Postmodernism: Don’t take “truths” for granted.

POSTMODERN poʊs(t)'mɑd.ərn adjective. Coming later than modern.
2. A 20th century concept and style in arts and criticism, representing a departure from modernism, typified by a general distrust of grand theories and ideologies.
3. Anti-modern.
[Pomo 'poʊ.moʊ abbreviation, postmodernism poʊs(t)'mɑd.ərn.iz.əm noun, postmodernist poʊs(t)'mɑd.ə adjective, postmodernity poʊs(t).moʊd'ər.nə.di noun.]

I grew up postmodern. I just didn’t know it had a name. I also didn’t realize, at the time, how badly it scared the heebie-jeebies out of Christian apologists.

The label’s not new. It first cropped up in the 1950s. Artists and architects started using it to describe the hip, exciting things they were doing. The current scene was “modern,” so they claimed they were beyond modern, post modern; whatever modern was, they weren’t. Pomo is a common abbreviation, although some pomos really hate it. I don’t, and use it.

Gradually people began to claim postmodernism is more than just their artistic style; it’s their worldview, the way they interpret the world around them, particularly the society we live in. Like the artists, they didn’t begin with any precise definition: Other people were modern, but they were beyond that.

But postmodern grew to become defined as “very, very skeptical of modern.”

If you’ve not heard this definition before, I don’t blame you. When I first heard of the term “postmodernism” in seminary, I heard it defined by Christian apologists, and they defined it as “rejects reality, in favor of their own invented reality.” Which is hardly a new philosophy; everybody does that. Little kids do it. “No! I don’t believe you! It’s not true!” [covers ears with hands] “La la la I can’t hear you.” And no doubt you’ve noticed lots of people in politics do it too. Always have.

But believing in your own fictions instead of the real world, isn’t postmodernism. You want a definition of it, you have to set aside your own knee-jerk prejudices and ask a postmodern. Or read some of their books. I was trained in journalism long before I was trained in theology, so I tracked down and read a bunch of original sources… and realized that’s me. That’s totally me. I’m postmodern. Surprise.

Postmodernism is in many ways a backlash to the philosophy of modernism… which is the way people have been looking at the world since the French Enlightenment in the 1700s. It’s this presumption humanity’s destiny is to achieve greatness by mastering (or conquering) our environment through the use of reason, logic, math, and science. With effort we can learn the universal truths behind everything, harness the great natural forces, and solve every problem. We can figure out the best way for everyone to live, and achieve peace and harmony and prosperity. (You know, like Star Trek. Which was, of course, created and written in the 1960s by moderns.)

Whereas we postmoderns are entirely sure that’s just a pipe dream.

There’s a lot of doubt in it. Understandably.

No, I don’t say “that’s just a pipe dream” out of cynicism, the pessimistic belief humanity will never get it right ’cause of our total depravity. (Though it certainly doesn’t help.) Nor nihilism, the belief nothing means anything, so why try. (Though certainly many of the things humanity pursues are ultimately meaningless.) I say it because I doubt.

That’s the one thing which defines postmodernism best: Postmoderns doubt.

We doubt it’s humanity’s destiny to achieve greatness. We doubt we can master our environment; we doubt whether it’s even a good thing to conquer it. We doubt humanity’s reason and logic (certainly your reason and logic) are sound. We doubt math and science will always be used towards good ends. We doubt whether the things humanity calls “universal truths” are all that universal—or that we can deduce them. We certainly doubt humanity can solve every problem, or that there’s a “best way” for everyone.

And yeah, though utopian science fiction is certainly fun and entertaining, we have serious doubts we’ll ever create those optimistic futures in the real world. ’Cause our technology may greatly improve (and is in fact improving faster than Star Trek’s writers anticipated)… but apart from the Holy Spirit, human nature never improves. We’re just as self-centered as ever.

How come all the doubt? Well, face it: Do we have any reason to not doubt? Everybody who’s ever tried to sell us on utopia, has an agenda. Most of those agendas are selfish. Many are wholly unrealistic. Many require us to sacrifice, while the person with the big dream really hasn’t had to sacrifice much at all. Many requires us to look the other way while great evils befall other people. Like when the American pioneers were out “taming the west,” they weren’t just cultivating soil and culling wild animals so their herds could graze and trains could travel uninterrupted. They were also murdering a lot of people who got in their way, and exploiting and defrauding the rest.

And of course if you like to imagine one of your ancestors as one of those noble pioneers who weren’t actually noble at all… you’re gonna pretend the real history isn’t real. Or wasn’t all that bad. Or might even make atrocious excuses for the evils our forebears committed: The Indians weren’t worthy of their land; the Asians had to learn to “blend in”; the Africans learned a trade; women back then didn’t know any better; why shouldn’t vagrant children be once again committed to workhouses?

Or, more commonly, never learn any history at all. Moderns might like to believe they, too, question and challenge everything. They really don’t. Moderns take a lot of ideas for granted. Lots of clichés in our culture go unquestioned, unanalyzed, and are swallowed when they ought not be. They unthinkingly believe in the American Dream, the superiority or exceptionalism of our culture, and in social Darwinism—that wealth means blessing, growth means success, hard work pays off, everything happens for a reason. And they really believe Jesus won’t overthrow us and our institutions when he returns.

In general moderns accept a lot of popular myths, which have no real evidence behind ’em. They’re myths we tell ourselves to make us think we’re right when we’re really not.

We postmoderns grew up hearing these myths too. The difference is we discovered they were myths. Some are oversimplifications. Some are guesses. Some are lies, like what Santa Claus really does on Christmas Eve. Postmoderns learned—often the hard way—if you ever wanna reach the truth, you gotta keep insisting, “Prove it” till someone actually does prove it.

Whence comes the false definition?

So why was I taught in seminary that postmodernism means “rejects reality, in favor of their own invented reality”? Because moderns believe their worldview is reality. When we reject modernism, they believe we’re rejecting reality. When we say, “That’s not so; this is,” they insist the reality we’ve discovered is not reality; it’s our invention. It’s a clash of worldviews—and they’re entirely sure we’re wrong and they’re right.

Now while conservative Evangelicals believe they’re absolutely not modern—haven’t they been clashing all this time with liberal theology and “modern” ways of thinking, which wanna undermine the bible and God’s holy standards for humanity?—they’re totally modernist in their thinking. They take a lot of ideas for granted, and never ask questions when they ought. Never ask, “Is that really so?” because they’ve been taught only Satan dares ask such questions—and certainly not for noble reasons.

Genesis 3.1 NIV
1 Now the serpent was more crafty than any of the wild animals the LORD God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden’?”

So, out of fear they’ll offend God (okay, more often the fear they’ll outrage fellow Christians), they never engage with him.

I grew up in such churches. If you ever got into a debate, people felt all they had to do to end the argument, was state, “But the bible says…” and present an appropriate proof text. Sometimes two or three. Bam; bible said it, we believe it, that settles it.

And for decades, these same Christians have challenged our wider culture in the very same way. Point out how they behave, drop “But the bible says…” and show how they’re wrong, then step back and watch the people, their eyes newly open, as they drop to their knees in sorrow and repentance. Works great, doesn’t it?

Nope. Never has. Same as always, people respond, “Meh.” Because they don’t believe the bible’s anything but an ancient book of middle eastern myths. How’s it relevant in this day and age? How’s it any kind of authority to them?

People have responded this way towards the bible for centuries. It’s not a recent phenomenon. It’s just in previous centuries, one wasn’t allowed to respond with outright dismissal to bible and the things of God: Heresy was illegal, and you’d get prosecuted. And even after the United States made freedom of religion a right, various communities tried to find ways around that right, and still prosecute people for not conforming to their brand of Christianity enough. In the Bible Belt it’s still mighty hard to get away with, “And why should I care what the bible says?”

But “Why should I care what the bible says?” is a valid question. One we should honestly try to answer… instead of treating “The bible says” as a shortcut which shuts people up.

Modernist Christians grew way too comfortable with that shortcut. Way too comfortable with being able to take their worldview for granted. Now they gotta defend it… and they really don’t know how. Or they defend it with ridiculous jingoistic “evidence” which no knowledgeable postmodern can accept. Like a partisan pundit who keeps quoting talking points because he thinks convincing himself means he’s winning.

Much easier to defend nothing, and simply attack anyone who dares ask questions in the first place. Much easier to claim postmodernism believes in nothing, and is evil, and any Christian who claims to be postmodern has been deceived by Satan, the first pomo.

Postmodern Christianity.

More and more Christians who grew up after the 1970s, actually have a postmodern mindset themselves. They won’t always call themselves postmodern; some of ’em grew up in churches where “postmodern” is bad, so they don’t wanna use that word. But their behavior indicates they’re total pomos. They generally distrust grand theories and ideologies. They ask questions, and question everything. Doubt is their friend.

And because they share this worldview with their contemporaries, they generally know how to share Jesus with ’em. When a person responds, “I don’t know why I should care what the bible says”—because they have serious doubts about the fruitless Christians whose typical fallback position is, “The bible says it, I believe it, that settles it”—postmodern Christians know how to answer that… because we likewise have serious doubts about the fruitless Christians who do this sort of thing.

Pomos have questions, and Christianity has answers, y’know. Answers your average postmodern would find entirely valid and helpful. But in order to present these answers, we need to

  1. Know the answer in the first place.
  2. Have the patience to explain it, and patiently accept followup questions about it.
  3. Not assume the very act of asking a question, is in itself a rejection of everything good and truthful in the universe, and is in fact some devilish erosion of morality.

You can bet your bippy dark Christians wholly believe that third thing. Every time someone dares question the bible’s authority, they flinch as if the questioner just committed the unpardonable sin.

Back in 2016, Baptist pastor Andy Stanley wrote about how he changed his outreach methods so he avoids the whole issue of “the bible says so” to begin with. He believes in inerracy, but he recognizes it’s gonna take way too long to first convince skeptical postmoderns before he can teach ’em biblical truths.

The approach most of us inherited doesn’t work anymore. Actually, it’s never worked all that well. In a culture that had high regard for the Bible, the traditional approach held its own. Those days are over. They’ve been over for a long time.

Stanley’s getting serious blowback from fellow Christians who act as if he quit believing the bible. But he never stopped; he simply stopped his old-timey outreach method, because it doesn’t work on postmoderns.

To listen to some of those old-timey evangelists, the problem is postmodernism in the first place. The problem is this evil, evil spirit of the world, and we need to pray against it and fight it and try to change it through politics or something. In so doing, they’re pretty much demonizing the people they’re supposed to share the gospel with. How’re you gonna share Jesus with them when you think you gotta fight them?

So we have to adapt. We have to become all things to all people so we might save some. 1Co 9.22

Well, unless you’re already postmodern. Then you don’t have to adapt. You’re preaching to your own people.

Postmodern Christians for a postmodern world.

Like I said, I first learned of postmodernism in seminary. One of my profs assigned us a book, Truth Is Stranger Than It Used to Be: Biblical Faith in a Postmodern Age. The authors used the modernist definition, and claimed pomos don’t consider truth to be universal or absolute. Well, yikes! How do we share the universal truth of God’s kingdom, how do we get people to trust and follow Jesus, when we’re never gonna agree on fixed points?

And like I said, that’s not what postmodernism is. We postmoderns do believe in absolute truths, same as everyone. We just won’t always what moderns claim is an absolute truth. We have some criticisms, and want ’em answered. If you’re not gonna address these problems—worse, if you come across as unbelievable, ill-informed, arrogant, impatient, unkind—a pomo’s gonna trust you less and less, and doubt you all the more.

If you aspire to be an evangelist and teacher, believing a postmodern is never gonna believe you, is what’s gonna render your job impossible.

My prof assigned my class the book because he wanted us to know the sort of people we’d be ministering to soon enough. He wanted to know this would be a challenge, and be prepared to face it. I told him (as any good postmodern would) I doubted the book’s premise in the first place.

I have yet to meet a person who has no absolutes. Even “There are no absolutes” is an absolute statement. Everybody picks a fixed point to stand upon. René Descartes picked Je pense, donc je suis/“I think, so I am (I exist).” Me, I go with “I am wrong and Jesus is right.” Lots of Christians pick the bible. But everybody has a standard. Even postmoderns. So when you want to share Jesus with a pomo, find out where their fixed points are. Ask the Holy Spirit to point you to it. Begin there.

The supernatural, I told my professor, kinda solves our quandary. Pomos want evidence that God’s real, alive, and acts in the present day? Fine. We’ll show you evidence.

Apologists worry about postmodernism because they never properly learned how to address people who come back at them with so many questions. They fear their arguments will be undone. (And y’know, maybe they should.) But as I keep telling apologists, ’tain’t so. Postmoderns definitely believe in facts. But first you’ve gotta prove these are facts in the first place. You’ve gotta answer postmodern doubts. We’re gonna make you work for it!

For some of them, they find this outrageous. “I shouldn’t have to do that!” Just like Americans who don’t feel they shouldn’t have to know Spanish to get by in the Spanish-speaking parts of our country—they feel there shouldn’t be any Spanish-speaking parts of the country, and everybody should be required to speak English. They want their worldview to stay the standard—for their convenience.

Me, I find it difficult to evangelize out of selfishness. And stupid to demand pagans first adopt a modernist outlook of the world before they can become Christians. We may as well require circumcision. Ac 15.1