Defining the Most Misused Word in Modern Christian Conversation

John ArmstrongPostmodernity

If you’ve heard the word once then you’ve likely heard it hundreds, if not thousands, of times: postmodern. It is used to describe the current cultural and social context of the West by many writers. It is used in college classes in philosophy and literature (which is where it seems to have originated actually). And it is now used in pulpits and Christian conversations almost every day. One can safely conclude that this postmodern discussion, pro and con, is nearly ubiquitous these days.

I picked up a publicity card in a Christian bookstore (there are less and less such stores these days) that promoted a new book from a very conservative evangelical publishing company. The card employed all the appropriate marketing ideas to try to get me to visit a web site, read excerpts from the new book and get acquainted with the author’s thought so I would buy his book. The exact same process was used by Zondervan to market my book, Your Church Is Too Small. This was not what caught my attention.

Eyes My question about this particular book was about how the ideas of the author were presented. The card, and book’s title, ask a very important missional question: “Why is an entire generation leaving the church"?” And, “What can we do about this exodus?” The author believes that there are several types of young adults in our culture and it is important that the reader understand each of these basic types. He proposes to give insights and practical helps for pastors, parents and peers so they can reach these prodigals. The idea is very good. But what struck me immediately was the various categories, or types, of young people and how these are explained. I will not list them here but the first one was “postmodernists.” The definition was straightforward and simple: “Postmodernists reject Christianity’s exclusive claims and moral absolutes. They care about the poor and oppressed but feel the Christian faith is too narrow.” In contrast modernists are defined as those “who completely reject supernatural claims. God is a delusion. Any truth beyond the reach of science is dismissed as superstition.”

So what’s wrong here? Almost everything. This is not only way too simple but it is profoundly wrong. In fact, it is even dangerous. The author makes the same mistake that loads of “modernist” conservative Christians make about both these words and the innate ideas behind them.

Let’s be entirely clear about one thing: our perception of reality is changing. This is an incontrovertible fact. Anyone who listens to modern people speak and think, especially those under forty years  of age, knows this to be true. We are moving beyond the modern world, in which people like me were nurtured in my faith and thought process, to a new world. The old one lasted for at least 300 years, maybe for as long as 500. But change is coming whether you like it or not and regardless of what you call this change.

This change is now routinely called postmodern or postmodernism. Now I can think of other words that describe what is going on in our lifetime but this one is fine by me. The point here is not the word itself but the truth that it represents. Try getting five Christian thinkers/teachers to agree on what postmodernism is and you will be very lucky. Then mix in ordinary people who hear this discussion and believe what their favorite teacher tells them to believe and you have chaos.

I agree with James Danaher, professor at Nyack College, when he says: “Any attempt at a definition [of postmodernism] would be premature and presumptuous. The situation appears to be very much like a similar transition in worldview that took place in the seventeenth century. . . . As these new views spread, the medieval world was passing away . . . . but it would be awhile before the scientific and philosophical perspectives of the modern world would take shape” (Eyes That See, Ears That Hear: Perceiving Jesus in a Postmodern Context, page xiii).

The modern world, whose dominant narrative was scientific, is passing away. Please understand that the scientific modern world will never come to an end, since we will all use the advances and insights of this age for centuries to come. But the way that we were taught to perceive truth and reality will merge with this old way into various new ways and thus we will find our place in a very different reality. What we can say about the present time, and about young adults in our culture, is that they are rejecting the basic tenets of modernity very openly. Danaher adds, “Postmodernism is, at present, best defined by its suspicion of modernity and its ideals.” He is clearly right.

I will explain this last sentence tomorrow.