Postmodernism: Still Alive, Still Prophetic

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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.

For many thinkers and church leaders, postmodernism has been a friendlier cultural and intellectual context for Christianity than was modernism. Aspects and attitudes emerging from the postmodern turn include epistemic humility, tolerance of diversity and difference, hermeneutical richness and complexity. Numerous postmodern thinkers (if not the most radical ones) repeatedly argue that "standpoint epistemology," multiple discourses, and hermeneutical indeterminacy does not amount to relativism or lead to nihilism. Among those who have accepted the postmodern turn, the recognition of contextuality, epistemic finitude, and the significance of perspective enabled a breakthrough in engagement with minority theologies and formerly suppressed (and oppressed) voices.

Hansen glossed over a striking concession in Docx's essay: postmodernism, by de-privileging the voices of a select few, has "led to some real gains for humankind." Marginalized and subordinate groups were given voice, in large part thanks to the postmodern turn. In this respect, it is not contradictory, as Hansen suggests, to find postmodernists seeking justice. For the patriarch of deconstruction, Jacques Derrida, "deconstruction is justice."