little like Jerry Falwell hooking up with Cyndi Lauper. We fought about everything: music, hair color, worship, alternative medicine, yoga, adoption, dancing. It was a wonder that it lasted four years. And it was a wonder that lasted four years. But along with Forrest, a classic postmodern personality, “That’s all I’m going to say about that.”

I bring this relationship up at all only to point out that it also helped in the process of seriously dislodging some faulty and restrictive thinking in my own mind. What Christian grounds did I have in tightly proscribing hair color or what freedoms were permitted other believers? Was I right in totally rejecting a discipline like yoga, even if my girlfriend insisted she was not interested one bit in its religious aspects? How could I dismiss alternative medicine without even looking into it? What were my grounds for aesthetics and for criticizing quixotic artistic expression or hipster clothing?

My answers to these questions, some of which I continue to ponder, are not really important, though I have dyed my hair (albeit with henna), pierced my ear, considered a tattoo, and munch Echinacea when I have the sniffles. What is important is that I further learned to question what my, relatively speaking, narrow, fundamentalist upbringing told me were the only answers to these questions, not because questioning is inherently good but because it helps to sort through what is vital and what is incidental, arbitrary, socially constructed. I am learning to not let my initial reaction upon meeting something new to be one of fear and constriction, but one of curiosity and of confidence that I will be able to sort things out. In short, I am learning how to breathe.

A word on the Faith and then we’ll see how this long ramble connects to discernment: I continue to believe in Christianity because I believe it best describes reality and the human condition. Do I have absolute proof that it is true? No. But I believe it because it is a story rooted in history, begun with Abraham in the fertile ground of Mesopotamia and completed just a little west of there by Jesus Christ. This belief requires trust in storytellers throughout the ages, that they, indeed, faithfully passed on what they saw and experienced in history. It is a remarkable level of trust, but I believe them and the story that they convey. Most importantly, I believe in the words of the person of Jesus, which they passed down. And, ultimately, I believe Jesus.

In my work as a librarian, I teach people how to evaluate Internet sources. And what I teach them essentially is a more practical application of what I have been describing here. The validity of a web page stands or falls on who it knows, on the stories of which it is a part. Who is the author? What group does she belong to? What are they about? What are her credentials? What group gave them to her? Now I do not phrase the questions in this way, but this essentially is what is being done when I ask students to examine the web address and check what sort of affiliations an author has to see if they are telling the truth about their credentials. When I ask them to check if the page has a bibliography, I am asking whether the “story” of the author is corroborated by other “stories.”

And if one objects that this seems a rather fuzzy way to approach discernment of sources, it is simply how it has always been done with print or verbal information as well. We judge information, largely by with whom it is connected. It is not a failsafe way because neither guilt nor merit should only be determined by association, but it ain’t a bad way to start. Catholics are enjoined to look for the Imprimatur on works of theology to be sure of their orthodoxy. Protestants, too, of all stripes, form initial judgments about theological material by the publisher. “John Knox” and “Presbyterian & Reformed” both are Presbyterian presses, but the materials they publish align roughly with separate denominations, and a reading churchwoman will quickly learn which she prefers.

When it comes to blogs or personal web sites, it will generally become clear what connections an author values, what stories he listens to and bothers retelling. Now it will not do to use these connections and lines simply to construct a box for the person, a cage if you will, to pin them inside. That is simply stereotyping. But nonetheless, these can be helpful in discernment.

Now some may be thinking that the word “story” has been bandied about rather too much in this article. But I believe that that is one of the strengths of postmodernism, that everything can be described in terms of story, even a science experiment. “Well, yesterday I took a marble and a bowling ball…” and “Galileo went up the Leaning Tower with some cannonballs…” Also, the postmodern concept of interpretive communities, or simply communities, is also useful. We do everything, “no man is an island,” in groups, including, and perhaps especially, processing information or interpreting life. Moreover, we are part of a multiplicity of groups for a variety of purposes. In each we process information for different reasons that may vary in importance.

What my journey, yes, my story, has taught me is that I can relax and breathe and tell and be told stories in many, many contexts, trusting all the while that the key features of the central story in which Christians believe, no the central storyteller in whom they believe will faithfully help in the listening to and acting on them appropriately, that he, indeed, will faithfully lead us to the point where we will begin that “Great Story which no one on earth has read: which goes on for ever: in which every chapter is better than the one before.”

Neil E. Das is a reference librarian at Lewis and Clark Community College in Godfrey, Illinois and author of The Dassler Effect. The closing quote of this article is from C.S. Lewis.

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