The Christian church and postmodernism

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is a topic I will be exploring much further in the time ahead.

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Many years ago, I was speaking to executives of a media company in Florida about my views of media and culture. I’ve always used culture to describe the forces impacting media, and I’ve been studying postmodernism or postmodern culture for over fifteen years. I had even named my blog after the term. One of the people in the audience that day spoke up that he was fascinated with my presentation, but that he’d only ever heard the word “postmodernism” in church and had no idea it was anything other than that. He thought it was a theological study of a fresh form of Christianity.

Up until that point, I’d never considered postmodernism to be a topic associated with Christianity, so I started researching the affiliation, which is where I first encountered Leonard Sweet. A quote of his sits at the top of this blog, because I think it’s so spot on. We’ve had conversations, and he’s way smarter than me. However, his understanding of postmodernism is a little different than mine, as is the understanding of a whole host of writers who fall into the category of “emergent” or the Emergent Movement. This, I believe, is what that executive back in Florida was referencing, because the arguments presented in making the case for a new “emerging” church use postmodern themes. One “deconstructs” their faith by going back and revisiting troublesome Christian assumptions. The idea is to then reconstruct that faith in a way that eliminates some of the nonsense of the evangelical Christian experience, including issues like gender equality and making room for gays and lesbians. It closely resembles a shift from Evangelicalism to Ecumenicism, although the energy is different, for it revels in its “newness” and change.

I’m currently a member of an organization that practices a form of this — The Lasting Supper  (TLS)- and I’ve really been enjoying the fellowship. It’s a breath of fresh air led by a remarkable artist, David Hayward, and I feel it’s likely to grow into something significant. Hell, it already is.

But here’s my problem with using the term postmodernism to describe the conflict with Christian tradition and not taking it any further: what’s “reconstructed” is simply another modernist view of an institution, a top-down, male-dominated, mass marketing enterprise that exploits for personal gain a very real search for spiritual belonging. This search is largely a response of intelligent Christians (no, it’s not an oxymoron) to the intolerance and divisiveness we witness today in person of the Christian wing of the Republican Party (or is it the Republican wing of the Christian Party?).

The problem with my view is that I, like many of the Christian writers, represent postmodernism as a new cultural era. The difference is that I view the Internet and the Web as the triggers for this new era, much as the printing press is viewed as shifting culture from one based solely on faith to one based on logic and reason, modernity. That era’s influence is diminishing as horizontal connectivity demolishes modernity’s institutions by directly challenging their authority. The Great Horizontal, as Jay Rosen aptly named it, will ultimately reshape everything, because it disrupts the fundamental protection accorded modernist institutions — hierarchical status earned through credentialing from the hierarchical élite. It’s all just self-serving and prevents any real challenge to the cultural totem pole it represents. This is why The Evolving User Paradigm remains one of the most important essays I wrote under the banner of Reinventing Local Media. Everyday that ONE “experiences” the Web, the disruptive nature of that one grows. This includes the church.

However, I think the biggest difference in the way I view postmodernism and the way it is viewed by these Emergent writers is that they view it as an event that demands a response, while I view it as a very long term shift that nobody really understands today. The moveable type was invented in the fifteenth century. Six hundred years later, and we’ve just begun to truthfully examine the shortcomings of modernity. The Roman Catholic church’s initial response to the printing press was first to try and stop it, then to prohibit printing a Bible without a license, then to shout down the evils of printing, especially erotic novels, then to question the reliability of any translation outside the original, and ultimately giving up with a huff, “The jewel of the elites is now the toy of the laity.” That same lament is echoing once again through the shrinking halls of the professional class, and it’s all just beginning. Culture will make the same mistakes made six hundred years ago, and “the” postmodern church will be a long time developing. Such is the lot of humanity.

Today, for example, the church is only active within the Great Horizontal as it uses the connectivity for mass marketing purposes. Getting the message out is the objective of modernity, while listening is the objective of postmodernity, and the church has never been big on the practice of listening. This is why people are beginning to turn away from the Emergent Movement. The books just aren’t selling as they once did. While I think it might end up in the “denomination” category, it’s producing new “stars” who bathe themselves in the prosperity of managing the new institution. With that has come the inevitable self-centeredness, scandal, and bullying, the traps of human nature that seem to follow those at the top of any human hierarchy. As it transforms from movement to institution, it becomes just another mechanism with which people who claim unique understanding can arrange their lives and the lives of those who choose to follow. The shame and humiliation that honest searchers feel today — because they’ve been duped once again — are testimonies to diminishing power of anyone who wishes a seat at the top of the heap.

Authority in anything postmodern must be spread out across the culture or subculture for these very reasons, and that’s where Christianity has completely missed it. It’s interesting to me, for example, that Christianity has been at the forefront of every communications breakthrough in history, except the World Wide Web. That’s because it is so different than anything that came before it. It rejects mass media, because it doesn’t present as a theatre. It’s not one-to-many; it’s many-to-many. We’re no longer captives of those who have the power to influence from a single location. Television advertising is shrinking, because it’s no longer as effective as it used to be. This will continue, and those — including modernist forms of Christianity — who cling to mass marketing as THE operative infrastructure representing their mission.

Welcome to the postmodern era. Now what are we going to do with all that connectivity?

Comments

  1. I had no idea Postmodernism was getting so big. I’ve been a christian all my life trying to find what really hits me. Thanks for the awesome post, i’ll be telling some friends about this.

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