Rashomon, and Why Jesus is a Postmodernist

For a film buff, I really don’t own that many DVDs — somewhere in the neighborhood of 30-40, and most of them were either gifts or finds at a Blockbuster 5-for-$20 sale. One of the films I’ve made sure to add to my collection, though, is Rashomon, a low-budget samurai flick from the legendary Japanese director Akira Kurosawa. I wrote several papers over it during my undergrad years, and now I’m working on another one for a graduate course I’m taking. I’m far from the first to write about it, though, since it was such a revolutionary film. Every western, crime movie, and art house drama — every movie — from the last 60-odd years has stolen something from it.

Rashomon isn’t a narrative film. It tells the same crime story — a rape and a murder — four different times, each time from a different character’s perspective. It’s not a mystery, though. It’s not a film that invites you to piece together what happened and figure out whodunnit. All four stories are entirely different, and mutually exclusive. And all four characters take credit for the murder.

Rashomon is a deeply postmodern film because at its core it denies the existence of “truth.” Each character involved in the incident constructs his or her own truth, recalling the same events, but casting them in a light that is both self-aggrandizing and self-incriminating. And Kurosawa has no interest in telling you “what really happened,” because there is no “what really happened.” Without an observer, there’s no event to be observed, and there has never in history been such a thing as a neutral observer.

This idea — the denial of a “Truth” that exists outside the mind of the observer — is a frightening one to a lot of people, particularly people in the more conservative wings of the Church. It’s pretty difficult to get around it, though. Regardless of what we’d like, we’re all stuck in our own heads, and our ways of communicating with the world and with others are of necessity limited. Our five senses can only sense so much, and human language is a clumsy and inexact thing. Even the things we say we “know absolutely” are really just the things we doubt the least — and therefore put the most faith in.

Sometimes that faith is well-placed. Sometimes it’s not. And we can only confirm it by observing the evidence — which is pointless if we haven’t already presupposed the validity of the evidence itself.

There are schools of thought that ignore this uncertainty by putting a number and a figure on everything. Anything you want to prove can be proven with data collection and number-crunching. Every interaction can be reduced to a simple equation. Anything that hasn’t already been explained can and will be explained by testing, measurement, and generalization.

But people aren’t numbers. And things aren’t numbers.

There’s no such thing as a “liter.” There’s no such thing as a “percent.” Your data on that page that show me the laws that rule the universe are just a bunch of lies. Convenient and useful lies. But still lies.

I’m taking a class right now on qualitative inquiry, an approach to human behavior that sets fire to statistics and graphs, and instead embraces people as people, and listens to their narratives. It’s a postmodern discipline because it rejects the idea of repeatable, generalizable truth. “The whole point of qual work,” my professor told me, “is to undermine the work of empiricists.” We reject absolute truth because the truth is far too messy to be absolute. Without a postmodern framework, there’s nothing to stand up to the tyranny of empiricism. There’s no way to deny “laws,” which stubbornly insist that nothing will ever change. There’s no way to question damning generalizations, and there’s no room for narrative.

Those in the Church that gripe every Sunday morning about how lost our “postmodern culture” is have no idea that the only reason they reject postmodernism is because they were raised with stale, Enlightenment-era empiricism. Their idea of Absolute Truth — a set of propositions and laws that must be assented to — is a post-Renaissance European idea, not a milennia-old Christian one.

Absolute Truth is real — but He is a Person, not a thing. And that Person exists in a narrative, as do we. And his Holy Book is a narrative, not a list of factoids. And the narrative in which He, and we, exist, is not a pile of matter in motion, obeying the laws of the universe. It is matter, and spirit, standing up and defying the laws that say that all must decay and all must burn. God becoming man. A virgin giving birth. A thousand sinners being made clean. Empiricism has no room for any of this. But narrative does.

Without narrative, we cannot stand up to the tyranny of law, and without the narrative of the Gospel, we cannot stand up the tyranny of the Law. Without the one Exception to the rule, the following of every Rule would mean nothing at all, and would damn us.

We don’t know any of this. We “know” nothing, because life without doubt is only yet another empiricist lie. But that is why He asks us for faith, and if you observe the narratives twisting around you, you’ll see where they lead. You’ll see where they meet. And faith will seem like a reasonable and necessary risk to take.

Rashomon is a film that doesn’t resolve. All four characters remain alone in their evil and pride, and the murder is never solved. Nor is the city that crumbles around them rebuilt. But the rain stops falling. And buried in the ruin and decay, an infant is heard crying out into the war-torn anarchy, and life continues. And as a poor woodcutter walks away from the wreckage with his newly adopted child, the background music swells to a triumphant close — not because some mythical Absolute Truth has been uncovered, but simply because the narrative is graciously allowed to proceed.

7 thoughts on “Rashomon, and Why Jesus is a Postmodernist

  1. Yes yes yes! Thank you so much for both a spotlight on a classic film that should really be seen by every person, and a good meditation on Christianity and postmodernism. I don’t understand the fear that many Christians have of letting go of “absolute truth” (though I remember my days back in middle/high school where I would defend it as vigorously as anyone). People seem to fail to grasp that there is a difference between truth itself and our ability to understand truth. Yes, the truth of God is absolute, but it is only ever revealed subjectively. That’s why numbskulls like Francis Schaeffer (yeah, I went there) utterly fail to appreciate Kierkegaard’s place in Christian thought. Among other things.

  2. Sir, how DARE you insult Francis Schaeffer. For your information, I was baptized into the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, which is the one from which he led the Bible Presbyterian Church in a pointless schism, in order to guarantee their fundamental right to be dispensationalist if they felt like it — a right which they later repudiated! As you can see, the man is above reproach.

  3. Luke, there’s a book I have somewhere called Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism: Taking Derrida, Lyotard, and Foucault to Church that you might enjoy reading. It’s a lot like this, a Christian approach to postmodernism. If I ever find it, and if we’re ever in the same place at the same time again, and if there’s a legitimately high chance that I’ll get it back, I could loan it to you sometime.

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