OK, What Is Postmodernism

by Rick Shrader

We must not forget that the world is on fire. We are not only losing the church, but our entire culture as well. We live in the post-Christian world which is under the judgment of God. I believe today that we must speak as Jeremiah did. . . And if this is true in our moment of history, we need each other. Let us keep our denominational distinctives. And let us talk to each other about our distinctives as we keep them.

Francis Schaeffer, 1984

In the last issue, I argued for retaining our denominational titles in the face of a postmodern age. It is my contention that changing the way we express and describe our convictions about faith for the postmodern’s sake is to become more postmodern than Christian. It is to agree that no human propositions are important and therefore everything is subject to change. The only absolute is that there are no absolutes. The change in your approach only proves to them that that is true, especially in the use of a title since the power to change a ‘‘text’’ is at the bedrock of the postmodern proposition of meaninglessness.

Having used the term ‘‘postmodern’’ in recent articles, It is only fair to attempt a definition for this seemingly contradictory term. Christian as well as secular apologists have picked up this term and are using it in a growing fashion. Some have noted that in 1934, Frederico de Oniz coined the term postmodernismo and in 1939 Arnold Toynbee suggested that the post-WWI era should be called ‘‘post-modern’’ (R. Albert Mohler, Jr. in Challenge, p. 68). These precursory uses, however, could not be descriptive (because of their early date) but only predictive of our age, as Schaeffer’s term ‘‘post-Christian’’ was in 1984.

The term ‘‘postmodern’’ suggests a two-fold definition. The first is chronological. Just as the traditional age was before the modern age, postmodern is after the modern. The Traditional age of orthodoxy is usually seen as prior to the Enlightenment of the eighteenth century. The influence of the Reformation had profound effect on Europe and America until that time. Modernism arose out of Deism, Skepticism and Rationalism and some have placed the turning point (from traditional to modern) at the French Revolution in 1789. Human reason became the basis for truth rather than divine revelation. Without the need for God, rational man could bring the world to new heights of progress and understanding. But now, two hundred years later, society is disillusioned with modernism. Man doesn’t seem to be better off. Science hasn’t solved all the problems of the universe nor answered all the questions.  Some start a new era of ‘‘post-modern’’ thinking after WWII, some start it in the sixties and some point to the fall of Communism, specifically 1989, making a neat two hundred years from the French Revolution.

A second aspect of our definition is philosophical. Postmodern man is not a modernist and actually decries the failure of modern humanism. Explanations of man’s existence from outside himself have failed as well as explanations from within himself. Man can really know nothing. Our supposed understanding of the world comes from a sinister plot of the powerful to victimize the weak. History itself has been a manipulation of words by powerful people (usually white European males) to create dependent classes. We need not think that such history is true in the classical or modern sense. Such history and whatever ‘‘truth’’ it contained can be changed simply by rewriting or reshaping it just as all people of all ages have done (this puts a whole new light on the rhetoric of baby boomer politicians). Even God may now be thought of as the product of a ‘‘process’’ of thinking.  Virtual reality becomes the only reality there is.

Since he is now free to rewrite and reshape all situations at will, power, to the postmodern, is derived from information. The more information a person has access to the more powerful he is. He doesn’t have to be wise or even correct (error would be someone else’s fault after all), but he must be able to manipulate others by having information they do not have. Listen to the commercials that appeal to you on this basis!  Computers have largely become an image of power due to the sheer volume of fingertip information they represent.

We could also compare (I think Gene Veith is best at this) modern art with its purely human expressions to postmodern shock art whose only meaning is in its response from the audience. Compare skyscraping modern architecture to unrealistic postmodern buildings where the inside is out and the outside is in. Compare modern dress with its sleek lines and finely cut clothes to postmodern grunge, unnatural hair lines and shocking contrasts. But these are all the result of the basic philosophy of having no absolutes because we have no reliable texts. Walter Truett Anderson tells the story of three umpires. The first, representing the pre-modern perspective would say, ‘‘three balls and three strikes and I call ‘em the way they are.’’ The second umpire, representing the modern perspective would say, ‘‘I call ‘em the way I see ‘em.’’ The third umpire, representing the post-modern perspective would say, ‘‘they ain’t nothin’ til I call ‘em.’’

As Christians, we can rejoice in the defeat of a God-denying modernism and yet at the same time fall right into the hands of a worse monster by continually reshaping our message according to the latest poll. While we glibly discuss becoming culturally relevant we may become walking illustrations of postmodernism’s most basic proposition. We fundamentalists often lead the way in following such cultural fads because we pride ourselves on being independent of orthodox traditions. Here are two admonitions directed to Evangelicals that we fundamentalists could heed.

R. Albert Mohler of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary says ‘‘Evangelicals, attracted to the vague but seductive notion of postmodernity as a breakdown of secular modernity, are in danger of romancing modernity’s latest stage . . . and thus risk forfeiting the integrity of the evangelical truth claim, and the Gospel itself.’’ Os Guiness, Senior Fellow with the Trinity Forum warns, ‘‘But perhaps postmodernism’s main challenge to the church is to our central mission as Christians: following Christ and making Him Lord in all of life. The church cannot become simply another customer center that offers designer religion and catalogue spirituality to the hoppers and shoppers of the modern world. Followers of Christ are custodians of the faith passed on down the running centuries. Never must we allow anyone outside the church to become cannibals who devour the truth and meaning of this priceless heritage of faith.  Letting the church be the church and the gospel be the gospel is integral to letting God be God.’’