Transition To…Transition From

It the last post, I invited readers to enter the “transition zone,” that place that exists between things as they were and things as they will become.   Like it or not, something is dying in society.  Like it or not, something new is “emerging” in society.  We can deny it, reject it, mourn it, and complain about it – but that will get us nowhere.

 A better option is to understand it and feed what is being birthed with a version of Christianity that is not tainted by traditions and cultural idealogy.  Before we can do that, it might be good to spend a little time exploring what was, the cause of its demise, and an understanding of what seems to be emerging.

John McGowan writes:  “Everyone begins the discussion of postmodernism by asking what the word could possibly mean.”[i]   This is also how I shall begin.  The purpose of this post is to begin defining the term “postmodern.”  Next I will describe six of the contemporary theological and philosophical approaches to postmodernism. Finally, I will offer a modest outline for a postmodern modern theology of evangelism based upon the Anabaptist ecclesiological tradition. 

History of the Term

Michael Kohler traced the origin of the word postmodern to the year 1934, when Frederico de Onize coined the term postmodernismo.[ii]   The most important early use of the word, however, probably did not take place until 1939.  In that year Arnold Toynbee used the word postmodernism to describe the cultural changes taking place in the wake of the resolution of the first world war.[iii]

The so-called postmodern cultural movement in philosophy, theology, the arts, and architecture began in earnest around the year 1960.  From 1960 to the present a diverse number of philosophers and theologians began appearing on the scene associated with the term postmodern.  Among these we include the following:  Jacques Derrida, Richard Rorty, Michael Foucalt, Stanley Fish, David Tracy, Hans Küng, George Lindbeck, David Ray Griffin, Jean-Francois Lyotard, Terry Eagleton, and Michael Kohler. Though diverse in their approaches to this cultural phenomenon, all agreed that humanity was in the middle of a paradigm shift that was altering the way people viewed the issues of life.  All agreed that one world view was in the process of collapse while another was being born.  This new world view was called—for lack of a better term—the “postmodern era.”

Defining Postmodernism:  A Difficult Task

Defining postmodernism is not easy.[iv]  Postmodernism seems to defy adequate definition for two reasons. The first is an excessive and uncritical use of the term.  In current usage, postmodernism has become something of a catch-phrase used to describe anything that is fresh, new, trendy, stylish, and fashionable.   This is especially true in the academy where postmodernism has become a widespread and excessively used term.  Examine the catalogs of almost any college, graduate school, or seminary, and you will discover an overabundance of course offerings addressing the topic of postmodernism.  Everyone seems to be talking about this subject.  Numerous authors insert this term into the titles of their books.  It serves as the subject of occasional PBS documentaries.  It has even become a popular slogan in contemporary advertising campaigns.[v]

R. Albert Mohler has stated:  “Postmodernism, whatever it is, now enjoys that most rare and enviable status of the almost universally acknowledged (though vaguely defined) cultural phenomena.”[vi]   Additionally, as Mohler points out, postmodernism currently serves as sort of  “an umbrella concept covering styles, movements, shifts, and approaches in the field of art, history, architecture, literature, political science, economics, and philosophy—not to mention theology.”[vii]   The inordinate and uncritical use of this word has added to the unclarity of its meaning.

A second reason for the lack of a clear definition for postmodernism is the diversity of opinion about what the concept means among its theorists.[viii]  This diversity of opinion arises primarily because the philosophers who debate this concept attempt to interpret it from the perspective of their particular ideological dispositions.[ix]  R. Albert Mohler writes, “Several of its leading theorists argue . . . that there is not one postmodernism, but many.”[x]   In other words, a meaning for postmodernism is not fixed—it is not a monolithic concept—it is extremely moldable. 

While the paradigmatic shifts taking place as culture moves into a postmodern era should be open to discussion and interpretation, it seems best that the basic definition for the word—as a starting point for discussion—should remain free from such ideological debate.  This is the assumption from which I shall continue, arguing that a definition for postmodernism should set the stage for debate rather than be the object of such debate. I intend to offer a rather brief and straightforward definition for postmodernism.[xi]

A Definition of Postmodernism

What is postmodernism?  David S. Dockery is correct when he states that at its root the term “primarily refers to time rather than a distinct ideology.”[xii]  Postmodernism refers to a period of time—an age, an era, an epoch.  Specifically, this word refers to the time that follows modernity.  Thomas Oden agrees, declaring:

We are pointing not to an ideological program, but rather to a simple succession—what comes next after modernity.  ‘Post’ simply means after, following upon, later than.  So postmodernity in our meaning is nothing more or less enigmatic that what follows modernity.[xiii] 

As we continue, our definition that postmodernism is simply that which “follows modernity.”  Such a definition provides the clarity being sought as a foundation for further discussion.  In addition, this definition opens the door to a significant further area of inquiry that will be necessary to describe postmodernity.  Specifically, to describe postmodernism (that epoch that follows modernity), we must first explore the meaning of the terms modern and pre-modern.

That what’s next in “the transition zone.”

[i] John McGowan, Postmodernism and Its Critics, (Ithaca, NY:  Cornell University Press, 1991), viii.

[ii] Michael Kohler, “‘Postmodernismus’:  Ein begriffsgeschichtlicher Uberlick,”  Americkastudien 22 (1977): 8-18, cited in R. Albert Mohler, Jr., “The Integrity of the Evangelical Tradition and the Challenge of the Postmodern Paradigm,” in The Challenge of Postmodernism:  An Evangelical Engagement, ed. David S. Dockery (Illinois:  Victor Books/SP Publications, Inc., 1995), 68.

[iii] Thomas Docherty, “Postmodernism:  An Introduction,” in Postmodernism:  A Reader, ed. Thomas Docherty (New York:  Columbia University Press, 1993), 1-2.

[iv] G. Spearritte, “Christianity:  From Modernism to Postmodernism,” Colloquium 24 (October 1992):  67.

[v] A grocery store in my community actually advertised the new beverage Mystic as the drink of a postmodern generation.

[vi] R. Albert Mohler, Jr., “The Integrity of the Evangelical Tradition and the Challenge of the Postmodern Paradigm,” in The Challenge of Postmodernism, 68.

[vii] Ibid.

[viii] This diversity of opinion concerning the definition of this term results from the general lack of objectivity associated with postmodernism.  Postmodernists tend to reject any form of objective truth.  As such, finding an objective definition for the term postmodern is quite difficult. 

[ix] Which helps explain why some Christians see postmodernism as a bane, while others perceive it to be a blessing.  By ideological dispositions I am referring to labels such as Christian, nonchristian, liberal, conservative, evangelical, etc. 

[x]R. Albert Mohler, Jr., “The Integrity of the Evangelical Tradition, ”  in The Challenge of Postmodernism, 68.

[xi] I make this my goal despite the warnings of  Spearritte and others who argue that such a brief definition of postmodernism should be resisted as inadequate.  Spearritte, 68.

[xii] David S. Dockery, “The Challenge of Postmodernism,” in The Challenge of Postmodernism, 13.

[xiii] Thomas C. Oden, “The Death of Modernity and Postmodern Evangelical Spirituality,” in The Challenge of Postmodernism, 25.

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