Postmodernism: a definition for the undefined

DEFINING POSTMODERNISM: The subject of this assignment was to create a personal, working definition for Postmodernism. This is part 1. The second part will describe the Christians response to postmodernism.

During one of the most confusing and troubling times in the history of American culture, one of the greatest artists and poets once said, “The times they are a-changin’.” No one will ever mistake Bob Dylan as a prophet but in this song written for the purpose of creating an anthem for change during the civil rights movement, little did he know that those lyrics would apply to the shift that the Western world was undergoing.

Postmodernism is a specific movement of the late-20th-century in the arts, architecture, and criticism that was a reaction and a departure from modernism. It was a cultural phenomenon that invaded every facet of academics, including skeptical interpretations of culture, literature, art, philosophy, history, economics, architecture, fiction, and literary criticism. It is often associated with deconstruction and post-structuralism because its usage as a term gained significant popularity at the same time as twentieth-century post-structural thought.[1] Postmodernism seems to mean anything, everything, and nothing.[2] Alister McGrath says that a full definition of postmodernism is “virtually impossible.”[3] While postmodernism is no longer a major them in the art and architecture worlds, the word “postmodernism” has been applied in different ways now, most specifically in discussions of culture.

Postmodernism can refer to a group of people that have typically been the marginalized or even called “the others.” It is a desire to do justice to the claims of those whom the dominant culture has excluded politically, economically, and (probably not least of all from the postmodern perspective) rhetorically.[4] Postmodernism can also refer loosely to advanced consumer capitalism, in which the prevalence of choice has rendered everything level.[5] But many suggest that postmodernism refers to a “profound skepticism toward modernity’s assumptions about knowledge, truth, and reason.”[6] Jean Lyotard, the French champion of many postmodern themes, said that “postmodernism requires a suspicion of the overarching stories (often called “metanarratives”) that support our claims of truth. Any claim to know truth or any attempt to commend truth to others is likely to be just a power play, they argue, an attempt to impose one’s own metanarrative in the guise of an absolute truth.”[7]

Characteristics of Postmodernism

One of the defining characteristics about postmodernism is its direct opposition to the Modern Era. After the optimistic view of the Modern Era was attacked in the twentieth century by increased wars, violence, turmoil and civil unrest many people became more pessimistic. The world that was once positive and thought that all problems could be fixed or discovered, now had to deal with a world that was falling apart. The postmodern world became weary and more restrained about science and technology because they witnessed what it could do and how it could inflict pain. Brian McLaren states, “9/11 demonstrates the fear of postmodernity with a controlling metanarrative, a controlling big idea, controlling story which has proved to destroy.”[8] In turn, this created a growing cynicism and skepticism about the world around them.

The postmodern world has the fastest rate of change when compared to the two previous era’s, the Pre-Modern and the Modern. The Pre-Modern world basically lasted from 500 BC to 500 AD and had a very gradual rate of change, but during the Mordern Era, also called the Enlightenment Project, which lasted from the 18th to 20th centuries change was very rapid. During the Modern Era, communication tools became more widespread and resulted in a serious growth of information and information sharing. The postmodern world on the other hand is an age where everyone is connected. There is virtually a wealth of information at one’s finger tips. With the abundance of information and rapidity of change, the postmodern world is one that is multi-sensory and experiential.

At the heart of postmodernism is a redefining of truth. While the truth of the Modern Age could be discovered or reasoned in an individual way, truth in the postmodern age is found in community. Truth may be the tradition of the community. Culture has become the garden for growing truth. Whereas culture used to conform to accepted standards of truth, now truth conforms to accepted group culture. The concept of truth can be different because what one community defines as truth may be different from what another defines as truth. There is no longer a single authoritative truth. “This means that there is no one meaning of the world, no transcendent center to reality as a whole.”[9] “Truth is established neither by the correspondence of an assertion with objective reality nor by the internal coherence of the assertions themselves… we should simply give up the search for truth and be content with interpretation.”[10] Since there is not an absolute truth in the postmodern world, truth now comes from sharing and hearing others stories so that some type of truth might be received. Metanarratives can longer be trusted because they are seen as oppressive and controlling. Tim Keller writes, “In this view [denial of truth], all ‘truths’ and ‘facts’ are now in quotation marks. Claims of objective truth are really just a cover-up for a power play. Those who claim to have a story true for all are really just trying to get power for their group over other groups.”[11]

Contrasting Postmodern and Modern

Postmodernism in contrast to the individualistic ways of the Modern Era has a more holistic view of life. It sees that in some way we are all connected. The Modern Era believed that we had unlimited resources and once all those resources are used up, they can be gathered from somewhere else. Whereas the postmodern world is aware of the world’s limited resources. The postmodernist is able to view the side effects of using those resources to make a particular item. In the Modern Era, the world was full of questions and they believed that there was an answer to every question. If they were not able to answer a question it did not trouble that society, because the people believed it gave them reason to live. In a postmodern world, the opposition to the Modern Era is displayed by the knowledge that there will be some unanswered questions because there is more to life than anyone will ever know. The postmodernist is not troubled by the lack of certainty.

One final contrast between the two time periods is the belief in God or a god. During the modern time, there was belief that there may or may not be a God. The overarching metanarrative for that time period was a Christian one. Grenze writes, “evangelicalism is a child of early modernity.”[12] Postmodernism on the other hand, because of the distrust of the metanarrative, Christianity is seen as oppressive and controlling. Although many in postmodernism have an interest in spirituality that relates to the Pre-Modern age.

[1] “Postmodernism,” in Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia; (Wikimedia Foundation Inc., updated 20 February 2014, 05:13 UTC) [encyclopedia on-line]; available from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Postmodernism; Internet; retrieved 28 February 2014.

[2] Andy Crouch, “What Exactly is Postmodernism?,” Christianity Today, November 13, 2000, 76.

[3] Alister E. McGrath, Christian Theology: An Introduction (West Sussex, UK: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011), 73.

[4] Crouch, 76.

[5] Ibid, 76.

[6] Ibid, 76.

[7] Ibid, 76.

[8] Brian McLaren, “An Open Letter to Chuck Colson,” A New Kind of Christian, Internet, available from http://www.brianmclaren.net/archives/000018.html, accessed 28 February 2014.

[9] Stanley Grenz, A Primer on Postmodernism (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1996), 4.

[10] Ibid, 4.

[11] Tim Keller, “Preaching Morality in an Amoral Age,” The Resurgence Leadership Journal, Internet, available from http://theresurgence.com/files/pdf/tim_keller_1996-01-01_preaching_morality_in_an_amoral_age, accessed 1 March 2014.

[12] Grenz, 4.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Crouch, Andy. “What Exactly is Postmodernism?” Christianity Today, November 2000.

Grenz, Stanley. A Primer on Postmodernism. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1996.

Guinness, OS. Fit Bodies, Fat Minds. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1994.

Keller, Tim. “Preaching Morality in an Amoral Age.” The Resurgence Leadership Journal. Internet. Available from http://theresurgence.com/files/pdf/tim_keller_1996-01-01_preaching_morality_in_an_amoral_age, accessed 1 March 2014.

McLaren, Brian. “An Open Letter to Chuck Colson.” A New Kind of Christian. Internet. Available from http://www.brianmclaren.net/archives/000018.html, accessed 28 February 2014.

McGrath, Alister E.. Christian Theology: An Introduction. West Sussex: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011.

Postmodernism. 20 February 2014, 05:13 UTC. In Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. Wikimedia Foundation Inc. Encyclopedia on-line. Available from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Postmodernism. Internet. Retrieved 28 February 2014.

Riley, Jennifer. “Brian McLaren: Postmodern Christianity Understood as Story.” Christian Post. Internet. Available from http://www.christianpost.com/news/brian-mclaren-postmodern-christianity-understood-as-story-31238/, accessed 28 February 2014.

Tozer, A. W.. The Pursuit of God. Harrisburg: Christian, 1958.

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