Postmodernism: Not Really So Modern After All?

We are hearing a great deal about postmodernism in the Church today. Because of the word within the word--modern--and the fact that the term is relatively new, most think this phase of history is just now unfolding.

"We are now living in a postmodern society," the theologians tell us. "What worked thirty years ago will not work today." The mantra taken up by all those in the know seems to be "Change or Die." Change is, indeed, taking place at a breathless pace as pastors hasten to get their churches into the postmodern flow. After all, nobody wants to be accused of being out of date; people do not want to be left behind as the Kingdom of God passes them by.

The fact is, however, postmodernism had its beginnings long ago. New discoveries usually take time to process from one culture to another, from one generation to another, and from one institution to another. The fact that something is new to one person does not necessarily mean that it has just recently come into existence. It simply means it is new to the person unfamiliar with it. So it is with postmodernism and the Church. Current postmodern concepts are not new at all, but the Church at large, including evangelical groups, is only now embracing those concepts. Even some of those same denominations that once denounced all things connected with modernism are wholeheartedly accepting almost every facet of postmodernism.

What is postmodernism, anyway?

Basically, it is a shift in the way societal mores and belief systems are being developed. Whereas at one time, most people looked to rational thinking and to certain accepted facts as concepts to live by, postmodernists place more emphasis on personal experience, feelings, and mysticism.

Although it is difficult to find consensus on a precise definition of the term, it is easy to identify the results of postmodernism. They include decreasing attendance in Sunday school and Bible study, churches with no genuine spiritual life, pastors leaving the pulpit, and church members having no respect for spiritual leadership.

The usual way for "experts" to deal with perceived problems is to fix the symptoms. They develop new methods in order to change the outcome. They set new objectives to cover up the failure to reach earlier ones. In short, the Church has become reactive instead of proactive, and the leaders often turn to the following solutions:

If church attendance is falling, find new ways to bring people in.

If church services have lost their appeal, find new sources of excitement.

If service schedules and formats conflict with the culture's directions, change the church's schedules and formats.

If people do not respond favorably to sermons or teaching, find acceptable alternatives that will bring a positive response.

The above methods have become acceptable and even necessary based on the "fact" that we are living in a postmodern world. The problem with that reasoning, of course, is that the Church is making concessions to the world, using the world as the model, rather than being the standard and model for the world. The basic Biblical structure of the Church is becoming irrevocably altered.

It reminds me of the horse-drawn automobiles that one may see in some Third World countries. The engine has been removed, the doors taken off, the back seat pulled out, the trunk opened and stripped bare for hauling, and all the accessories--heater, radio, lights, brakes--long since made inoperable. In the strictest sense, it could still be described as an automobile. The changes that have occurred, however, have made it into something far removed from what it was intended to be. Postmodernism has had a similar effect on the Church.

The seeds of postmodernism can be traced back to the ideas introduced by the so-called modern philosophers and theologians.

Up to the eighteenth century, most recognized intellectuals and shapers of culture could be described as rationalists. Along with rationalism came a sense of optimism; that is, they believed that reason could be employed to define and gain the truth that humankind needed to better itself. They also believed that a standard of truth was important and necessary in order for man to be inspired to seek after those better things.

Somewhere along the way, however, things changed. Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) is considered by many to be the father of that change, although it may be more accurate to call him its primary spokesman. Rousseau turned against what he considered to be the "restraints" brought on by the Enlightenment era. He advocated a return to the natural, more primitive state, where each person was free to live according to individual choices rather than by the rules of society. This philosophy became the guiding force of two major shifts in thought: (1) that individual thought and behavior are more important than societal norms or divine authority (humanism); and (2) that "truth" is individually defined rather than adhering to an absolute standard (existentialism).

Others in Rousseau's period and through the nineteenth century eagerly followed his lead. David Hume, Georg Hegel, Soren Kierkegaard, and Immanuel Kant became the advance guard for many who would carry the banner of postmodernism into their respective fields. Yet a world still guided by the Enlightenment's emphasis on reason would never have taken the basic principles of those philosophers seriously except for the emergence of one powerful ally in the person of Charles Darwin (1809-1882). He wrote his groundbreaking book The Origin of Species in 1859, following it a few years later with The Descent of Man. Those two volumes changed the world forever.

The idea that man had evolved through natural means from lower forms of life weakened the whole concept of absolute truth. After all, if man exists apart from a Creator, the idea of a universal morality goes out the window. Without any fear of eternal consequences, man shakes off the "shackles" of religious and societal "bondage"--and determines his own "truth." Ironically, therefore, Darwin's science provided a reason for the acceptance of philosophical ideas proclaiming the virtues of non-reason.

As the new philosophy began to filter through the pores of Western civilization, almost every facet of culture felt its effect.

Music, formerly standardized by the elements of melody, harmony, and cadence, gradually became the product of unfettered individual "expression." The same became true in the world of art. The artists of the Enlightenment period painted and sculpted to show beauty and/or reality. The expressionists and, later, the abstract artists gradually gave less attention to form than to whatever emotion they were attempting to convey.

Poetry's vivid, measured phrases gave way to verse without meter or rhyme, and prose eventually became disjointed paragraphs of vitriolic, profane claptrap devoid of punctuation. Perhaps the most obvious illustration of change is found in the plots of various stories, whether found in literature, television, or movies. Once, the hero, representing purity and truth, triumphed over the villainous evildoer to teach a moral lesson. Today that seldom happens. In the first place, the hero has been humanized into an "anti-hero"--one whose persona continually struggles with his own problems and angst. Second, the villain of today is often a caricature of yesterday's hero--one who was thought to be pure but, as it turns out, was really a hypocrite. Finally, there is no moral lesson, because, in today's world, morality itself seems to be unacceptable. After all, it involves judgment.

The field of education was also affected. Standardized teaching methods were thrown out as outdated and binding. Learning by memorization and recitation was constricting and boring, according to the new Pied Pipers so ready and willing to try out their new experiments upon young minds. Phonics gave way to Word-say in reading, and New Math confused every parent trying to help Junior with his homework. History eventually became an exercise in political correctness rather than a course actually presenting true events of the past. English classes began to de-emphasize grammar, spelling, and sentence structure, while promoting books that most people have never heard of, much less read. Geography was generally regarded as meaningless and thrown out altogether by a few. Content no longer mattered anyway, however, because exams and grades were set aside as hurtful to illiterate feelings.

As those elements of society were "dumbed-down" to satisfy the base, ignorant, and lazy individuals of a civilization that had lost any ambition to reach higher than eye level, all motivation for better things was lost. Kids stopped studying, and we passed them, which made more kids stop studying. Bums stopped working, and we provided welfare, which made more bums stop working. No-talent artists made nonsensical "globs" and got a stipend from the National Endowment for the Arts, sending the message that "true art" is emotion-driven globbing rather than a product reflecting thoughtful and practiced talent.

As spiritual pygmies stopped reaching for higher things--truth, beauty, and godliness--we entertained them, and, in the process, brought heaven down to earth-level, and ignored eternity in favor of a frothy present.

None of those changes, of course, happened overnight. Society barely felt their effects for many years. Perhaps that is why there is such disagreement as to when postmodernism began. Some say it began in the 1920s. Others say immediately following World War II or during the Cold War 1960s. Still others give the last decade of the twentieth century as the real beginning.

Regardless of exactly when postmodernism came into being, in order for people to understand it, they must grasp the role of deconstruction.

No matter what field, no matter what era, nothing new has ever come into being until the old was deemed unacceptable. For example, Communism was the political system that rose in postmodern Russia in the early twentieth century. It remained only a meaningless philosophical concept, however, until enough dissatisfied Russian workers and soldiers were convinced that the czarist system was, indeed, corrupt and unfair. Only when the old system was successfully deconstructed--along with Nicholas and his family--did the new find a willing acceptance among the populace.

Various new movements through the years have followed that same plan: criticize and tear down the old, and thus, make room for the new. Novels that had moral heroes and good endings had to be trivialized and trashed by the "new intellectuals." The common people had to be re-educated by the "experts" that music and art pleasing to the ear and eye were to be disdained. Today, somehow, the popular crowd, led by amoral Hollywood stars and television personalities, has convinced this generation that neatness is an undesirable trait. Thus, our society has traded the old mores of dressing nicely and looking neat for the new sloppiness of faded jeans with holes. The popular hairstyle is simply to look uncombed. The shoes of choice are flip-flops and sneakers. It doesn't make sense--until one understands the dynamics.

The church world is a victim of those same dynamics. A few years ago, Evangelical churches (especially Pentecostals) had a fairly simple agenda: preach the Gospel to the lost, and prepare the saints to live biblically "down here" while preparing for "up there." That has changed. The change was a long time in coming, but once it appeared, it picked up steam in a hurry.

The conclusions of the philosophers and theologians of 150-200 years ago may have influenced every facet of Western civilization thereafter, but they influenced the Christian church most of all, and that influence has had the most profound effect upon society.

The universities and seminaries of Europe--mostly in Germany--filled up with professors of a false gospel. Their message of "No Absolutes" rapidly evolved into "God is Dead!" As this Higher Criticism and its intellectual siblings drifted across the Atlantic, America's institutions, once built upon the foundation of biblical truth and originally founded to train ministers, invited many of those professors to help shape the spiritual future of this nation. It was only a matter of time before the leading seminaries were teaching modernism--which included the ideas that God was whatever an individual wanted Him to be, the Bible was one humanly inspired holy book among many, and Jesus was merely a great man. The graduates of those seminaries in turn became leading ministers and educators in their own churches and schools.