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Why I am so over postmodernism.

reprinted from the September 2003 edition of Essentials


   I came across an interesting fact just a few weeks ago. The University of Melbourne is offering an introductory course in postmodernism. "That is it!", I thought to myself. I have the evidence I need. When a university starts offering a course in something, you can be sure that its content has lost its edge, even become passé. Now we are assessing it, quantifying it, managing it.   Rhys Bezzant is Editor of Essentials and Associate minister at St Jude's Carlton  
   Indeed, postmodern is certainly a word on everyone's lips (see the book review later in this edition!). I subscribe to a number of ministry and theological journals and I see the word there. I attend clergy conferences and training days and hear the word "postmodern" falling from our lips more readily than the words "proclamation" or "prayer". I read of organisations developing their mission statement around a postmodern paradigm. Courses are run in theological colleges to discuss the missiological implications of the postmodern era. The only people I don't hear using the word are the students in my congregation aged between 18 and 25!
   Don't get me wrong. I don't for a moment think that there has not been significant cultural shifts in the last 30 years that affect today's students and the context of our ministries. I am not disputing that a so-called postmodern mindset has taken root in significant sections of Western culture. I would not be so naïve to suggest that human reason and scientific endeavour have the same social status that they did one hundred years ago. In fact, I have known nothing other than the postmodern mindset in my tertiary education since the early 1980s and that is exactly my point. The current obsession with postmodernism (more accurately postmodernity as modernism is a term in art) is a little bit of knowledge arriving too late on many an intellectual radar screen and so proving itself to be a dangerous thing.   
   For along with often uncritical reception in the church, postmodernism is philosophically flawed. Just like its other relativist ancestors it can't bear the weight people expect it to carry. As soon as you say that we have entered a postmodern world, you deny the fundamentals of postmodernism. As soon as we describe postmodernism in hegemonic terms, we show we have not understood it. Whenever we build our ministry around the postmodern paradigm, we are cutting off our nose to spite our face. Postmodernism of course allows us to be value-laden, and it gives us permission to see reality other than through the eyes of the autonomous reasoning individual. However, the moment we say that it should become the defining feature of our ministries because it has become the defining feature of our culture, we use it in absolutist terms! Postmodernism can never be the final word, because then it stops being postmodernism!   
  And why do we build our ministries around postmodernism instead of standing against its philosophically attractive justification for selfishness? Our models of ministry and our understanding of the Bible must be understood and practised beyond the categories of Western intellectual history. To argue (as I have recently read) that we have left behind the Newtonian era and have entered the era of quantum theory might allow new appreciation of the chaos inherent in our world, but it cannot deny the truth of gravitational pull! Indeed God's purposes for humanity are suprahistorical. As Paul says, our hope of eternal life was promised before the ages began (Titus 1:2)!  
   Of course, the Bible itself stands above the dictates of modernism. It is not bound to one culture but speaks through several and critiques as well as uses them. We discover an author like Amos has an agricultural background, and others like Isaiah have urban if not urbane experiences in the court of kings. The documents come to us in Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek. We are encouraged by the perspectives of the four evangelists who present the story of Christ from slightly different angles. While some authors are of Jewish extraction like Matthew, Luke brings the perspective of one not in Jesus' inner circle but a Gentile writing within classical models of historiography. Of course in postmodern fashion the Scriptures even tell a story, contain stories, and put their case in ways more varied than propositions. But none of this negates its appeal through propositional summaries to human minds. John both encourages us to walk in the truth (2 John 4), a most postmodern way of speaking of obedience, but then follows it up with the reminder that we have had "the commandment from the beginning" (2 John 6) and that we must "abide in the teaching of Christ" (2 John 9)! No slavish adherence to Western intellectual categories here!   
   And it's not only in relation to the Bible that I have concerns. I worry about the lack of teaching of history in our school, university and theological college syllabi, being encouraged by a postmodernist mindset. Recently I have been reading some secular historians, who have grave fears concerning the intellectual formation of our generation, because now is not everything. To be contemporary at the cost of understanding our story is to put us at risk of repeating our errors. To be wedded to the spirit of this age is to find ourselves filing for divorce in the years which lie ahead. It probably goes without saying then that I am concerned about the lack of historical connection in our church services. To be contemporary in our music, style of leadership, clothes or mood is one thing, but deliberately to sweep over God's work amongst God's people in ages past is a kind of ecclesiastically endorsed myopia. It sends mixed signals when the only part of our service that demonstrates historical awareness is the sermon, explaining a text in its social, linguistic and theological context, but in every other area we are embarrassed by the way God has formed Christians in the past, or for that matter the way Christians have served God in former times.   
   In many minds the postmodern mood is linked closely to the development of the Internet. If postmodernism rejects linear thought forms, then surely, the argument runs, the Internet which is here to stay reinforces the nonlinear mood! For once you reach an Internet site, there is no single way of discovering its content. There are many pathways and all are equally right, depending on the information you are seeking. You don't need special pleading with me to make the case that there is more to human experience than linear logic. I love listening to music or looking at art which evokes from me more than an enjoyment of rationality. But the postmoderns are yet to convince me that human communication can function without a basis in sentences that move systematically from one edge of a page to another. Try speaking words that are randomly associated and see if postmodern assumptions provide satisfaction in your closest relationships.   
   The other word that is so often applied to our experience of the Internet is "interactive". We have to click a mouse, or drag a box, or watch as a banner headline is unfurled in front of our eyes before we decide how to proceed. Its information has to be sought out. Its riches must be explored. Its life awaits our engagement. It's just such a pity that it promises much but delivers little. It isolates individuals from each other, and proves boring to many others. It contaminates us as much as cleanses. Though equidistant from me, thus making me the centre of the world, the excitement of visiting web sites hosted in Chile and the States soon loses its allure. They both look the same, you are sitting in front of the same screen, and pressing the same buttons. How is it that this kind of activity be described as interactive, when reading a book, and turning its material pages, and rereading the section that most engaged your heart, imagination and mind, is normally not? Surely visiting a library is an interactive experience for all the same reasons.   
   Which brings me to sermons. I love preaching them and love hearing them as well (most of the time). And funnily enough, they can even beat libraries on the Bezzant index of interactivity. For in front of me stands someone who is breathing, perhaps even spitting unobtrusively in their excitement. They are telling stories about God and about their own life. I can see the pain in their face as they speak about depression or betrayal. I love to hear their voice break as they describe the conversion of a friend. They know the issues in the congregation and have been talking with parishioners all week about a spirit of pride in the fellowship, so when they challenge us to a lifestyle of humility I really know what they are getting at. This isn't something arbitrary or forcibly imposed. This isn't the miscreant use of power that some claim. This is love and commitment and passion. This is real and authentic engagement, and, dare I say it, interactive.   
   Of course I benefit from living in a world which displays postmodern characteristics. It's cool to have opinions and have a cause. Jesus is my cause, and personal spirituality is in vogue. But I keep being amazed by the desire of many in my congregation to buy into something bigger than them, something as much demanding as fulfilling. They want to "bond" (that at least is the word in these parts). I suppose being value laden can weigh us down, or give us burdens that are simply too onerous to bear on our own. Our perspective may be valid, and the next guy might well complement my position with a perspective of his own, but in the end the perspectivalism inherent in postmodernism might only lead us to acknowledge that there are lots of pieces in the puzzle. We still don't know what the picture is that we are part of. I know some can't stomach any bigger picture, but people with whom I rub shoulders can't seem to live without it. The whole is greater than the sum of the parts, at least that is my take on the buzz word "community" which is everywhere spoken and coveted but rarely defined.   
   In the end, I don't want to be known as modern, or postmodern, or even pre-modern for that matter. I don't want my intellectual context to be my chief descriptor. I want to be known as a Christian, doing Christ's bidding, commending his words, and shaping others' lives according to the pattern he has set. I want the words of the Bible to be on my lips and forming my life even over and against the limited and ephemeral philosophies of my day. For they are passing, or temporary, or even meaningless, as the Teacher declared.   



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