Postmortem Autopsy on Postmodernism

An article on postmodernism almost seems odd in 2011.  The trendiness of the “conversation” on postmodernism has past.  So, when the Gospel Coalition posted Postmodernism: Dead But Not Gone one person remarked, “welcome to the 2001 discussion”.  Yet, to say that TGC was entering into the discussion is to miss the point of the article (those in TGC were addressing it in 2001). Postmodernism: Dead But Not Gone is more of a postmortem autopsy on the philosophical movement that reigned for decades.

While postmodernism brought in good elements of relativity, namely the emphasis on seeing things from another person’s perspective and the push to remember that there are many gray areas in life, it ultimately self-destructed and led a multitude to moral and spiritual ruin in its throwing out of absolutes, objective truth, and an objective standard of morality.

In the Christian world, this became evident in the rise of a new generation of “Bible” teachers who have sold millions of books through the subtle, and sometimes not too subtle, rejection of the authority of Scripture in regards to truth and morality for the more “relevant” relative truth and morality of the culture.  The Christian faith preached became, as H.R. Niebuhr stated about half a century ago, “A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a Cross.”

Though even secular society may acknowledge that postmodernism is dead, its thoughts and relative values have permeated the culture, yes, even the Christian culture, for so long that the church is faced with the task of helping the current and upcoming generation find a foundation in acknowledging a foundation of truth that transcends themselves and their culture.  As TGC article states, “If the problem for the postmodernists was that the modernists had been telling them what to do, then the problem for the present generation is the opposite: nobody has been telling us what to do.”

Postmodernism: Dead But Not Gone ends with a summary of the demise of postmodernism and a prescription to help the Christian church prepare for whatever the next popular attempt is to delude with “plausible arguments” (Col. 2:4):

Tim Keller told me: “…I’ve been hearing echoes of this basic message: Postmodernism was helpful in that it made us more open to how conditioned we are by culture and history, it showed us how easy it is to make truth claims into power plays. But postmodernism in the end eats itself. In the end there must be some basis for truth, justice, authenticity—or we can’t live.”

God’s Word tells us where to find that basis. But advocates for postmodernism within the church have sometimes missed how Scripture teaches us to deal with these cultural shifts by way of negative example. Consider just two. Pontius Pilate mused about truth when faced by competing claims. He couldn’t even recognize it when standing right before him (John 18:38). Only when God give us ears to hear can we recognize voice of him who bears witness to the truth (John 18:37).

Solomon despaired of life itself even though he had all the money, power, and sex anyone could want. Like a good postmodern pluralist, he welcomed new gods from foreign nations (1 Kings 11:1-8). All this did him no good. “Then I considered all that my hands had done and the toil I had expended in doing it, and behold, all was vanity and a striving after wind, and there was nothing to be gained under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 2:11)… The end of Ecclesiastes, though, reveals the only reliable basis for justice. “Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil” (Ecclesiastes 12:13-14).

Our cultural circumstances may change, but human nature does not. Though dead, postmodernism remains with us, in so far as it reflected universal human despair apart from God, the only fully reliable source of truth, justice, and authenticity.

The church should learn about whatever replaces postmodernism, but we need not worry. We need only trust in God and proclaim the good news that transcends every culture and epoch. This Truth makes no empty claims and grabs no power except what properly belongs to him as Creator and Redeemer.

“It is finished,” he cried from the Cross, the beautiful paradox of divine justice, when the death of God’s only Son gave birth to everlasting life for sinners.

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One thought on “Postmortem Autopsy on Postmodernism

  1. Well, the one problem I see with the article (although I’m not familiar with the explicit reasons of the curatorial choice of the art museum to have the exhibit have postmodernism ending in 1990) is that it assumes a definition of postmodernism that is basically synonymous with the hermeneutics of suspicion. The way I see it, though, is that the rebellion against established authority structures is only a spasm leading to a completely new way of understanding things that isn’t based on the mind/body dualism of Descartes and epistemology to quite the extent that it used to. Whatever comes after that (which is still in formation, as I understand it–and this is out of my ignorance) ought to truly possess the name “post-modernism”, as it represents what happens after modernism has been rejected. Now, how this concerns me is that this particular definition of postmodernism and a declaration of its “death” can easily be used as intellectual ammo to downplay very legitimate concerns that postmodernism brings. For one, while the existence of objective truth may not be under as much contention as before, the very real questions of how we know it, and, when we do know it, how we know that we do know it, remain (in other words, a new epistemology and metaphysics might be needed, now that “I think, therefore I am” is debunked). Modernism is what is truly dead, and in that sense, I would say that postmodernism is very much still alive.

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