Interview with Carl Raschke: GloboChrist

January 18, 2009
Posted by Joe Gorra

We interviewed Carl Raschke, a professor and chairperson of the department of religious studies at the University of Denver, about his recent book, GloboChristi: The Great Commission Takes a Postmodern Turn (Baker Academic, 2008).

What is “GloboPomo” and how might Christian philosophers pay attention to it in the way that they engage ideas?

The term “globopomo” is a word I crafted in the book to convey forcefully the sense that what we in the developed world blandly term the “postmodern world” these days is ultimately the emerging globalized world. The process of globalization , which is often misunderstood as involving mainly finance and communications, challenges Christian thinkers in particular to think through questions that have been in the past remained largely local, regional, or simply hemispheric – we might also add culture-specific, sectarian, and denominational – in scope.

Borrowing from the argot of French philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, we can say that globalization is an ongoing, simultaneous transformation of nations, cultures, and religious outlooks and practices everywhere on the planet which they term “de-territorialization.” De-territorialization, especially in the field of anthropology, has come to mean the uncoupling of meaning from its specific historical site, or locus. Thus, for example, “Mexican food” really has little to do with cuisine consumed regularly in Mexico. The growth of Christianity in Roman times represented a de-territorialization of what were once exclusively Jewish signs and symbols – e.g., the notion of the Messiah. Paul’s writings is a treasure trove of globalized, and thus de-territorialized, Jewish soteriology and eschatology.

But this “de-territorialization” is what makes Christianity distinctive historically. It is also the key to what we understand as the unique Christian revelation. Now we are witnessing on an impressive scale the de-territorialization of what until recently was considered a “Western religion.” The book plays off the unquestionable sociological reality that the center of gravity of world Christianity is rapidly moving from the developed West (or the “global north”) to the developing world, or the “global south.” That is far more than a geographical trend. Our very notion of what it means to be “Christian” is being de-territorialized. De-territorialization is a word that applies to the history of culture and ideas in the same way that “de-construction,” which is closely associated with postmodernism, applies to the reading of texts. God is using history to deconstruct Christianity. But, of course, he is “deconstructing” it to fulfill what Christ commanded us to do in the first place – “make disciples of all nations.” The theology of globopomo is the incipient new theology of the Great Commission.

Tell us about yourself. How would you describe your own journey as a Christian? How has that journey helped shape what you are passionate about in GloboChrist?

A good bit of my own “journey” or long process of spiritual formation is laid out in my earlier book The Next Reformation (Baker Academic 2004). I won’t rehash it here. All I can say is that God is constantly encountering me, transforming me, and of course using me in both subtle and obvious ways, which have varied from era to era. I’m chronologically older than a lot of people who know me realize, which means only that I’ve been around. I guess I could best sum up my life with the famous words of The Grateful Dead – “it’s been a long, strange trip.” But so is God’s story from Abraham through the prophets through Jesus to the present. The story keeps going on. That story is “His-story,” and of course his-story and her-story. As to why I’m passionate about what I write in GloboChrist, that’s pretty easy to explain.

I was getting tired of all the controversy – and really rather silly and unproductive bickering about whether we should, shouldn’t, or shoulda or woulda consider ourselves “postmodern.” Or “emergent,” or non-traditional, or whatever. So I asked myself, okay, what does that word “postmodern” really mean. Well, I went one Sunday to a rather mainstream, relatively large church in Arlington, Texas and I heard an aging missionary give a passionate testimony about why he was living out his seeking to fulfill the Great Commission. The pomo crowd doesn’t usually take missionaries very seriously, but for some reason it just hit me (or God hit me over the head, take your pick), not quite like on the road to Damascus, but close. The guy didn’t talk all about the “souls” he was saving. He talked about doing his own little part to be obedient to Christ’s global command to us on his resurrection appearance. And I thought to myself, “that guy is more postmodern than anyone who’s read all of Derrida five times over.”

You claim that “Relational Christianity is postmodern Christianity” (italics in original, 20). Can you briefly explain what you mean? How and why is “relational Christianity” not premodern Christianity, for example?

I’m not sure how to answer such a question, because I’m not making a “claim.” Claims are for lawyers, argumentative philosophers, and mining assayers. As one of my good friends and former grad students who is a “missional” megachurch pastor in Denver would put it, if it’s in the Word of God, which it is, it’s not a “claim.” There’s a difference between a claim we make about God and how God reveals himself to us. God reveals himself to us as the “relational God.” We can start with the nature of human beings made in the “image of God,” which is an image of pure relationality, as Karl Barth has insisted. But we need only to reference the Emmanuel prophecy. Our God is inextricably “God with us.” That’s what makes Christianity unique, and it’s why all evangelicals say you have to have a relationship to God (not “claim” you have a relationship to God) to be saved. It’s also an argument against those who deny the Trinity.

Now when I say that “is” postmodern Christianity, I’m not historicizing it. Obviously, it is Christianity, as I’ve indicated. But I find it not a little significant that those who spend most of their times among evangelical theologians attacking the straw man of “postmodernism” and insist they are defending Biblical Christianity rarely dwell on this fact of God’s relationality. They want to defend the “truth claims” of Scripture, etc. Scripture doesn’t make claims about anything at all. Through Scripture God claims us, and claims our lives, or whole lives, our whole being. Christian Scripture is not our “revelation.” Our revelation is the person of Jesus Christ himself, a person with whom we are in relationship with and who dwells in the midst of our relationship with others, who reveals himself in those relationships. As I’m fond of saying, if you want your revelation to be a book or set of texts, you might as well become a Muslim. When I say “relational Christianity is postmodern Christianity” I’m saying that, theologically speaking, we’ve finally got a handle in our postmodern age what Christianity is all about. We lost that sense long ago, maybe as far back as the second century.

In GloboPomo, a decent amount of attention is given to the influence of Islam and eschatology and its relevancy in the “postmodern moment”. Can you briefly explain their importance for understanding the times we live in and the sort of realities that confront global Christian witness.

Let’s go back to what I just said in answer to the last question. Islam is the 800-pound gorilla in today’s world, and that includes the Christian world. We in the West don’t seem to want to talk about it in a honest way, though I can say most Muslims do, if we would let them. We either want to make it a ferocious bogey (on the right) that somehow threatens the foundations of our “American way of life”, or on the left we want to trivialize it as a bunch of people with “alternative life styles” that we need to be more understanding of. A lot of those on the religious left seem to put Islam in the same category as being gay or being vegan – in other words, one more colorful specimen of “otherness” that we can admire while we’re pushing our conceptual shopping cart down the great supermarket isle of cultural and religious diversity.

Of course, if any of these people actually studied Islam closely, which they don’t, they might have quite a different take. Islam claims to be the “final revelation,” and that Mohammed is the “seal of the prophets.” In other words, Islam purports to have the final truth – about everything. That’s why I say we are experiencing not a “clash of civilizations,” but the historical working out of what is a “clash of revelations.” And revelation is about what is final, i.e, about how things are shown to be the case in the final summation, i.e, about eschatology. Before the worldwide Islamic revival that really started in the late 1960s, we didn’t have to take Islam that seriously, because it didn’t take itself that seriously. But now it does. The Islamic revival is not at all about a bunch of “extremists.” That’ s our own condescending, wishful thinking. It’s about people taking seriously the depth and passion of their own eschatological commitments. We ignore our own real Christian commitments at our own peril.

What we have in the West, and just as much in the “emergent” church as in the traditional church, is a tendency to substitute the spiritual version of “consumer choices” for committed Christianity. It’s what I call “Burger King Christianity.” We say to our followers, like the old Burger King slogan, “have it your way.” You want a good, intellectually satisfying, evidentially grounded defense of Christian doctrine? We’ve got it. You want to get transported away in the ecstasy of worshiping God through music and swaying with the music? Well, we’ve got that too. You want a group of people who think like you, and believe God is a Republican, if you’re a Republican, or God is a Democrat, if you’re a Democrat, hey, of course we aim to please. Take your pick. It’s your choice. No, actually, it’s not our choice. We are the ones who are chosen. We only have the choice, as in Mission Possible, of accepting the mission for which we are chosen. I ask basically in the book, are we as Christians “eschatologically committed” to our own revelation (not to our own personal ideologies and life-style choices), the reality of the Personhood of Jesus Christ, King of Kings and Lord of Lords? Are we committed in a global sense?

If a North American Christian philosopher is to take your GloboChrist seriously and attempt to apply your thesis and perspective to their thinking Christianly about matters of philosophy, theology and apologetics, how would you like to see your book influence them?

As I’ve indicated, I haven’t customized my writing for what I think you might mean when you say “North American Christian philosopher.” I’m writing for Christians who happen to have an interest in postmodern philosophy – and theories of globalization – rather than, say, gourmet cooking. But I’m writing for those who are willing to let go of what they think they require to be convinced. As the Gospels show us, the people who always had the best, technical – and often “philosophical” – arguments were the Pharisees. And Jesus didn’t seem to ever convince them. How could he? “Hearing they will not hear.”

I’m not saying the “North American Christian philosopher” can’t be convinced (though he should be “convicted”), nor am I necessarily comparing him, or her, to a Pharisee. But people who have the best arguments often have the least sensitivity to what God is trying to say. That’s perhaps why, as the Gospels tell us, Jesus spoke in parables. All I can say to them, or anyone else for that matter, is “study the Bible, go listen to some people, read some philosophical and social theoretical books, and ultimately experience God in a way you’re not used to doing.” That’s how I came to write this book in the first place.

More of Carl Raschke can be found at his This interview was the result of an advertisement agreement with Baker Academic.