Editors’ note: 

This excerpt is from Themelios 43.1. The new April 2018 issue has 168 pages of editorials, articles, and book reviews. It is freely available in three formats: (1) PDF, (2) web version, and (3) Logos Bible Software.

People aren’t talking about postmodernism nearly as much as they were 15 or 20 years ago. Thirty-five years ago, graduate students in English departments in many universities of the Western world spent more time reading Lyotard, Derrida, and Foucault than Shakespeare, Keats, and Frost. Proof of mature reading of a text was tied rather more to creative deconstruction than to trying to understand the text in its historical and cultural framework. More important than the English texts was postmodern theory.

Much of this has changed. Far fewer students are assigned major readings from Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault. The founding writers of postmodernism (understood, for the sake of this brief editorial, as an epistemological enterprise) are largely sidelined from college curricula.

But that doesn’t mean the impact of postmodernism has entirely dissipated. What seems to be taking place, rather, is something like this: some of the conclusions of postmodernism are now adopted with little question as cultural “givens” without a felt need to justify them. Why defend stances that large swaths of the culture accept as obviously true? So, what we find is substantial numbers of postmoderns who rarely think of themselves as postmoderns, and who know next to nothing of the literature and debates that occupied so much attention a bare generation ago. They understand neither the theory nor its critics, but they presuppose many of its conclusions.

A couple of examples might help. Recently, Christian students at a fine West Coast university engaged in a thoughtful survey of their fellow students, focusing on what they thought about religion in general and Christianity in particular. Some of the questions focused on the afterlife: e.g., What would it take to know that there is a new heaven and a new earth to be gained? A not uncommon answer was, “How can you claim to know anything at all?” Or again, when asked how they understood the exclusive truth claims of Christianity (e.g., John 14:6; Acts 4:12), most responses fell into one of two pools: (1) “Christians are so bigoted. We all have our own distinctive approaches to spirituality. Christians don’t have the right to rule out of camp the claims of other religions.” Or: (2) “Deep down, all religions are really saying the same thing anyway, so why should one view others as distinctively different or in some way inferior?”

Of course, the adoption of such stances should not be traced exclusively to the impact of postmodernism. Other competing streams have brought to bear important influences: contemporary understanding of what “faith” means, the shifting tides of “tolerance,” and the broader cultural developments that some wag has identified as “a thin crust of vehement hostility masking a vast sea of apathy.” Yet we would be avoiding the obvious if we did not sniff out something of the impact of postmodernism on contemporary epistemologies.