Musing on Postmodernism

I had an interesting conversation earlier today with a friend of mine who is/was/has been skeptical of the idea and very existence of postmodernism. Although his reasoning is akin to those who would say things like “postmodernism is relativism” the conversation brought to light some ideas I’ve been mulling over for a while.

It seems to me that ‘postmodern’ isn’t a word that should be thrown around lightly. One of the most important things I pulled from reading the small number of postmodern books that I have (mostly primers and introductions) was that during a culture shift it is practically impossible (and downright silly) to try and identify what the new shift means. For example it would be silly to be living during the shift from medieval to modern times and at the same time try and identify what it means to be modern. It doesn’t become apparent just what cultural period you are in until (go figure) 500 or so years later.

Postmodernism can be:

  • an actual state of affairs in society
  • the set of ideas which tries to define or explain this state of affairs
  • an artistic style, or an approach to the making of things
  • a word used in many different contexts to cover many different aspects of all of the above.

Glenn Ward, Teach Yourself Postmodernism (5.9-6.1)

The only problem with this set of definitions is that this could apply to any cultural change. This could apply to medieval, to modern, etc. So we need to go further and find out exactly what this postmodern idea is– if that’s even possible.

They propose that society, culture and lifestyle are today significantly different from what they were 100, 50 or even 30 years ago. They are concerned with concrete subjects like the developments in mass media, the consumer society and information technology. They suggest these kinds of development have an impact on our understanding of more abstract matters, like meaning, identity or even reality. They claim that old styles of analysis are no longer useful, and that new approaches and new vocabularies need to be created in order to understand the present.

Glenn Ward, Teach Yourself Postmodernism (6.9-7.1)

More than anything else I think the last sentence hits it. If postmodernism is currently anything tangible it is the claim that current systems don’t work. This is actually the way I can most easily conceptualize postmodernism.

The problem is still, though, that the term means too much. It carries so much weight with so many people that it loses meaning in mass.

Another author, this one specifically speaking toward postmodernism in the church, says it this way:

…some of the shifts:

  • from propositional expressions of faith to relational stories about faith journeys.

  • from the authority of Scripture alone to a harmony between the authority of Scripture and other personal ways God mysteriously and graciously speaks to Christians.

  • from a theology that prepares people for death and the afterlife to a theology for life.

  • from a personal, individualistic, private faith to harmony between personal and community faith.

  • from anti-Catholic and non-protestant perspectives to greater acceptance and curiosity about other approaches to knowing God.

  • from the church being a place where people take up space to the church as a mission outpost that sends people out.

  • from an approach to missions that emphasizes mass conversions by individuals to “share the good news with the whole world” approach.

  • from arguing faith to the “dance of faith.”

  • from salvation by event to a journey of salvation.

  • from a salvation of humanity to a salvation of all creation.

  • from a Western, American understanding of the gospel to a worldwide view.

  • from motivating through fear to motivating through compassion, community, and hope.

  • from a search for dogmatic truth to a search for spiritual experience.

Dave Tomlinson, The Post-Evangelical (42.9-43.6)

If this doesn’t get you excited nothing will. A lot of this actually takes on more meaning for me now, after the Isn’t She Beautiful? conference. The bullet points about a spiritual journey, for instance (the first and ninth points) remind me of what Bell said about journey theology.

I would also classify all of these things under the heading “emerging church.” In fact, I would call these “emerging church” things before I would call them postmodern things, simply for the reasons I’ve stated above. And I suppose it is a possibility that the emerging church is simply what the postmodern church is referred to, in which case both Tomlinson and I are correct. (By the way I wrote about contemporary, prevailing, and emerging churches a few posts ago.)

Maybe this is only a silly semantic distinction that doesn’t have any real bearing one way or another. Then again maybe forgoing the use of a hasty term like postmodern to describe all of these (exciting) changes as postmodern (although calling them that is cool) is what may make some people more willing to take them on. I say let them become “postmoderns” (or whatever, who cares) in due time, without knowing it. In the meantime let’s focus on the emerging church more than defining what postmodernism might be – it is fun, but aside from pure speculation none of us can really contribute anything of value.

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