My heart became hot within me. As I mused, the fire burned; then I spoke with my tongue: "O Lord, make me know my end and what is the measure of my days; let me know how fleeting I am!"

05 May 2005

Book Review - Are you PoMophobic?

Postmodern Times
by Gene E. Veith

This book was published in 1994, when I was still a sophomore in high school. Then I would not have recognized the term postmodernism (PM or PoMo); now, however, I can't run a literary mile without tripping over it. Those of you in or entering the college years are bombarded with postmodernism, up front and through the back door. Those of you out of college, depending on what circles you run in, may not be forced to interact much with the new prevailing philosophy whose only absolute is the rejection of absolutes. Regardless of which category you fall into, this is your world.

Veith does a fine job running the gamut of postmodernism, exposing the reader to the goods and bads without getting bogged down in overly technical discussions. Some helpful points:
  • The rise and fall of modernism and, hopefully, the end of exalting human reason. This is one of the good things of PMism.
  • The rise and fall of romanticism, which again is a good thing. Following that was existentialism, "the philsophical basis for postmodernism."
  • The difference between being postmodern and being a postmodernist. You and I are postmodern by virtue of the time in which we live. You and I may or may not be postmodernists, holding to a certain philosophy/worldview.
  • The helpful aspects of PMism, which include the fall of modernism & rationalism, as well as various opportunities to be a witness of Christ's grace in more powerful ways. PMism may help us accept that we can't argue people into the kingdom; we are faithful when we simply testify, tell our story of salvation (while holding firm to the truth - not a strongpoint of PMism).
Veith helps with the major points of PMism, including the deconstruction of language, conscious eroding of foundations, disbelief in language's ability to communicate, and the destruction of the self ("if Marxism is modern, fascism is postmodern", i.e., when human identity is gone, the state can become the all). He then continues to exam the tree by its fruits; postmodern art, more concerned about what's not true than what is, consciously rejects any unity in reality, any communication of meaning in a work of art. PM architecture has gone in two directions: rethroning beauty over functionalism (a good thing), while consciously mocking the form and function of the very building constructed. Pop art mediums (see code word "metanarrative") like music and TV are perhaps the strongest source of PMism into our home. Veith summarizes this section: Modernist art promoted meaning apart from the external world; postmodernist art promotes the external world apart from meaning. Art becomes a matter either of expression or representation, meaning or appearance, reality or illusion, truth or convention. Both modernists and postmodernists have forgotten that art can be both.

Part 3 of the book discusses PMism's impact on various parts of society: a new tribalism has emerged, where people find more identity in their groups than in themselves or their families. Politics has changed to reflect much of PMist ideology, now accepting as standard that society makes the moral law and thus is not subject to it. Everyday people seem to have changed: now people feel comfortable holding to mutually contradictory ideas because it feels right. Business and the academy has changed with a new outlook on information, characterized most strongly by the information glut of the last two decades. Here, again, the believer ought to find the good things and plunder the Egyptians; we also ought to be looking for chinks in the armor, cracks in the foundation that we might speak the gospel into this new world with power.

Veith closes the book with a discussion of PMism and religion. In PMist churches, truth becomes subjected to experience: if you experience God, you will have the right teaching. (Which is no worse than the modernist mantra: If you have the right teaching, you will experience God.) This includes "megashift" theology, a consciously PMist version of the gospel, downplaying absolutes & transcendence, highlighting relationship & tolerance. This section presciently speaks to the "emerging" church (without using those words), the new, hip way to plant a church. While we can learn a lot from PMism and the "emerging" church planters, I believe we do best to hear these words of Veith: To be relevant to the postmodern era, the church must simply proclaim the truth of God's Word, the validity of God's law, and the sufficiency of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Is this simplistic? Maybe; but it's a good start. Before we go running off convincing our PMist buddies to become PMist Christians, let's be sure we know and proclaim what Christian really means, detached from any -isms.

Should you buy this book? Maybe. If you
interact with PMists, or just wonder about these ideas on a regular basis, it's very helpful. It's probably outdated at this point; some I know would consider it slightly unfair toward PMism. Overall, I believe it's a Biblical look on a new philosophy, a philosophy that ought not to reign in our minds but that we do well to understand clearly in order to be better ministers of Christ's gospel.

1 comment:

Kurt said...

Jared,

Thanks for this very informative book review and perspective on postmodernism. It's very helpful to learn about the thought processes of how so many think today, especially a large part of the evangelical church; and how even "born again" believers can be fooled into not having proper Christian thinking.

I particularly appreciated how insightful the author was in picking up how "a new tribalism has emerged, where people find more identity in their groups than in themselves or their families."

People nowadays more often define themselves by their occupation, place of occupation, college almamater, favorite sport's team, or even church, rather than by their families, their ancestors, or whether they "walk with God," which are the identities so often mentioned by God in Scripture.