A couple years ago I was at a lecture given by Jerram Barrs at the Rochester L’abri Conference (Labri.org). The notes I took have been helpful to me in writing this series (as have his lectures in “Apologetics and Outreach,” a class he teaches at Covenant Seminary). In the lecture, Professor Barrs divided history into three categories: premodern, modern, and postmodern. He spent time talking about the dominant ideas in each period and he insisted that as Christians we must learn to search out the glories in every new thing we encounter. One of my favorite bands, Over the Rhine, says the same thing in one of its songs: “I look for redemption in everyone/… there is so much untouched beauty/ the light, the dark both running through me.” Postmodernism, just like every other thing that comes out of humanity, has both light and darkness running through it. It can be a difficult thing to see the light at times, but we must learn to. To only see the darkness is an easy error to fall into, but it is one that forgets that we are made in the image of God and that image is indelible; it cannot be erased. We bear the stamp of our Creator and so it follows that everything we make will retain traces of the One who made us.
Postmodernism is no different. As we are each individually mixed bags, so are the cultures we create. Modernism set up human reason as the ultimate source of final answers to reality. It placed reason on the altar in place of God, putting its hope for redemption on the broken, scarred shoulders of Humanity. Postmodernism appropriately tore down that idol. It diminished humanity’s confidence in its power to come to the answers it needs by its own strength, insisting that our reason is clouded and our strength is limited. Postmodernism rightly said that clear, objective thinking is difficult because our knowledge is influenced by subjective factors and often prejudiced.
Postmodernism allows for greater diversity, as it respects the contributions each culture has to make. The postmodern mindset would not give rise to something like colonialism, for example. Colonialism was born out of the mindset that said one culture could be greater than another and the best thing for the lesser culture was to convert to the greater. Postmodernism seeks more to give voice to every culture, recognizing that there are things of value in every perspective and fearing the arrogance of a single culture believing that it contains all truth.
Postmodernism is realistic. It recognizes that things in this world are broken and bent and corrupted. It challenges modernisms unrealistic optimism, which said that Progress would soon carry humanity forward and our troubles would slowly erase themselves as we outgrew them. This is not so. At its worst postmodernism can embrace this sad fact too much and dip into despair, but at its best it simply takes a more realistic view of human selfishness and brokenness and rightly insists that humanity is far too hurt to simply heal itself.
It also challenges the idea that humanity’s needs are supplied by only the material, and says that there is an inescapable need for the spiritual. We are not only complex machines; man is a spiritual being. We are not objects. God has “set eternity within our hearts” and because of this we have spiritual needs. Modernism pulled the ceiling down low of the head of mankind, saying that it could find all the answers it needs without turning to the mystical and spiritual. This is false. Postmodernism tore holes in that low ceiling and said that humanity must look upwards to something outside itself.
It is a mistake to think that postmodernism (or anything humans create) is “all bad” or “all good”. Far too often people fall into one category or the other and postmodernism becomes synonymous with all evil and ugly things and is a blight on our society, or becomes the savior which will correct the sins of past generations and lead us toward a better future. This is foolish. Only Christ can save human culture and until He does all culture will have “both light and darkness running through it”. As Christians our goal should be to foster that which is good while at the same time responding to that which is bad in a way that is winsome and changes the culture for the better.