“Signs and wonders” is a biblical trope that signifies variously. It can mark spectacles of salvation or judgement, miraculous events of healing or exorcism, shows of prophetic and apostolic authority, or confirmations of authentic faith. However, it can also mark sites of temptation and deception. Demons and false prophets are capable of signs and wonders, and both Matthew and Luke have Jesus warn that seeking after a sign is “evil and adulterous.” The only sign that will be given, Jesus announces, is that of the prophet Jonah, that prophet who fled from the divine call and was swallowed up at sea. In “postmodern” lingo, we might say that “signs and wonders” announces a textual slippage or undecidability. Neither decidedly good nor decidedly evil, the Bible’s “signs and wonders” place its reader in ambiguous territory—between the divine and the demonic, both of which lure through spectacle. Theology too occupies this fraught territory, where the struggle to read signs, to discern the difference of icon from idol, is never-ending.
The “signs and wonders” of Ellen Armour’s Signs & Wonders likewise signify variously and ambiguously. Four recent American events and their photographic traces structure the telling of a Foucaultian-esque “history of the present” (15) and its theological architecture: the ordination of Gene Robinson (ch. 3) , the torture of prisoners at Abu Ghraib (ch. 4), the medical and ethical conflicts surrounding Terri Schiavo (ch. 5), and the aftermath of hurricane Katrina (ch. 6). Like the four gospels of the New Testament, these four events are gathered and interpreted together as theological portraiture. What they open to sight is the current status in America of “Christian theology as cultural capital” (12). Each event and its accompanying photographic traces display Christianity theology metabolized within / as “bio-disciplinary power,” which names for Armour (following Foucault) the structuring element of “modernity.” The photographs give signs of Christian theology caught up in the modern episteme of bio-power, but they also show modern systems of “knowing, doing and being” (3) under strain, suffering their fragile foundations and uncertain futures. What do such signs portend, both for modernity and Christian theology?
Across her narration of the four photographed events, Armour posits a Heidegger-inspired “fourfold” that makes up the inner architecture of modernity: “man, his divine other, his animal other, and his raced and sexed others…Man occupies the center, while his others surround him like a network of mirrors that reflect him back to himself, thus securing his sense of identity and of mastery—over self, over nature, and over his others” (2-3). Resisting hasty proclamations of modernity’s / Man’s end or defeat, Armour sees in our current moment Man’s “slow erosion” (202), a slowness that is mirrored in Armour’s patient attention to photographs. Entering deeply into some of modernity’s spectacles by way of the modern medium of photography, what the reader is invited to enter is a process of askesis, “a discipline of attending and undergoing that aims at transformation” (10).
At the end of the book, the reader will perhaps have learned to see differently, having learned of one’s formation within modern bio-disciplinary power and therefore of the exigency of knowing, doing, and being otherwise. For Armour, the otherwise possibility to be desired is “a new ethos rooted in shared vulnerability” (204). The slow erosion of Man’s mastery is an opportunity to cultivate a desire for and affirmation of life not grounded in a disavowal of finitude. Armour proclaims no apocalyptic end to modernity nor any apocalyptic future to replace it. She patiently magnifies modernity’s fragility and limits not in order to rush past them, but to find in them the material of creative possibility.
The subtitle of Signs & Wonders is Theology After Modernity. Armour identifies two senses of “after,” one temporal, the other spacial. Theology coming after modernity temporally evokes the notion of “postmodern theology,” which, for Armour, is too clean and confident a signifier under which to do theology. She prefers the spacial sense of “after,” as in, theology in wake of modernity, or theology in the aftermath of modernity. I want to suggest a third sense of “after” that I think is also true to the work this text does. One might call it the inquisitive sense of “after,” as in, theology seeking after modernity. One of the gits of this book is that it helps us to ask more patiently and carefully, “what exactly is modernity?” And it offers no ready-made or self-serving answers. It leaves us with problems and difficulties to work on, which is what good theology always does.
The four essays that follow all engage with Armour’s important work in critical and generative ways. Anita Monro queries Signs & Wonders narration of modernity and its relation to postmodernity, and wonders about the relation of sight and touch to mastery. Linn Tonstad poses critical questions about valorizations of vulnerability and whether such strategies are the best way to resist Man’s mastery. Kent Brintnall discusses photography as technology and also questions Armour’s account of vulnerability. And finally, Shannon Winnubst explores how modernity (and its photographic traces) might be seen differently if the concept of race, rather than rational man, is recognized as its organizing root. Each of these essays helps deepen and make more difficult the problems and difficulties, the signs and wonders, that Armour draws to our attention.