In my last blog post I started answering a friend’s question about some of the characteristics of our world. She had requested that I define modernism and postmodernism, and reflect on what Christian witness might look like in a postmodern culture. I’m not using these terms technically, but as in a general way to try to get a handle on how culture and thinking has developed to what it is today. In the first part I touched on how modernism developed beginning back in the 6th century, how it seemed to promise so much, and how by the 20th century it was clear the modernist experiment had failed. Science and reason had produced great technological advances, but could not solve all the problems of human existence nor provide compellingly satisfying answers to the deepest questions of the human heart.
Among the first to turn their backs on modernism were, interestingly enough, French literary theorists. In their field of study—literary criticism—modernism had promised that with reason, a careful study of texts would result in determining what the text actually meant, in other words, what the author had intended to communicate when they wrote the text. So, modernist critics would study a text and publish their conclusions, only to have another modernist critic study the same text and come to different conclusions. Though each scholar had wanted to approach the text with complete objectivity, somehow that could never be achieved. A feminist critic would always see things differently than a Marxist critic and a Christian critic would draw yet a third set of conclusions. The closer we looked at texts—any texts—and tried to identify their meaning the clearer it was that no reader could ever achieve complete objectivity. We all read a text with our own prejudices and assumptions. In a real way it was at this point that our world moved from modernism to postmodernism.
Among other things, the French thinkers argued that every author who composes a text brings to that task a set of prejudices and assumptions. This means that what the author intended to say might not be what the text that they wrote actually communicates. After all, we are usually unaware of our own prejudices and assumptions, so the text I produce will reflect ideas, values, and shifts from my culture—all much bigger than myself—that I am not fully aware of myself. The forces at work in the economic, political, and hierarchical power struggles in our historical moment shape us and shape the texts we write.
In one sense this was not a new idea, but in an increasingly pluralistic and globalized world, postmodern thinkers took it one step further. The meaning or true interpretation of any text, they argued, is determined not by the author but by the reader.
When we look in the church we find that evangelical Christians by and large had adopted a similar perspective. In Bible studies and personal devotions throughout the 19th and 20th century the central question was, “What does the text of Scripture mean to me?” We settled discussions with “proof texts,” verses of Scripture that would convince us of some point of view. This was all part of something we held dear, namely, the right of “personal interpretation.” As long as the meaning of the text was clear to me, that was its meaning.
The meaning of a text is determined by the reader, postmodern thinkers said but then pointed out something obvious: texts are not just books and manuscripts but anything that needs to be “read” by us in order to give it “meaning.” Events, objects, vocations, nature, everything we do and own and use, is simply there until we see it, name it, and interpret its significance. Is my car merely a mode of transportation or a measure of my success? Add to this insight the latest findings of neuroscience that questions whether we can be certain there is a direct link between our brains and anything outside of ourselves and you come to a logical but startling conclusion: life and reality is finally just a projection of our consciousness.
Modernists as young adults often went off to Europe to “find themselves,” while the postmodern generation are more likely to use networking technologies to build “social capital.” While a previous generation tended to remain loyal to an employer over a lifetime of work, people entering the workforce today fully expect to change employers several times before they retire. A pop star that captures the postmodern mindset perfectly is Madonna, who has recast her image numerous times over the course of a career as a celebrity.
Postmodernism as a formal academic pursuit has from the beginning been a bit unstable. It’s fine for a literary critic to write an article on how Jane Austin didn’t really mean what she wrote, but when a second critic claims the first critic didn’t mean what they wrote about Jane Austin, and a third critic claims neither of the first two—well, you get the picture. Still, thinkers like Jean-François Lyotard (1924-1998) and Jacques Derrida (1930-2004) have shaped the thinking of our world by exploring how postmodern conditions have shaped human existence and culture.
As the 20th century moved past and into the 21st, the reality of our lives changed in all sorts of ways. Some of them are obvious, while others simply occurred slowly but steadily. Several terms are often invoked to identify the changes. Globalization refers to the fact that the world has both become smaller and more accessible. People and goods are on the move, and calling a toll-free service number about a piece of technology made in China by an British company sold in an American store by a clerk originally from the Sudan may have you talking to a citizen of India. If you haven’t reflected on globalization you should read Thomas Friedman’s fascinating and important book, The World is Flat: A Brief History of the 21st Century (2007). Pluralism refers to the increasing diversity we experience in terms of the goods, services, beliefs, ideas values, and lifestyles that are on offer in the marketplace. Religions that I heard about as a child only when missionaries visited my church have moved in next door. Whether we are talking about cell phones or living arrangements, all sorts of possibilities are available and the diversity shows no sign of slowing down any time soon. Since this is a blog and not a book, I’ll mention just one more: Fragmentation. In ways we may not even realize, technology breaks our daily life into tiny pieces, and in the media the same occurs to our consciousness. My grandfather’s generation spent days doing a single thing, concentrating on a single task, but few today ever have that experience—we multi-task. And since most young adults either come from broken families or have sensed abandonment from significant others, the fragmentation comes crashing in on our relationships, dreams, fears, and view of God.
Our lives unfold as a story, and if we are to find meaning and direction we need a larger, richer story to bring definition and significance to our little story. In a pluralistic world it seems narrow minded and judgmental to claim there is a single story—a meta-narrative—for all times and peoples and cultures. Besides, part of the promise of modernism was to use reason to find an answer to this sort of question, and we know how that turned out. Postmodernism concludes there is no one final meta-narrative, but there are local stories we can live in. Modernists failed to arrive at a final standard for justice and morality, for example, and so said everything was relative. Relativism doesn’t work for everyday life, though because we know some things are right and wrong (like not killing people). So though we can’t say there is a story that absolutely proves that murdering is absolutely wrong, we can live in a story in which we agree it is wrong, and so it is. We believe in proximate justice, not absolutes, but we aren’t relativists either.
Modernism took people to the edge of an abyss, an abyss of nothingness and meaninglessness and when they looked in, they felt despair. If you doubt that, watch films like Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal (1958) or Woody Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989). In stark contrast, postmodern people love irony, feel at home with cynicism, and find solace in a network of friends that share daily experience in a virtual reality so encompassing that life is a movie and our music, the conversation of our hearts, is its soundtrack. Our movies are more like Garden State (2004) and The Matrix (1999), or Woody Allen’s Match Point (2005) and Vicky Christina Barcelona (2008).
Both modernism and postmodernism come with blessing and with curse. The advances of science, technology, and medicine are good gifts in a broken world, but the notion we can solve all problems and answer all questions with the scientific method and reason is a sad commentary on both the hubris in the human heart and an unwillingness to learn from sorry history. It was that sort of pride that paved the way for tyrannies that slaughtered their own populations and a capitalism that is willing to sacrifice everything for the bottom line. The increasing pluralism of goods and ideas mirrors the rich diversity of God’s good creation, but doesn’t the notion that ultimate questions of significance, identity, and spirituality can be formed out of our own experience and imagination seem at least a little dubious? Meta-narratives need not be oppressive if they are grounded in love, as The Matrix (1999) showed. Imagine if someone from the outside did come, lived among us as one of us, and against all odds walked through death onto the other side on our behalf. It would be a Story worth considering.
Images (in order): still from The Book of Eli (2010), Jacque Derrida, The World is Flat (2007), a still from The Seventh Seal (1958), and a still from The Matrix (1999).
…to be continued.