A Review of Heath White’s Postmodernism 101

postmodernism

by Rev. Brett Best, June, 2016

In several years of teaching a class on worldviews, I encountered a few students who, despite being enrolled at a Christian college, had negative views on the Bible.  A few even resented having to take the course I taught because they saw it as the college’s attempt to force Christianity on them.  Fortunately, the way that I taught the course rehabilitated even these prone-to-be-combative attitudes.  We had good discussions and I treasure all those opportunities to teach.

However, I had opportunity to teach during a fourth of the time I have been in ministry.  In the thirty-plus year scope of my service in professional church ministry I have had opportunity to wrangle with an issue that has grown and morphed into a political force: homosexuality.  When it first came up during my ministerial training, my naïveté was in evidence as I was first shocked that confessed Christians supported homosexuality and then immediately wrote a letter to the editor of the paper and wanted to preach on it.  Thank God I sought advice on the subject and received good advice and curtailed an aggressive response.  In thirty years my view on this issue has not changed.  I humbly pray that’s because I received godly instruction and have stuck to it, not because I’ve been stubborn or reactionary.

I mention these two things for two reasons.  One, I’ve come to understand that postmoderns prefer micronarratives to metanarratives and so I’m dabbling in it.  Two, these are two personal experiences with something that has only recently been named: postmodernism.

One of the chief characteristics of postmodernism has been provided for us by Jean-Francois Lyotard in his 1979 book The Postmodern Condition; “incredulity toward metanarratives.”  Some of my students’ views of the Bible suffered deniability of authority and even trustworthiness because of this predilection toward incredulity toward arguably the most pervasive metanarrative in human history.

My colleagues in ministry, activists, and social commentators in the media supported homosexuality because they figured the biblical metanarrative on the subject hand been traditionally manipulated by homophobes.  Of course there are many other strands of thought and motive in this complicated social epoch, but I believe I’ve gained some perspective on people who, to my thinking, had only ulterior motives for endorsing this lifestyle.

Of course, my thinking on this subject is still new, but as I publish my thoughts on White’s very helpful book, perhaps you will benefit in some way from insights I have received.  All that to say, “I pray my processing will help your processing.”

One of the things the text helped me understand is the scope of the worldview called “postmodernism.”  White has a genius for reducing sweeps of history and philosophy to accessible portions and I believe it fulfills it’s goal to introduce the subject to Christians who are intellectually curious enough to read his book.  It’s impossible for me to gauge the influence of postmodernism on our society, but I believe most observers of this worldview would take it as a fact that it is growing and is possessive of the last two generations of Americans.  For example, if you find the dismissive sexual ethic of the last fifty years difficult to understand, if you find the ease with which traditional ethics of all kinds have been left discarded, you have been observing the effects of postmodernism without knowing the name of the litterbug.

In his introduction, “Why Read about Postmodernism?” White introduces the topic with these words, “Postmodernism is not a theory or creed: it is more like an attitude or way of looking at things.  It didn’t drop our of the sky – it showed up at this juncture in history, in Western culture, for specific reasons that have to do with the history of the West.” (White, p. 11.)

He goes on to develop in the book the three worldviews that have dominated Western culture.  “Premodernism” was the prevailing view from year 0 to about 1500 A.D. (or C.E., which, when you think of it, may be another effect of postmodernism).  This view might be described and “retro-evolutionary” because it believed in tradition and antiquity, that the most true things were revealed in the past.  It is our intellectual and moral duty to accept and accommodate ourselves to what our forefathers passed on to us.

“Modernism” arose when the promises of the fruition first made by our ancestors failed to come to pass.  Reason replaced faith as the central aspiration and asset of our species and science increasingly took over dogmatic authority.  Christianity changed during that time, going from the centralized-authority and tradition-driven Catholic and Orthodoxy churches to the decentralized and theology-driven Protestant churches.

These are grand strokes, I grant you.  Exceptions abound, but they prove the rule.  Then, in the last fifty years of the Second Millennium and continuing on today, is “Postmodernism,” a reaction against the failed promises of reason to improve humanity or the condition of our home.

For Christians, White identifies three reasons to study postmodernism.  The moral concern is first.  Postmodernism’s relativism and situationalism are manifest in rejection of the moral absolutes we practice because we’ve inherited them from our spiritual forbears and because they are a reasonable outworking of biblical teaching.

In my personal experience, the evangelistic concern used to be manifest in worship styles and in charismatic renewal.  Then I saw it appear in the “seeker friendly” approach and other forms of the church growth movement.  But now it takes on all of that and more – remaking our churches so that they appeal to people outside them.  Is that what evangelism really requires?  If church is virtually indistinguishable from the outside over-culture, then when is the new convert to be aware that they are a convert?

The theological concern is based on the fact that the newer denominations have their roots in the Enlightenment, an expression of modernism.  But postmoderns are coming along and saying that the exercise of reason in clerical garb has done nothing more to allay the human condition than it’s exercise in a lab coat.  We’re being made to feel bankrupt, and that is understandably disconcerting.  (I wonder if the Emergent church isn’t postmodernism in church settings.)

White’s development of premodern and modern views is well done.  A table that simplifies points of comparison would be enormously helpful here, but I don’t yet have one to offer.  The chapter is well written and I came away with the sense that the Church retains aspects of both views.

The chapter entitled “The Postmodern Turn Against Reason” may sound indemnifying, but White’s point is simply that modernism placed its hope in reason and though it took us 450 years to become disillusioned, reason has failed to deliver the goods.  “In the eyes of postmoderns, then, modernism has failed, both as a prediction of progress and as a moral framework for culture.”  (White, p. 45.)  My first reaction is that it is lazy, irresponsible and immature to simply find fault and have nothing to offer as an alternative.  But, to be fair, postmodernism is relatively new and its decentralized and skeptical nature make it difficult to form a more cogent and comprehensive response to modernism, let alone offer a new hope.  White observed that postmoderns can be nihilistic, relativistic, constructivistic, or pragmatic in their approach.  It makes sense that a movement so individualized would have a diversity of orientations within its own fold.

The supposition that guides a postmodern’s incredulity toward metanarratives is the suspicion that they are exercises of power.  As it is usually quicker to dispose of bath water and baby, postmoderns dispose with metanarratives.  Logically, they are loathe to offer any of their own.  As the chapter “Truth, Power, and Morality” shows, these three subjects are objects of suspicion in the eyes of postmoderns.  White develops a thoughtful response by the Church on these subjects, then offers homosexuality as an example of a current issue that exhibits the differences between these worldviews.  I found that particular section to be too brief.  In my opinion, homosexuality has been made THE issue of our time and I fear it is the handle to the club with which an increasingly anti-Christian culture is going to use on the church.  This may be alarmist.  But that conviction left me unsatisfied with White’s treatment of the issue.  It could have been of greater use as an example of how the Church might hope to synthesize, premodernism, modernism, and postmodernism into a viable alternative to our seemingly hell-bent culture.

The chapter on “The Self” did a good job of using that vantage point to compare the three worldviews.  To me, it exposed what I call the “Satanic Conspiracy” of our time, “divide and conquer.”  In my lifetime we have become “atomized;” rendered more alone and lonely by the effects of culture and technology.  Consider an example.  When my parents were teenagers and wanted to be entertained, they joined their community in a movie theater where they received information and entertainment together.  In my growing up years, families were sequestered in their homes as they watched the family television together.  In my children’s years at home, we had multiple TV screens and computers, so we further split into different rooms of the house.  Now cell ‘phones and other devices bring all the entertainment and news we can consume to the individual.  We’ve shrunk from community to family to individual.  Indeed, one of the things about postmodernism that troubles me most is its atomizing effect by enshrining micronarrative and denying metanarrative.

The chapter on “Language and Thought” presented the most difficulty to me.  Not on agreement, but on understanding.  The gist of it is that postmoderns are as skeptical of speech as they are of history.  They see language as one of the oppressor’s tools, a possible infringement on their individuality.  White quotes a paragraph written by French postmodernist Jacques Derrida as an example of the linguistic gymnastics practiced by postmoderns just to upset the linguistic wagon.  It was truly dizzying and meaningless, which may’ve been the point.  A more pragmatic person would dismiss this aspect of postmodernism as “BS.”  I’m tempted…

“Inquiry and Interpretation” is introduced with this thought, “For postmoderns, no knowledge is fully reliable and no concepts are absolutely indispensable.” (White, p. 103.)  Suspicion of what has come before runs deep in this worldview.  More than that, postmoderns’ rejection of reason alone has lead to the embrace of less subjective, more affective sources of information.  As Christians whose life is based on faith (related to reason but not based on it and sometimes existing in defiance of it), this should be a refreshing relief from our servitude to the Enlightenment.  White has a fantastic quote from a medieval monk named Bernard of Clairvaux on page 105 that expresses the premodern view of knowledge and may be an expression of truth many church folk would applaud.

Sometimes premodernism seems smoke and mirrors and attempts to complicate the issue into absurdity.  For example, White summarizes, “postmoderns have lost faith in the idea of objective verification.  Instead, they focus on the persuasive power of the stories we tell…  Thus, for a postmodern all disciplines produce a form of literature…”  (White, p. 108.)

Ever argued about the meaning of a poem?  That’s what our discussions about Scripture feel like to a postmodern.  It’s a matter of indifference to them because it exists only in the realm of opinion, where individuals are free to disagree, even to extremes, because it doesn’t really matter.

One chapter is titled “Culture and Irony.”  Here White rightly reveals the increased exposure to global cultures and the shrinkage of our world through media as part of the fuel that has fired postmodernism.   Part of what defines who we are is what we have experienced.  Premodernism was served by a sphere of experience that was community oriented.  Modernism was served by a sphere of experience that was national.  Postmodernism is served by travel, language and culture that is more global than ever.  When all cultured are viewed as equals, the parts of morality and religion that are harnessed to culture are also viewed as equal by association.

The “irony” part was less clear to me.  I guess that the irony is that when all cultures are equal, my preference for any one is simply that, a preference.  It carries no authority and there is no need for a decision on which is the most true, helpful, or civil.

In the Church, this is manifest in the breakdown of denominations, the structure of authority that mandated and enforced divisions between folk who basically agree with one another.  I’m not ready to accept “irony” as a virtue, but I can see the value in spinning down the difference between the streams of Christianity and emphasizing the similarities.

The chapter “History and Hope” provided yet another helpful vantage point from which to survey the points of similarity and difference between these three worldviews.  One of the downsides to postmodernism’s rejection of metanarratives is the loss of hope.  Premoderns hoped in god, moderns is reason, but for postmoderns, both these hopes are disappointed.  If anything is to be hoped for, it is on an individualistic scale, which lends to the atomizing I have already observed in our culture.

In his Epilogue, White does a good job of assaying the effect of postmodernism and its future as a philosophical system.  He wryly observes that the next philosophical mode will be searching for a name as we’ve covered the permutations of “modernism.”

Near the end of the book White identifies the big idea, the critical issue between postmodernism and Christianity.  This means, of course, that he does not develop the question or offer any answers.  Here, for the benefit of the reader, is the question; “So here is the numb of the issue between Christianity and postmodernism: what is freedom?”  Christianity answers that question theologically and authoritatively while postmodernism answers it emphasizing individuality and irony.  I hope this will be the subject of a future book.

To conclude, I have benefitted personally from White’s book.  I don’t believe I have taken hold of this subject, but have at least found a handle and a reference to orient myself in the discussion.  As I continue to read and study on the subject, I can refer back to Postmodernism 101 for a framework by which additional learning can be organized.  It is a book I recommend reading and digesting.

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One thought on “A Review of Heath White’s Postmodernism 101

  1. Thank you for providing this summary and review. I was particularly interested in the section on cultures and how postmodernism view them all equally. I write a lot post often on matters of culture as I believe those that have more aspects that are against God’s word bring about results that countermand our existence.

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