Postmodernism (now there is an aspiring title!)

I started college with a major in philosophy and dropped it to being a minor pretty quickly, because I learned that philosophy in college wasn't the same thing at all that my friends and I called philosophy.

Which was a bit surprising, but okay. I still get to do what I love to do, even when I find the process a frustrating. (I was going to say "a bit frustrating", but I already said "a bit" in the sentence before, and it wouldn't be true, as my roommate can attest. I get very frustrated with philosophy classes at times.)

Anyway.

My particular area of interest in philosophy is postmodernism. I could talk about it all day, but I'm prone to writing long posts anyway.

But just to give fair warning on what I think postmodernism is -- and yes, I do think that I have qualifications to offer an opinion, because I am someone who has grown up in a postmodern culture and been taught to think a lot -- here's what I wrote this spring in my "personal engagement" paper for my class on Postmodern Philosophers. It's a good three or four pages, sorry about that.

Abortion, the Berlin Wall, and Postmodernism

There is a small red notebook that ends up in various places in my room. The first page of it is the beginning of a list, a list words to describe what postmodernism is about. The list says simply, “Postmodernism is about: honesty, brokenness, openness, survival, trust, connectedness, truth, beauty, fun, freedom, words, power, games, tradition, exploration, invention, creativity, utility...” There is space for the list to continue as I continue to learn about what postmodernism means and how to best describe it.
Defining postmodernism is a tricky business, for a number of reasons. There are always a lot of differences between the written philosophy and how it is lived, and all the more so when it is a current philosophy, still splintered into a thousand fragments, and without the benefit of time and space to figure out what the core of it is.
“Postmodernism” as commonly used means many things, and it depends from what viewpoint one is looking at it. There are the more scholarly philosophical viewpoints: postmodernism is incredulity towards metanarrative, as Lyotard defined it. There is the popular current Christian viewpoint: postmodernism means that everything is relative, avoid at all costs. Or there is the way that I have been learning to see postmodernism, a complicated patchwork of many things, tied together with searching. Postmodernism is a search for wholeness, for genuineness, for answers. At the same time, it is undercut by its reluctance to accept answers and its deep suspicion of commitment. We may ask what the cause of postmodernism is, and why it caught on to become a widespread philosophy, overtaking multiple generations. How was there such a radical shift from the assurance of the enlightenment that man was the ultimate answer, that we could do anything we chose, to the relentless questioning of young people shaped by the postmodern culture which they grew up in? To understand the importance of postmodernism in my life, there has to be an understanding of the forces strong enough to lead it into being a popularly accepted attitude.
One suggestion for a date to mark the beginning of the postmodern age in the Western world is 1973, when abortion was legalized in the USA. In his book Postmodern Times, Gene Edward Veith explores another date, with the claims of Thomas Oden that the modern age ended with the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989.

Either one of these embodies pieces of what postmodernism is, although in very different and, in fact, opposite ways. 1973 probably serves better as the single reason why postmodernism became such a trend, as it prepared the mentality of the Western culture for the worldview to be expressed six years later in Lyotard’s book The Postmodern Condition.
To the generation growing up after 1973, legalized abortion has been nothing short of a genocide -- a genocide which those who are now college aged have survived, but are nevertheless drastically impacted by. Over 20% of the population conceived since 1973 has been aborted. From current available statistics, somewhere over 45 million -- closer to 50 million -- abortions have been performed in the United States since then. To grow up knowing that you live in a culture where this goes on openly, in a manner protected by the government of one of the world’s superpowers is profoundly disturbing. Regardless of what other messages are being received by generations of children who are becoming adults, there are those of diametrically opposed forces. These forces are not merely intellectual niceties, but, quite literally, life and death. To grow up in a culture which encourages children by saying, “You can do anything when you grow up,” a culture which thinks so much of children’s self esteem that it is a major issue what color of ink is used to grade papers is one thing, and perhaps not necessarily a bad one. Children ought to be valued, though not idolized, and Scripture itself maintains a careful tension of portraying the blessing and the challenge which children are. But how can this sort of attitude be reconciled with the sudden sickening knowledge that a kind of silent, government-sanctioned genocide of your peers has been going on all of your life? It can effectively be argued that a culture wide form of something similar to schizophrenia is the result of the abortion practices which have now spanned over a generation. This, in turn, creates fertile ground for the postmodern worldview to flourish and exposes the shortcomings of postmodernism as a comprehensive system of understanding reality.

It doesn’t take much thought in such a culture to realize that there is major hypocrisy going on in the world around you, and from that point of knowledge on, there is a dramatic loss of some blend of naivete and innocence. This whole-sale, violent sundering of what ought to be trustable leads to deep skepticism about what else may be trusted. If your own country will do this, if mothers will kill their own children, what is a sure foundation? And why is this barely mentioned? Why is this not listed along with other genocides throughout history, ones which, horrible as they were, killed millions less?

The seeds of postmodernism, of incredulity towards metanarratives, find a place to grow beyond what could have been imagined by the early postmodern philosophers in these and other coming-of-age questions.

If the legalization of abortion in America highlights the environment in which postmodernism caught on, what exemplifies the good in this philosophy? As mentioned earlier, Veith reports that Oden believes that modernism ended when the Berlin Wall began to be dismantled. In terms of positive events of postmodernism, the Berlin Wall is an attractive option. It grew out of what was essentially a metanarrative, that of the Soviet Union’s bid for world power, forcibly imposed on a country. It separated a country from itself, breaking what should have been whole, offering death and struggle instead of dynamic exchange of life, as belongs in a city. Yet, in good postmodern fashion, its “necessity” was rebelled against, as people sought ways to circumvent it, and it eventually was taken down. It is especially telling that it was communities, regular people with sledgehammers and chisels, who came to knock apart the actual physical wall. At the same time, it is sobering to realize that there were many countries who did not want the wall to fall, fearing what would happen if Germany was united again. With all of these factors, the struggle for freedom and the accompanying tensions of responsibilities, the physical concrete wall bringing to life political ideology, the images of regular people and communities coming together to peacefully protest and bring the downfall of Communism, the fall of the Berlin Wall is a powerful poster child for the good traits of postmodernism.

Into this context I came, born in the year abortions in the US peaked, the year that Germany officially reunified. For anyone born in those years, there is no question about if we will engage postmodernism, only how we will do it. James Smith addresses this issue in his book Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism?, attempting to take on the questions of how Christianity relates, and how it ought to relate, to various early influential postmodern philosophers. This was a fascinating topic for me, because I see a huge need for this sort of work. I became interested in philosophy largely through the work of Francis Schaeffer and similar wrestling with Christianity and culture that was modeled throughout my life. As I near the end of my sophomore year in college, I have been finding an increasingly strong call on my heart for missions in the Western world, in the near Appalachian, “Stillers’ Country” towns where I grew up. I am contexted as a person in many different cultures and many sorts of language games: that of a transracially, special-needs adoptive family, a college student, a lover of languages, a Reformed covenant child. Trying to mesh all of these pieces can be an interesting challenge at best and an utter mess at times! Thus, any thoughtful book on how Christians are to live faithfully in such a complex context grabs my interest from many angles.

When talking about Derrida and Lyotard, Smith focuses on the storied-ness of the world, and that is something that I have no problem with. Maybe it is my own inherent skepticism, but I do automatically believe that everyone has an angle. There are always stories to listen to in order to understand people, and stories between the lines of what they are saying to understand who they really are. The church is called to a delicate and difficult position of proclaiming that we do have truth -- and not just a truth, but Truth itself. This truth isn’t the hard verifiable scientific facts that modernism so adored, and which Christianity has at time sought to make it. Too often, with the best of intentions, Christians have focused only on I Peter 3:15 and being ready to make a defense and forgotten that this defense is to be so woven into the fabric of what we do and how we live with those around us that it cannot be refuted. The reason comes after and because of the relationship, that Jesus came into a specific geographical place and historical time and saved us. It is not the power of our logic which convinces people, but the reality that the story which we bear witness of reflects. Christians need to be unashamed of presenting the whole story of the Bible, with its struggles and ugliness, despair and pain, overwhelmed with the joy of the glory of the end greater than any other story out there.

In his chapter on Foucault, he suggests that the church recover classical disciplines to counteract the negatives influences from our culture. Too often we are shaped, he points out, by forces and powers that are not what we as Christians want to be defined by. We are not to be like the worldly culture that surrounds us, obsessed with fitting in through the fashion of clothes which we wear; rather, we are to be marked by being different, a people set apart to service and self-sacrifice. While I don’t agree with all of the specific applications of his ideas which Smith makes in this book, I think that there is much to be said for his principle. Postmodernism makes no move to deny this, either. According to postmodernism, you never escape all of the constraints on you. The most for which you can hope is to be aware of what is influencing you and perhaps have a choice in what you are influenced by. On this point, not only are Smith and postmodernism in agreement, but Jesus affirmed this truth long before postmodernism was sweeping the globe. In Matthew 6:24, Jesus expressly told his followers that they could not serve more than one master. The actions that we do, no matter how small and innocent they may seem, bind us irrevocably. Postmodernism blows the whistle on hypocrisy that professes otherwise. And while the church could complain that it is too often the target of such criticism from a postmodern culture, we need to first address the problem of hypocrisy which we do have and repent. We are supposed to be different from the world, and it is sad when secular culture has to point out to the church where it has gone wrong.
How exactly do all of these varied pieces impact my life? First of all, understanding various facets of what postmodernism means is essential to living wisely in and influencing a postmodern culture. What I am studying in college to do is not a professional field detached from my personal life, but is, in large part, studying how people think and learning to better understand what the Bible says so that I will be better equipped to communicate truth into the broken world that I live in. I am not outside of this world with its brokenness, either, and postmodernism does not pretend to be an ethereal escape from this. Instead, postmodernism provides a straight look at the problems surrounding us and asks bold questions about why things are this way and if they have to stay how they are. As a Christian, I have a responsibility, even in the midst of all my own shortcomings, to live answers to those questions and be prepared to verbalize what I live.

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That is not exactly how I'd write on the same things if I was writing a post, but I don't think that I have enough readers at this point to merit rewriting.

But here's my basic premise: Yes, there are a lot of people in postmodernism, who have grown up in it, etc, who are apathetic and use the cultural mindset as an excuse to not care. When haven't there been? Postmodernism at its best is an eager search for truth, for something better than the hypocrisy that runs rampant in the world.

...questions? comments? If you read this far, I'm mightily impressed, and definitely interested in hearing your thoughts.

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