Thursday, August 10, 2006

Is There Any There There?
Modernism and Postmodernism

[There was a time when] the humans still knew pretty well when a thing was proved and when it was not; and when it was proved they really believed it. . . . But what with the weekly press and other such weapons, we have largely altered that. Your man has been accustomed, ever since he was a boy, to having a dozen incompatible philosophies dancing about together inside his head. . . . Don't waste time trying to make him think that materialism is true! Make him think it is strong or stark or courageous--that it is the philosophy of the future.


I first came across the terms modernism and postmodernism while in pursuit of a degree in English literature at a secular university. That, it seems to me, should have been a reasonably good introduction, considering the fact that these terms originated in the study of literature, and one of the major proponents of a postmodern approach to the church--Brian McLaren--appeals to his literature background in his views and interpretations of Scripture. I write "should have been," because in reencountering these terms twenty years later in the context of the emerging church movement, I barely recognize them.

In literature, "modernism" was a literary movement characterized by people like James Joyce, T S Eliot, Virginia Woolf, and later, William Faulkner. It was characterized by experimentation with literary forms and conventions, multiple points of view, nonchronological development, and lack of transitional or explanatory matter to clarify what is going on. Some of these are among my favorite writers; I love this kind of literary experimentation--finding a way to tell a story in a new and fresh way. There are, of course, other points of view; I believe it was Graham Greene who simply thought that James Joyce had gone stark raving mad halfway through Ulysses.

Postmodernism was simply a catch-all term for the writers who had come after the Modernists, most of whom in some way responded to or built upon what the Modernists had done. Some like John Barth went further and abandoned any sort of pretense to narrative storytelling at all. Many were influenced by French Existentialism, with its rejection of objective truth--meaning is something for individuals to construct for themselves out of an absurd universe. Other, more philosophical issues entered into the study of literature (this is distinct from the production of literature itself), culminating with Jacques Derrida and deconstruction theory, which in a nutshell, meant that there could be no inherent meaning to any text, only the meanings that arose from the encounter of the reader's matrix of understanding with the text. (It may be argued here that I have only a superficial and faulty understanding of the issues involved with literary postmodernism. This may be so--I am much more interested in literature itself than in various theories on its interpretation--but as will be seen, that actually should not matter in the discussion of the emerging church.)

When I read these terms in the context of the emerging church, they take on entirely different meanings. Modernism and postmodernism are supposed to be two different cultures, the first waning, the second taking shape in reaction to the first. Those who identify with postmodern culture are resolutely against defining the characteristics of that culture (the attempt to do so being dismissed as "modern"). They don't appear to have any problem defining the culture they are rejecting, however. "Modernism" is used synonymously with "modernity" and appears to be associated with rational and logical thought; it's sometimes characterized as "Enlightenment thinking," as though Aristotle knew nothing of logic and Plato's dialogues had nothing to do with reason. This is not to say that postmodern thought is irrational, but there is much more focus on understanding through narrative, as opposed to understanding through propositions and syllogistic reasoning. "Modernism" is also viewed as individualistic and associated with a consumer mentality. Postmodernism, by contrast, is supposed to be more relational, more interested in community, and opposed to consumerism. It has some relationship to youth culture, which is why it shouldn't matter whether I have a perfect understanding of Derrida, literary postmodernism, or deconstruction: most of those who identify with the postmodern movement don't, either.

What is my point? (How modernist of you to ask!) Only this: I think there is something going on among those who view themselves as emerging or postmodern, but I don't know if it's anything nearly so earth-shattering as its proponents want to make out. As a matter of fact, I think we've seen something like this before. Wasn't the '60s counterculture supposed to be a new way of life, emerging from the ashes of the surrounding larger culture? Wasn't it supposed to be a rejection of the money grubbing rat race? A new Age of Aquarius, full of peace and harmony? While the '60s have had a significant impact on culture--largely in terms of music and social/sexual mores--much of the more radical aspects of the movement petered out. So let's be careful before we abandon too much in the race to be "relevant" to the brave new postmodern world. Especially, let's be careful in the area of Biblical interpretation. Liberal theology was predicated on the perceived necessity to make the Bible "relevant to modern man." The result: the denominations that adopted that theological approach have withered. Let's not make that mistake again.

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