A Short Definition of Postmodernism

When I tell people that I am working to try to understand the debate going on in the church today about modernism and postmodernism they usually ask, “What exactly is postmodernism?”  And when they do I find myself at a loss for words—not because I don't know about postmodernism, but because I don't know how to take all that I have read and thought and distill that down into a definition that they will understand and won't take a five-hour long discussion.  So, I have endeavored to write this short definition of postmodernism for the uninitiated.

Postmodernism is a response to, and a reaction against modernism.  Modernism is the mental framework people in the West have used for hundreds of years to think about things, evaluate things, and decide things.  For instance Moderns believe that, if we are willing, we can raise ourselves above the immediate situation in which we are embroiled to see things rationally and objectively.  Through the use of reason it is possible to be an unimpassioned objective observer.  And thinking about things in this way is the most desirable way to be and the surest way to come to know the truth about a situation.  Further moderns believe that reason is neutral and will lead everyone to the same conclusion—the only way that it wouldn't result in the same judgment is if one or the other of the parties wasn't willing to be objective.  For example, the writers of the U. S. constitution (who were very modern in their thinking) wrote, “We hold these truths to be self-evident . . .” By that they meant that anyone who was willing to practice even a modicum of objectivity would have to agree with their conclusions—they were self-evident!

Postmodernism claims that neither of these beliefs is true.  First, we are so enmeshed in our own situation—and we are so defined by our own situation and context—that we are unable to clearly see anything outside our own perspective.  The ability to become some detached objective observer is a fiction.  Second, since we cannot raise ourselves above our own situation then the claim that reason is neutral and that every honest and truthful person must come to the same conclusion is also false because everyone will be applying reason from their own very unique position. 

The problem with these two modern beliefs, a postmodern would say, is that they perpetuate oppression, and in the end lead to violence.  Under modernism those in power assume that everyone should share their “objective” perspective and come to the same conclusions as they: the people who have the power (economic, social, military, etc.) are the ones who deserve to have the power.  Their claim, of course, is supported by logic and may use arguments based on legal rights, superior abilities, sharper intellect, a better work ethic, or a number of other things.  Any rational challenge to those in power—if it is to be heard and not simply dismissed—must start with the assumptions held by them.  But if you start with the same assumptions logic will unerringly lead to the same conclusions.  So a rational challenge is hopeless and those who wish to challenge the oppression of the powerful are forced to choose other means.  The situation is further polarized because each side believes (at least at an unconscious level), “If what I think is based on reason and you disagree with me, you must not only be wrong but also obstinate—refusing (for your own selfish motives) to admit your error.”

In response to this impasse Postmodernism claims that every statement—everything that can be said—is interpretation all the way down.  It is foolish to talk about something being an “objective fact” in the sense of it being a reality outside of one's own interpretive framework that is somehow accessible to everyone and that can be received and understood without going through the interpretive process.  It is simply not possible to grab hold of reality in that way.

In addition, Postmodernism has recognized another trait of modernism.  It uses stories to validate, enliven, and support its assumptions.  You wouldn't expect this because of modernism's insistence on the primacy of reason and logic.  Yet it really seems to be the case.  Modernism tells its own story of ascendancy as the “triumph of reason.”  Scientists talk about their coming to prominence as the “scientific revolution.”  The United States tells its story of revolt against Britain as “the birth of democracy” and its rise to international power as “manifest destiny.”  One postmodern philosopher, Jean-François Lyotard, calls these stories “metanarratives” or “grand stories.”  He claims that one definition of postmodernism is “incredulity toward metanarratives.”  Postmoderns are incredulous because they recognize that these stories are used to prop up and justify the power of those who tell them.

However, the problem with metanarratives goes even deeper.  Metanarratives provide an interpretive framework which defines the meaning of all the details and smaller stories (local narratives) that are going on.  The metanarrative does not allow the particulars to exist without an overarching interpretation.  Postmoderns recognize that when we view the particulars through the lens of the metanarrative that lens blinds us to the individual local story.  For example, when you look through the twin lenses of two important metanarratives for the United States—“manifest destiny” and “westward expansion of democracy”—you no longer see the stories of the native Americans—men, women, and children—who were slaughtered by the US cavalry and white settlers.  You do not recognize them as immense tragedies.  You only see that the “West was Won.”  Or, by looking through the lens of another U. S. metanarrative—“the birth of democracy”—you become blind to the stories of the British who were killed fighting for their country and their king.  You no longer think about the mothers, wives, and children waiting in England; praying that their husbands, fathers, and sons would return.  You only thank God for the birth of our nation.  Of course, postmoderns worry that metanarratives not only blind us to the past, but keep us from seeing the plight of the poor and oppressed in the present.

I recognize that this “short” definition has not ended up being so short!  It took me 932 words to be exact.  So, let me give you a one-sentence definition.  Postmodernism is a response to and a rejection of modernism in three important areas: 1) the denial of the possibility of an objective observer, 2) the rejection of the neutrality of reason, and 3) disbelief of metanarratives.   I could have said that in the beginning, but I was concerned that if you haven't already been involved in the conversation about postmodernism, and if you don't already know quite a bit about it, this one-sentence definition wouldn't make much sense.  Even with 932 words I have just scratched the surface. 

Of course, for those of us who are Christians, the important question is, “What does this rise of Postmodernism mean for the church, for our faith, and for Christianity?”  In an attempt to try to answer that question I have designed an online class.  To find out more, or to register for a seminar CLICK HERE.