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Carl Trueman monergismcomOne of the stars of the Calvinist blogosphere is Dr Carl Trueman.  He is Departmental Chair of Church History at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia. He has an MA in Classics from the University of Cambridge and a PhD in Church History from the University of Aberdeen. He is also an editor and author.

He is also an expert at understanding postmodernism.  In a recent column for Reformation 21, Trueman observes:

… the language of pain and suffering has come to permeate mainstream modern discourse.  Everywhere I look, I find people ‘processing their pain’, ‘feeling the hurt’, or reacting to comments from others that are variously described as ‘hurtful’, ‘insensitive’, or ‘cruel’.

Another opportunity for me to breathe a sigh of relief and say, ‘Phew.  I thought it was just me.’   It’s all over the workplace.  A colleague walks in, says, ‘I can’t believe how rude the woman at the sandwich shop was today!  All I asked for was my usual latte and –‘  the story unfolds over a perceived slight between server and customer.  Before long, someone else pipes up and says, ‘Oh, how hurtful!  Can’t these people see how cruel they are?  Oh, I hope that doesn’t ruin your day.’  Oh, for goodness sake, get over it.  People are rude to each other all the time, especially in a metropolis.  Stop the po-mo self-pity and victimisation!

A couple of years ago I had dinner with a friend.  We briefly — because it’s a banned subject here in Britain — got onto the subject of (gasp!) religion.  He said, ‘It must have been terribly difficult being raised as a Catholic.  I feel so sorry for you.  There must have been a lot of pain.’

I looked at him blankly and said, ‘No, there was no pain at all.  Why would you think that?’

‘From what I read, it’s a very strange environment.  A lot of Catholics end up going into therapy.’

At that point, I almost burst out laughing. I was tempted to ask how he had been churched but, frankly, couldn’t be bothered. 

Anyway, back to Dr Trueman.  He is thinking of correspondence accusing him of ‘personal attacks’ by people of whose existence he was previously unaware.  So, how can they be ‘personal’ and can that person really be ‘hurt’?  Isn’t the argument put forth in the essay or blog post the essential?  (Emphases mine throughout.)

By using the categories of hurt and pain with reference to arguments, one plays the ace in the postmodern hole and effectively focuses attention not on the substance of a position but on the style; or, perhaps more accurately, one transubstantiates the style into the substance.  There has always been something of this in the nature of argument, of course: many of us have attended debates where our brains tell us that the one protagonist has won, but, frankly, he behaved in such an arrogant way that, when the votes are cast, we side with the loser and give him the spoils.  But the modern world seems to have taken this to the next level: everything with which I disagree is so hurtful, every time I suffer a trivial setback I have to process my pain and ethics and argument are all about aesthetics, not truth or falsehood.

And, here’s why Calvinists like Trueman are such a refreshing antidote to the foolishness of society today:

The impact of all this feeling of hurt and processing of pain is twofold.  First, as noted above, it transforms arguments from debates about truth into debates about taste; and that is lethal for Christian orthodoxy.  Now, Paul does talk about aesthetics at points in his writings, and presenting arguments persuasively surely requires attention not just to what is said but to how it is said. But he railed something rotten against those who denied certain truths and proposed certain myths … The mewling and puking among the more aesthetically inclined over my comments about the film Milk on Reformation 21 are a case in point … In today’s public square, it is apparent that plain speaking is unacceptably tasteless in a way that sanctimonious Hollywood sermons about the political radicalization of gay sex are not.

Yes, why is that?  Cultural pressure from diverse groups in a postmodern era. 

Yet, he notes that true pain — physical or psychological — becomes trivialised:

Late last year, I was sent a column from some webpage where [a Christian] was lamenting that they had lost their job.  Now, I spent eighteen months out of work myself at one point in my life; it was not pleasant and I have great personal sympathy with anyone caught in such a situation.  It quickly strips one of self-respect and dignity; but, believe me, bad as it was, it was not analogous to twentieth-century genocides in Europe; yet this was the analogy this person drew and through which they apparently found the strength to carry on.

Trueman places the blame on our postmodern ‘me, me, me’ culture of ego:

How did things come to such a sorry pass that even in the church there are those who discuss theology not so much in the categories of truth and error but of hurt and pain?  Well, postmodern monkey see, postmodern monkey do.  My guess is that the church has come to ape the world …

In terms of intellectual/cultural history, I suspect the fusion of Marxism and Freudianism in the late fifties and sixties in the work of men such as Herbert Marcuse made oppression less a function of economics and more of being forced to be `inauthentic’ by society.  This, combined with Freud’s view of the subconscious and Marxism’s false consciousness, meant that all disagreements could come to be seen as oppressive, and that, however plausible my arguments against your position might seem, they are really masks hiding my attempts to oppress or control you …

The importance of therapy in modern America is one key sign that the rarified philosophy of these men has penetrated in practical ways to the commonplace level of everyday life and routine.  The net effects are evident everywhere: nobody can dare to say that their position is superior to anybody else’s because that denigrates, marginalizes, represses, and oppresses.   That therapy, conversation, and a general prioritizing of aesthetic categories now grips the church and its own moral and theological discourse should be a cause for real concern.   In a world devoid of truth content, claims to truth are oppressive and thus personal, hurtful, and distasteful; and the church seems, by and large, to be buying into just this kind of namby-pamby nonsense.

Yes, and this is what worries me, too.  And, I hope that the Calvinists — the ‘last men standing’, so to speak — don’t fall victim to it.  But, lately, I’ve begun seeing posts about European heritage-guilt, social justice, voting Left ‘according to the Bible’ (hmm) and super-kewl church services as well as photographs of metrosexually-attired ministers (what was wrong with the authoritative suit and tie?). 

I had almost made a couple of potential converts to Calvinism — and if we’d had a Reformed church nearby, I have no doubt these people would have attended. So, please do not make the same mistake every other church has!  It will only end in tears for the congregation!  (This blog details horror stories from other denominations — see for yourselves!)

But, I digress.  Trueman notes the recent po-mo phenomenon of ‘hurt mail’:

But I think there is more to this phenomenon of hurt and pain than a mere aping of the culture.  It is more cunning and dishonest than that … Hurt mailers, by comparison, are rather more subtle and duplicitous: by claiming pain, they immediately do two things.  First, they make themselves the poor victims; and second, they imply that the targets of this hurt mailing are intentionally malicious perpetrators.  The game is precisely the same as with hate mail — to make someone whom they dislike or whose opinions they discount shut up — but the tactic is different: to win by seizing the moral high ground that belongs to the professional victim.

… Expressions of hurt are too often really something else: cowardly attempts by representatives of a cosseted and self-obsessed culture to make themselves uniquely important or, worse still, to bully and cajole somebody they dislike to stop saying things they don’t want to hear or which they find distasteful.

Isn’t this a breath of fresh air?  I would love to hear something like this from the pulpit — anytime, anywhere.  It’s so true and, for that reason, it blows postmodernism out of the water.

For more articles on postmodernism, click here.

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