Post-modern or Post-Christian?

The effects of Postmodernism are undeniable.  Whether we like it or not, we are, all of us, postmodern is some way.  The influence on Christians and on the Church has been devastating.  Charles Colson comments:

Tragically, postmodern culture has infected and weakened the Church, particularly in the West.  Spain, once the most Catholic country in Europe, has become, within a generation, among the most secularized… when I asked a priest friend why church membership was declining so rapidly in once rigidly Catholic Ireland, he answered, “Because the priests don’t preach the gospel.”  Even evangelicals, known for their fidelity to Scripture, have not been exempt from postmodernist influence.  Both George Gallup and George Barna, eminent pollsters and close Church observers, have in recent years decried the declining biblical illiteracy in the Church.  The majority of evangelicals—whom Barna calls “born-again Christians”—do not believe in absolute truth.  Sixty percent of Americans can’t name five of the Ten Commandments; 50 percent of high school seniors think Sodom and Gomorrah were married.[1]

But are we still living in postmodern times?  Undoubtedly we are living in times that are influenced by postmodern ideas and culture, but should our current situation be described as post-modern?  While these kinds of things are tough to measure and may differ from place to place, region to region, I think the question is worth asking.

And the point of this entry is to suggest that there are some good reasons to suggest that post-modernism has passed and we have entered into a period, in the West, that is distinctly post-Christian.

THE DEATH OF ALL MEANING

So what is postmodernism anyway?  If you have done any serious reading on culture and ideas in the last decade or so you will at least be familiar with the term.  Of course, the word has become so popular that you might overhear it at the bowling alley.  If you search for “postmodern” images on Google you will get a wide array of things, ranging from art and architecture to interior design and fashion.

Defining “postmodernism” is difficult.

Above all, postmodernism questions the idea of metanarrative—the attempt to explain all of human endeavor in terms of a single theory or principle.[2]  It was Jean-François Lyotard who famously said in his book The Postmodern Condition (1979): “Simplifying to the extreme, I define postmodern as incredulity toward metanarratives.” While there are many different forms and expressions of postmodern thought, what they all have in common is that they believe all meaning has died.  For postmoderns, there is no “objective realm” in which what is true and right finds its validation.[3]

Its central ideas grew out of (and were a reaction to) modernism in the second half of the 20th century.  However it does retain some of modernism’s values, such as (1) philosophical naturalism, (2) the denial of God’s objective existence, and (3) the supernatural; they take the material universe to be all that there is.[4]

BORN IN A CONTEXT OF CHANGE

It is worth noting that postmodernism spawned in a context of almost constant change.  In fact, it might be described as a kind of intense groping after change.[5]  Change has been more and more a part of Western culture in the last two centuries, but especially in more recent years.  So the quilt of postmodernism is woven with the fabric of change.

Human society in the West has been transformed with the rise of modernity and industrialization.  Indeed, Henry Adams was right we said, writing in 1905, that a boy born in 1890 would have more in common with a boy born in the time of Moses than he would with a boy born in just the first years of the twentieth century.

Social and cultural change is happening at such a rapid pace that we now assume it.  We assume that things change—in a progressive direction—and we assume that things are, as one postmodern analyst said, always liquid.  For human beings living in previous eras…it was not that way at all.[6]

This is significant.  Change, or “progress” is one of the gods of postmodernism.  If progress (whatever that means) is absent, for a postmodern, then something is wrong.  I had a friend and co-worker a few years ago who told me that the reason he despised George W. Bush was because he believed his policies had “set America back 20 years.”  His whole valuation of Bush was based on his idea of progress.

One of the unfortunate consequences of this kind of thinking is that whatever is old is viewed as bad, unhelpful, out-of-place, or inferior.  What this means for Christianity is that many of its values and doctrines are viewed as irrelevant in today’s age.  For many in the West today, to be a Christian is to be fettered to the old and regressive ideas of the past.  Embracing the ancient and “traditional” ideas of the Christian faith is, by default, to have little regard for “progress” (or so it is believed).

Is it any coincidence then that America is shedding itself of almost everything it was founded upon?  Little by little we have seen the fingers of Christ be plucked off our laws, institutions, and families.

POSTMODERNISM AND LINGUISTICS

One of the ways this “plucking” has been done is through its assault on language.

On the academic level, the most common thread postmodern scholars share is mostly found in the realm of linguistics.  John Frame writes:

These [postmodern] thinkers [including such thinkers as Jean-Francois Lyotard, Jacques Derrida, Jacques Lacan, Roland Barthes, Michel Foucault and Richard Rorty] come largely from backgrounds in linguistics, reacting against the structuralist linguistics of the 1960’s and 1970’s.[7]

None of us should find it surprising what is happening to our most traditional and foundational institutions, like marriage—their very meaning is being challenged.

“For the first time in its history, Western civilization is confronted with the need to define the meaning of the terms marriage and family.[8]  No doubt, such realities are a result of postmodern influence.  The Modern Era highly valued definitional clarity, but today’s world scorn’s the idea.  The marriage crisis in America may be the best current example.  The upcoming generation, in many places, believes that marriage can be whatever you want it to be with as many people as you want it to be, as long as it makes you happy and doesn’t hurt anyone else.  Just watch this video if you think otherwise.

Interestingly, Postmodernism was most “trendy,” early on, in art, architecture, and literature.[9]  Once it exploded into popular culture its influence was pervasive and its meaning became amorphous.  Ironically, the lack of clarity surrounding the meaning of the word is in many ways a result of postmodernisms own devices.  Language was often “reviled” by postmoderns “as being simply a tool of those who want to exercise power over others.”[10]  When clear meaning is trampled upon all definition is up in the air (like in the case of marriage).

POSTMODERN or POST-CHRISTIAN

However, there are still some scholars out there who think that while postmodernism has had its influence, it should not be considered the predominant influence in today’s West.

William Lane Craig, an experienced Christian analytic philosopher, argues that the postmodern phenomenon has been largely confined to the realms through which they entered—the humanities:

Theologians tend to think that postmodern pluralism and relativism are all the rage, when in fact such thinking is largely confined to the literature, social sciences, and religious studies departments at universities.[11]

He quotes a journal article by John Searle a philosopher at Berkeley on this:

“Those who want to use the universities, especially the humanities, for leftist political transformation correctly perceive that the Western rationalistic Tradition is an obstacle in their path… Historically, part of what happened is that in the late 1960’s and 1970’s a number of young people went into academic life because they thought that the social and political transformation could be achieved through educational and cultural transformation, and that the political ideals of the 1960’s could be achieved through education.  In many disciplines, for example, analytic philosophy, they found the way blocked by a solid and self-confident professorial establishment committed to traditional intellectual values.  But in some disciplines, particularly those humanities disciplines concerned with literary studies—English, French, and comparative Literature especially—the existing academic norms were fragile, and the way was opened intellectually for a new academic agenda.”[12]

The breed of postmodernism that seems to have been embraced by the mainstream media and culture is more like relativism, “What’s true for you is not true for me.”

Recent surveys have 83% of Americans claiming to belong to a religious denomination of some type, almost three-quarters of which are Christian.[13]  However, what it means to be religious or Christian has evolved (greatly) for most.  As mentioned earlier (Colson), and in stark contrast to what the historic Christian church has believed, the majority of Christians today do not believe in absolute truth!  If it is even possible, most Christians today, are thoroughly relativistic.

Bluntly put, this is not Christian. In this sense most Christians today are anti-Christian.  The spirit in which they live their lives actually militates against the claims of their religions founder: Jesus Christ Himself.  This is troubling and, as I see it, signals that we have moved beyond post-modernism into something somewhat different.

William Lane Craig writes:

We do not, in fact, live in postmodern times… Rather we live in post-Christian times, and what has replaced Christianity is not postmodernism but rather what has been aptly called “the new absolutism.”  Today the absolute values of openness and tolerance are cherished and even demanded.  Nor do most people, including academics, think that there is no objective truth.  No one uses a postmodernist hermeneutic when reading the label of a medicine bottle.[14]

The “absolute values” of openness and tolerance are further illustrated in our culture’s rejection of certain religious concepts.  For example, the societal rejection of the word “sin” as an explanation of human behavior that runs contrary to what is considered morally normative.  “Words such as disease, antisocial behavior, and lack of moral development [have] replaced sin as explanations for human behavior.”[15]  Even many churches have largely abandoned the idea as “unhealthy” or “negative.”

Even recently the post-Christian (or sometimes anti-Christian) bias in our country was commented on in a GOP debate in New Hampshire just this week by Newt Gingrich.  An article in the Baptist Press about the debate quotes the exchange on gay marriage between Gingrich and the moderators:

“Since we’ve spent this much time on these issues, I just want to raise a point about the news media bias,” Gingrich responded. “You don’t hear the opposite question asked: Should the Catholic Church be forced to close its adoption services in Massachusetts because it won’t accept gay couples? Which is exactly what the state has done. Should the Catholic Church be driven out of providing charitable services in the District of Columbia because it won’t give in to secular bigotry? Should the Catholic Church find itself discriminated against by the Obama administration on key delivery of services because of the bias and the bigotry of the administration?

“The bigotry question goes both ways,” Gingrich said. “And there’s a lot more anti-Christian bigotry today than there is concerning the other side. And none of it gets covered by the news media.”

You can read the rest of the article here.

Examples abound, but for the sake of ending what is turning into a rather extended treatise, I will suffice it to say that in my estimation, postmodernism is on its way out.  What has replaced it is not something better.  More and more our society drifts into Godless, immoral, territory (see footnote below for more on this).[16]

The West is no longer the locus of world Christianity.  We are on the fringes.  God’s primary work has been inaugurated elsewhere.  Undoubtedly, the most significant fact of the 20th century was this:  “Christianity began the twentieth century as a Western religion, and indeed, the Western religion; it ended the century as a non-Western religion, on track to become progressively more so.”[17]

Maybe more of us should think of America as a mission field. Labels aren’t always helpful, but they do benefit us in some ways. It does something to the mind to say that our present environment is “post-Christian.” Maybe Christ’s work here in the West would be carried out by His people with greater gravity if we simply embraced the fact that America’s Christian days are by-and-large gone…

Here in America (and Europe) we are no longer merely living in the period following the Modern Era, but we are living in a period marked by a clear and distinct departure from Christianity…


[1]Charles Colson and Harold Fickett, The Faith Given Once, for All: What Christians Believe, Why They Believe It, and Why It Matters (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2008), 27-28.

[2]Chris Rohmann, A World of Ideas: A Dictionary of Important Theories, Concepts, Beliefs, and Thinkers (New York: Random House, 1999), 310.

[3]David F. Wells, Above All Earthly Powers: Christ in a Postmodern World (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005), 67.

[4] Douglas Groothuis, Truth Decay: Defending Christianity Against the Challenges of Postmodernism (Downers Grove: IVP, 2000), 38.  And David Wells says that at the heart of the continuity between modernity and postmodernity is the “autonomous self.”  He writes: During the Enlightenment, this was worked out in anti-religious ways, the Enlightenment thinkers refusing to be fettered by any transcendent being or any authority outside of themselves.  In postmodernity, the autonomous being refuses to be fettered by any objective reality outside of itself.  In the end, the difference is simply that the revolt in the first case took a more religious turn and in the second a more general turn” (Wells, Above All Earthly Powers, 67-68).

[5]Wells notes that once the Enlightenment’s promise of “progress” failed to deliver it opened the door to postmodern thinking.  He writes: “What recognition there was of Evil tended to be obscured beneath the bright prospects of progress which were everywhere heralded, a celebrated series of lectures in London late in the nineteenth century even predicting that the human race would soon evolve out of war, leaving behind the elements of the ape and the tiger which have resided in human nature.  But what we have seen in the modern period is that the very genius which has remade our world through science and technology is the same genius which as wrought the means of the world’s destruction.  Our si now a nuclear world and one in which biological and chemical weapons have been used.  It is a world where terror can strike unexpectedly and in massive ways sending its shock waves through our consciousness—as it did on September 11 in New York and Washington, and as it has done repeatedly in many other parts of the world.  If there has been progress in some aspects of life, there are costs that are being paid in other areas.”  See page 68 in Above All Earthly Powers.

[6]R. Albert Mohler, “Preaching with the Culture in View,” in Preaching the Cross, Mark Dever, J. Ligon Duncan III, R. Albert Mohler, and C. J. Mahaney (Wheaton: Crossway, 2007), 79.

[7]John M. Frame, The Doctrine of the Christian Life. A Theology of Lordship (Phillipsburg: P&R, 2008), 88.

[8]Andreas J. Kostenberger with David W. Jones, God, Marriage and Family: Rebuilding the Foundation. 2nd ed. (Wheaton: Crossway, 2010), 15.

[9]Wells, Above All Earthly Powers, 60.

[10]Wells, Above All Earthly Powers, 61.

[11]William Lane Craig, “A Classical Apologists Response,” in Five Views on Apologetics, Steven B. Cowan, ed. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2000), 181.

[12]John R. Searle, “Rationality and Realism, What is at Stake?” Daedalus: Proceedings of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences 122, no. 4 (1993): 70-71, in Cowan, ed., Five Views on Apologetics, 181-182.

[14]Craig, “A Classical Apologist’s Response,” in Cowan, ed., Five Views on Apologetics, 181.

[15]R. Albert Mohler, The Disappearance of God: Dangerous Beliefs in the New Spiritual Openness (Colorado Springs: Multnomah, 2009), 26.

[16]Wayne Grudem, in the concluding section of his book Politics According to the Bible writes under a heading “Negative signs pointing to God’s impending judgment” writes about the many signs that are evidence of our society’s rapid decline: “I am concerned about Hollywood movies and TV shows that blatantly and proudly glorify adultery, premarital sex, homosexual conduct, murder, violence, and demonic perversion of all that God has created good.  I am concerned about a flood of pornography that is consumed by our nation both in print media and through the Internet.  I am concerned about the imposition of same-sex ‘marriage’ on the citizens of [various states in the US].  I am concerned about much complacency toward the continuing threat of radical Islamic terrorism and the increasing threat of nuclear weapons… I am concerned about the number of high-profile evangelical Christians who have been exposed for sexual immorality of various sorts… I wonder whether they are representative of a wider trend in the evangelical world… I am concerned about millions of Americans who claim to be Christians but have simply come to adopt ‘Christianity lite.’  They live together outside of marriage.  They consume pornography.  They give almost nothing out of their earnings to their church or other charitable work.  They spend all of their income on themselves.  They habitually lie throughout the day.  I am concerned that we have a presidential administration that is aggressively pushing a far-left agenda, including an increase in abortion rights, the promotion of the legitimacy of homosexual conduct…and a historically unprecedented swallowing up of whole sections of the economy and our personal income by a federal government that never thinks it has enough control of our lives” (Politics According to the Bible: A Comprehensive Resource for Understanding Modern Political Issues in Light of Scripture [Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2010], 596-597.).  Peter Kreeft too mentions a couple of indexes that show how bad things really are: “The richer you and your country are, the more likely it is that you will find life so good that you will choose to blow your brains out.  Suicide among preadults has increased 5,000 percent since the ‘happy days’ of the fifties.  If suicide is not an index of crisis, especially of the coming generation, what is?  But there are more suicides than that.  Half of all marriages commit suicide.  That is what divorce is—the suicide of the new ‘one flesh’ made by the marriage… And if you insist on limiting ‘new citizens’ to ‘individual children conceived,’ the statistics are not much better.  One-third of all American children are killed—by their mothers before they can be born, using healers as hit men.  This is a happy country?  This is peace?” (How to Win the Culture War: A Christian Battle Plan for a Society in Crisis [Downers Grove: IVP, 2002], 15-16.).  And Ken Sande writes: “suicide has become the third leading cause of death among adolescents in the United States, partly because so many children have never learned how to deal with conflict constructively” (The Peacemaker. Rev. ed. [Grand Rapids: Baker, 2004], 24.).

[17]Andrew F. Walls, The Cross Cultural Process in Christian History (New York: Orbis, 2004), 64.

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