On Postmodernism

The term "Postmodern" gets tossed around church circles these days like cheap beer at a frat party. Some folks think it's good, simply because we're in it. Some worship the hipness the word evokes. Others fear and condemn it because of its striking divergence from the Modern world, which taught us how to live, how to think, and how to exist. Until the last couple of generations have begun to deconstruct those assumptions.

Academic, author and minister Michael Eric Dyson writes:
Postmodernism has enjoyed a thrilling if problematic run as a leading intellectual and cultural movement among some (mostly liberal or progressive) academics. Postmodernism is composed of a complex, even ambiguous, set of ideas and practices, such as blurring the boundaries between "high" and "low" culture, rejecting grand narratives - for instance, "truth" with a capital "T," - embracing pastiche and fragmentation, and emphasizing playfulness and irony in one's intellectual exercises. A major criticism of postmodernism is that some of its advocates avoid concrete history and politics while rhapsodizing about difference, marginality, parody, and provisionality. This may account for the many American postmodernists who have overlooked the homegrown varieties of black postmodernism - and the challenges they may pose to the European imports that have colored our understanding of the concept.
If postmodernism has any hope of being a productive cultural shift, it must ring true as being post-colonial, egalitarian and inclusive. 

Things are changing, for better and possibly for worse as well. These changes demand that we renegotiate prior assumptions, notions of empire, power, truth and certainty, as well as those historically "established" paradigms we have accepted as normative based on imperial metanarratives. What follows is a VERY simplified (and therefore unavoidably perilous), introductory overview of terminology for the purposes of this site and "emerging" Christian dialogue.  Specific dates are up for debate, as are any bullet point "facts" about a paradigm that is itself defiant toward propositional statements of fact.  Here goes:

  • Pre-Modernity
    "Pre-Modern" often refers to the pre-Enlightenment period, before the 17th and 18th Centuries. The Pre-Modern world was generally community-oriented: family and tradition was authoritative. Mysticism, early science, and philosophy all flourished. Many cultures were dually fueled, both by exhilarating exploration into the unknown, and by awe and reverence in the unknowable, mystery and the divine.

    Of the three segments here, this is the most grossly overarching label, because pre-historic, ancient, feudal and medieval periods (among many others) all fall under this category. But for my purposes, it's most important to recognize when Pre-Modernity ended: at the inception of Modernity.
  • Modernity
    Reigning from the Enlightenment into the 1960s (this is debatable). Modernity literally recreated the Western World (and the third world, via unfortunate side-effects). In Modernity, tradition was no longer the ultimate authority. Reason reined. “Democracy” was spread all over the world. Modernity brought a denigration of emotion, spiritual experience, mystery and personal intuition. The Modern world was a patriarchal, male-centric world. In its understanding, “human nature” was mostly predictable, increasingly understandable, and generally reasonable.

    In many ways, Modern Christianity smells more like Modernity than it does historical, Orthodox Christianity. We assert concrete and overarching truths, worship spiritual success through corporate numbers and standards, and consume God (and religion) as we consume products, trends and entertainment.  These are not factors inherent to Christianity's dna, but certainly to Modernity's.
  • Post-Modernity
    Postmodernity (if we are actually in it) was likely conceived amid the shock and disillusion between World War I and WWII, and began to birth in the 1960s with broad and growing intolerance toward "objective" Western truth that Modernity relied on so desperately. In the eyes of many, our Western Metanarrative failed to make the world a better place as the tolls of war, genocide and xenophobia claimed more lives than ever before, and untold human atrocities took the front pages, worldwide. Understandable skepticism took deep root.

    It's been suggested by some that we are already 
    beyond Postmodernism now. That we are in something like a post-Postmodern period. Others wonder if Postmodernism is, in fact, a minor correction within the broader (and continuing) Modern Age - that we are in fact very much still entrenched in so-called "High Modernism." Regardless of semantics, we are in an age of transition. For clarity's sake, we'll call it Postmodernism.

    Postmodernity views so-called objective, propositional truths with suspicion. It asks: "why does there have to be a reason/purpose for everything?" In spite of cynicism over organized religion, "postmoderns" are mesmerized by spirituality, mysticism and the supernatural - a throwback of sorts, to Pre-Modernism. In many ways, Postmodernity is still in its nascent stages, so we don’t entirely know what it is or what it will look like as it matures, 
    but we do know what it isn’t. This deconstructive tone probably fuels much of the jaded sensibilities postmoderns carry. Leonard Sweet says, "Truth comes down to power, and power is scary. Postmodern truth is found not through authority or reason, but through experience, dialogue and discussion, where both sides learn without rational underpinning." Postmoderns may believe there is genuine truth (no need to use polarizing words like "absolute" if they can be traded) but tend to feel that whatever is objectively true would be completely unknowable by limited, subjective humans. This is partly why Postmodernity is also Post-Christian, and increasingly anti-Christian.

All three stages, Pre-Modern, Modern and Post-Modern, exist in simultaneity, on a global level. Often, these societal climates even co-exist nearly side-by-side in the same regions. Asia, Africa, South America and even regions in North America manifest examples of this.

Some links for more information...


nate said...

So many throw around the terms without knowing what the mean. It's just cool to say you're postmodern, regardless of the meaning. What texts are you using in seminary for this subject?

2Pete said...

Thanks Nate. You're right - the term has become trite and trendy. But the reality is, most of us in North America and Western Europe are postmoderns by climate and geography, whether we hold to modernist views or not.

Doesn't mean we understand enough of its importance in our lives and worldviews or grasp how it affects us daily.

I'll be referencing some texts within this page shortly. Stanley Grenz's "Primer on Postmodernism" is fabulous.

A lot of the sources I've found helpful are those dealing with Post-Christendom, because it weaves in the religious implications of the shift. Stuart Murray's "Post-Christendom" is a fantastic book.

Some of what I've written above comes from lectures by Len Sweet, and his books "Carpe Manana" and "SoulTsunami" are great for getting a grasp on some of the broad effects of the postmodern shift, social, cultural and technological.

Thomas Friedman's "The World is Flat" is a great view of global shifts taking place, and David Brooks' "Bobos in Paradise" gives a great view of some developing norms in American Culture.

Of course there are always foundational philosophers like Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Foucault and Derrida (among countless others).

Benjamin Ady said...


nicely summarized. You rock. I'm going to keep your post bookmarked for people who ask me "What the hell is postmodernism?" Thank you for the links to Justiceandcompassion. =)

Aaron said...

I'm particularly looking forward to a post-2Dimensional era where we look at things from outside our own rectum.

Clarifying the Black Hole does tend to give some perspective to the way out.

Thanks for the illuminations. It's dark in here. I'm going out for a breath of fresh air.


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