Part 2 of “Two Perspectives on Postmodernism” See Part 1
The question of whether any particular social movement is more or less supportive of Christian faith is a difficult one. Most human realities present both opportunities and threats to the life of the church. Moreover, humans—sinful as we are—are always capable of turning even the greatest of God’s blessings into idols .
So here, to be considered alongside Brianna McCLean’s list of postmodernity’s blessings, are 5 warnings…
1. Postmodernism is too Parochial
This might seem unlikely, given that postmodernism spends so much time critiquing western culture. But that very obsession with the West is the problem. Postmodernism can easily become a negative image of the old imperial mindset that valued everything western and dismissed other cultures as barbarous. Postmoderns have difficulty appreciating the strengths of western culture and trouble critiquing the abuses of others—especially when such a critique might give credence to conservatives. Think, for example, of the hostility which greeted the ANU’s proposed centre for western civilisation, or the left’s casual, guilt-by-association dismissal of Ayaan Hirsi Ali.
For some postmodern Christians, it seems, the best way to serve the spread of the gospel is to spend a disproportionate amount of time lecturing other believers about their cultural faux pas
This inward focus shows up in the church too. For some postmodern Christians, it seems that the best way to serve the spread of the gospel is to spend a disproportionate amount of time lecturing other believers about their cultural faux pas. In many cases they have a point, but this preoccupation with talking about hindrances to the gospel easily turns into a distraction from it.
2. Postmodernism Subordinates Truth to Identity
Postmodernism began by observing how power and privilege make it hard for us to think clearly about truth. But over time this helpful insight has turned into a near-total subordination of truth to identity. Current postmoderns often seem more interested in the minority credentials of a speaker (or actor or author etc.) than they are in what the person is actually contributing.
This shift is a disaster for social discourse (see the next point). It’s also bad news for Christianity. People who over-value identity and under-value truth are always hostile to missionaries. That’s why the Ephesians riot for “Artemis of the Ephesians” (Acts 19:34); why Jewish crowds revolt when Paul speaks of going to the Gentiles (Acts 22:21-22). It’s why Hindu nationalists burn Christian missionaries. It’s the “German” in “German Christianity.” It’s why the postmodern mind recoils from the idea of westerners telling animists to worship Jesus.
But the gospel of Jesus makes universal claims. It is true both for the poor person of colour and for the rich white man. It critiques all us and calls all of us to repentance. Thank God that our Christian forebears weren’t cowed by identity-based attacks on Christian mission.
3. Postmodernism is Factious
By putting so much emphasis on identity and experience, postmodernism creates complex caste systems of legitimacy where different groups compete for the status of “most marginalised” and “least privileged.” Now we hear of white feminists called out by people of colour. We hear of conflicts between cross-dressers and trans activists. We even see right-wing identity groups (“involuntarily celibate” men, for example) attempting to claim victim status.
But, again, all this is doing is inverting traditional hierarchies. If we want unity despite our differences we need a fixed star outside of ourselves—something to look to, not just react against. Jesus is that star: the one in whom there is neither Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female (Gal 3:28). Jesus doesn’t abolish our differences but he radically transcends them and thus puts them in perspective.
Postmodernism produces division and more division. We need the gospel to bring reconciliation.
4. Postmodernism isn’t Sufficiently Critical
Postmodernism’s preoccupation with (western) power and privilege blinds it to the universal problem of sin. The fact is that we are all corrupt. We all selfishly mistreat each other. We all take our privileges for granted. We all abuse reason to justify ourselves.
But Christianity is still more ruthless in its critique of humanity. It says that our complicity in injustice begins—not in our relations with each other, where some of us certainly are victims and others oppressors—but in relation to God. When we refuse to give him thanks or acknowledge him as God, each of us makes our own grab for power and privilege.
This hardness of heart toward God is our most serious impediment to our accepting the truth and no amount of social theory or action will overcome it. We need to hear the gospel, and we need the Holy Spirit to illuminate that gospel and convict us of it.
5. Postmodernism Needs a Foundation
Postmodernism attacks universal truth claims and challenges the idea that we might find a sure foundation for truth. But this rejection hasn’t stopped postmodernism being dogmatic—far from it. For late postmodernism, truth isn’t something to argue about, it’s something you fight for! Cue, deplatforming campaigns; campus riots and ominous challenges to the notion of free speech. This way lies the mob, The Reign of Terror and the Cultural Revolution. But we do have a foundation. It’s not human reason (or the culturally blinkered “reason” of my tribe). Our sure foundation is Jesus himself, coming to us through the words of the Scriptures that testify to him. Our hope is built, first and foremost, not in a method or on an idea but on a person who promises to meet with us and help us when we meet in his name.
For late postmodernism, truth isn’t something to argue about, it’s something you fight for! This way lies the mob, The Reign of Terror and the Cultural Revolution.
Christians who want to be postmodern need to make some tough decisions here. Will they trust Jesus and the Bible that testifies to him? Will they agree that there are right answers to what the Bible means? Will they submit to God’s Word even when it says things that contemporary ideology finds repugnant?
Jesus not Modernism or Postmodernism
Both modernism and postmodernism have their strengths; both have true things to say that can help us think about truth and our place in God’s world. But they aren’t enough. Nor is any human institution or cultural phenomenon—and some of these are likely to do more harm than good.
Our problems are far too serious. They need a work of the Spirit and the transforming power of Jesus’ new life.
Photo by TETrebbien on Unsplash