About four years ago I was sitting in a Bible study on postmodernism, wondering why I was there. The leader of the Bible study was trying to help us understand what postmodernism was and how it affected our culture. I wrote a note on a piece of paper and passed it to the guy sitting next to me (I was very mature at the time…). Of course the leader saw it and called on the guy sitting next to me to read the note out loud so everyone else could hear what I had to say. The note said something like this: “I think we all agree that postmodernism does not exist. Why are we here?” The ironic things about that comment are: 1. I was very wrong and it took a couple years to really understand what we were talking about that night and 2. It was a very postmodern thing to write.
My problem was this: I didn’t understand what postmodernism meant and I didn’t understand how deeply affected by it our culture (and therefore myself too, as I am a product of my culture) is. My guess is there were some people who read the last post and had a similar reaction to the one I had that night four years ago, so this post is an attempt to begin to shed some light on the issue. (Disclaimer: the emphasis here is on the word begin…like a Reader’s Digest version of postmodernism.)
Q: What is culture?
There are many ways to define culture, but for our purposes it can be defined as a people’s view of reality. People of a similar culture will have similar answers to questions like: What is right and wrong? What is taboo and what is praiseworthy? What is the good life? What is the meaning of life? What offends me about the world? The questions cover every inch of life, not just the big picture ones I listed here. Culture affects everything from your view of God to what you will eat on Mondays
Think of questions like: Why do people in the south dress up for football games? Why are iPods so popular? Why do people who hunt watch more Nascar than people who drink lattes? Why will you lose your license for going 15 over in Scandinavia and speeding is almost expected in America? Why don’t the French use ice in their drinks? All these are questions about culture.
Q: So what is postmodernism?
Culture changes; it is not fixed. There are movements in culture. Imagine you are sitting in a stadium and 70,000 people are chanting something, then one loud section of fans starts chanting something else and that new chant spreads until the whole stadium has now taken it up. Culture is like that, except instead of a chant the thing that is spreading is a worldview
Sometimes a worldview is so thoroughly spread through a culture it has definable boundaries; it gets a name, an “ism”. You can say things about it like “Modernism is such and such a way” or “Those people are Modernists and so they probably believe such and such a thing”.
Sometimes the new chant that arises is a reaction to the one that it is replacing. Modernism becomes postmodernism. For example: where modernism sought certainty in a black and white world, postmodernism is more comfortable with mystery and paints a picture of a grey world, in which black and white certainties are not so easy to find. Where modernism was largely overly optimistic, postmodernisms answers are streaked with pessimism.
Q: How do I know postmodernism when I see it? What are its distinctives?