Postmodernism is big news. We Christians, with our commitment to truth, have rightly sat up and taken notice. I went through undergrad reading books with titles like The Death of Truth and Truth Decay. But I’ve become increasingly unhappy with some responses to postmodernism. There is now a wide range of disdainful and overbearing reactions online, and even respected Christian leaders, with all due respect to them, are not immune. Here is a series of Christian myths about postmodernism.
Myth: Postmodernism is relativism. Sheer relativism is certainly one byproduct of postmodernism, but to reduce postmodernism to relativism is a lazy caricature. Postmodernism is about the recognition of metanarratives and a questioning of objective truth. That is, postmodernism is not anti-truth but an acknowledgement that truth is not straightforward. There is no simple one-to-one correspondence between reality and our perception of reality, because our perceptions are always subjective, always bound up in our biases. We need to take this seriously, especially as modernism has never got to grips with it.
Myth: Postmodernism is a distinct idea that can be denied and refuted. At the core of postmodernism is a reaction to modernism. Postmodernism, then, is a mood of questioning and rethinking our inherited Western story and its obsessions with the individual, the rational, the objective and the scientific. Postmodernism is not some simple new heresy to be mocked or knocked. For all its difficulties, what postmodernism reveals is a world in flux. The traditional Western authorities have failed and shown themselves to be untrustworthy. The times are a-changin’. What is needed is not a ‘critique’ of postmodernism but a new vision. The question is, will Christians provide one, or are they tied to the old status quo?
Myth: Postmodernism is more problematic than modernism. Christians’ criticisms of postmodernism are often modernistic reactions rather than Christian interactions. As Christians, we’re committed to truth, but we all too quickly collapse our attempts to defend the Truth into a cheap modernistic defence of ‘objective truth’. Modernistic truth is not living Truth, and its pretensions that truth is neatly accessible, along with its privileging of certain truth-forms, are at best sub-Christian. Of course, Christianity speaks of a Truth that is real and accessible, yet its vision is an altogether different one to modernism.
Myth: Postmodernism is hyper-individualistic. True, perhaps. Yet Christians often make this attack without dealing with their own modernistic commitment to the individual. At one level, postmodernism is not so much post-modern as hyper-modern: it is the extension of modernism, even its logical endpoint. It’s no surprise, for example, to find Foucault’s postmodernism flowing out of his reading of Kant. If postmodernism is individualistic, it’s only because modernism is. If we’re committed to squashing individualism, we should be aiming first at modernism.
Myth: Postmodernism is of no use. We often act as if postmodernism is simply harmful. If that’s the case, we’ve probably missed two things: the deep failings of modernism, and the helpful correctives that postmodernism offers. Truth is not straightforward. God does not speak out of the sky; we understand God through filters (as with everything). God has chosen to make himself known through humans, within human cultures, by human languages — a very messy business! The Bible does not just contain narrative forms but in a real sense is narrative, and Christian living is about story and relationships as much as propositions (‘truth’ in modernism).
To recognise these myths is not to endorse postmodernism but to repudiate modernism, Christian laziness and the husk of Christendom. Whenever we lapse into modernistic defences of objective truth, our ‘critiques’ are hollow. There is a real sense in which we need to speak ‘postmodern’, to be postmodern, in order to proclaim Christ in a world in flux. But more than this, we need a more biblical, more robust vision of God’s living, speaking Truth, which modernism could never provide.
Part of a loose series:
- Which bridge?
- Re-viewing Nooma (How to use Nooma)
- Further up and further in (What is Rob Bell on about?)
Arthur Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.