THE LEGACY OF POSTMODERNISM
Any vision of the future must include—though
often reluctantly—the role of "postmodernism." This buzzword fixates
the minds of all would-be futurists and levitates the learning of
all "wannabe" philosophers. And not without cause. Within these
great powers of change, postmodernism shouts "Salvation!" for
dead-end leaders and frustrated intellectuals.
Yet, even scholars disagree on what postmodernism
means. In fact, "A precise understanding . . . is notoriously
difficult to pin down."1 Nevertheless, most
postmodernists believe we put far too much faith in our language . .
. in our ability to hammerlock truth and reality.
Accordingly, we moderns simply ignore the
particular slant on our slang . . . the prejudice, myopia, and
arbitrariness of our lingo. In other words, we have no standards for
our tastes, no credibility for our texts. Whether retorting or
reporting, subjectivity traps each of us in the myriad influences of
our small world.
Worse, we use this twisted fiction to impose
power on others.
So postmodernists consider "truth" neither
timeless nor universal. "Truth" with a capital "T" is especially
incredible. "Goodness" with capacious knowledge is particularly
Unfortunately, the unity of this movement lies
not with a hopeful plan for the future, but with a common rejection
of the past.
It is antimodern!
"Going . . . Going . . . Gone"
Some see this break with the past as a refreshing
philosophical game. Others see a fearsome gamble with the very
foundations of Civilization. Some see a chance to wipe the slate
clean of "outmoded" religious ideas. Others see the final
disintegration of religion itself. Some see uncontainable joy at the
death of the modern world. Others see only sinister gladness behind
this illusion of joy.
Right or wrong, we dismiss postmodernism with
difficulty, because it has proven itself in many ways.
But "rightness" is not the problem. The problem
is postmoderns fail to realize postmodernism has come and gone.
Postmodernism is about the death of the past, and the past has
already past. The mere fact that this term has become a buzzword
reflects the afterimage of social change. In fact, the underground
shift to "POST-postmodernism" has already occurred and now emerges
on the mainstream scene.2
What will arise in a more constructive future
after "deconstructive" postmodernism has finally run its course? A
new world is in the making. History has propelled us out of the
modern period on a wild trajectory not yet understood. We call it
"postmodern" simply because we don’t know its real name.
Is it the "Digital Age"? "Age of Virtual
Reality"? "Age of bio-technology"? "Age of the Machine"?
Oxymorons and Old Cadavers
There’s a difference between postmodernism and
what’s actually happening now. Postmodernism—for the most
part—describes the death of a passing world. But today, we envision
a new future, a new knowing, a new language.
The biggest myth of postmodernism, though, is
that it is "postmodern." In truth, it wears modern eyeglasses more
often than not. It frequently uses modern thinking to criticize
modern thinking. It often parades effective language to communicate
the ineffectiveness of language. In short, it squeezes the last drop
of blood out of old cadavers. It forces, for example, modern,
Enlightenment skepticism to its (il)logical conclusion: "There is no
truth beyond doubt."3
It is hypermodern. It is superskeptical. It is a
cynical, modern-world view.
Postmoderns too often boil everything down to
literal logic, while history moves clearly toward multiple meanings.
They still "divide to conquer," while we "connect to win." They
still "line their ducks up in a row," while we find significance in
the whole flock. They still demand debates, while we hunger for
Postmoderns gleefully dismantle what were assumed
universals, but today we earnestly reconstruct those same
Universals. They refuse a unified truth, but we see patterns of
transcendence. They take a position fundamentally against Christian
faith4, but our world is now spiritually reconnected.
In short, a "POST-postmodern atheist" is mostly
oxymoron. In the emerging era, everyone is assumed essentially
spiritual. Atheism, agnosticism, and skepticism are increasingly
remnants of an obsolete civilization.5
In a weird sort of humanism, postmoderns claim
man is the source of all things . . . that there is no prophetic
revelation except what man creates himself—yet they insist even that
you can’t trust! Today, truth by definition is true, regardless of
individual beliefs. Truth is not something we create, it is
something we encounter.
As a result, the postmodern "self" is a
fragmented, unstable, impermanent self, with a fleeting existence
that is "less a matter of ‘multiple selves’ and more a matter of
attention deficit disorder."6 A chaotic self. An anarchic
self. But today, we know an inspired self . . . a creative self . .
. a self created in the image of a Creator-God.
In short, the freedom to define our own
truth—combined with ever-present selfishness—turns postmodern
freedom into a living hell.
Good News, Bad News
Still, the gift of postmodernism thinks afresh
the most basic assumptions. But it takes more than cynicism and
relativism. The refusal of subjective truth does not destroy Truth
beyond subjectivity. The refusal of a universal story does not rid
us of universal questions.
Postmoderns correctly discern the subjective
limitations of natural man. Let’s face it. Our knee-jerk selfishness
can’t be trusted. But the early Hebrews remind us there’s a
difference between our Greek soul and our Hebrew spirit—there’s a
difference between the inner drives of our natural instincts and the
internal obedience to something bigger and better than us.
Postmoderns have simply thrown the baby out with
Failing to recognize universal truth, though,
postmoderns rightly search for "useful fictions" in local truth.
That’s honest. That’s positive. But their search ignores the
difference between subjectivity and true inspiration. It’s true no
one holds a claim on total truth. Yet, "We know in part, and we
prophesy in part."7 And that part is a valid part of the
Postmoderns have lost the ability to see the
whole in the parts—to detect the unity in the variety. The have
given us a sea of dots, but no way to connect them.8
And, yes, they correctly criticize the ability of
language to describe the universals of inner experience. But
prophetic metaphor transcends all the failed language of
postmodernism. It rises above all the cultural icons of narcissistic
society. Hebrew prophets, for example, shared their visions within
the context of their time, yet the message always transcended their
Today, as well, creative artists frequently
report that their work "chooses them" . . . that it permits "some,
but not just any, variation" . . . that, finally, they are only the
There’s more there than what the legacy of
We will need new tests of authenticity . . . new
tests of credibility . . . new tests of reality. If the interface
with the future is indeed headed toward the breadth and complexity
of prophetic metaphor . . . of art . . . even of virtual reality,
then we will need a new veracity for our experience.
The art or science of interpretation can still be
done. It will just have to be done a different way.
Goodbye modernism. Goodbye postmodernism.
Welcome Holy Spirit.
© 2010 Thomas Hohstadt
1. Stanley J. Grenz, John R. Franke, Beyond
Foundationalism: Shaping Theology in a Postmodern Context
(Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001) p. 18.
2. Brad Sargent, "Enemies in the Post-Postmodern
Era . . . Unless . . . ," Strategies For Today’s Leader,
First Quarter, 2001, Volume 38, Number 1, p. 23.
4. Grenz and Franke, p. 19.
6. Steven Johnson, Interface Culture: How New
Technology Transforms the Way We Create and Communicate (New
York: Basic Books, 1997) p 82-84.
7. I Corinthians 13:9, KJ.
8. Sally Morgenthaler in an email to the author.