The term postmodernism first entered my consciousness when I was a kid, that’s what happens when you are the son of an architect, and examples of a postmodern styled buildings are pointed out to you as you speed around in the family Mazda. But then around ten years later the word exploded back into my consciousness as it became the buzz word of the Christian subculture in the 1990’s.
If Helen of Troy’s face launched a thousand ships, the concept of postmodernism launched thousands of Christian conferences and book titles, and caused a global pandemic of goatees to be grown upon youth pastors’ faces.
It was great, no longer in meetings was I the rookie Youth Pastor, I was now the token ‘postmodern’, despite the fact that pretty much no one really knew what the term meant. It was a heady time, by simply peppering your conversation with the magic words ‘Derrida or Levi-Strauss’ you could get heads nodding in agreement in any room.
It was a time of hope, when the materialist/atheist/nihilistic worldview of the West seemed to be being replaced by a new age (excuse the pun) of metaphysical openness, where the conversation about spirituality was now back on the table, a door had opened that had been seemingly shut for decades.
All we had to do was convince people that Christianity was not a ‘religion’ but rather a ‘spirituality’ that had something to do with the ancient Celtic people, the Matrix, listening to Moby and candles. We lobbied the manager of the supermarket of belief long and hard to get our product on the shelves, eventually we did get space, but it was on the bottom shelf at the back of the store. Those pesky good looking Hollywood Tibetan Buddhists seemed to always snag the prime positions at the point of sale.
It was a time of hope but it was also a time of fear. Fear of the intellectuals who sprouted ‘relative truth’. The barbarians seemed to be at the gate. Seminaries began erecting machine gun posts and guard towers, to keep at bay the concept of relativism. Of course the term and concept of postmodernity became a rallying cry for those wishing the church to adapt to the new missionary situation it found itself in.
The dizzy effects of the postmodern nineties zeitgeist seemed to make any future possible, Church would be turned into a rave, or a lentil feast, or an urban art collective, or any possible combination of the aforementioned. No longer was having a coffee with two buddies and talking about the football just having coffee with two buddies and talking about football, it was now a non-hierarchical, organic, ecclesiogical, gathering occurring in the public sphere. The sky was the limit.
But then fast forward to today. Before you can say Michel Foucault’s leather trousers everything changes. I pick up the paper and it features the global atheists conference. (Atheists? Didn’t they sell their headquarters to the international league of hot Cyber-Wiccans back in 1998?) There they all are like modern day reincarnations of the fathers of the enlightenment, except this time they are wearing Ralph Lauren slacks instead of powdered wigs. And oh my goodness, gone are the half committed Gen X mutterings about postmodernity, instead we hear the dirty catchphrase of modernity -’reason’, spoken again and again by grey haired men with clipped Oxford accents.
Suddenly the new spirituality which looked like it would take over Western culture, is pushed to the periphery of our society, only to be found in new age shops in strip malls in the outer suburbs, run by Oprah devotees in their early sixties with a crush on Eckhart Tolle.
The door of spirituality which seemed to have opened for a moment sometime between 1992-2000 is slammed shut again, as the celebripriests of the new atheism, sermonize and froth like frontier preachers in a crusade to rid the world of the ‘superstitions’ of religion.
The supermarket of belief has been bulldozed, in its place a new colosseum, the floor of the youtube comments page is soaked with the blood spilt from a new religious war, as neo-Calvinists do battle with new atheists. No one saw that coming in 1996.
So what ever happened to postmodernity? I think everything changed when a son of a multi – millionaire convinced a dozen other sons of multi-millionaires to divert their flights into sites of significance around the north east of the United States. As the twin towers fell so did the concept of relative truth. All of a sudden the language which worked so well in the nineties began to fall apart. How does a postmodernist deal with an attack upon Westerns civilians by a homophobic, misogynist, chauvinist group of Chomsky quoting multi-millionaire, Islamic fundamentalists?
At first it looked simple, here were poor non-whites attacking symbols of capitalism, but then as Bin Laden posted his video taped rationale, we began to see that he was angered by the place of women in the West, that he wanted to wipe out minorities. And we learnt that Al Qaeda was funded by extremely rich men. It was enough to send a postmodernist into a spin. Even Derrida lost his nerve in the face it all (see Without Roots pg 19-21).
The rest is history, the soft war of terrorism in Madrid, Bali and London, became a hard war in the valleys of Afghanistan and the streets of Iraq. To the bemused masses of Western secularists, there seemed to be one easy scapegoat to pin the whole mess upon. Religion.
And so we find ourselves in a very similar situation to that which birthed secular culture in the first place. The enlightenment minds Grotius, Rousseau, Locke, Hume and Voltaire which gave birth to the secular age, did so in reaction to the bloodshed that Europe saw during the wars of religion of the 16th and 17th centuries.
If as Tertullian claimed that the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church, then the blood spilt in religious wars is the seed of atheism. Hence the fact that modernity seems to be what has come after postmodernity.
So is postmodernity dead? No is the short answer. Postmodernity is no longer marked by complicated conversations held in the stuffy halls of academia, or over white wine in pristine white art galleries. Postmodernity is alive and well in a new kind of form. An implicit, lived postmodernity, acted out by average people in cities and suburbs.
It is seen most clearly in the ethically incoherent lives lived by Western people. It’s beat of relativism is heard most clearly in the contradictory hedonistic/altruistic, nihilistic/optimistic, spiritualistic/materialistic lifestyles of average people everywhere in the West. And therein lies the missionary challenge of the decade that comes after the noughties.