Postmodernism: Still Alive, Still Prophetic
Every now and again, someone declares that this year the Vikings are going to win the Super Bowl or the Cubs the World Series. Eventually, given enough time and enough predictions, someone is likely to be right. (Well, perhaps not about the Cubs.)
Similarly, now and again someone declares the "death of postmodernism." Someone will eventually be right. Collin Hansen, taking his cue from a recent Prospect essay, "Postmodernism is Dead," is the latest evangelical to happily proclaim its demise. Hansen's piece raises a number of points for potentially fruitful dialogue, as church leaders consider whether or not the age of postmodernism is over and done, or whether it still has some prophetic and instructive work to do.
In the Prospect essay, author Edward Docx suggests that an upcoming art exhibit at London's Victoria and Albert Museum, "Postmodernism—Style and Subversion 1970-1990," signals the demise of an era. In the field of art, Docx notes, postmodernism was a flurry of subversive irony. Its energy couldn't last, as lesser lights sought to carry the torch and as criteria for aesthetic judgment gave way to the almighty dollar. On a grander scale, he notes, postmodernism was an intellectual and cultural movement that emerged in response to dissatisfactions with modernity. It was, Docx says, a "high-energy revolt, an attack, a strategy for destruction." Words like "revolt" and "destruction" have captured the imagination of postmodernism's detractors, many who do not sufficiently distinguish between culture-making practices like art, cinema, and literature and their intellectual backdrop, postmodern thought. The cultural practices and the "isms" informing them are sometimes distinguished as "postmodernity" and "postmodernism," respectively.
Postmodern thought is an array of attitudes, objectives, and standpoints notoriously difficult to pin down, not so much because it is "fuzzy" but because it is complex and variegated. In the popular Christian imagination, postmodernism is rather simple (and as Hansen suggests, even "all-encompassing"): it's the deconstruction of truth and the exaltation of relativism, the abandonment of meaning and the glory of nihilism, and the loss of the word in favor of the amorphous image. For its admirers, postmodernism is the savior of authenticity, dialogue, and serenity; for its critics, it's the enemy of truth, biblical revelation, and of Christianity.
Hansen can't seem to decide, however, whether postmodernism runs against the notion of biblical revelation or whether it has aided in its recovery. On one hand, he says, "thanks to the effects of postmodernism, no longer do Enlightenment philosophes claim they can compile all human knowledge by means of reason apart from revelation." On the other hand, he warns, Christian advocates of postmodernism have lost the basis for truth. This basis, Hansen suggests, can be found in Scripture. Critics of postmodernism, however, often forget that it was Modernism that undermined trust in revelation; higher criticism, Rationalism/philosophical skepticism, deism, etc., were Enlightenment enterprises. While certainly not all postmodernists are Christians (or even theists), postmodernism on the whole has made room for revelation, paradox, and mystery.
Kyle Roberts is Assistant Professor of Systematic Theology and Lead Faculty of Christian Thought, Bethel Seminary (St. Paul, MN). He researches and writes on issues related to the intersection of theology, philosophy, and culture. Follow Kyle Roberts' reflections on faith and culture at his blog or via Twitter.