Whatever Happened To Postmodernism?

by Rick Shrader

Maybe it’s just the nature of the beast, but like a passing train, our fascination with this cultural phenomenon came upon us quickly and loudly, stopping everything in its path and demanding our piquant interest, until, just as fast, it rolled on past and we returned to newer and less demanding stimuli.

It is not that we think it is unimportant.  We thought the New Age Movement was important, but these things come and go.  Besides, if it does not affect our hearers directly, we may begin to sound monotonous and even narrow, stuck in a rut while others have moved on to newer things (as Chesterton said of the Middle Ages, “those who were trying to put things right were most vigorously accused of putting things wrong.”1).  It is imperative that leadership today have fresh ideas.  We must recognize where the cutting edge exists and focus our attention there.  Visionaries look forward to things not yet seen, they don’t dwell on the past, with things that have been hashed and rehashed to death!  As the philosopher said, everything has an end, except the sausage which has two!

C.S. Lewis wrote, “Nothing is wonderful except the abnormal and nothing is abnormal until we have grasped the norm.”2 In other words, we may have a hard time seeing the new thing at all, either as a blessing or a curse, if we don’t first have a firm grasp of our present condition.  If the new thing agrees with our basic convictions, it is a blessing.  But if the new thing is contrary to our foundational principles, it will be recognized as a curse.  But if we have no abiding conviction or philosophy, the new thing is simply faddish or even boring.

Postmodernism has been more like a virus than an invading army.  It has permeated from within until it has brought all things to its own level, rather than conquering from without and destroying all that exists.  A virus can make you weak and lethargic but may not drastically change your pattern of activity.  Some can kill quickly and others slowly and still others can be overcome.  But in either case, all active processes are affected though almost invisibly.

Most cultural observers have predicted that postmodernism would change society at the most basic levels of honesty and integrity.  Os Guinness, for example, wrote,  “If President Clinton did not exist, he would have to be invented.  Or to express the point more carefully, the recent crisis of America’s first postmodern president is not just the sad story of a flawed individual, but the full flowering of a generation of trends in American society.”3 Those tracking generational trends see millennial kids as outwardly clean-cut and polite, while inwardly void of moral direction.4 We might say that the passé attitude toward postmodernism, and the tiring of its constant critique, even the hostility toward being labeled with such a word, is, for lack of a better term . . . Postmodern!

The residual effect of this cultural virus may still be too difficult to detect or predict.  Some have seen postmodernism as a whole new era that follows two hundred years of modernism, while others have seen it more as a hinge that connects modernism to whatever is coming next.  From a Christian perspective, we must keep the possibility open that this could be the generation of the Anti-Christ, with its lack of love for truth and its amoral ethic that all things are permitted for self-interest, and nothing is permitted which is opposed to that.

Within professing Christendom these residual effects are beginning to surface.  I would propose that the following postmodern characteristics linger among us and are commonly accepted within many churches.

Change is the only acceptable standard

As Christians, we cherish our belief in measuring all things by the unchanging standard of God’s Word.  We understand that we cannot tamper with the Word of God or with the absolutes which it places in our lives.  We also have a profound respect for the tradition of our faith for the last two thousand years and we work diligently at teaching that to our children.  To pay respect to tradition is to give all past generations of believers a say-so in our current affairs.  At the same time, we understand that man was created to create.  It is art of the highest order for one who is made in God’s image to make, produce, invent and grow things in this world.  “Doing” is one of the two “dignities of causality” given to us be our Creator.  The second is prayer.

But, frankly, none of this is what the postmodernist is getting at when he talks of change.  He is talking of a lack of absolutes; a world that is here by random chance and changes in order to survive.  To change is to always get better.  Change creates new information; change eliminates the old; change produces a new set of moral standards by the minute; change destroys any old moral standards including God.  Charles Jencks, a leading postmodernist wrote, “One of the key shifts to the Post-Modern world will be a change in epistemology, the understanding of knowledge and how it grows and relates to other assumptions.”5

Christians that defend change are not talking the same language as the postmodernist when he defends change.  But the postmodernist will gladly accept the confusion because it proves that his thesis is true: meaning and truth change constantly.

Ethnology is the only history there is

An Ethnologist is one who studies the culture (or “ethnos”) of any people.  He is not so much interested in the facts of what happened as in the  motivation for why it happened.   Thus Thomas Jefferson is accused of fathering a child by a slave-woman, not because the facts show conclusively that he did, but simply because he could have.  And believing that he did is better for today’s needed tolerance than not believing it.

Two Christian authors from the Toronto Institute for Christian Study, make this alarming statement:  “Since all worldviews in a postmodern reading are merely human inventions, decisively conditioned by the social context in which they occur, and certainly not given to us by either nature or revelation, any ‘truth’ we claim for our cherished positions must be kept strictly in quotation marks.”6

Thus we are seeing Christians defend their “right” to do strange things based on cultural practices from both the past and the present.  With seeming little regard for the fallen nature of man’s constitution, any expression from within the imagination of his heart is immediately accepted as either good, or at the least, morally neutral.  The postmodernist has come to this ethnology because he has eliminated all basis for moral expression, while the postmodern Christian has done the same by, strangely, professing that the only moral standard is the Bible.  All else is fair game.

Added to this is the current disdain for strict fundamentalism.  Alan Wolfe, writing for the Atlantic Monthly says, “Postmodernism exercises such a fascination over the evangelical mind, I believe, because of the never-ending legacy of fundamentalism.  In one sense evangelical scholars have moved away from Billy Sunday and in the direction of French poststructuralism: they cast their lot with those who question any truths rather than those who insist on the literal truth of God’s word.”7 Some are so embarrassed by their Christian heritage that they would rather take the road less criticized.

Truth is a broader tent than it used to be

Probably the best-known character trait of postmodernism is the denial of absolute truth.  This criticism is fair.  Albeit, a postmodernist might deny that proposition by arguing that truth is absolute, but only for the moment.  Since all things are constantly changing (even, we find, the orbit of the molecules within the atom) nothing remains “truth” even for a second.  By the time it takes you to describe the truth, all has changed and it is truth no longer.  So we are left with Kierkegaard’s postulate, “The thing is to find a truth which is true for me, to find the idea for which I can live and die.”8

No serious believer can accept this premise.  But as a rising tide raises all boats, so the love for truth even in the church is born along too much by the culture around us.  One secular writer remembers, “When Hermes took the post of messenger of the gods, he promised Zeus not to lie.  He did not promise to tell the whole truth.  Zeus understood.”9 I think we could live with that in many Christian circles!  If George Washington couldn’t tell a lie, and Richard Nixon couldn’t tell the truth, we can’t seem to tell the difference!

And So . . .

The list could go on, including the canny ability we have to criticize ourselves for being postmodernists while all the time enjoying being postmodernists.  Some of the best definitions of the virus have come from those who have it.  But truth and knowledge can only help us if they truly force us to their side.  Whatever happened to postmodernism?  It is alive and well and has found a welcome incubation even in Christian culture.

1. G.K. Chesterton, St. Thomas Aquinas (New York: Image Books, 1956) 74.
2. C.S. Lewis, God In The Dock (Grand Rapids: Eerdman’s, 1994) 26.
3. Os Guinness, Character Counts (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1999) 9.
4. I have reviewed William Strauss and Neil Howe’s Millennials Rising as well as the Atlantic Monthly’s April 2001 article, “The Organization Kid.”  Both present a picture of the “Millennial” generation as smart, polite, aggressive, no-nonsense young people but at the same time devoid of moral foundations apart from their own drive to succeed.
5. Charles Jencks, “What Is Post-Modernism?” From Modernism to Postmodernism (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1996. 478.
6. Quoted by Albert Mohler, The Coming Evangelical Crisis (Chicago:  Moody, 1996) 37.
7. Alan Wolfe, “The Opening of the Evangelical Mind,” The Atlantic Monthly, October, 2000, 73.
8. Quoted by Ravi Zacharias, Can Man Live Without God? (Dallas: Word Publishing, 1994) 205.
9. Andrea Fontana, “Ethnographic Trends in the Postmodern Era,” Postmodernism and Social Inquiry, David Dickens & Andrea Fontana, eds. (New York: The Guilford Press, 1994) 219.