Postmodernism: Dead But Not Gone

No obituary appeared in The New York Times. Television newscasts offered no tribute. But make no mistake: postmodernism is dead. Even those who could foresee this end could do nothing to prevent its suicide. Demise was built into its very DNA.

If you're a church leader, you probably missed this news. Many of our publishers, culture gurus, and so-called futurists have been touting postmodernism as the next big thing, an unstoppable force. Adapt or die, they told us for much of the last decade, neglecting 2,000 years of history when the church built by Jesus Christ has withstood nearly every imaginable assault. But next month you can attend the funeral for postmodernism at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. That's when the art exhibit “Postmodernism—Style and Subversion 1970-1990” will open.

Criteria Absent

Christians tend to think of postmodernism as a revolution in philosophy and ethics. This view of postmodernism—an all-encompassing, coherent alternative to the arrogant certainty of modernism—stands on shaky ground. Postmodernism has always been applied selectively and often resembles a hyper-modernism, not a radically new enterprise. Indeed, postmodernism can only be explained in relation to its predecessor. The postmodern schools of art and literature represented a scattered protest against the conventions of modernism. The London art exhibit's curators explain:

The modernists wanted to open a window onto a new world. Postmodernism, by contrast, was more like a broken mirror, a reflecting surface made of many fragments. Its key principles were complexity and contradiction. It was meant to resist authority, yet over the course of two decades, from about 1970 to 1990, it became enmeshed in the very circuits of money and influence that it had initially sought to dismantle.

Here we see several key elements of what has led so many Christian observers to take notice of postmodernism. We have grown skeptical of grand theories that purport to explain the way things were, are, and will be. Unlike modern schools of thought—say, Marxism—we recognize the complexity of human motivations. We have learned to live with contradiction, to embrace paradox.

All that may be true, albeit misleading if described as a sudden, decisive shift between then and now. But postmodernists sound suspiciously like modernists when they visit the hospital or seek justice. In fact, there is a strong family resemblance between modernism and its prodigal son. The son swore he would never grow up to be like his father, who lusted after money and power. Then postmodernism looked in the mirror one day and recoiled at the likeness.

Journalist Edwards Docx drives home this point about the collapse of postmodernism into consumerism for Prospect magazine. He describes the postmodernism rebellion in literature against authorial intent. What seemed at first liberating to some—opening the door for marginalized voices seeking feminist and queer interpretations, for example—turned into anti-intellectual anarchy. Docx writes:

For a while, as communism began to collapse, the supremacy of Western capitalism seemed best challenged by deploying the ironic tactics of postmodernism. Over time, though, a new difficulty was created: because postmodernism attacks everything, a mood of confusion and uncertainty began to grow and flourish until, in recent years, it became ubiquitous. A lack of confidence in the tenets, skills, and aesthetics of literature permeated the culture and few felt secure or able or skilled enough or politically permitted to distinguish or recognize the schlock from the not. And so, sure enough, in the absence of any aesthetic criteria, it became more and more useful to assess the value of works according to the profits they yielded.

By this analysis, we begin to understand the ironic outcome of postmodernism. Take one artifact from the era: Dan Brown's The DaVinci Code. Here we see a scholar poseur enabled by allies in the academy pass off his irresponsible money grab as speaking truth to power. He begins with the largely accurate premise that winners write history, an observation enabled by postmodern currents. Ignoring the standards of credible scholarship, he proceeds to exalt strange heterodox sects as somehow more trustworthy than their orthodox opponents in the church. He takes his low-brow thriller to the popular market and capitalizes on widespread ignorance of true history to rake in millions.

No wonder postmodernism is dead. The market can be a poor judge of quality. Now, according to Docx, post-postmoderns don't know where to turn for deliverance:

We desire to be redeemed from the grossness of our consumption, the sham of our attitudinizing, the teeming insecurities on which social networking sites were founded and now feed. . . . If the problem for the postmodernists was that the modernists had been telling them what to do, then the problem for the present generation is the opposite: nobody has been telling us what to do.

And church leaders won't have anything to tell them if we continue to seek so-called relevance in a futile attempt to adapt. Postmodernism is finished, and no one knows what's next. While postmodernism might be dead, it's not completely gone.

There Must Be Some Basis

Wise church leaders will recognize that some things have indeed changed in recent decades. We wouldn't even want everything to revert. To cite one example, epistemic humility can check our sinful arrogance and even reflect the biblical wisdom of 1 Corinthians 13:12: “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.” Thanks to the effects of postmodernism, no longer do Enlightenment philosophes claim they can compile all human knowledge by means of reason apart from revelation.

The problem is that the end of our human quest to know everything has left some wondering how we can know anything. Commenting about the Docx article, Tim Keller told me:

For two years I've been hearing echoes of this basic message: Postmodernism was helpful in that it made us more open to how conditioned we are by culture and history, it showed us how easy it is to make truth claims into power plays. But postmodernism in the end eats itself. In the end there must be some basis for truth, justice, authenticity—or we can't live.

God's Word tells us where to find that basis. But advocates for postmodernism within the church have sometimes missed how Scripture teaches us to deal with these cultural shifts by way of negative example. Consider just two. Pontius Pilate mused about truth when faced by competing claims. He couldn't even recognize it when standing right before him (John 18:38). Only when God give us ears to hear can we recognize voice of him who bears witness to the truth (John 18:37).

Solomon despaired of life itself even though he had all the money, power, and sex anyone could want. Like a good postmodern pluralist, he welcomed new gods from foreign nations (1 Kings 11:1-8). All this did him no good. “Then I considered all that my hands had done and the toil I had expended in doing it, and behold, all was vanity and a striving after wind, and there was nothing to be gained under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 2:11). Sounds a little like Docx's lament. The end of Ecclesiastes, though, reveals the only reliable basis for justice. “Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil” (Ecclesiastes 12:13-14).

Our cultural circumstances may change, but human nature does not. Though dead, postmodernism remains with us, in so far as it reflected universal human despair apart from God, the only fully reliable source of truth, justice, and authenticity.

The church should learn about whatever replaces postmodernism, but we need not worry. We need only trust in God and proclaim the good news that transcends every culture and epoch. This Truth makes no empty claims and grabs no power except what properly belongs to him as Creator and Redeemer.

“It is finished,” he cried from the Cross, the beautiful paradox of divine justice, when the death of God's only Son gave birth to everlasting life for sinners.

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