Carl Trueman, in the course of reviewing Brian Stiller’s Preaching to Postmoderns, responds to some of the secondhand (superficial?) pronouncements that are repeated so often these days.
The treatment of postmoderns has a second-hand flavor. There is nothing wrong with that in itself; the problem is that Stiller repeats some typical shibboleths about postmoderns which need to be challenged. Thus he premises his discussion on seven characteristics of the postmodern era, all of which are highly questionable:
1. Postmoderns reject reason as the only avenue to truth. Well, yes, but has anyone ever really argued that reason is the only avenue to truth. Poetry, for example, is not the preserve of postmoderns, nor was it rejected by the Enlightenment (Goethe being a great example).
2. Postmoderns reject truth as objective. Agreed, but there is a distinction between “objective” and “neutral” which needs to be made. A Christian can—indeed, must—concede we’re not neutral toward the truth—we can only speak from our perspective—but an objective truth exists nonetheless. Stiller’s argument at this point would have been more cogent had he at least acknowledged this distinction and, with it, the fact that many moderns knew their knowledge was not “neutral” (cf. Kant, Marx, Freud, to name but three). One can reject the postmodern attack on objective knowledge without being required to subscribe to a naive belief in the neutrality of knowledge.
3. Rejecting authority as “will to power” leads to seeing history as a distortion, written by those who wield power. This may sound facetious, but having worked as a professional historian for some fifteen years, I cannot begin to describe how marginal history is to the real centers of power!
4. Postmoderns reject the notion of metanarrative. But here’s the rub: Christianity is metanarrative. To fail to set the parables within the metanarrative of the Christian story may be the reader’s choice, as Stiller says; but, if Christianity has any transcendent validity, one cannot avoid the conclusion that this is a wrong choice.
5. Postmodernism rejects the Enlightenment’s view of the autonomy of the individual for more communitarian approaches. Again, a valid point as far as it goes, but the Enlightenment developed numerous concepts that were key to much of its philosophical content, that were far from individualistic in nature, and which clearly stand in continuity with this allegedly more recent communitarianism—for example, the concepts (and language) of race, class, and nationality. This basic point must surely qualify dramatically any simple generalizations about Enlightenment individualism.
6. Postmodernity emphasizes the culturally conditioned nature of the world and views language as a prison. Stiller never makes it clear how this “linguistic prison” view really connects to what he is trying to do with the parables.
7. Postmodernity rejects the optimism of the modern era. Highly questionable. Many of the great modernists (Conrad, Eliot, Huxley) were profoundly pessimistic. Modernism’s optimism (and that generally a middle class phenomenon; not too many child laborers or chimney sweeps in the Industrial Revolution, I suspect, were very optimistic) is too often overplayed as a means of making the contemporary era seem exceptional and discontinuous with the immediate past.