By Gene Edward Veith

On September 11, 2001, I thought postmodernism had ended.

In my book Postmodern Times, I had drawn on Thomas Oden who said that the Modern era began with the Fall of the Bastille in 1789 and ended with the Fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. If cultural epochs begin and end with the collapse of symbolic edifices, I thought, surely the Fall of the World Trade Center qualified.

After 9/11, how could anyone believe that truth is an individual or cultural construction? The truth of those planes crashing into those buildings, into our culture, and into our consciousness was surely not a function of our desires or our will to power. The terrorist attack was surely an example of a truth outside ourselves.

After 9/11, how could anyone still be a relativist? All cultures are surely not equally valid, if we compare the culture that shaped the terrorists with the culture that they attacked. A faith that teaches salvation by suicide and murder is hardly comparable to a faith that teaches compassion and love. Postmodernist lines such as “Who are we to judge? They were only following their culture. They did what was right for them sounded silly while the rubble of the World Trade Center was still smoking.

And, indeed, for awhile, it did seem as if postmodernism were dead. Reporters and politicians talked openly about “good” and “evil.” The nation set aside its diversity and experienced unity. Western civilization seemed like something worth defending. Artists proclaimed that the age of irony—that most postmodern of tropes—was over.

But it was not long before irony, disunity, and moral, religious, cultural, and intellectual, relativism re-asserted themselves with a vengeance. The Iraq war brought back our cultural guilt and disunity. The academic and artistic worlds picked up where they left off, before they were so rudely interrupted, and the public, with its postmodern short attention span, resumed its consumer mentality.

Postmodernism was back. In some ways, the tendencies I chronicled in 1994 have accelerated, going further than what I described back then. In other ways, postmodernism has changed in its mood and tone. Today postmodernism continues, but it seems somewhat exhausted. People seem to be casting about for a new worldview, yearning for a way of thinking that can take them past the impasse of intellectual, moral, aesthetic, and spiritual relativism. Postmodernism has brought the arts and the intellectual scene to a dead-end. Hardly any new styles and new ideas are being received with any enthusiasm. Today’s pop culture, as expressed in contemporary music, seems to be searching for what is “authentic” and “real,” categories that postmodernism prefers to mock. But postmodernism is so engrained in the culture that it is difficult for people to break the impasse. One of the few ways of doing so, that many people today are discovering, is embracing historical religion.

Virtual Culture

Postmodern culture is characterized by multi-culture, the breaking down of unified society and universal humanity into ever-smaller and sometimes mutually antagonistic groups. Each group, in a sense, has its own culturally-constructed reality.

Some postmodernists embrace culture, especially their own particular group. Others seek ways of breaking out of all cultural control. They see culture in terms of one group oppressing the others, with all cultural artifacts—art, literature, law, religion—being nothing more than masks to hide and to justify the exercise of power.

Postmodernists see individuals too as culturally-constructed, their identity determined by the group they belong to. Again, some individuals are all right with this, and they adopt the fashions and styles of conformity to a sub-culture. Others, though, resist such pressures. Instead, they engage in self-fashioning, creating their own identities—often multiple and shifting identities—and creating their own realities.

All of this was current when I published Postmodern Times in 1994. That also happened to be the year the World Wide Web consortium was first organized. Since my book was published, we have entered the age of computers, the internet, and the rise of a revolutionary new communication and information environment. Its effect has been to put into action what postmodernist theory had been saying.

The internet is a communication and social relationship medium that is or can be both intimate and anonymous. Self-fashioning is possible on a new scale. Individuals can present themselves in chats, e-mails, and blogs with self-constructed names and identities. They can form close relationships with other individuals who are likewise constructing some other identity.

But whereas postmodernism makes much of gender, race, and culture, on the internet none of those matter. The people you communicate with need have no idea of whether you are a man or a woman—indeed, the sex chats on the web are notorious for men pretending to be women, and vice versa—and no one can see the color of your skin or know what culture you belong to.

The internet makes possible new kinds of groups and semi-cultures, based not upon family ties, geographical locations, or common histories; but instead common interests, hobbies, or other affinities. Today, our correspondence is conducted via e-mails; our intellectual discussions take place online; our conversations are increasingly conducted on online chats and cell-phone text messages; and our social life takes place on social networking sites. These are all genuine human interactions available to everyone and are in stark contrast to the sense of isolation and alienation that defined modernism. They are postmodern, but postmodernism emphasized culture. These online relationships are not cultural at all. Though the new technology has enabled postmodernism, it has also taken us past it.

Computer technology has also provided a model for what the postmodernists have been teaching about reality. Online gaming and computer-graphic video games allow players to immerse themselves into a “virtual reality.” The player assumes an identity and moves through a computer-generated three-dimensional world. In online versions of such games, the player, represented by a self-designed “avatar” with various powers, interacts with other avatars of other players.

But virtual reality goes beyond games. Computers now stand in for real life. The technology has been adapted for “real world” applications—note the by now obligatory quotation marks—so that pilots practice flying, soldiers learn to fight, and scientists perform their experiments with computer simulations.

For postmodernists, of course, all reality is virtual reality. What we take for granted as being true and real has been programmed by someone else. But we can choose to take on other truths and realities, refusing to limit ourselves to just one. And yet, the sense that all of our realities are virtual realities—not just what computers generate but also those from television, movies, books, and our consumer economy—has created a hunger for a reality that exists outside of our own heads.

Searching For Something Real

Our pop culture continues to reinforce postmodernism with its consumerism, catering to whatever customers want. But while our entertainment industry continues to sell fantasies of sex, power, and glamour, another strain has emerged.

Again, in one way, postmodern fragmentation has gotten even greater than it was in 1994. Now there is no longer a mass culture. There are no more dominant fashions, no single popular styles. Marketers have given up trying to appeal to everyone. They have turned instead to “micro-marketing.” Again, computer and online technology have exaggerated the potential, with the Google search engine making it possible to tailor advertisements to the individual level. With cable and satellite television offering hundreds of channels, broadcasting has been replaced by narrowcasting. Independently-made movies can find a niche audience by going straight to DVD.

The music industry, though, is the best example of how the mass culture has disintegrated. No longer are the musical fashions set by a slate of top-40 records that are played on the radio stations that everyone listens to. Rather, many styles exist simultaneously. There is rock, hard rock, retro-rock, alternative rock, electronica, dance, punk, metal, death metal, hip-hop, gangster rap, pop, country, pop-country, alternative country. . .to name a few. I have had students tell me that social identity in high schools is, in large part, defined by the kind of music your group listens to.

This is postmodern fragmentation, but, again, technology has taken it several steps further. Musical downloads have made buying solid, tangible CD’s obsolete. The iPod has replaced the radio as the listening device of choice. Commercially-produced albums are no longer necessary. You can download just the songs you want. No longer is a listener dependent upon anyone else’s play list. You can create your own playlist. Again, this is postmodern but it goes beyond postmodernism, with the fragmentation becoming so extreme that the individual is potentially made free from any group whatsoever.

And yet, a common theme is running through contemporary popular music across the different styles: the yearning for authenticity. The slogan of the rap scene is “keep it real.” The very bleakness of so much of today’s music—from alternative rock to alternative country, from the angst-ridden singer-songwriters to the dark nihilism of death metal—amounts to a rejection of society’s fakeness, phoniness, and lies.

Postmodernists, of course, believe that everything is fake, phony, and lies. That young people of many different tastes are reacting against that view of the world, or at least are yearning for an alternative—for honesty, authenticity, truth (qualities postmodernism thinks do not exist)—is surely significant.

To be sure, the music tends to be cynical and ironic, both postmodernist virtues. The music often expresses bitterness, anger, and hurt. It is often hedonistic, in the depressing mode of eat, drink, and be merry for tomorrow you die. A major theme for these young artists—raised as they were by postmodernists and generally casualties of divorce or father-abandonment—is the pain of being rejected by their parents. These artists are postmodern, but they do not embrace postmodernism. They hate it. But most of them have nothing to replace it.

Faith and Postmodernity

Some of these artists and many people in these postmodern times do have something to replace the relativistic, fragmented, ungrounded worldview of postmodernism: religious faith.

This may be Islam, which is experiencing a revival not just among traditionally Muslim nations but in the West and among Westerners as well. The religious diversity that postmodernism hailed opened up the whole range of traditions and beliefs to those seeking spiritual fulfillment. But Christianity in all of its varieties is also culturally relevant again in some new ways.

Postmodernism cleared away modernism, with its exaltation of rationalism and its condescension to the past. Postmodernists prefer a sense of mystery over a sense of understanding. Postmodernists often insist they are “spiritual” rather than “religious.” That usually means an orientation to mystical experiences rather than a belief in doctrines or a commitment to institutions, such as the church. But postmodernists are also turning to hard-edged traditional religions, such as Islam as well as historic Christianity. For religions to appeal to postmodernists, they need to affirm the supernatural.

But the religious landscape has changed since I wrote about this issue in 1994. Postmodernism promoted religious tolerance, through the notion that all religions are equally valid to those who hold them. This view is still commonplace. That usually meant that all religions are equally good. But after the 9/11 attacks, this sometimes means that all religions are equally bad.

Thus, in many people’s minds, there is no difference between a conservative Christian and a conservative Muslim. Many who fear the jihadists also fear Christians. They see how both religions teach moral absolutes and think “they have the only truth.” They recoil against all “fundamentalisms” for “trying to impose their religion on other people,” for rejecting the sexual permissiveness that postmodernists so prize, and for seeking political power.

These views have caused a backlash among some people against all religion. A number of books promoting atheism have dominated the bestseller lists. The arguments for atheism amount to a call for a revival of modernism. The books call for scientific rationalism and naturalistic materialism. They argue that religions are not true and, significantly, that they are not moral. Thus, the new atheism is not only anti-religion but anti-postmodernist. Apparently, some people seeking a way out of postmodernism are turning back to modernism.

Another change in the postmodern religious landscape is the way religious tolerance has developed into religious syncretism. Before, postmodernists believed in accepting the validity of each religion. Having many different religions was seen as a good thing. Now, the emphasis is more on accepting the validity of all religions together. A tolerant religion, in these terms, actually accepts the tenets of the others.

This amounts to a new polytheism. Instead of respecting religious differences, the different deities are unified into a new pantheon. America’s old civil religion featured a Christian minister opening public events with prayer. Now the Christian minister is likely to share the platform with a Hindu priest and a Muslim imam, among others.

In academic mainline theology, this kind of syncretism has become commonplace. A female Episcopal priest, Ann Holmes Redding, converted to Islam. Maintaining that she is both a Christian and a Muslim, she continued functioning as a priest. (A different bishop has since questioned this arrangement, and she is currently under a year’s suspension until she decides which she is.)

Though evangelical Christianity has grown in numbers through the postmodern era, replacing the liberal mainline denominations that were dominant through modernism, mainline liberalism may be coming back. This may be part of the neo-modernist reaction against fundamentalism.

But evangelicals adopted in their own way the notion that churches should conform to the dominant culture as a way to remain relevant. I wrote about that in 1994, with reference to the church growth movement, contemporary worship, and the megachurch phenomenon. But since then, some evangelicals have adapted their approach in a more sophisticated way to address postmodern culture.

The “emergent church,” in line with postmodernism, prefers small congregations with a sense of community to impersonal megachurches. Rejecting the modernist assumption held too by church growth advocates that the new is always better than the old, the emergent churches bring in ancient practices, such as burning incense and candles and praying litanies, mingling them with electric guitars and video projections.

The problem with the emergent church, in my opinion, is that it is often postmodernist itself, rather than a ministry to post moderns, minimizing the doctrinal content of Christianity, cutting itself off from historic Christianity through progressive innovations, and promoting cultural conformity.

More promising Christian engagements with postmodernism are the “radical orthodox” theologians—such as John Millibank, Catherine Pickstock, and David Bentley Hart—who take on postmodernist thinkers such as Derrida and Foucault in their own terms, advancing Christian orthodoxy in a sophisticated way as an answer to postmodernist questions. For example, they put forward the Christianity of Scripture as the one meta-narrative that is not founded on power; rather, upon the self-abnegation of God in the Incarnation and the renunciation of power entailed in Christ’s sacrificial death on the Cross.

While the emergent church plays with religious traditions and ancient worship styles, combining them in sometimes incoherent ways, other Christians are returning to actual religious traditions in new confessional movements that can be found in nearly every church body. Not only do Conservative Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy have new appeal and are receiving new converts, but so are historical protestant churches, such as Lutherans and Calvinists, that are rediscovering their confessional theology, their traditional ways of worship, and their heritage of spirituality. Similarly, Pentecostals are thinking through what it means to be Pentecostal, and Baptists are exploring what it means to be Baptist. This Christian confessionalism is postmodern in being open to the past and lifting up the mysteries of the faith. But it also counters postmodernism with the transcendent truth of Jesus Christ.

Conclusion

I was speaking to a group of graduate students about Christianity and culture. One of them who had read Postmodern Times came up after class and asked how I was able to predict, back in 1994, the war on terrorism. I had forgotten that I did that. In the book, I said that modernist warfare depended on high-tech weaponry and large-scale combat. In the postmodern era, we would be facing mutually antagonistic groups, each with its own truths and moralities. Postmodern warfare, I said, would be terrorism. There had already been problems with terrorists back in 1994. I was just extrapolating. But at least my thoughts had predictive value.

Postmodernism is still alive, though perhaps mutating. What will occur next is not yet clear. On this very day that I am finishing this essay, The Washington Post published an article by Linton Weeks on how popular culture is searching for a way to affirm sincere human feelings in an age of cynicism described here as the “Snark Ages” (“Feelings, Whoa, Whoa, Whoa, Now!” 30 March 2008, p.M1.) The piece draws on the views of Kurt Andersen, who founded Spy Magazine, and the contemporary poet Billy Collins. The article concludes, “Kurt Andersen says that he, like Billy Collins, is looking for a place to stand where he can still be moved by the world” (p. M11). The line, of course, is a play on Archimedes’ statement about levers, that if he had a lever long enough and a place to stand, he could theoretically move any weight, including the entire world. The catch, of course, is that Archimedes could not move the world because he is in the world. He has no place to stand.

The Andersen/Collins version is typically postmodernist in its passivity and self-centeredness. Not ambitious enough to move the world, something that a modernist would try, the postmodern Archimedes wants to be moved by the world. But the dilemma is the same. How can you change the world—or be moved by the world—when you are the world? How can you change the culture when you are the culture? How can you change yourself when you are yourself?

While postmodernism claims to resist all ideologies and metanarratives, it is actually an ideology that embraces all ideologies, a metanarrative of all metanarratives. It is very difficult to break out of. To do so requires a place to stand, somewhere outside of culture, some place that transcends power and subjectivity and rationalism and irrationalism.

The search for a place to stand, however, also calls to mind what a medieval monk said during another crucial and tumultuous time. He had criticized the corruption of the church in selling indulgences, a practice started to fund the holy wars of the crusades. The monk, Martin Luther, was brought before the Emperor and the church officials and ordered to recant. I cannot, he replied, unless I am convinced from the Word of God. “Here I stand.”

Luther had a place to stand—on the Word of God—and so he was able to change the world. That same Word of God gives Christians in our postmodern era a place to stand, enabling them to both move the world and be moved by the world.

Gene Edward Veith is the Provost at Patrick Henry College and the Director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary. He is the author of 17 books, including Loving God with All Your Mind and Postmodern Times.