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“Postmodern” Isn’t a Dirty Word ~ #LifeUnmasked

Last summer I posted on Facebook and Twitter that I had concluded I am “solidly postmodern.” It created a bit of a stir among quite a few of those who know me. Many consider Christianity and postmodern thinking to be mutually-exclusive. They have questioned me and tried to get me to back away from this crazy-talk.

I don’t mind those conversations at all. It is good to have people in your life who care enough to ask questions, seek clarity, and push back when they think I’m headed for trouble (or just getting distracted, which happens all too often). It helps me know where my words may have confused instead of clarified, and to think things through further.

One thing I discovered is that the word “postmodern” is often misunderstood. I found this explanation by Thomas Groome helpful, from his book “Will There Be Faith?: A New Vision for Educating and Growing Disciples

“It is not easy to describe postmodernity, much less its effects on our consciousness and identity. We are like fish in its water. Two of its agreed-upon features, however, make education for Christian faith all the more challenging. The first is that postmodern people resist “metanarratives,” in other words, systems of thought and belief that presume to explain everything to everyone all the time. Christian faith presents itself as such a metanarrative.  Can it also allow for diversity of perspectives, even welcome them? If not, postmoderns seem less likely to embrace it. A second feature of the postmodern mentality is to consider all universals – truths, values, principles – as purely the product of their context: we can “deconstruct” or “reconstruct” them as needed. Such radical “relativism” (i.e. all ideas are related to their context) poses steep opposition to the universal truth claims of Christian faith.”

two photos with different filtersI’ll take a stab at putting that into plain English. Postmodernism is a way of thinking, a way of looking at the world, tinted sunglasses if you will. What’s significant is that postmodernism recognizes, accepts, even celebrates that we all wear tinted sunglasses of different shades. No one person’s explanation of reality can account for every person’s perception because we see things differently and none of us can take the glasses off and see it clear. If you see the world through red glasses while I see it through green, different things stand out or disappear to each of us. Postmoderns recognize that and place value on it – you can see things I can’t, and vice versa. If we don’t realize those glasses are coloring our view, we will misunderstand each other.

In contrast, modern thinkers don’t think anyone is wearing tinted glasses. They believe we all see the same thing the same way and therefore should come to the same conclusions about life, morality, politics, etc. They believe people disagree because they choose to go against what is obvious – perhaps they are rebellious (or sinful) or foolish, or maybe they’re just crazy. Whatever the reason, it doesn’t change the self-evident truth. Disagreement cannot be tolerated.

It’s no wonder moderns and postmoderns don’t like each other. And it’s no wonder Christians gravitate to a modern worldview.

Postmodernism appeals to so many today because we’ve found the weaknesses and holes in modern thinking. Here’s an example: a young-earth creationist (a modernist) says, “I don’t go with my personal opinion on the matter, I follow the Bible. You can disagree with me, but you’re disagreeing with the Bible too.”

Postmodernists hear that and respond, “Wrong. You follow your interpretation of the Bible. You deceive yourself if you think you are objective.”

I am a postmodern.

I see your sunglasses, and mine too (as much as is possible anyway). We all wear them, and will continue to be until Jesus gives us perfect sight. As Paul says in 1 Corinthians 13, “For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.”

I am trying my best to respect you and your perspective, the world as you see it, and I hope you will do the same for me. We have much we can learn from each other if we will listen and acknowledge that we can’t see it all.


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  1. Hmm…. I get the impression that Paul, with his mirror analogy is actually critiquing both modernism and post-modernism. I think there’s a tension we need to recognise between there being objective truths, and that none of us sees the world without lenses and biases and so forth. Rather than saying that because we see the world through lenses, what we see must therefore be true – or true in that context(post-modernism), which seems to carry with it, the self-refutation that post-modernism inherently carries, we should be saying that while objective (true) truth exists, we shouldn’t assume that it is obvious or that we are not seeing things coloured by our own lenses.
    Of course, wearing pink-lens sunglasses doesn’t make the world rosy, it is my perception that is altered – there is something between my understanding and the reality, filtering out the rest of the colour spectrum. If I were to say that the world was rosy, I’d be only partially right.

    • I think it’s telling that the mirror analogy and the tinted glasses analogy both imply a certain objective reality exists. They are ways of explaining why we can’t agree what that objective reality IS — we cannot see all of it. So yes, I agree with you that we cannot assume that reality is obvious, nor can we assume that we are seeing it clearly. What I like about postmodernism is that it acknowledges this and thus doesn’t write off people who see things differently. It gives me a way to learn more about reality from them, recognizing that they are seeing that objective reality through their colored lenses too.

      • I really enjoyed this post and they way you put the postmodern perspective into words. I’m a social science researcher, and have found myself squarely in the postmodern camp when it comes to how I approach big questions at work as well as in my faith.

        I wonder if the problem is not that the truth doesn’t objectively exist, but that our vision is extremely narrow. I think about a two-dimensional person trying to understand a three-dimensional world. It’s simply impossible. You would need countless numbers of two-dimensional people, all seeing different things, to agree that they all see an aspect of truth AND be willing to put all those slices together. Then they MIGHT be able to start understanding.

        We’re looking at things (such as God, Jesus, and the Bible) from all different angles. We’re all trying to understand the (currently) incomprehensible. We’ll never even start along the path of comprehension without listening and respecting diverse points of view. Good stuff!

      • I suppose it wouldn’t be very post-modernist of me to suggest that your view doesn’t actually look like post-modernist 😀

        I am, though, perhaps guilty of equating postmodernism with relativism..

        According to the definition you cited, post-modernism is averse to objective truth claims – while you seem to be talking about how we perceive objective truths. That is the biggest problem with post-modernism: it is itself making a universal truth claim, and is thus self-defeating.
        So then, I think you’re right – Paul’s mirror analogy does assume that objective truth exists, but then I question the post-modern label because, as I said above, I think post-modernism is more often tied up in relativism (which I would argue is opposed to the claims of Jesus). Do you see a connection to relativism?

        What does post-modernism mean by ‘valuing’ all viewpoints? Does it mean that everyone’s own perspective is true (for them)? Or does it simply mean that we respect eachother enough to realise we have lenses and take the time consider other views, but might still conclude someone is wrong? Does post-modernism actually have room to conclude that someone else is actually wrong?

        I don’t think we need to choose between modernism and post-modernism (as Scott Morizot has comment, Paul was pre-modern – I’d suggest he’s a Realist), and while I think we actually agree in practice, I’m very wary of assuming the post-modern label, due to the relativist connections..

        I also wouldn’t say that YECers are Modernists – they’d almost anti-modernist in approach, being very skeptical about the objectivity of science.

    • Hmmm. I would tend to say that Paul was *pre-modern* which is an entirely different lens. He wasn’t addressing either the modern or postmodern lens explicitly.

    • I dislike labels in general and the ‘postmodern’ one has been so trendy I long resisted it. But I had to finally give in and admit that, from a cultural perspective (postmodern has a number of uses) the label thoroughly describes me.

      In the context of religious belief it goes hand in hand with pluralism, which a lot of people also tend to misunderstand. It’s not the belief that all religions are somehow ultimately the same, but the recognition that they aren’t. And being OK that they aren’t the same — willing to accept each on its own terms. Now, within that setting, we have to at some point decide what we do or don’t personally believe. But with that comes the recognition that I could be wrong. I don’t think I am, obviously, since this is what I believe. But I could be. Perhaps having held several very different perspectives over the course of my life, I understand that more than some.

      And I can be Christian in my perspective (though that in turn has to be deconstructed these days) while still recognizing that my Hindu, Buddhist, or Atheist friends might actually be right after all.

  2. Thank you for this post. I didn’t know that I was a post-modernist. ☺ I was unfamiliar with this terminology, but this explanation makes it very clear that I am. It also offers me (much needed) clarity in dealing with those who are not which I am increasingly doing as more traditional thinkers attempt to process my blog. What’s funny is that I have used the tinted glasses analogy before; I just didn’t know there was a word for it. Thanks again!

    • It’s like Groome said — postmodernism is the water we swim in, so we don’t even recognize it as part of our thinking. It has helped me tremendously in relating to more modernist thinkers. I think of it is as a little like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz when she discovers that the Great and Powerful Oz is actually just a little man behind a curtain. 🙂

  3. you know i appreciate this:)

    people cling so tightly to modernist/enlightenment christianity without realizing how they’ve married the two (or that the bible was written in an entirely pre-modern context!) modernist and postmodernists are speaking different languages–but modernists need to learn the language/customs of postmodernism if they want to translate the gospel to postmodern people. trying to convert postmodern people to a modernist gospel is colonialist–and it won’t work.

    the cold “science” won’t draw them in–but mystery and Jesus and a part in a great story might–and is. the good news of the gospel is for everyone.

    thanks for opening this conversation.

    • “the cold “science” won’t draw them in–but mystery and Jesus and a part in a great story might–and is. the good news of the gospel is for everyone.” YES!!!!! This is exactly what has kept me in the faith.

      • Maybe I have a different idea of what a meta-narrative is too? Isn’t Christianity a meta-narrative in that it is the great unfolding story of God’s redemption? (Creation to New Creation). I didn’t really understand the point about post-moderns being averse to meta-narrative, but then being drawn to story. Could you perhaps clarify that for me?

  4. I’m with you…a post-modernist.

    What trips modernists up a bit, I think, is everything must unify under one over-arching meta-narrative. But post-modernists also adhere(whether we admit it or not) to smaller meta-narratives that may or may not coexist peacefully. I kind of see the whole thing like a giant bubble bath. The suds mix and separate at different times, but they are never one big bubble.

  5. I think people misunderstand post-modernism and that is where most of the push-back or freak-outs come from. It’s benign and it transcends religion. One of our favourites is Stan Grenz’s “Primer on Postmodernism” – love that book.

    • Stan Grenz — you’re at least the second person to recommend him to me. I’m adding him to my list now. Thanks!

  6. I love the way you explain this, Joy. I’ve been in the postmodern camp for awhile, at least according to that definition, though I don’t attend a church that proclaims itself to be postmodern. At my old church, postmodernism was like a punchline. It was disheartening to see people treat it so dismissively- and rudely. But then I guess if you’re not open to other ways of viewing faith, then you’re not going to be accepting of postmodernism in the first place. I wish my friends there had been more open to conversation, instead of shooting the theology down without taking time to understand it.

    • Yes, I’ve seen postmodernism used as a punchline a lot, and not only is it irritating but it’s hurtful as well.

  7. The image and your post remind me of a super cool book on PoMo architecture from Robert Venturi called Learning from Las Vegas (http://www.amazon.com/Learning-Las-Vegas-Forgotten-Architectural/dp/026272006X). You might like it. He talks about the distinction between a “duck” and a “decorated shed” in architecture, but the concepts are useful metaphors for thinking through PoMo life and the way(s) it has unfurled over time.

  8. While I agree that everyone views life, truth, and the Bible from their own unique perspective from which they cannot divorce themselves and that the human mind is limited in its understanding and therefore not perfect (and also tainted by sin), what troubles me about postmodernism is its relativity (as someone else has mentioned). Where do we draw the line between learning from each other’s different perspectives and degenerating into a situation where nothing can be known for sure? How can the gospel be true for all people in the postmodern view? How do we know it is true for all people? That may be my view but not your view. And how do I know that you’re wrong and I’m right?

    The Bible speaks of correcting those who are in error. For example, “My brothers, if anyone among you wanders from the truth and someone brings him back, let him know that whoever brings back a sinner from his wandering will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins.”
    (James 5:19-20 ESV)

    How do we know someone is wandering from the truth? How can we bring him back from error if we can only see various perspectives that all might be true in certain contexts? Maybe that person isn’t wandering from the truth at all but just has a different perception of truth.

    What would you say to a person who says (as several people have said to me), “I believe Jesus is the road to God in the context of Western Christianity, but I believe that Buddah is an equally valid path to God for people of that culture, or Muhammad in an Eastern Muslim context, etc. There are many roads to God depending on the context of your culture and understanding.”

    Who are we to say that Jesus is the only way to God? Isn’t that just coming from our Western American culture? Is that just a contextual truth? And if not, how do you know it’s not? (Because that might be just your perspective.)

  9. Hey, I came across the blog via a link on the New Ways Forward blog. Agreeing as well that postmodernism isn’t a dirty word I was interested. I wanted to add some thoughts on a few things.

    First, as it has been popular to state, defining postmodernism is like nailing jello to the wall. The lack of definitiveness can be especially frustrating to modernists. What we should keep in mind is that there are multiple expressions of postmodernism.

    Second, as to the question of the relation (and equation) of postmodernism to relativism, I must say this is frustrating. Relativism has its historical pedigree within Enlightenment modernism itself. Are the relativists out there? Philosophically maybe, but probably not practically. Because of its modern genesis relativism is not inherently a part of postmodernism. If an expression of ‘postmodernism’ is relativist I would say its more properly most-modern. Relativists play by the same epistemic rules as other modernists. They are just frustrated by the epistemic rules of modernism – they’re frustrated modernists!

    Third, on the subject of metanarratives, universal truth claims, and supposed self-refutation…

    a. Frequently, ‘truth’ gets defined as necessarily conforming to modernist requirements for objectivity. Failure to meet these standards then means whatever claim isn’t ‘true truth.’ I would question why Enlightenment modernist style objectivity even gets to define what truth is. Objective here requires un-situated claims. The question then is do such truth claims exist. Modern objectivity can not meet its own standards. All truth claims are situated in a story, a context, etc. Even the modern notion of objectivity was generated from within the historical context of the Enlightenment. I guess we could say that modernism, founded as it is on this kind of objectivity, is what is ultimately self-refuting. This doesn’t mean we all become relativists. Again, relativists still play by the modern rules. It means we question the modern rules we’ve been given themselves.

    b. As far as metanarratives go, it depends on what we consider a metanarrative. Here we have to resist modern reduction in incessantly tearing something Lyotard said (postmodernism as incredulity towards metanarratives) out of context and using this as the sole basis for discussion. Folks often posit that the only condition for metanarrative status is the making of a universal truth claim. Your quote above makes this mistake as do several of the comments here. But a metanarrative is not only about a universal claim. James K.A. Smith points out a second condition – that being the way the claim is justified. Metanarratives, in the modern sense, make universal claims that are justified by supposedly meeting the modern standards of universal rationality, autonomous reason, and objectivism. Merold Westphal has proposed that we can speak of the Christian story as a mega-narrative – one that makes universal and all encompassing claims but that feels no need to be justified on modernist grounds. (Most continue to want to use the metanarrative language … if we do this we need to define what kind of metanarrative we are talking about. Either way it seems clear that the Christian narrative is not the kind of metanarrative Lyotard is talking about, nor is it self-refuting as the claim goes.)

    Finally, recommended reading:
    Stan Grenz is great. Grenz has probably had the single greatest impact on me as a theologian (and his writing on Trinitarian theology kept me going as my wife and I worked through three miscarriages and infertility). A good place to start is his ‘Primer on Postmodernism’ that someone else recommended. However, even better is his book ‘Beyond Foundationalism’ which represents his thoughts as they matured (In his ‘Primer’ he still exhibits some confusion on the metanarrative thing). I hope to do a PhD on Grenz.

    Also, pick up a book called ‘Christianity and the Postmodern Turn’ published by Brazos Press which is a collection of essays. The first two are decidedly anti-pomo but the essays by Kevin Vanhoozer, John Franke, James K.A. Smith, and Merold Westphal are phenomenal.

    Also check out Westphal, ‘Overcoming Ontotheology’; Franke, ‘The Character of Theology’ (he also co-authored ‘Beyond Foundationalism’ with Grenz); and Smith, ‘Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism’ (probably the best accessible intro to postmodernism in print IMO).

    May the shalom of our liberating King Jesus be with you.

  10. I love this photo collection, undergo with filter application…. Lovely beautiful and very attractive in my eyes…

  11. Sandra92 says:

    Lovely beautiful image, great effects and creation…

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