One of our small groups studied a book a year or so ago that was very postmodern in its approach. I was concerned about this group studying this book, mostly because they were a group filled with modernists. One of those group members has started attending our Thursday Night Coffee House where we will begin this week reading and discussing the book "Blue Like Jazz", a very postmodern look at Christianity. She later said, "I’m fine discussing postmodernism, I just want someone to define it."
This is where we will run into our greatest difficulty in discussing postmodernism. Postmodernism is difficult to define. Much of this is due to the fact that "definition" is a modernist concept. Modernist who want to study postmodernism seek to do so through the tools and resources that they have. Since order, definition, and formula are major tools of the modernist, these are the tools that they seek to use. The problem with this is that postmodernism isn’t tangible. In many ways, postmodernism must be experienced to be understood. This concept causes modernist severe difficulty since modernists want to study something from afar using observation and data collection.
I believe this inability to study and define postmodernism has created trouble by earning postmodernism a bad name, especially among those of the conservative Christian persuasion. This is because the main features of postmodernism allow for the development of some pretty nasty negative manifestations. For example, postmoderns don’t give automatic credibility to people just because of their positions or to rules just because they’ve been around forever. They need to know and understand for themselves, so the value of a person or rule must be proved. The extreme manifestation of this concept is found in relativism, especially moral relativism. This manifestation denies absolute truth and says that the individual is the only one who can say what is right for themselves. The connections between the two are clear, but one is a desire to find truth, the other a denial of truth in and of itself.
This is similar to the modernist manifestation of enforcing rules. Rules were designed to help and protect. Modernists rely on rules to govern their behavior and interactions every day. There is a potential manifestation of this that we refer to as legalism that completely abuses the purpose behind the rules to begin with. Just like relativism for the postmodernist, legalism is a negative manifestation for the modernist.
The reason I think this causes trouble is because the only part of postmodernism that can be evaluated is the stuff on the extremes. Because postmodernism is so intangible and experiential, we can’t really talk about it until we can see the negative manifestations of it. This leads modernists to see the physical evidence of the negative manifestions and then to condemn the movement as a whole based on what they see. This is an unfair generalization.
So, then, how do we define postmodernism. Literally, it means "that which comes after modernism". See, that was easy. Now you’re asking "What is modernism?" We’ll discuss that tomorrow.