Note to Pastors: Postmodernism is Dead (so please stop talking about it)

Note: these are some early musings as I pull together material for an upcoming presentation on “Understanding and Engaging Today’s World” in which I was specifically asked to introduce postmodernism.  This series is not a series of fully baked thoughts – I’m asking for your responses, thoughts, arguments, and riddles, jokes or puns.  Thanks.

I was in Seminary in the late 90s, I studied Derrida, Foucault, Deconstruction, Power Games, and all the panoply of buzzwords that went along with Postmodernism.  I learned to speak to an age in which truth was relative, identity was created, and irony was required.  Fortunately for me, I was cradled in that age.  Pop culture, self-referential inside jokes, sarcasm, and iconoclasm come naturally to those of us in Generation X.

ImageUnfortunately, nobody told me that Postmodernism was already dead.  Postmodernism died when it became accepted, when it became the air we breathe.  Postmodernism died when the general populace didn’t have to choose to accept it, they absorbed it by osmosis. 

Seriously, the only people I ever hear talking about Postmodernism are pastors.   Everyone else has moved on.  Postmodernism is no longer the zeitgeist – it is an artifact of the late 20th century. 

(Now here, perhaps we should distinguish between Postmodernism as an academic intellectual movement and Postmodernism as a mood of the age)

Stanley Fish is but the latest in a long string of academics who has pronounced the demise of Postmodernism and the rise of a new era.   In a December 26, 2011 editorial from the New York Times, Fish writes:

“I remember, with no little nostalgia, the days when postmodernism in all its versions was the rage and every other session at the MLA convention announced that in theory’s wake everything would have to change: old questions were revealed to be based on a mistaken belief in the stability of texts and the self-identity of authors; rock-solid procedures and methodologies were shown to rest on the shifting sands of history; canonical authors were dislodged from their pedestals and exposed as racists, misogynists and apologists for empire; the canon itself was condemned as an artifact of patriarchal politics; and the practitioners of traditional criticism (yesterday’s stars, today’s relics) were denounced for being complicit with every evil known to humankind.


Those who proclaimed the good news in 20-minute talks at the convention welcomed the dawning of a brave new world; those who heard them with dismay felt that the world they knew and labored in quite happily was under assault, and they reacted, in counterpoint 20-minute talks, by making the arguments defenders of an embattled regime always make: it’s just a passing fad; everything heralded as new can be found in Plato and Aristotle; what is proclaimed as liberating is actually the abandonment of reason and rigor; a theory that preaches the social construction of everything collapses under its own claims; the stuff is unreadable; it has no content apart from its obfuscating jargon; maybe it will just go away.


What happened then, and inevitably, was that after an exciting period of turmoil and instability, the alien invader was domesticated and absorbed into the mainstream, forming part of a new orthodoxy that would subsequently be made to tremble by a new insurgency.”

The key to understanding the demise of lies not in seeing a shift of ideas, but a shift in attitude.  Postmodernism, in it’s pure academic form, was about toppling down the certainties of Modernism.  But deconstruction and power games can only hold attention for so long.  At some point, we long to create simply for the joy of creating.  At some point we tire of irony and long for earnestness.  At some point we tire of reacting against that which came before, and we start looking to build that which is to come.

Creation is the new Zeitgeist, and pragmatism is it’s close ally.  A million tinkerers, great and small, geeking out about their own fields of interest, working out different conundrums, and sharing with one another.  Contrary to popular caricature, social media is not entirely about narcissism (though there is certainly a part of that).  No, social media is often a collection of enthusiasts building online tribes around their chosen field of enthusiasm.  It’s a bunch of crazy amateurs stumbling their way to figure out what works in their discipline.

Isn’t this the reason Wikipedia is so effective?   Spare me the steaming critiques about how unreliable it is – a 2005 peer reviewed scientific study in the journal Nature demonstrated that Wikipedia is just as reliable as the Encyclopedia Britannica.   

The Modernist worries about what this says about how the world works

The Postmodernist worries about the power games of who controls Wikipedia

The Creative-era denizen just wants to know “Does it have the geeky information I want, and can I add my own geekery to it?”

This is a mega-trend that was spotted very early on by the good folks at Trendwatching.  They coined it “Generation C”.  Back then they were thinking simply about content.  But now, it’s creation – it is an era for anyone who has the chutzpah to create and put their stuff out there.  Postmodernity broke down structures to make this unprecedented era of creation possible, but it required an attitudinal shift away from breaking down to something new of building. 

Whether you thought Postmodernism was a boon for the church or a bugaboo, it is pointless to blather on about it in any terms except historical: it is a dead parrot.  It may be helpful to think about how Postmodernism prepared the stage for our present era, but make no mistake, we are in an era quite different from what existed fifteen years ago. 

Soli Deo Gloria


8 thoughts on “Note to Pastors: Postmodernism is Dead (so please stop talking about it)

  1. The real challenge to both traditionalism and postmodernism is the possibility of an absolute truth, some call it God, that is impossible to grasp but makes all truth inadequate and open to continual challenge. The error of traditionalism is that they think they have grasped that truth and reject all challenge to their understanding. The error of postmodernism is that they think that there is no such truth to be sought and consider their nihilist understanding to be freedom and maturity. All religions seek to answer the central question of whether there is meaning to life or whether we are just a bunch of atoms bumping up against each other. Morality is an attempt to say there is a central truth to life and when our life corresponds, however inadequately, to that truth our life has meaning that extends beyond our immediate existence. The danger of all religions is that they ossify their grasp of the truth, it becomes their idol, that justifies their destruction of all that challenges it. Soli Deo Gloria is a challenge to all truth and including our understanding.

    Nice piece Russel.

      • Thanks, Russ. In a few days I’ll send you my comments on where denominations are going. I think thinking about the future of a clearly changing church geography is fascinating.
        I also hope you will check out my new series of Clergy Tales–Tails and perhaps comment on them on Amazon. Vol 2 will be available for free download on July 8,9, 18, & 19.
        As you know, Amazon reviews are critical.

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  5. I believe I saw you give the presentation (or one of them) you mentioned prepping for in this post. New Wilmington Mission Conference, 2014? I still have my hastily-scribbled notes because it was the first (and still best) explaination of Modernism, Post-Modernism and whatever we are currently calling what came after that I had ever heard. I wasn’t able to stay for the second half but I learned more in that brief session than in some of my university courses back in llinois in the early 90s. I am firmly planted in the midst of Generation X and am now a parent of a daughter born in 2001. I just wanted to tell you that I found your presentation fascinating and today I finally went exploring online to see if I could find you and your work. Thank you and I hope you and yours are all well.

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