Balancing Acts – Postmodernism and the Sundance Kid

tom b

by Tom Beutel

My son, do not forget my teaching, but keep my commands in your heart,

 for they will prolong your life many years and bring you peace and prosperity.

(Proverbs 3:1-2, NIV)

There is a scene in the classic movie “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” in which one of Butch’s men, Harvey Logan, challenges Butch’s authority. After a bit of back and forth they decide to have a knife fight to settle the dispute. The following dialogue occurs:

Butch Cassidy: No, no, not yet. Not until me and Harvey get the rules straightened out.

Harvey Logan: Rules? In a knife fight? No rules!

[Butch immediately kicks Harvey in the groin]

Butch Cassidy: Well, if there aint’ [sic] going to be any rules, let’s get the fight started.     Someone count. 1,2,3 go.

Sundance Kid: [quickly] 1,2,3, go!

            [Butch knocks Harvey out]                               

This brief encounter highlights two characteristics of the postmodern mindset prevalent in today’s western culture: challenging authority and the desire to be free of rules. It also illustrates where this typically leads – to conflict and violence.

Postmodernism is defined in relation to modernism – the period roughly from the early 1500’s to the late 1900’s during which science and reason were in the ascendancy. Characteristics of the modern era include a belief in absolute truth which can be discovered by human reason and experience, and authority that derives from knowledge and the natural order of the universe.

Francis Bacon, an early modernist, asserted that “the real, legitimate, and only goal of the sciences is the ‘endowment of human life with new inventions and riches.’” But when science and reason failed to consistently deliver the promised riches, disillusionment arose and postmodernism was born.

It is this state of disillusionment that gives rise to the postmodern idea that the “old” institutions and ways of doing things – that is the modern, rational way – do not work. Authority based on a modern, rational philosophy is not legitimate nor are the rules – the way things are done – valid. To paraphrase Harvey Logan, “Rules? In the postmodern time? No rules!”

Two things should raise red flags for Christians and peacemakers about the postmodern era. First, as shown in the scene from “Butch Cassidy,” challenging authority and living without rules leads to conflict and violence. The second is that the postmodern philosophy runs contrary to Biblical teaching as the quote from Proverbs shows.

The matter of authority is complex. It is certainly true that there are people and institutions in authority that are oppressive and unjust. Those suffering in such situations certainly do not want to hear a message that authority is to be respected, the status quo maintained. Nevertheless, the Bible tells us that, “there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God.” (Romans 13:1b, NIV)

We can, and should, petition those in authority or act in nonviolent ways to change policies that are oppressive or unjust, all the while remembering that the idea of authority, and in many cases particular authority, are established by God. The postmodern idea of challenging and rejecting authority is not God’s way and is not, ultimately, the way of peace. All too often one oppressive, unjust authority is replaced by another which just as bad or worse.

The passage from Romans 13 quoted above actually begins with Paul saying, “Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities.” This implies that there are in fact rules and that we should live by them by and large. God’s creation is one of order, operating by principles that govern everything from the movement of the planets to how people should live.

A final note. To extend some grace of a sort to postmodernists, we should realize that this rejecting authority and desire to live outside the rules has roots far deeper than a disillusionment with the modern era. It began in the Garden of Eden when Adam and Eve rejected God’s authority and broke His one rule regarding eating fruit from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.

It is inherently human to want to do things our own way. God establishes authority and sets rules for our well-being. It is our job to act in ways that are consistent with God’s established ways and thus promote peace and well-being for people and for God’s larger creation.

Editor’s Note: Tom Beutel, a regular contributor to PeaceSigns, is Professor Emeritus of Computer Science at Mount Vernon Nazarene University in Mount Vernon, Ohio. Balancing Acts is a monthly feature of PeaceSigns.




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