Postmodernism: The Church’s Friend or Foe?

Product DetailsI recently listened to a few lectures on postmodernism by prominent American evangelical teachers.  Both speakers clearly said that everything postmodern is evil and the church should avoid postmodernism at all costs.  While this certainly is a huge debate/discussion, I’d say that this type of logic is very unhelpful.  It is easy to make such black and white overgeneralizations, but it doesn’t help Christians seriously think through the issue.  This type of overgeneralization and simplification makes Christians culturally cynical, epistemologically proud, and unable to sound reasonable to those who are not Christians.  In other words, I think we need to nuance our evaluation(s) of postmodernity.  I like how Kevin Vanhoozer does this in his chapter of Christianity and the Postmodern Turn ed. Myron Penner (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2005)

“There is a certain providential parallel between what postmodernity is doing for the church today and what Persia did for ancient Israel (Ezra 1:1; Is. 44:28).  As Cyrus released Israel from her Babylonian captivity and encouraged the rebuilding of the Jerusalem temple, so postmodernity releases the church from its Athenian captivity to modernity and enables the return of certain exiled themes, religion and transcendence among them.  What postmodernity teaches, however, is primarily a negative lesson, one moreover that we should have already known, namely, that we are situated, limited, contingent.”

“What postmodernity bequeaths to the world is ideology criticism: the criticism of isms.  Here we have what is in my opinion the single most helpful contribution of postmodernity to Christian thinkers: a thoroughgoing iconoclasm, a radical protest against oppressive systems of thought. …My most charitable reading of postmodern thinkers like Derrida and Rorty, therefore, casts them in the heroic role of outraged prophets seeking to cleanse, sometimes playfully and sometimes painfully, the modern philosophical temples of knowledge. …Christian thinkers too should applaud these iconoclastic gestures and perhaps wonder why we had not cleansed the temple of modernity earlier ourselves” (p. 80).

I believe Vanhoozer’s approach to postmodernity (only summarized in these paragraphs) is more helpful than a fundamentalist approach to it.  Granted, the fundamentalist impulse to trash postmodernity from head to toe is easy and it often sounds good, but I would rather see some serious interaction.  If you want serious interaction, get Christianity and the Postmodern Turn, and specifically pay attention to Kevin Vanhoozer’s chapters.  While he argues that postmodernity should not set the Christian agenda, he is wise enough to see some positives in it.

shane lems

5 thoughts on “Postmodernism: The Church’s Friend or Foe?”

  1. From my perspective (pun intended!) your judgment, as well as Vanhoozer’s, on this topic embodies the text(s) of Col. 4:6 & Matt 10:16. Well said, Shane.

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  2. As a Roman Catholic, whose church declared “modernism” a heresy for quite some time, I can’t help being amused at the notion that now “postmodernism” is being declared a heresy by some churches.

    It seems to me that the perspectival emphasis of postmodernism is very consonant with the person-centered understanding of the gospel and of theological anthropology that the Orthodox church, especially, holds up to the larger church.

    It also seems quite consonant with the Reformed tradition that, as I understand it, considers that it is the responsibility of the church in every time and place to discern and express their understanding of the faith anew.

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    1. RE “as I understand it” (the Reformed tradition): with all due respect, my friend, in this post you display not an “understanding” of the Reformed tradition but rather an “over-standing”. Specifically, your perspective of the Reformed tradition on this issue lacks what Vanhoozer calls, “interpretive virtues” (Is there a Meaning in This Text? Zondervan 1998). By this term Vanhoozer presents a solid case that true understanding requires the reader to first “stand under” the text (in this case the text of Reformed tradition) and thus make every effort, not to “stand over” the author’s text in order to rewrite the author’s intended meaning into one’s personal concerns/views, but rather to employ diligent care in order to faithfully represent the primary authorial intent embedded within the text before adding one’s critique/perspective. Since you do not here represent (re-present) the the Reformed tradition on this issue you are thus “standing over” the Reformed tradition by “using” the text to promote your personal ideology rather than taking care to first represent faithfully the Reformed tradition on this issue. (BTW, mea culpa: I have been guilty of this myself) ~ Alex

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  3. Alex,

    Thanks for the response, but I am confused. I am not attempting to promote any ideology; I’m just trying to enter the conversation. My “as I understand it” was intended as a recognition that I may, in fact, not understand it properly, and that if so I would appreciate clarification. I would sincerely like to better understand the Reformed tradition. (I am most certainly not here to proselytize, to promote Roman Catholicism, or anything like that, in case that needs saying. I’m here in good faith, seeking understanding. ;) )

    I was exposed to the idea that the Reformed tradition is committed to continually discerning and expressing the faith, and that therefore “their confessions of faith are always very much products of a certain time and place”, in a 2004 paper by Martien E. Brinkman, “Unity: A Contribution from the Reformed Tradition.”

    Can you tell me what it is that I’m missing about the Reformed tradition that leads me to misinterpret this statement as reasonably congruent with the perspectival element of postmodernism?

    thanks,
    Victoria Gaile

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  4. Thank you, Victoria, for your gracious and explanatory words. If you would like to know how Reformed theologians have responded to postmodernism I think it would be best for you to read some books on the subject. The book that Pastor Shane Lems used for this post would be helpful but if you want to research and know this subject more deeply you may want to read some books that deal not only with postmodernism but also with tradition and theological method as well. If you are interested here’s a few books I would recommend: The Christian Faith: A Systematic Theology for Pilgrims on the Way, Dr. Michael Horton, Zondervan 2011; The Drama of Doctrine: A Canonical-Linguistic Approach to Christian Theology, Kevin Vanhoozer, Westminster John Knox Press 2005; Is there a Meaning in This Text? Kevin Vanhoozer, Zondervan 1998.

    God’s rich blessings on you in Christ, Victoria! 2 Cor 5:21,
    ~ Alex

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