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Shadow of Spirit

Clive Marsh reviews Shadow of Spirit – Postmodernism and Religion, edited by Philippa Berry and Andrew Wernick.

Depending on who you are talking to, postmodernism is a contemporary fad with no real intellectual content to it which is already on the wane, the most exciting cultural shift in a long time, or a confusing collection of disparate ideas – some of them very important – which have been loosely grouped together. I tend towards the third option and believe that my judgment is confirmed by this book. The nineteen essays presented here derive in the main from a 1990 Cambridge conference and are grouped under three main heads; ‘Maps and Positions’, ‘Ethics and Politics’ and ‘Gender and Psyche’. Their common thread, though it really is only a thread, is a concern to identity postmodernism’s impact on appreciation of the sacred (understood in the widest sense possible).

As one would expect from a collection of essays, and the more so from a collection of essays on postmodernism, the range of topics covered and the accessibility of their style and language vary enormously. Williams on Hegel and Derrida, Finn on spirituality and politics, Schwartz on nationhood in biblical scholarship and, above all, Cupitt, who offers a defence of unsystematic ethics and politics, tax the reader least with their style. Mark C. Taylor and Robert Magliola, by contrast, are frequently opaque in their linguistic playfulness. Admittedly this is an inter-disciplinary collection, and so accessibility to all readers will not only be a matter of style. Theologians, literary scholars and philosophers are placed alongside each other here and at times interact with each other’s thought (e.g. Gillian Rose on Milbank and Taylor) in a way which is good to see. But some of the writing will not persuade readers who come to the book hoping for an introduction to postmodernism that the movement (or is it a ‘mood’?) is anything but unnecessary pretension.

But what about the content? Not all contributors are sympathetic to the postmodern mood. Two of the most critical essays are Milbank’s and Raschke’s. The former argues persuasively that postmodernism is not, in fact, as unmetaphysical or anti-transcendent as is claimed by its leading exponents. The latter notes postmodernism’s importance in its stress on materiality and embodiedness, yet highlights its dangerous tendencies either towards cultural indifference or overemphasis upon the quaint or archaic. Three other essays deserve particular comment. Finn’s feminist critique of postmodernism presses the importance of inbetweenness for understanding the realm of the spiritual. I would not disagree, but would want to question whether her insights truly explain (away) the sense of the beyond, transcendent, absolute etc. as she claims (p117). Hodge goes in search of the background to postmodern thinking about ethics in Hegel and Heidegger and, in contrast to Finn, sees the dimension of the transcendent as unavoidable, whilst welcoming the postmodern emphasis upon the immediate and the local. In one of three pieces on biblical texts, Joplin offers an illuminating reading of the story of the woman taken in adultery (Gospel of John 7.53-8.11). She observes how attention paid to what Jesus may have written on the ground has obscured the significance of Jesus’ embodied action: he bends down and brings himself closer to the earth, stressing the “common origin and end” (p232) of all humankind.

Much more could be said. It is hardly a great book. But it serves a very useful purpose in offering in a relatively cheap format a crosssection of reflections on contemporary religious thought, consciously written against the cultural climate of postmodernism. As a topical and stimulating collection, then, it can be recommended.

© Dr. Clive Marsh 1993

Shadow of Spirit – Postmodernism and Religion, edited by Philippa Berry and Andrew Wernick is published in paperback by Routledge at £12.99.

Clive Marsh lectures in theology in Sheffield

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