Revisiting Postmodernism: An Old Debate on a New Era is a collection of papers presented at The First Symposium on Postmodern Sensitive Mission held in 2012 at Andrews University (Michigan). The articles, written from a variety of perspectives, offer the reader a good grasp of the intellectual and cultural shift called “postmodernism” (including background aspects of its development), and orients us to missionary and evangelistic approaches the postmodern generation is most responsive to. Far from negotiating a watering down of the Gospel, or doing away with biblical principles of interpretation and application, the book educates ministers and lay members on the value of adapting and contextualizing our beliefs in order to remain relevant and portray Christ in terms intelligible to the postmodern generation.
In “Postmodern Evangelism: Sharing the Gospel as a Nonviolent Metanarrative,” Jack Stackhouse, the keynote speaker, reminds us that listening to and understanding others first is critical for a successful ministry among postmoderns, who place great emphasis on a deeper mutual understanding of highly reflective selves. The peculiarities of Christianity, says Stackhouse, are prone to raise intriguing questions, and sympathy towards those asking such questions is a good attitude to accompany our knowledge and desire to share.
A key concept which occurs repeatedly in the book is that of “metanarrative.” In her chapter “Christianity for Postmoderns: From Metanarrative to Storytelling,” Abigail Doukhan takes us back to the beginnings of postmodernity in order to help us understand the attitude and approach of those we serve, and consequently learn what attitude and approach is most compatible with them.
Doukhan reminds us that Postmodernity is largely a reaction against the modernist hatred for the other (exemplified in its worst form in the extermination of the Jews at Auschwitz) and an arrogant ideology allowing only for one way of doing things and formulating truth. By contrast, postmodernism, suspicious of any metanarratives and coercion arising from imposing only one worldview, relishes in opening the door for a multiplicity of ideologies, accepting various ways of arriving at truth, and embracing the “other” as equally valuable, not in spite of the “otherness,” but precisely because of their uniqueness. Pluralism and diversity are core values of postmodernity. In such a relativistic world, how can Christianity find a compelling voice?
Quite effortlessly, suggests Doukhan: while postmoderns may be difficult to reach with a metanarrative, they can easily be persuaded to listen to ‘just another story.’ Thus, their openness to hear any story allows room for the story of Christianity and the many narratives in Scripture. Presented in a compelling way, these stories can be persuasive for their inherent truth and value, particularly if they reach the heart of the postmoderns.
Kathleen and Jonathan Beagels’ chapter entitled “The Whole Truth and Nothing But: Discipleship in a Post-Christian Age” echoes the same idea: presenting personal stories that illustrate the relevance of the Great Controversy metanarrative is more productive than sharing propositional truth describing this metanarrative. The Great Controversy motif of Christ’s humility in opposition to Satan’s pride resonates very well with the postmoderns’ rejection of the perceived self-centeredness of those in power. However, as noted, the entry point into an evangelistic conversation is the particular, through which the universal gains value.
Having come to grips with the idea that more knowledge does not necessarily result in more kindness, that reason can be deceptive and generate evil, and that human knowledge does not take place in a neutral place, but always from a particular perspective, postmoderns lean heavily towards a “non-individualistic, post-rationalistic […] and post-noeticentric” approach (pg. 70). The truth we share propositionally has value to the extent that this value is evident in our lives. Thus, discipleship means both telling and being the Gospel.
Stanley Patterson emphasizes the high value postmoderns place on relationships, and takes us back to Scripture to rediscover the ideal leadership model. He also stresses the postmoderns’ break with traditional patterns of doing church, largely due to their suspicion of institutionalized truth and authority, and partly as a reaction to the prevalent family breakdowns, which led them towards other types of contexts in their search for truth and identity. The spiritual dimension of the expressive and reflective postmodern self is found best by looking inwards than by observing, let alone by obeying traditionally accepted figures of authority.
Having rejected the competitive approach characterizing the industrial era, postmoderns feel more at home where collaborative relationship and service is prioritized. Thus, the Edenic model of equality between sexes is favored over the dominance of one class of people over another. “The proclamation of Jesus’ saving grace,” writes Patterson, “must be attuned to their foci – relationship, authenticity, service, and freedom from authoritarian behavior, and it must be delivered by voices that truly honor those values.” (pg. 56).
Bruce Bauer writes about “Conversion and Worldview” as he discusses the transformation process in postmoderns. Conversion, suggests Bauer, must challenge the worldview of the person, or the core assumptions will continue to influence her or his life in the Christian walk. This is a profound transformation that addresses central presuppositions and in the process offers alternatives viable with the Christian story and ethics. “Since people’s worldview assumptions, premises, and values create their beliefs out of which behavior flows, it is vitally important that those worldview assumptions and values also be transformed.” (pg. 87). Bauer offers a helpful description of how a worldview changes, and paints both the positive and the negative aspects of some of the core postmodern values (such as pluralism, altruism, relativism, community, authenticity, holism, and globalism), concluding with helpful best practices on how to encourage and assist conversion.
Felix H. Cortez illustrates the postmodern thinking and approach through an exposition of various interpretations of Psalm 23, including feminist, materialist, and postcolonial, all of which discover and construct different meanings of a text seen as ambivalent at best. Cortez also refers to the issue of foundationalism and objectivity, which postmoderns rejects and attacks in favor of relativism and subjectivity. In their view, modernism is a “an idol of human fabrication” (pg. 107), while postmodernism, according to Bauman, is “modernity coming of age: modernity looking at itself from a distance rather than from the inside, making a full inventory of its gains and losses, psychoanalyzing itself, discovering the intentions it never before spelled out, finding them mutually cancelling and incongruous. [It is] coming to terms with its own impossibility” (pg. 107).
Lovers of philosophy will find in Zane Yi’s chapter “Through a Glass Darkly: Speaking of Truth in Postmodern Times” a refreshing exposition of epistemological aspects central to the postmodern reaction against the modern. Key ideas refer to the postmodern critique of Descartes’s epistemological method, which gives the illusion that perfect understanding is possible, and which leads to an exercise of controlling power over that which we can thus perfectly grasp (primarily nature, but by extension also humans).
One of the most prominent postmodern voices is Wittgenstein, who argued that human understanding is contingent on a variety of factors and can never be fully exhausted. Consequently, claims to truth can only be contingent to our interpretations of reality. This aspect of postmodernism, argues Yi, “levels the intellectual playing field, undermining every perspective, so neither theism nor atheism is immune from its critique” (pg. 146). The chapter also addresses the relationship between revelation and knowledge, with intriguing insights for both those who lean towards a postmodernist, relativistic epistemology, and those who remain absorbed by the modernist foundationalism. I will let the intrigued reader discover those.
I have emphasized a few chapters I found particularly helpful in understanding the postmodern thinking and the evangelistic efforts that ply best with the values and approach of this generation. Puzzling for many, frustrating for some, and cherished by others, postmodernism becomes something less feared and more understood once you’ve read this book. And it will be less feared precisely because it is better understood. A good listener will discover that this understanding will enable him or her to minister more effectively to those who will soon be (if they aren’t already) the generation called to pass on the precious truth of the Gospel.
Like each age in which Christianity functioned as a religion, postmodernity presents its own set of challenges and benefits. As even a brief review of the book indicates, postmoderns embrace many biblical core values, and in their stubborn insistence on bringing these values into the mainstream thinking they have compelled us to return to Scripture and rethink some of the core values in our missionary approach. In a sense, this is a return to biblical principles and models, particularly leadership models of humility and altruistic service.
At the same time, some facets of postmodernism are incompatible with Christianity. These are best addressed as part of one’s transformation process, with the aid of the Holy Spirit and with a patient attitude that allows her or him to internalize new models and new ideologies, while we continue to play a proactive, even if secondary role in their growth.
Revisiting Postmodernism: An Old Debate on a New Era is a book I highly recommend for both its educational and inspirational value. I believe that the benefits will not remain at the individual level of the reader, but will extend to those she or he will minister to in an effort to make Christ’s sacrifice more precious as the only eternal kingdom grows in numbers and love.