Postmodernism & the Modern Church (I)
Theodore Roszak once wrote, “Let us be honest enough to confront our culture in its entirety and ask: is it merely a coincidence that, in the midst of so much technological mastery and economic abundance, our art and thought continue to project a nihilistic image unparalleled in human history? Are we to believe there is not a connection between these facts?”
Good questions. As we enter or have already entered a time that is rapidly becoming known as “postmodern,” it is worthwhile to revisit those questions. Even though many remain unsophisticated about when and where postmodernism began and what its major tenets and beliefs are, we’re all under the influence of it—wittingly or unwittingly. I’ll begin by breaking down the open door that others have broken down: postmodernism is a work in progress. Postmoderns constantly carp that few—if any—understand them. One can only wonder how the postmoderns understand each other, let alone anyone else, since this movement is being touted as so amorphous that no one actually understands what it’s all about. Personally, I think this appeal by the postmoderns is a cop out on a grand scale. In reality, it’s an attempt to make postmodernism such an esoteric movement that even the brightest minds of our century don’t have a clue what the main tenets are. Whenever people begin to speak like that, red flags ought to start going up in our minds.
Of course, to believe that not even the best scholars can understand postmodernism is simply nonsense. There are clear strands of thought in postmodernism even as it is a work in progress, just as there were in other movements in history. As we shall see, whereas Enlightenment thinkers—whom postmoderns despise—were primarily German philosophers, the postmoderns tend to depend upon a few French philosophers as well as some home-grown Americans to spell out what they believe. We shall, in due course, discuss these philosophers and their respective philosophical positions. For the time being, however, we shall suffice with this: Richard Tarnas correctly summarizes the tenets of postmodernism as containing components of “…pragmatism, existentialism, Marxism, psychoanalysis, feminism, language theory, and theories about science.”
Postmodernism in both its secular and quasi-Christians forms appears to draw from a bevy of intellectuals. Art and the arts, for example, are spoken off often as indispensable vehicles for understanding postmodernism and the postmodern mind(set). Presbyterian theologian Charles Dunahoo draws on the insights of the late Francis Schaeffer and traces the steps of philosophical influence from philosophy to music to art to general culture to church/theology to school and, eventually, into the home. Without going into the precise accuracy of these steps, the general outline seems feasible.
David Wells, however, contends that the “broader” postmodern attitudes are not drawn directly from intellectuals. That is to say, there is a “gap” between the academician and the postmodern man or woman on the street. How, for example, does the intellectual postmodernism espoused by philosophers like Jean-François Lyotard, Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, and Richard Rorty get from the ivory tower to mainstream America? I will argue that such a miniscule percentage of the population actually takes the time to read, let alone understand, these technical philosophers that this portion of the population has little direct impact on the culture. So how do we get from, say, Derrida to MTV, which is a purveyor of postmodern thought through rock images?
Is It Modern or Postmodern?
In one sense, everything is modern and contemporary. A Presbyterian church, using the ordinary means of grace that God has provided is, for example, quite modern. The root word from which we derive our English word “modern” is modo, which means “just now.” This means, of course, is that postmoderns are just as modern as the moderns they tend to dislike so much. In the final analysis, they merely have a differing life and worldview. Christian postmoderns ostensibly want a new way of “doing church” just as their mega-church counterparts wanted a new way of “doing church” a generation ago, but more on that in later installments.One of the greatest obstacles for postmoderns is their method of interpreting Scripture. In summary, they deny the objectivity of knowledge, unequivocally state that knowledge is uncertain (huh? How do you know all knowledge is uncertain?), deny all-inclusive systems of explanation, and tend to believe that everything is culturally determined and bound. We’ll examine what a horrible bind this leaves them in, not merely for their epistemology, but for simple, general things in life.
 Richard Tarnas, The Passion of the Western Mind; Understanding the Ideas That Have Shaped Our World View, (NY: Harmony Books, 1991), p. 395.
 Charles Dunahoo, Making Kingdom Disciples, (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian & Reformed Publishing, 2005), pp. 7, 137.
 David Wells, Above All Earthly Pow’rs, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005), p. 61.
 Allow me to treat you to a smattering of Michel Foucault, writing in The Order of Things. He says, “In modern experience, the possibility of establishing man within knowledge and the mere emergence of this new figure in the filed of the episteme imply an imperative that haunts thought from within…. What is essential is that thought, both for itself and in the density of its workings, should be both knowledge and a modification of what it knows, reflection and the transformation of the mode of being of that on which it reflects. Whatever I touches it immediately causes to move: it cannot discover the unthought, or at least move toward it, without bring the unthought nearer to itself—or even, perhaps, without pushing it further away, and in any case without, causing man’s own being to under a change by that very fact, since it is deployed in the distance between them.” Now, go out and do the right thing. Can someone explain to me how, if I cannot discover “the unthought” I could have even the foggiest clue what the unthought is—or isn’t? How am I to gauge whether I’m pushing it further way or bringing it nearer to itself? If I cannot fathom the essence of unthought how can I have any meaningful discourse about it?