Friday, May 22, 2015

The Myth of a Postmodern Era

By Mark Sayers

For the last ten to fifteen years a great fallacy has clouded debate around the future of the Church in the West. The fallacy goes something like this. At some stage (depending on who you talk to), but most likely in the nineteen nineties the post modern era began. All of a sudden everything changed and a line was drawn in history. On one side were the postmodernists and on the other the modernists. The modernists were enslaved to a highly cerebral, hegemonic view of the world. They were obsessed with progress and holding the world at a cold calculated distance. They were beholden to technology, and if they were religious were either dogmatic fundamentalists or materialist liberals. They hated anything non-Western or from the past, and lived in Le Corbusier designed buildings where they almost suffocated on their own sense of hubris.

Then there was the postmodernists and apparently they were coming so we had to be ready, or had to become postmodern ourselves. The young were postmodern and the future was postmodern. The postmodernists were everything that the modernists were not, they loved spirituality instead of religion, were embracing of the non-West, the past, and anything experiential. They had piercings and hated objective truth. The implications were clear, soon Western culture would morph into a giant rave where we would find ourselves dancing to tribal techno with an dreadlocked Austrian backpacker/Yoga practitioner named Helga.

So the call was clarion, the future was postmodern and we had no choice but to enter into its cleansing baptismal waters which would rid us of any traces of sinful modernism, expunge our enlightenment values, and heal us of the illness of being from the West. Once transformed and having shed our modernist selves we now could begin the task of shaping a postmodern faith, postmodern churches (whoops sorry Christ centered organic communities) and a most importantly a postmodern (whoops postcolonial) theology.

So like Pol Pot declaring year Zero, a new era begun. Anyone offering any opinion from 1650-1990 was suspect, any book published during that time was in danger of carrying the dreaded virus of modernism. J.L Packer? No! Modernist ! Julian of Norwich? Amazing! Ancient Future! How did we build a faith or a church for postmodern times? Well we were not sure, but if postmodernism was a rebellion against modernism then we needed to make sure that it looked nothing like modernism. The anti-movement was launched.

The lines were now drawn, on one side were the modernists, they were into objective truth, long dogmatic sermons, biblical proof texting, management structures, order and the mechanical. On the other side of the trench were the postmodernists, they were into poetry, organic structures, chaos, doubt and mystery. The narrative that we bought told us that eventually because we were in postmodern times, that the modernists would lose out and the postmoderns eventually would win as the world realized the sea change that had taken place. All of sudden Christians started referring themselves as postmodern even though technically speaking this made little sense.

But then as the nineties ended and real life knocked us off our skateboard. The giant rave never eventuated (Helga went back to Austria to raise her kids and work in a bank), but the postmoderns vs modernists narrative has stayed. It feeds into the current Christian culture war, it is the mythology that fuels the current Bell vs Piper, emergent vs new reformed cyber melees.

The problem was that things got messy when we saw postmodernism as an epoch. Yes there was and is a philosophical movement known as postmodernism, propagated predominately by French intellectuals, and that was born out of the frustration of neo-marxists at the failed attempts at social revolution during the student riots of May 1968. Although now passe in French intellectual circles, the movement still holds sway predominate within academic circles around the world. But like a very large man trying to fit into an XS t-shirt, postmodernism was stretched beyond its limits. The label was attached to everything. Christians particularly used it to describe the era we were living in. Postmodernism was a philosophical movement never an epoch. A whole host of confusions emerge when we examine some of the cultural trends of our day that have been described as postmodern.

For example we are told that postmodernism is about an embrace of the non-western, but as we look at history, Western people have been obsessed with the non-West for centuries. For the last three hundred years Western consumers have had a hunger for all things non Western from Japanese woodcuts to Indian tea to Arabesque architecture. We were told that modernism only wanted the future not the past, thus postmodernists appreciated the past. Well what about Neo-Classicism and Gothic Revival? What about postmodernity being about spirituality? Well a case can be made that the nineteenth century showed a greater appetite for the occult, or for ‘spirituality’ than our own.

Look at a figure like the early nineteenth century poet Percey Shelley, a vegetarian atheist committed to non violence, off his dial on drugs, living in a share house of young adults, and his feminist wife Mary Shelley who wrote Frankenstein a dystopic science fiction work which critiques science and progress. The Shelley’s were part of a movement called Romanticism, a movement which embraced nature, the mysterious, the poetic, experience, the past, the sublime, the exotic. All traits which we attach to postmodernism.

In fact the traits that we use to describe the so called postmodern era could be found in a whole range of movements and individuals who have lived or existed over the last few centuries from the pre-Raphalties, to the arts and crafts movement, to the dadaists, to the surrealists, the impressionists, to Nietzsche, to Picasso, to Joyce, to Kierkegaard, to Burroughs and so on.

A much better way of understanding our culture comes from noting that what we are observing in the current wars within contemporary Christianity and the broader contemporary culture is more a struggle between a modernism A and a modernism B. Modernity is better understood not as a clearly defined monolithic structure but rather as an ongoing conversation. There are claims and counter claims within modernity. A case will be struck for progress, a counter claim will raised and the conversation will continue. Both sides of the current culture wars express different shades of modernity. Realizing this reality forces us to get off our cultural high horses.

Building a Church or a faith, or a ‘new kind of Christianity’ for postmodern times was always problematic when you consider that no one could agree what the term even really meant. It was impossible to build a movement or a philosophy upon an anti-philosophy. The sooner we realize that we are not in postmodern times the better. Then we can really get on with the task of being the people of God in the West.