The good, the bad, the ugly - postmodernism 101

This is the first post in a planned series of posts about different forms of postmodern thought.

It seems to me that postmodern philosophy and thought has something to do with each of these categories. As with all philosophies, postmodernity has its strengths and weaknesses. First and foremost it is important to realize that postmodernity is ill-defined but not ill-conceived. That is, to me at least, its philosophical basis works when it is spoken of generally. However, when applied particularly postmodern philosophy can run up against some major difficulties. Let's begin with Jean-Francois Lyotard's definition of postmodernism.

In a nutshell, Lyotard describes postmodernism as the incredulity towards meta-narratives. First things first, Lyotard is a linguist whose philosophical contributions centered around the idea that we all play games with language to the extent that it is ultimately impossible to have everyone agree on one meaning for one object. Lyotard scholars would no doubt disagree with me on this point. Truthfully speaking, I have only read one of his works and therefore my exposure to his thoughts is limited. I put my interpretation in context in order to explain how I got to the meaning that I have claimed from Lyotard's work. Thus, I have also proved his point concerning meta-narratives.

Meta-narratives are the grand narratives of modernity that sought to explain how we are all alike. That is, modern philosophy posited that there were certain stories or linguistic concepts that could be generalized to all people. Lyotard objected to this assumption and instead sought to bring attention to the individuality that is present in each interpretation of the same phenomenon. The good part of this theory is that it brings in marginalized interpretations; it opens the door for multiple possible interpretations of phenomena and the validity of each of these interpretations; it also makes us aware of the contexts that we bring with us to particular experiences. However, there are some possible negative aspects as well.

Carried out to its extreme, this form of postmodernism can lead to relativism and the denial of a larger truth. Furthermore, there is the possibility for conflict when multiple interpretations are deposited into a communal milieu. The conflict is not bad itself; however, when one finds themselves incapable of hearing and validating the interpretations of other people can be further marginalized in their own communities.

For those in Christian communities (indeed all religions fall in this category), we are by definition guided by a meta-narrative. Moreover, this meta-narrative contributes to a number of positive and negative experiences in the Christian community. To put it in its most basic format, Christians are all guided by the same story. This, in and of itself, could disqualify us from the postmodern debate. However, even though we believe we are guided by the same story, in truth we are not. So many are the interpretations of this story, that I have to believe that there is little possibility for us to agree fully upon its meaning. This means that our meta-narrative is actually a series of meta-narratives.

For example, if I were to admit publicly that I believe the story we adhere to, in its most basic form, reveals that God is love, then at that same moment someone else could cry bullshit (in a Christian way of course) and they would proceed to tell me that the story we adhere to says that God is judgment or God is jealous or God is power or even God is anger. Therefore, the meta-narrative that is supposed to bind us is really a multi-narrative (my term) that has no one guiding meaning that affects humanity in all the same way.

The "good" part about this example is the possibility that there is some form of "rightness" within each of our interpretations. If we accept that there is some validity in each of the theologies of Pat Robertson, Jurgen Moltmann, Paul Tillich, Joel Osteen, John Cobb, Jr., and John Calvin, and that in none of them will we find an absolute truth that will guide every single human being, then there is possibility of a "multi-rightness" that leads to multiple ways of encountering God in the world. Therefore, the discussion of differences changes from a "right-wrong" perspective to a "my experience-your experience" perspective. This can lead to a greater understanding of the varieties of experiences that make up our relationships with God, and possibly even further enhancing all of our experiences of God through the multiple ways in which God is encountered. One way of talking about this is that the multiple experiences of God resemble the concept of the body of Christ; my experience may be an eye or ear whereas yours might be a mouth or arm (we won't posit who gets to be the ass).

My guess is that you might also see some of the difficulties with this form of contextualization. The first is that God is supposed to greater than one or even the sum of all of our interpretations and experiences. This also means that God, if God is truly greater than all of these, is something that is ultimately a meta-narrative. That is, God authors stories that are beyond the context of human experience that are good for all of humanity.

Secondly, there would be no need for postmodern Christians to evangelize if we truly believed in the contextualization of the experience of God. All experiences of God would ultimately speak the truth about God from a particular perspective. This would mean that the meta-narrative of Christianity would not be a meta-narrative for the world. Instead, God would be able to speak through the meta-narratives of all religions, rendering Christianity as one path among many to God, rather than a "one true path" religion.

The final "bad" piece would be that we carry out contextualization to the point where we no longer resemble the Body of Christ but are more like a set of body parts in Ziploc bags. Contextualization could lead to compartmentalization and the separating of the body of Christ through the individuation of worship styles, theology, education practices, dress code, music styles and so on. Truthfully, we are already a compartmentalized religion, we just have broader labels for each compartment (think conservative-liberal, contemporary-traditional, modern-postmodern, etc.). Extreme contextualization can create pockets of Christians with the same tastes or similar narratives that cling to one another rather than reaching out to the body of Christ as a whole.

As far as the "ugly" is concerned. I think that might come out in two fashions. The first is an "anything goes" kind of Christianity. The second is a "lowest common denominator" Christianity.

In the "anything goes" category, Christianity becomes diluted through the attempts to appease as many different experiential styles while not catering to one group in particular. Take worship for example. I attended a church recently that incorporated powerpoint, hymnals, a praise band, organ, scripture, prayers and a basic sermon. The worship was poorly constructed with what I can only describe as a marginally acceptable order and description. As a person visiting the congregation I was subjected to: confusion, a praise band that seemed more interested in itself that in worship, a barely functioning powerpoint presentation that was distracting at best and boring at worst. This attempt to appeal/appease all of the congregational contexts left me feeling as though the congregation treated worship lightly, they felt theologically inept and shallow, and the service made me only more determined to find a better place of worship.

I don't mind "contemporary" worship (the distinction is a misnomer because ALL worship is contemporary due to its temporal locality and its connection with the world, regardless of its casualness or the use of "praise" music). There are some new music songs and styles that provide theological depth and challenge the singer/hearer to novel theological connections. The difficulty comes in the desire to please every person's context and whims rather than focusing the point of worship, namely to direct oneself to God for a sustained period of time. Therefore, the question that must be answered is, how can we open ourselves to anything that might direct us toward a sustained period of worship with God? Is it image, music, poetry, art, sermons, or prayers (or other mediums)? Moreover, how will we use these resources responsibly in order to accentuate our worship, rather than using them to keep ourselves interested? In my theological world, God is the ultimate audience of worship, the gathered body of Christ are the actors in the play. In "anything goes" styles, the actors become the audience and it shifts the focus of worship.

The final "ugly" is "lowest common denominator" Christianity. That is, we find the things we agree on and only work with those pieces. The difficulty with this form is that it lacks challenge and doesn't move people from the things that make them comfortable. Christianity has, built into it, a sense that something is not right with the world, and God has called upon us to try and fix it, with God's help. When we hit the "lowest common denominator" form Christianity loses its edge and becomes just another social or country club where we gather to pat ourselves on the back for not screwing up the world too much more during the week.

I realize this is a long intro, but there is a lot to Lyotard and the implications for Christianity are many. I will be gone for a vacation in the upcoming week, but I hope to post another piece to this postmodern puzzle by next Friday. Please feel free to comment on what you have read. I am by no means a philosopher, and if others have insights about Lyotard feel free to add them.

grace and peace...



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