Monday, December 15, 2008

Christianity Meets Postmodernism

This is the subject for the paper I needed to write for my worldviews class, and I must say that after our other assignment in that same class where we were to debate whether postmodernism has a place in Christianity, this isn't the perspective shared by everyone. A lot of Christians do have the knee-jerk response, but because I shouldn't repeat myself I'll just let whoever is interested read it for themselves! It is long, but if you happen to have time on your hands...

Christianity Meets Postmodernism

The term “postmodernism” has a variety of effects on its hearers: Some are highly offended, some exult in its possibilities, while still others have no idea what it actually means. Our class has already discussed whether or not postmodernism has any place in the Christian realm, and while divisions exist over whether postmodernism is the biggest evil since… well… modernism, this author does believe that despite conflicts there are inroads between the two—Inroads that allow Christians to learn from postmodernism as well as provide means to communicate with its strict adherents.

A Definition

To explain postmodernism, one first looks to its parent, modernism. Modernism was the design of thinking developed in the late 19th and 20th centuries that pulled away from all things traditional, and challenging any beliefs except those that could be explicitly “proven”. Everything needed to be examined and explained, and explained scientifically, before it was to be accepted as truth. Modernism, however, discovered its limitations: while vast progress was made in science and technology, life’s biggest questions remained unanswered, like whether a closed universe was adequate to explain the mysteries of life, or whether meaning could be found in a closed view of creation. Journalist Glenn Stanton from Christianity today puts it, “Enlightenment science also failed to provide a sufficient basis for acting morally in a civil society. The modernist promise of inevitable progress fueled by the inherent goodness of knowledge [has been] judged a fairy tale by the experience of the last century, the bloodiest in all of history” (2002, p. 1).

Postmodernism has sought to paint over this bleak picture with broad strokes. The dictionary definition of postmodernism is, “any of a number of trends or movements in the arts and literature developing in the 1970s in reaction to or rejection of the dogma, principles, or practices of established modernism… encouraging the use of elements from historical vernacular styles and often playful illusion, decoration, and complexity” (Porter, 1998, postmodernism).

Postmodernism puts limitations on what can be known, if anything, by the human mind. Sire explains, “Our age, which more and more is coming to be called postmodern, finds itself afloat in a pluralism of perspectives, a plethora of philosophical possibilities, but with no dominant notion of where to go or how to get there” (2004, p. 212). The American culture, after being subject to so many different perspectives of reality and combined with the awareness that science doesn’t explain every question, found itself stepping away from the significance of knowing and instead put the emphasis instead on the meaning each person gives their experiences (Sire, 2004, p. 218).

Christians are feeling the threat this kind of thinking can pose. After all, the majority of Christians would agree that the substance of the Christian faith is in the knowing, and the knowing of Jesus Christ as Savior. If knowledge is challenged, how is one supposed to share the gospel? Correct a wrong? And Christians aren’t the only ones who have taken issue with postmodernity; some secularists share the frustration as well. Author Christopher Norris states, “We have a vision of post-modernity as a journey into unknown territory where the old cultural constraints no longer apply, and our collective security is potentially compromised…” (2002, p. 214).

Seeking an Appropriate Response

In step with the threat, many reactions have ignited from the Church toward postmodernism and mostly all are negative. One exception is from what is now called the Emergent Church—a body of believers that seeks to assimilate the best of postmodern thinking in an effort to revitalize the Gospel. A description of the Church is given by one of their authors and spokesman, Collin Hanson, “An American Christian today is beset by globalization, pluralism, and postmodernism (three terms that I use interchangeably). In other words, the world is a confusing mess. I think that conservative, evangelical, Reformed theology offers sure answers spoken in tones of certainty by authority figures. Emergent Christianity, for better and worse, offers more ambiguous answers (and even more questions!) in tones of less certainty — but, hopefully, at least with what Lesslie Newbigin called ‘proper confidence’” (Hansen & Jones, 2008, p. 2).

There is much that can be said of the positives of what the Emergent Church has to offer with its focus on community and Christian behavior. Even so, there are some unorthodox ways of interpreting long-accepted Biblical beliefs that many find unacceptable. In the following quote, one Emergent Christian shares a different interpretation of Old Testament war after considering the limitations of language:

To me, such narratives reveal as much about the underlying worldview of the recipients of God’s message(s), as they do about God himself. I think, like a good postmodernist, that all such “message-events” are a combination of sender - message - and receiver. There is no special crystalline reception that exists - somehow miraculously outside a worldview - merely because it is God who is speaking…all that is to say, I assume that in such passages the people in question heard *something* from God, but they then filtered it through their expectations/presuppositions. (Precipice, para. 4)

Whether the Emergent has reached too far to span the distance of postmodernism to Christianity is a debate destined to happen, never-the-less there are still values Christians can glean from postmodernism that are already Biblical. For instance, humility is never an unattractive quality in a Christian, and the postmodern view of accepting our human limitations can fall into that category. I do not need to believe that “your truth is your truth, and mine is mine” in order to listen to what you have to say and still remain open to the possibility that you (whether or not you are a Christian) could be right on a particular issue. In the Gospels, Christ was able to debate logically while still being meek in spirit. In fact, the times we see Christ at His most “intolerant” is when He came into contact with hypocrital and argumentative religious people who didn’t use their ears to listen (John 2:15; Matt. 23:27; Mark 16:5). Only those who had genuine questions and a teachable spirits, like Nicodemus, were given answers (John 3).

First Contact

So how exactly are Christians supposed to communicate with postmodernists without entirely becoming one? Duane Liften frames the problem in an article for Christianity Today:

The radical objectivism and neutrality of the Enlightenment have long been critiqued by Christians, Litfin said, and Emergent is right to repudiate them as unchristian and unbiblical.

“But Christians also have no business embracing the equally radical perspectivism of postmodernity," he said.

If one has been captured by a constructivist epistemology, a position that repudiates anyone's right even to make a truth claim, and which considers truth instead to be utterly situated," Litfin said, "then any truth-claim dimensions of the gospel will be dramatically muted.” (Jones & Collins, 2004, p. 2)

And how can Christians effectively obey the commanded to share the gospel if that Gospel falls on the deaf ears of an audience that won’t even consider a truth-claim?

In one conversation I had with a postmodern friend, we were discussing truth and whether or not it was even possible to know. He asserted that we couldn’t know truth, while I was asserting that we can’t know that we know, but that doesn’t mean that one of us is incapable of being right. In other words, we all live by faith but it is possible that one of us could hit on objective truth.

In this conversation, instead of choosing between fighting against all of his ideas or entirely submitting myself to the futility that particular perspective, I chose to acknowledge the aspects I agreed with while pointing out the ones that I didn’t. By doing so I avoided turning a friend into an enemy and avoided shutting down the entire conversation.

Also, when approaching postmodernism Christians would be wise to remember the effect father modernism has had on traditional Christianity. Glen Stanton points out:

Evangelicalism and its first cousin, fundamentalism, have famously been at odds with a modernism that has either treated the idea of God as a fairy tale or an evil. As a consequence, our relationship with modernity has largely been reactive and defensive. While much of evangelicalism is still in this pitched battle, we fail to realize we are in the window of time between modernity's flat-lining and its obituary being posted in the newspapers. The death of the highest modernist ideals is not widely realized, but evangelicals should recognize it and change our posture from reactive to constructive, because we find ourselves in a culture with an empty stage and an open microphone…. McLaren said our current approach to the age reminded him of a friend who worked in Washington as a spy. "He saw everything through the lenses of the Cold War—who was good, who was bad, and what his mission was," McLaren said. "When the Cold War ended, he was lost. His worldview no longer served him well in a new climate, and he didn't know how to adjust. We evangelicals tend to be that way at the death of modernism." (2002)


My own interactions with postmodernism have been varied: At one point I was one, at times I now rail against it, but for the most part I see wisdom in seeking trying to bridge the gaps between the two without comprising on essentials. While I do believe that the unstable qualities of postmodernism can serve to break down important elements of the Gospel, I do not believe in these circumstances that the best defense is an aggressive offense. An offense that is offensive is not a wise course of action toward this new generation that has grown callous to the hostility of previous generations. Because of this, I believe we instead should emphasis our commonalities while doing our best to defend why we believe what we believe. This is the path I will choose to follow.


Holy Bible. New International Version. Grand Rapids: Zondervan.

Jones, T. & Hansen, C. (2008) Emergent's New Christians and the Young and Restless Reformed. Christianity Today, volume 52.

McLaren, B. & Liften, D. (2004) Emergent evangelism. Christianity today, volume 48, 11.

Norris, C. (2002) What’s wrong with postmodernism: Critical theory and the ends of philosophy. Hemel Hemstead: Harvester Wheatsheaf.

Porter, N. (Ed.). (1998) Webster’s revised unabridged dictionary. Springfield, MA: C. & G. Mirriam Co.

Precipice (2008) The cart and horse of biblical infallibility. Precipice Magazine. October ed. Retrieved December 11 from

Sire, J. W. (2004) The universe next door: A basic worldview catalog, fourth edition. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.

Stanton, G. T. (2002) The postmodern moment: Are Christians prepared after modernism’s failure? Christianity today, volume 46, 7.


Alena said...

Very interesting - thanks for posting! :) Seriously, I need to start blogging more, about things that matter. You've given me food for thought, for sure!

Laura Lou said...

Masterful piece of writing, Brooke!

First of all, I'd like to comment on how wonderously diplomatic this piece was, without "riding the fence" as we say. Good job! I think I pretty much agree with you on the majority of what you assert here. I do think more people, as you have, should critique the enlightenment origins of modernist Christianity. I think most are unaware that this renaissance quality is what is permeating their doctrines and paradigms. Most that I have spoken to, are slightly affronted at the suggestion that their faith is influenced some cultural or historical trend or another. They counter by declaring that the Bible says what it means and means what it says, and that's all that goes into their interpretation of the text.

I have to say that post-modernism, to me, is anything but a "pick your own truth" movement, although that is how it appears on the surface. I agree 100% with this:

"[biblical] narratives reveal as much about the underlying worldview of the recipients of God’s message(s), as they do about God himself. I think, like a good postmodernist, that all such “message-events” are a combination of sender - message - and receiver. There is no special crystalline reception that exists - somehow miraculously outside a worldview - merely because it is God who is speaking…all that is to say, I assume that in such passages the people in question heard *something* from God, but they then filtered it through theirexpectations/presuppositions."

I'd like to think about this post some more, and do some reading. But you can bet I'll be following this. I'm really excited that you chose to explore postmodernism in relation to Christianity!