POP. SODA. COKE. SODA POP. Depending on where you live, claiming allegiance to one of these terms can alienate, ostracize or even excommunicate you. Thankfully, my wife and I have agreed to disagree. She calls it one thing. I call it another. I won’t comment on who is right or wrong.
Terms can cause unity or division. Terms can bring clarity or confusion. Words are cheap and words are rich. They can start fights or end wars. We know that words quickly lose meaning if not regularly defined.
My guess is that you’ve probably heard the word "postmodern". In fact, you may have heard it too much, already. But I’m going to make another guess that you have some emotions tied to this word as well. Perhaps your emotions are linked with cynicism. You might hear the term postmodern and wonder why “they” always have to come up with another trendy term. Perhaps your emotions are laced with excitement. You view this word as a savior that will deliver your archaic church into realms of relevance. Still others of you might use this word without really even knowing what it means. Your emotions take root in the realm of fear. You fear looking stupid for not understanding this stylish word. You have fear of not knowing where this word will take you or your ministry. You have fear of change.
One of the main reasons that postmodernism is so difficult to define is that it has an affect on everything including art, literature, architecture, economics, philosophy, culture and even ministry. Volumes have been written on postmodernism and its affect on humanity.
To understand postmodernism, we have to take a look at modernity, first. Modernity promoted a monolithic mindset that believed in underlying “universal” truths. Knowledge was standardized and derived from objectivity, idealism and absolutes. It was an approach that fit well with the principles of cause and effect, the scientific method and authority. It acknowledged the existence of fundamentals and the affect of those fundamentals upon society, culture and religion.
If it helps any, let me give you two popular ad campaigns that capture the heart of the modernist period. Although created in the postmodern era, both these ads typify the modernist period. The first one is: Always Coca-Cola®. “Always” communicates a strong support for a continual and frequent experience. It bucks against individualism. This beverage is for all and always for all. The second ad is: Diamonds are forever®. “Forever” speaks of permanence. It suggests unchanging objectivity.
These ads give us a window into the heart of modernism. So what caused the change from the modern to the postmodern period? It’s always difficult to pinpoint a cultural shift. What were the triggers? What fueled the movement?
Concerning the breakdown of modernism, some would say its roots developed in the breakdown of Hegelian idealism and the impact of both World Wars. Regardless, a growing number of people became disillusioned with the promise of humanity’s progress. As a whole, cynicism and skepticism set in. People began to see exceptions to the (universal) rule. Postmodernism evolved.
Former contradictions once swept under the rug were now celebrated within art and philosophy. A spirit of distrust surfaced. Distrust in absolutes, authority and objectivity emerged. So began postmodernism, a philosophical/cultural movement that rejected metanarratives.
Postmodernism invited a blurring, a breakdown, and in some cases a downright rejection of established standards and truth. More than rejection, postmodernism is acceptance. It accepts various ideas, actions and values because all beliefs are worthy of an audience.
An ad campaign that captures the heart of the postmodern period is the latest Outback slogan: No rules. Just right®. These four words typify the belief that there is no external standard. Instead, personal enjoyment exists in its place. Another popular campaign was Burger King’s: Your way. Right Away®. This ad argues that every individual’s own preference is worthy of an audience.
When discussing these two periods, the temptation is to distinguish which one is right and which one is wrong. In fact, this is one of the primary battles facing the Church today. Many “older” generations and traditional churches hold to components characteristic of the modernist period. Many “younger” generations and emerging churches hold to components characteristic of the postmodern period.
Let’s not forget though that in Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, he called the church both to fluidity and order. To truly be effective we need a blend of both the modernist and postmodernist perspective, we need to be transformists—both fixed and fluid.
The postmodern mindset has brought with it much freedom. Many churches are in desperate need of more involvement, story, community and round table discussions. However, as with any movement, we can go to the other extreme.
The modernist needs to focus a bit more on packaging. They need to loosen up a little more on form and method. The postmodernist needs to remember substance. They need to remember that the message never changes.
It’s kind of funny, but Christ was all about packaging and substance. In fact, He went back to that whole love God love people thing. That was the substance. As far as the packaging, we’re it. He said by our love, all people would know we’re His disciples.
… Now that we have this postmodern thing all wrapped up we can move on to more important discussions, like the carbonated beverage name debate.
Kary Oberbrunner is the author of The Journey Towards Relevance from RELEVANT Books.