Postmodernism: the word strikes fear—or just confusion—into the hearts of Christian students, parents, and mentors all over North America. It is feared as an insidious force that is tearing down family, the church, and society in general. And so we write off confusing, ironic or truth-questioning movies, books, artwork, politics and churches as “just postmodern.”
We dismiss postmodernism for several reasons. First, it is sometimes internally inconsistent, and some of its claims are either wrong or taken to a harmful extreme. Second, postmodernism represents a change in the way truth is defined— something that requires careful consideration in order to sort the good from the bad. And third, in many ways, Western Christianity has assimilated the tenets of modernism—an emphasis on rationality; a distaste for tradition; an uncomfortable relationship with doubt, questioning, and ambiguity; and a privileging of the individual religious experience over the corporate. Postmodernists also criticize the church, making Christians feel threatened and marginalized.
Thankfully, Christian thinkers, writers, and philosophers are deciphering postmodernism in ways that reject its errors and embrace its insights. Two helpful books are Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism?, by Calvin College professor James K.A. Smith, and The Strategic Smorgasbord of Postmodernity: Literature and the Christian Critic, edited by Redeemer University College professor Deborah C. Bowen. Both approach postmodernism with intellectual and theological honesty, sorting through its claims and thinking about its interaction with Christianity.
We live in a culture strongly affected by postmodernism. Every student encounters its echoes—whether or not their university claims to be Christian or not. So, as a student seeking to be both intellectually honest and theologically faithful, how can you navigate postmodern theory?
What are modernism and postmodernism?
Let’s take a detour and briefly define our terms.
The term “modernity” is usually used to refer to a period in history that began during the Enlightenment. During that time authority shifted from the religious teachings of the church to human reason and rationality. “Modernism” is the ideology that provided guidance to this shift. Modernists seek knowledge through scientific exploration. They want to discover the patterns that hold for everything in every situation—so, for instance, one might find charts that “explain” how to write poetry, or claims such as “a house is a machine for living in” (Le Corbusier).
Those who had the time to do this exploration were usually educated, upper-class European men, but even so they tended toward seeing their discoveries about human nature as universal to everyone. Non-Europeans and women weren’t often included in the exploration—no surprise, given the mores of the time, but a significant problem for those who would later develop the ideas that drove postmodernism.
These intellectually inquisitive men firmly believed that humanity was on a march of gradual progress towards a necessarily better world. The old and traditional was a hindrance and should be destroyed or ignored. Modernists truly believed—for hundreds of years—that the world was becoming a better place, and they had good reason: literacy and education spread, new continents were explored, technology developed at a rapid pace, and diseases were being cured.
But then the twentieth century happened, and all of that promise—all of that reason, rationality, and progress, taken to its logical extreme—resulted in the bloodiest century in human history. Disillusioned, philosophers and thinkers such as Jean-Francois Lyotard, Jacques Derrida, and Michel Foucault began to rethink everything around mid-century, challenging the dominant ways that history had been told, societies had run, and truth had been considered—and thereby setting in motion what we now call postmodernism: an ideology that seeks to go beyond modernity.
In the introduction to The Strategic Smorgasbord of Postmodernity, editor Deborah Bowen identifies five key components of postmodernism:
- Democraticization and homogenization of culture through technology and mass media, as well as a heightened awareness of the “rights, obligations and dilemmas of citizenship” in an increasingly globalized world.
- Perspectivalism, which claims that we humans cannot know reality as it truly is, but only through the ways it appears to us. Therefore, what we claim to know is unavoidably coloured by our specific perspectives as members of different societies, with different cultural and individual contexts and experiences.
- Incredulity toward metanarratives. A metanarrative is a “story” about the universal history of humanity or a specific subset of humanity that, according to postmodernists, fails to recognize that it is relativized by having emerged from a place that is a part of a particular cultural context. Postmodernists also argue that metanarratives are often a way for the people in charge to silence the voice of minority groups and legitimate their claim to power.
- An emphasis on the “conventional” nature of texts and images—that is, an obsession with appearances, especially as a way of constructing our identity. For instance, we buy things because of what they mean, or because of the group with which they allow us to identify ourselves, not necessarily because of their merit in and of themselves. Depending on the context, that Starbucks cup can mean a lot more than “hot coffee in here.”
- Politically, postmodernism emphasizes diversity, minorities, and multiculturalism— both within a country and between nations—and is distrustful of those who would exert authority over others.
Bowen continues by asserting that not only can Christians engage with these ideas, but we—as students, parents, mentors, professionals, laymen and pastors—ought to engage with them. Burying our heads in the sand and dismissing postmodernism wholesale is not only lazy—it is a fearful response to a world that needs the light of the Gospel as a way to really see and experience truth.
In short, postmodernism can be broadly described as a distrust of authority and claims to absolute knowledge, and an emphasis on the differences between different groups of people, rather than the sameness.
Recognizing fallenness—and common grace
When we encounter any philosophy or way of thinking that has been developed by human beings, we must first recognize the biblical truth that all fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23). People are fallible and deviate from the order and truth that God established in the world.
Postmodernism’s claim to perspectivalism alludes to this truth about fallenness. Christians believe that God created the world, and that He alone is the source of Truth-with-a-capital-T. When postmodernism recognizes that we humans are incapable of seeing truth as it truly is (rather than as we see it through the “glasses” of our own culture), it emphasizes for those of us who believe in an almighty God that there is a real, unclouded truth in the world. We assert that God is the source of that truth. (This is in sharp contrast to the modernist claim that humans can know ultimate truth through rational thinking and scientific discoveries.)
This reminds us of another key Biblical idea we must keep in mind when dealing with human philosophies: humans bear the image of God, and God extends his common grace to his creation, allowing people who do not recognize him to still live ethically, make discoveries that better humankind, and build functioning societies.
We can then infer that it is quite possible for humans to construct a way of seeing the world that has both truth and error. As Bowen puts it in her introduction, “A living belief in God as Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer leads, both logically and intuitively, not to a fear of culture, but to an expectation of the discovery of God constantly and creatively at work in these cultural aspects of a divinely-made world.”
When we are navigating postmodern theory, we must listen carefully for those things that are consistent with God’s word, and prayerfully consider how to interact with those ideas which are not.
Retelling the Christian story
One important reason for understanding postmodernism is evangelistic. Bowen calls it “retelling the Christian story,” a practice in which we do not alter the substance of the Scriptural narrative, but learn to tell it in a way that makes sense to those who live within various cultural frameworks.
This underlines the obvious but oft-ignored fact that we cannot communicate the same way with every person. Two examples show how this might be lived out in the Christian faith. I keenly remember, as a teenager, hearing missionary Don Richardson (author of Peace Child) speak about becoming frustrated while living with Papua New Guinea tribe to which skillful betrayal of your enemy was the highest virtue. To this tribe, Judas Iscariot was a hero for pulling off such an audacious betrayal for his own profit.
It wasn’t until Richardson discovered another practice within the tribe—that of ending warfare between two tribes through one tribe giving a child to be raised by the enemy tribe, thereby bringing peace as long as the child lives—that he understood how to explain the sacrifice of the Father and the treachery of Judas in a way the people could understand.
Another example: A friend studying urban ministry at Wes tmins ter Theological Seminary recently remarked that while you could sometimes convince a modern person to become a Christian based on the strength of apologetic arguments—reasoning your way toward faith—to postmodernists what matters is identification with a group and relational understanding. Postmodernists want to know who you are, where you belong, and how you relate to them, before they’ll listen to your reasoning.
The essays in The Strategic Smorgasbord of Postmodernity engage with just these ideas, exploring how postmodernism can interact with a range of people and ideas—Augustine, Canadian post-colonialism, the Psalmist, feminist cultural theorist Luce Irigaray, poet Mark Doty, and many more—and bring God’s truth to bear in a way that respects the subject.
When we are navigating postmodern theory, we should listen for the echoes of the gospel story, understanding how to communicate the love of God in the world in which we live.
Becoming the church
Another important reason to understand postmodernism’s claims is that it can help us to be a better church. Many in the church have—often unknowingly—largely swallowed the claims of modernity, believing that tradition is necessarily a sign of spiritual deadness, and de-emphasizing the role of the community in the Christian life by privileging the individual experience.
In Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism, James Smith carefully explains the claims of postmodernism’s “unholy trinity” —Foucault, Derrida, and Lyotard—and points out their strengths and weaknesses. Then he derives from the Bible and their work a proposition for a “radically orthodox” church that engages with both the present and the past, speaking undiluted truth with humility, skillfully employing the arts, and emphasizing the communal nature of Sabbath worship.
When we are navigating postmodernism, we should look for those claims that challenge our assumptions about the way we practice our faith. We should reject that which hinders the Christian faith—materialism, disrespect for authority—while considering what is a necessary corrective to centuries of bowing before the throne of modernism.
Pursue the truth with humility
As students and thoughtful Christians, we must rigorously pursue intellectual honesty, always with the Word of God at the center. Reading books such as Smith’s and Bowen’s alongside the work of postmodern theorists helps us to gain skill in evaluating the claims of postmodernism while not throwing the baby out with the bathwater, especially when postmodernists criticize the church.
Once again, perspectivalism helps us in reacting rightly to criticisms of Christianity. Our critics, in many cases, have encountered Christians who did not strive toward loving, prayerful engagement with culture, but acted in condemnation and selfinterest. This recognition allows us to not react to criticism in anger, sarcasm, or insults, but in love and compassion. In this way, we can embody Christ’s command to “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:44).
This recognition also can help us develop humility in the way we interact with those inside of the church, especially those with whom we disagree about theology.
Churchgoers have often stated that the absolute truth is to be found in the Bible—but often they mean that their interpretation of the Bible is the absolute truth. (If that were not so, there would not be so many denominations!)
While we know from the Bible that when some postmodernists extrapolate this idea to claim that there is, in fact, no absolute truth, they are wrong—Jesus said, “I am the truth” —we also know Paul said that while we dwell on earth, we but “know in part” (I Corinthians 13). Rather than throw our faith in turmoil, this recognition brings humility and openness to learn from others.
Postmodernism poses a unique challenge and opportunity for Christian students today to contribute their own viewpoint to the cultural conversation, while also seeking to better understand their peers and society. Those who want to effect change in the world and be a leader cannot afford to ignore or dismiss the dominant ideology that drives Western culture. We would do well to lovingly engage postmodernism, in order to seek the peace of our cities (Jeremiah 29:7).