The Value of Postmodernism

In my experience, the Church’s reaction to postmodernism is resoundingly negative. And to be honest, I think the Church is right to react that way to the distorted image of postmodernism that has worked its way into popular culture.

In a recent Liturgists podcast on epistemology, Michael Gungor discussed the transition from 20th century postmodernism to what we have in popular culture now. Start listening at 17 minutes if you want to listen yourself – or listen to the whole episode, which is fantastic as always – but here’s my rough transcription of the main points:

“Here’s a glass, and the assumption is that when you’re saying glass, that’s actually referring to the swirling bits of atoms, electrons and all the things that you think of as a glass. No, deconstruction and postmodernism would point out that a ‘glass’ is a word rooted in a language, rooted in a culture, rooted in all these cultural assumptions and language assumptions that you can start deconstructing far before you even get to ‘what is this glass?’

“You’re saying a word, you’re making sounds, to communicate from one mind – what you assume to be one mind – to another. And so postmodernism gets so weird, and it gets so deep into language and metaphysics and epistemology and into art and media. And you have people that start saying things like, ‘well there is no objective truth; it’s relative. It’s all based on relativity, all these things.

“And then you have all this as part of the cultural discussion that’s been happening since the 20th century, but then it starts filtering into what we’re seeing in our movies, reading in books, hearing somebody really smart say – it’s relative truth.

“And then somebody says, ‘it’s my truth’, and then eventually what you have is postmodernism that, when you really get into it there’s all this brilliant, subtle stuff going on, but then it kind of gets dumbed down when it reaches most of us in a cultural way – ‘it’s my truth, it doesn’t matter what’s objectively true, it’s my truth, and your truth.’ And you have this lazy, uninformed postmodernism.”

The Church is rightly rejecting a postmodernism that uses relative truth as a weapon against different points of view, and it’s important that the Church also maintains the centrality of Jesus Christ to faith and life.

However, we would be wise to learn from the postmodernism that recognises the assumptions that knowledge is based on, and all of the baggage that goes with language to make the same word have different meanings to different people.

Author Carl Medearis talks about this in his book, Speaking of Jesus, in which he raises the point that ‘Christian’ is an incredibly loaded word in today’s world, and that some people will shut off from a conversation before it even starts just because they hear you’re a Christian and they have strong negative associations with Christianity. It doesn’t take much. Many people have been so hurt by the church that the thought of returning to Christianity and entertaining those ideas again is deeply traumatic.

Even for those who don’t have overly negative conceptions of Christianity, there are still associations and preconceptions that we might have to break down before we can get to the ‘good stuff’.

All of this in a word.

I don’t feel as strongly as Carl Medearis about dropping the label of Christian altogether and referring to ourselves as something along the lines of ‘Jesus followers’, but I think we would be wise to follow his example and recognise that a word doesn’t have a blanket meaning. We can still call ourselves Christians, but perhaps we should do so with an awareness of the associations that others may have with the term.

Let’s not forget that postmodernism is largely a reaction against modernism – a way of viewing the world that fostered narratives and ‘truths’ that often led to oppression of anyone who disagreed. The sense of inexorable progress and moral superiority that came out of modernism is exactly what postmodernism is deconstructing and questioning.

I want to be a Christian who desires conversations, not shouting matches, and who does not see himself as morally superior, but rather saved by grace beyond my own power. I imagine a lot of you reading this want the same. In that case, we have something to learn from postmodernism.

We can see again the value of the individual, and the depth of experience that leads to the way an individual sees the world and interprets the information they receive. We might also realise that, though our beliefs are important, it is also important to be able to question, and to admit uncertainty where we have it.

I believe that people will respect Christians more if we stop trying to act like we have all the answers, and start being honest about our questions. Questions don’t negate our lived experience of God or his revelation, they simply show honesty in our limitations as humans.

I know I’ve rambled a bit, and there’s a lot more to be said (maybe I’ll follow this up at some point), but I hope I’ve introduced you to some ideas in postmodernism that maybe we don’t need to reject out of hand. If nothing else, I think there are two key things that Christians can learn from postmodernism:

Don’t blindly trust your assumptions. Where do they come from? Why do you hold them?
Words do not have fixed meaning. Individuals will respond differently to different words, and we need to remember that, especially when throwing around highly loaded words, like ‘Christian’.

That’s all for now, but I would love to hear what you think in the comments. Does this resonate with you? Do you think I’m barking up the wrong tree? Let me know!

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