Occasionally a book becomes irrelevant right after it is released. I suspect this may be the case for Gene Veith’s Post-Christian. However, being irrelevant does not mean useless. I am very interested in thinking about how Christians can live for the Kingdom of God and further God’s purposes in Western Culture. So I was excited to dig into Veith’s book, which I received as part of the Crossway Books Blog Review program. However even as I was reading Post-Christian, it appears the cultural currents may again be shifting. In the opening pages, Veith discusses Thomas Oden’s approach to identifying the major cultural trends of the last several centuries, associating them with major disruptive events. Modernism, on this model, was ushered in with the fall of the Bastille during the French Revolution (1789). Modernism ended with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, as Communism seemed to collapse. Veith identifies another shift with the events of 9/11. After 9/11 Postmodernism did not so much collapse as evolve into contemporary Intersectionality and ideological totalitarianism (the same could actually be said about the relationship between Postmodernism and Modernism, and Modernism and “Premodernism”). Whatever we make of this schema for cultural analysis, it is clear the world will look very different at the end of our current crisis. We may very well see the current form of Postmodernism transform into something wholly other or come of age in a new expression.
However, no matter what changes happen in the next couple years, Veith’s book will prove very helpful for the pastor or lay Christian to understand Western Culture over the last 20 years. And many of the issues and trends he discusses will surely continue at the other end of COVID-19. In this book, Gene Veith intends to provide a sequel to his earlier book Postmodern Times, “offering a new ‘Christian guide to contemporary thought and culture’” (18). Veith does a good job summarizing the trends and developments over the last 20 years and offers some helpful suggestions how Christians can live faithfully and witness to the very areas where our society is weak. I will provide a brief summary of the book’s four parts and an evaluation, identifying some areas of weakness and areas where the reader will be benefitted.
Post-Christian is divided into four Parts, each part moving from a description of the current culture to a prescription for how Christianity answers the problem of that culture. Veith intends for the book to have “an arc,” identifying the consequences of secularism in its description and suggesting some prospects for a “post-secular society” in prescription. This is where Veith sees our culture heading, away from the secular / sacred divide of postmodernism (in which spirituality was okay so long as it was private) to a general openness to spirituality or religiousness that may allow Christianity to flourish.
In Part 1, Veith looks at the issues of constructivism, scientific dominance, and technology as they have affected and shaped our society. In Chapter 4 of this first part, Veith describes the post-secular vision of George Hamann, a contemporary of Kant. Hamann will be drawn on throughout the book to answer our contemporary crisis. Essentially, Veith sees Hamman as someone who beats Postmodernism and its children at their own game, critiquing the Enlightenment from a firmly Christian perspective and, therefore, not falling into the relativism of its secular critics.
Part 2 considers the degradation of the body in Postmodern society. Veith sees a proper theology of the body, and so marriage and children (among other things), as a prescriptive response to the radical Gnosticism of Postmodernism. Postmodernism is Gnostic, Veith argues, in its rejection of matter and its distinctive biological features for mental constructivism.
Part 3 considers the degradation of community and society under Postmodernism. Veith unveils the lack of community within western culture and the ideological totalitarianism of the new Postmodernism, of intersectionality. In his constructive chapter, Veith discusses several options taken by Christians to address the societal issues created by Postmodernism and suggests a doctrine of vocation as the Christian answer to many of these issues. Having written a book on the subject, Veith does not explain with sufficient detail (at least in my opinion) what a robust doctrine of vocation would look like.
Part 4 concludes the body of Post-Christian by considering religion. In this regard, the post 9/11 incarnation of Postmodernism has taken an interesting turn. Veith shows that far from dying as Secularisation Theory anticipated, religiosity or at least spirituality is actually on the rise in the 21st century. In the final chapter, Veith shows how secularism has infiltrated the church to some extent, yet global Christianity is on the rise and proving to be a force for de-secularisation. As such, this final chapter is not so much prescriptive as it is a contextualization of the true extent of secularism in the global context: Western Christianity may have struggled in the 20th century, but global Christianity is blooming and proving to be a sanctifying force on the Western Church.
Overall, there is much good to say about Post-Christian. Veith is a good writer; though over 300 pages long, Post-Christian is not a terribly difficult or lengthy read. Veith demonstrates a thorough familiarity with our culture, both its roots and current manifestations. The breadth of this survey will be a great help to the reader who does not have enough to time to explore the complexities of contemporary Western society. Furthermore, in contrast with many books, Veith answers the question “does Christianity have any answer to the crises of our day” with a resounding “Yes!” For these reasons, Post-Christian will be a welcome addition to the library of many pastors and students of Western culture. I recommend it to those looking for a better understanding of our culture (or at least, our culture before its current crisis). That said, I have several concerns with the overall approach and some sections of Post-Christian.
Compared with many writers (such as Neil Postman), Veith is not nearly as negative as he could be in the chapter on technology. However, after doing a good job raising the issues of our society’s “technopoly,” I don’t think Veith counters these issues sufficiently in his attempt to end on a positive note. The issues are huge, so this is understandable, but the reader who has not thought or read about these issues before may just find themselves with a new reading list rather than a helpful, Christian answer for interacting with and not being mastered by technology. More significantly, at least from a Reformed Protestant perspective, Veith does not spend sufficient time bringing the Scriptures to bear on the present issues. He provides enough proof texts to show that this is possible, but his main intent (at least it seems) is to do ressourcement: to show how a previous thinker, in this case George Hamann, can guide us through our contemporary crisis. Ressourcement is in itself a troublesome endeavour (in my opinion) but choosing Hamann as the object of ressourcement is even more troublesome. Hamann’s thought is difficult, so he will be out of the reach of most readers, and it seems to me that Veith attributes to Hamann greater value than is reasonable (I don’t think it is historically or substantially accurate to describe his Metacritique of the Purism of Reason as the “definitive” refutation of Kant’s thought, pg. 81). Lastly, Veith follows many Evangelical’s today in adopting too high a view of Western culture and its tradition. This is evident in the classical approach to education that is currently experiencing resurgence and receives Veith’s endorsement here, but Veith also speaks several times of a Christian approach to society “that can preserve the best of our civilization’s heritage through the new dark ages” (277, cf. 225-227). I have serious reservations about classical education and such a view of Western civilization. I am currently working on several writing projects that will expound these concerns further; however, for now all I can do is offer a caution to the reader: should this really be a priority for Christians? With these concerns registered, I do not hesitate to offer Veith’s book as a helpful guide to contemporary Western culture (or at least pre-March 2020 Western culture).