Monday, September 27, 2010

Postmodernism--the Good, the Bad, and the Hopeful

by Dina Sleiman

A few weeks ago I was looking over my tenth grade daughter’s syllabus for her high school modern dance class. I noticed one of the subjects they would be covering was postmodern culture. If someone in your life was studying postmodernism, would you know what that meant? Would you know what inherent dangers exist in postmodernism, or what the benefits of such thinking might be? I confess, until about ten years ago, I had no idea that postmodernism was the prevalent culture in our Western world today. I assumed it was a reaction to the modernist period in some way, but I didn’t understand its scope or importance.

Let’s start with a bit of Western history going back to the Holy Roman Empire. From a few hundred years after Christ until at least the Renaissance can be called the “Pre-modern Era.” During that period the general world view was “theistic”, meaning God-centered. Scripture and the church were final authorities. While this mindset might sound wonderful to Christians, it created its own sort of problems. Scientific discovery was seen as heretical because it challenged church tradition. The church had too much political power and became corrupt. It often took away the freedom of choice that God gave mankind from creation. In fact, many incredible Christian believers were martyred during this time by the church.

Enter the “Modern Era.” Some trace the roots of this era back as far as the Renaissance, however it strengthened during the “Enlightenment Period” of the late 1700s and hit its peak in the late 1800s which is known as the “Modernist Period” in literature and art. The secular worldview of this era is based on science and reason, and it trusts only what can be evaluated by the five senses. Life was governed by logical principles and ethics. God was seen as distant or absent, and man became the final authority. Authority structures were clear. It’s obvious that the inherent atheism and secular humanism were diametrically opposed to a Christian worldview. But, what is not clear is how elements of this mindset seeped into Christianity as well. If you look at traditional churches even today, you might find the same modernist attention to hierarchical structures, emphasis on law, and rejection of the supernatural to a degree that is not Biblical.

So where does that leave us? Most academics would say smack in the middle of the “Postmodern Era,” which began around the early 1970s originating from the hippie movement. Rather than theistic or secular, the worldview of this era is "pluralistic", or in other words, an acceptance of all worldviews. Life is governed by personal choice rather than theology or ethics. While atheism has declined, the concept of one God has been replaced by a variety of spiritualities. The postmodern thinker rejects the concept of absolute truth. They believe we each create our own personal truths based on experience. They see the world as chaotic and random and seek to find their own meaning within it. The positive side of postmodernism is that these people are hungry for spirituality and the supernatural, searching for meaning, and open to new experience.

Clearly there are many elements of postmodernism that clash with our Christian beliefs, but as I hope I have established, the same can be said of the Pre-modern and Modern eras. On the other hand, the positive aspects of postmodernism open avenues for evangelism and outreach. The church needs to understand postmodernism and reevaluate the cultural elements of Christianity in order to reach a new generation that has grown up with this mindset. I was born in 1970, which leaves me right on the outside edge of this generation, but since my parents are young, and I grew up in a Jesus movement hippie church where the pastor often wore jeans and sandals to preach, I identify with this generation and feel called to minister to them with the absolute truth that can only be found within the word of God.

But in order to do that, we need to understand how these people think. We need to learn to speak their language. We need to know what they are looking for. Because, and here’s what I want you to take away from this post:

Authentic Biblical Christianity can meet the needs of our postmodern generation, but outdated religious Christianity cannot!

We need to rediscover Biblical truths in light of the areas that hold sway with this generation: image, experience, relationship, and intuition. We need to reach them with Christianity that focuses on relationship and experience with God. Christianity that is authentic and real. We must go through the heart, not merely the logical mind. We must let them find God for themselves, not point to authorities they don’t yet believe in. We must become open to the supernatural movement of the Holy Spirit in our lives and our churches. We must meet their cultural needs with music, art, drama, and dance that speak to their hearts. We must accept that they might dress, look, and act differently than Christians from the mid 1900s. We can even incorporate the technology and visual images they have grown up with into our church services.

None of these things go against the absolute truth found in God’s word. In fact, I would be happy to supply scriptural proof that all of these are encouraged in God’s word. Only tradition and religiosity stand in their way. There’s nothing “wrong” with doing things the old way, but there’s nothing “wrong” with embracing a new way either. We must understand the difference between culture and Christianity. While we never sacrifice the absolute truth of the scripture, we should be willing like Paul to become “all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some.” I Corinthians 9:22

And here’s the exciting part for those of us who love literature. We must reach the postmodern generation through story! Through story, the postmodern thinker can find relationship with a character and share experiences with them. They can use their intuition and imagination to discover God. They can begin to see how their “personal narratives” fit into the grand “meta-narrative” of God’s story upon the earth.

Yes, there’s much about postmodernism that can seem bad, ugly, even downright scary to the Christian believer. But I choose to look with hope at the beauty in this mindset. A generation that is open to God and hungry for supernatural experiences. And I can’t wait to reach this generation through the stories, dances, and dramas that God lays on my heart.

What sort of church culture do you enjoy personally? What are you or your church doing to reach out to this postmodern generation? Do you totally disagree with everything I've just written? It's okay, you can tell me the truth, I'm all about being authentic :)


  1. Dina, this was so well written. It's nice that it's also precisely where I am in my personal walk. LOL
    I started out doing short stories and poetry with a Christian slant, but I've been struggling with how to show the power and love of God now that I'm focusing more on ancient China. It's not like they knew much (if anything) about Christ in 200 A.D. This reminds me that there are ways and there are ways.... :) But I will add that whatever we say must always ALSO serve the story or we're merely writing pedantry and that will never reach the reader. Great post.

  2. Victoria, I think you could do a lot with ancient China!!! Much of what we call New Age is really ancient Eastern beliefs. You could show them searching and looking for more, as I believe so many people are today. Maybe God could even reveal himself through dreams and visions. Think the Magi in the Bible. Many Muslims today in closed off Islamic countries are coming to Christ through dreams and visions.

    I'm sure God will give you amazing ideas of how to use this time periiod in a fresh way.

    I actually quote Taoist poetry (not sure of the date, maybe you're earlier than that) in my new book to represent the Postmodern worldview.

    By the way, my new book is about a Christian struggling with her faith, a Postmodern, New Age hippie chick, and a veiled Muslim woman who meet over a group project on diversity.

    You can see more about it at:

  3. Great post. What can I say? You are just so dog-gone smart!

  4. What can I say, Cheyrl? I don't intend to sound like a smarty pants, but I do feel God has called me to minister in the academic world. So I guess it fits, and I should just say thanks :)

  5. I was recently read about a student that was home on break and decided to go to a church near his home that he had never attended before. The pastor was preaching from a pluralistic viewpoint, and he said, "Whatever you believe is true because it is true to you." After the service the pastor shook the young man's hand and asked him what he thought about the sermon. The young man said he did not want to answer the question. The pastor assured him that it was fine and he welcomed his input. The young man said, "Well then, if what you said is true, you are in trouble because i believe you are going to hell." :) The pastor knew he had been caught in a self defeating argument. (Dina's Mom)

  6. Great story Mom. Speaking of smart, we're going to have to have you back again sometime to talk about quantum physics and the links to faith.

  7. Dina, can you reach through cyberspace and do a Vulcan mind-meld on me? : )
    I never made the connection between the Modern Era's secular/scientific worldview and the effect it had on the church. That explains SO much.
    Personally, I am thankful we're in this postmodern era. And I'm right there with you in my desire to minister to this generation. Old-school religiosity isn't going to reach a lot of them. We've got a 16-year-old boy coming to church who attended 2 years of a very strict, structured Christian school. He's so turned off by what he saw and experienced that he now says he wants to be a Buddhist. We're praying God will show Himself to this young man in a way that will not only heal his religious burns, but prove to him that Jesus is alive and loves him.
    IMHO, this era is more similar to what the apostles encountered in the book of Acts than has ever been seen since. We should be expecting God to move on hearts and lives in the same way He did then!

  8. Great post, Dina. I'm doing a BIAW so I'm just popping by, but I wanted to say hello and I appreciate your thought-provoking post and questions today! Reaching out to the postmodern world is a challenge we grapple with in ministry all of the time. Thanks.

  9. Thanks Susanne and Niki. I've done extensive research on postmodernism. Much that I've written here, I learned in Ann Tatlock's continuing class on Postmodernism at the Blue Ridge Mountains Christian Writer's Conference. I think she does it every year. However, I felt like I was also able to add a lot to the discussion because my church does such a great job reaching out to this generation.

    It's funny how we learn history, but we don't always know what's going on in our own era.

  10. Dina, Ann Tatlock here. [Chose Anonymous to bypass the google account.] Great blog post! You've given a wonderfully succinct overview of how we got where we are, and how we can share the Gospel in our postmodern culture. Something every believer needs to know. Keep spreading the word!

  11. Thanks, Ann. You're so right. Everyone needs to know about this. Thank you for teaching such an incredible class on the subject.

  12. I love this post.Our church is trying to blend the worship with songs that are more contempary and hymns as well.As far as church I like I would definitely say that I enjoy more contempary than anything else.

  13. Hey Dina- its Emma aka anonymous. just reading this. and, as you know, between being a french major, living so long in Europe and New England, and now studying counseling, I love post-modernism. especially existentialism and narrative thought. and charismatic christianity. to me, they are all so similar and weird and fabulous and easy to relate to as a child of the 1970s and as a citizen of the world.

    but my initial thought re post modernism and the church is that- hasn't that ship pretty much sailed? regardless of teh extent people are aware of it, its permeated the church. I'm constantly amazed at how much of the charismatic views of taking our thought life captive has been interwoven with postmodernistic cognitive behavioral thought for example. both theories and literature emerged simultaneously and are pretty much identical. that would be a fascinating thesis for someone out there. I don't have a problem with postmodernism in itself, just want to be aware what is healthy and what can be found compatible with scripture.

  14. but my initial thought re post modernism and the church is that- hasn't that ship pretty much sailed? regardless of teh extent people are aware of it, its permeated the church. I'm constantly amazed at how much of the charismatic views of taking our thought life captive has been interwoven with postmodernistic cognitive behavioral thought for example. both theories and literature emerged simultaneously and are pretty much identical. that would be a fascinating thesis for someone out there. I don't have a problem with postmodernism in itself, just want to be aware what is healthy and what can be found compatible with scripture.

  15. Very insightful thoughts, Emma. Thanks for sharing. I agree 100% that postmodernism is here whether we like it or not, so best to understand it and line it up with scripture.

    Interesting coorelation between Charismatics and postmodernism. I think in general, Charismatics are open to the spirit and to change, so that is a pretty good match.


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