Irrational Man is a 2015 film written and directed by Hollywood intellect Woody Allen. Like many of
his productions, the notion of self-image and sexual obsession made up a good chunk of the theme. But as usual, one finds embedded code when attempts to scratch the surface and may discover a deeper discussion which the director may or may not surprise you. In this case, it is the subject of “postmodernism”.
The storyline begins with this “bad boy” philosophy professor, Abe Lucas (played by Joaquin Phoenix), coming to town. Women in the university already start drooling over the anticipation of this gifted philosopher who is also known to lead an undisciplined lifestyle. Shortly after Lucas arrives, he befriends a female student Jill Pollard (played by Emma Stone). While Pollard becomes attracted to Lucas, the latter rejects the idea of a relationship between them largely because of his mild depression for lacking a purpose in life. He confesses that he failed to transform the world to become a better place after trying protests, marches, or to sojourn in other parts of the world. All that change one afternoon when Lucas and Pollard are meeting in a diner, overhearing the people next booth talking about the partiality of a judge who will rule unjustly in a custody case against a single mother. Lucas secretly takes to heart that this is his calling in life to do good. He comes to the conclusion that killing this judge will ultimately transform this world into a better place for many. In spite of whether this is true, the whole idea transforms Lucas. He now has a lighter mood and starts engaging with people. And, of course, he starts seeing Pollard. In the end, he actually carries out the plan and murders the judge by poisoning him. When Pollard finds out what he did, she urges him to turn himself in, otherwise she would go to the police. In order to bury his crime, Lucas plans to murder Pollard by pushing her off into an elevator shaft and making it looks like an accident. During the struggle, he slips and ends up falling to his death.
This movie was brought to my attention after a conversation with a theologian on the subject of postmodernism. Traditionally, most theologians agreed that postmodernism is a reaction to modernity. The general consensus is that the postmodernists reacted to the dominance of modernity, and therefore rejected the idea of a “meta-narrative”, replacing rationalism with emotion. Instead of “Truth” with an upper case “T”, postmodernists advocate many “truths” with a lower case. In other words, what works for you is your truth but what works for me might be a different brand of truth. In our conversation, my friend told me that rather than framing postmodernism as a reaction, he saw it as the “end” of modernity. To be honest, I had no idea what he meant at the time. However, he brought up Irrational Man. After watching it, I began to see the light. The character Abe Lucas, a philosophy professor, represents the icon of rationalism. With all the knowledge he has about Nietzsche and Kierkegaard, rationalism failed to make this world a better place. The rational choices of protests, marches, and civil disobedience, all circumscribe to powerless social actions that did not make an impact. On the personal level, rationalism only gives him depression. He could not even perform sexually (often a Woody Allen’s mark of success or failure). In the end, he is awaken not by intellect but by wild imaginations of an irrational man that he truly lives (shortly) in the sex and violence.
This is the insight: rationalism or modernism doesn’t work. When mankind comes to the end of that road, they will inevitably turn to postmodernism. In the eye of the director, the irrational world created by postmodernity is not the solution either. Therefore, the secular assessment becomes fatalistic. Christianity has been passive when comes to sociological mindset. When modernism first came to rise, the church viewed it as the arch enemy. Over time, Christianity adapted and built the framework of theology on rationalism. Then came postmodernism, rejecting everything the church has built her base upon in the last hundred to two hundred years. There was a real panic in the beginning at the loss of footing but again, we adapted. Many theologians are now able to articulate our doctrines and beliefs in postmodern terminologies, turning a foe to friend. But I can’t stop wondering. Any “post-ism” by definition is only a transitional phase. So, what comes next? More importantly, will Christianity be ready?