Postmodernism in a Nutshell

cropped-nutshelllogo2My dissertation is on the historical roots of the Emerging Church Movement (ECM) which has flowered among American Christians over the past two decades. As you may know, before this movement bore the term emerging/emergent/emergence, it was more commonly referred to as “postmodern Christianity,” which led to a whole host of arguments about what exactly “postmodernism” was. Turns out defining postmodernism, as with defining the Emerging Church, is kind of like nailing the proverbial jello to the wall. Despite the many difficulties with this term, however, I have still decided (for now at least) to make use of it in my most basic definition of the ECM: “emergents are those Christians who have questioned their received traditions, institutional structures, and theologies in light of recent postmodern shifts in the broader culture, and are beginning to create new expressions of faith adapted in various ways to this new cultural context.”

Of course this definition still begs the original question, “what is postmodernism?” Many others much more qualified than I have expounded on this elsewhere, nevertheless a friend recently asked me for a succinct definition, and I felt compelled to respond with something that might be at least somewhat helpful to the average educated lay-person. Here’s what I told him:

“As you might expect, that’s a pretty complicated question. It depends on what you’re talking about. On the one hand, postmodernity is a broad historical/cultural trend – a shift of mindset happening in Western societies. This shift is multifaceted but I tend to define it by the following four characteristics:

  1. A suspicion towards Enlightenment ideals of rationalism and social progress.
  2. A pluralistic blending of diverse beliefs, styles, and cultures.
  3. A flattening of institutional hierarchies towards more collaborative forms of organization.
  4. The de-centering of traditional sources of authority (including the decline of the so-called Christendom model of ecclesial influence in Western societies).

If seen as a cultural-historical trend, postmodernism is simply something that is happening, whether one likes it or not. On the other hand, postmodernism is also a kind of philosophical approach that deconstructs truth claims made by individuals, institutions, or social groups in order to examine the power dynamics underlying those truth claims. In other words, who benefits from this particular construction of the “truth” and who is disempowered, excluded, or marginalized?

This approach is of course based on the understanding that “truth” (or substitute “human systems of knowledge” if the word “truth” is too theologically loaded) is a human construction – the ways that we take the raw data of human existence and arrange it in certain patterns or big stories (what postmodernists call “metanarratives”) in order to help us live and function in the world. And postmodernity basically notices that human communities tend to craft these metanarratives in ways that make them and their culture “right” and “good” and other groups “wrong” or “bad,” thereby justifying whatever acts of domination and oppression they wanted to carry out onto those other groups. Postmoderns thus tend to be skeptical toward such truth systems and metanarratives, and towards those who claim that theirs is the correct one to the exclusion of all others.

As a historical note, this postmodern, deconstructive approach to truth claims first emerged in the wake of World War II and the Holocaust, as Europeans began to reflect on the kind of metanarratives and truth claims that were used to justify the extermination of six million Jews and assorted others. They asked how “Enlightened,” “scientific,” “rational,” and “Christian” people like themselves could have possibly committed such an atrocity – what narratives were given to justify such actions. And that reflection is what set them on the path of examining how almost all of our “big stories” tend towards this kind of self-justifying oppressive behavior. In short, whenever we claim to know the “absolute truth” it is very likely that we are doing so in order to position ourselves as more right, more good, or more entitled than some other group who doesn’t possess our truth.”

Of course that’s just a short overview, and there’s obviously lots more one could say about about postmodernism and postmodern culture (perhaps most importantly the close connection between postmodernism and postcolonial and liberationist thought). Again however, others have already done a fine job of that. If one wants to read more, some of the best non-specialist books on the subject addressed to a Christian audience include:

Stanley Grenz, A Primer on Postmodernism (Eerdmans: 1996)

James K.A. Smith, Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism? (Baker: 2006)

John D. Caputo, What Would Jesus Deconstruct? (Baker: 2007)

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